Writer, critic and classical music copywriter Richard Bratby shares his experience of the challenges of writing about classical music.
A hammer hits a string or a flat surface. A string, stretched tight, oscillates at speed. A column of air vibrates inside a wooden or metal tube – or a human throat. But in each case, soundwaves are produced. They travel through the air and trigger delicate bones and tissues deep within your ear. Nerves convey this information to the brain, where they’re decoded as sound. And depending upon the particular qualities of that sound, and the meaning you’ve learned to attach to them, they suggest a response – emotional, logical, sometimes instinctive and physical; often a complex mixture of all three.
And that’s practically all that we can say for certain about music and emotions. Which – when it comes to talking about music – isn’t really much help. As for writing about it; trust me, as a professional music writer, you hear all the jokes. “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, we’re often told – a quip that’s been attributed at various times to Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk and Clara Schumann. Actually, it’s perfectly possible to dance about architecture: in 2010 New York City Ballet created Mirage, a ballet inspired and designed by the Spanish modernist architect Santiago Calatrava. But it’s not exactly easy. It needs a leap of the imagination, which is basically the point.
Composers haven’t been much help, either. Why would they be? Words aren’t really their business, and composers who doubled as professional writers – like Berlioz, Schumann and in our own time, Michael Nyman – have tended to be the exception. “I’d rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet” said Beethoven, and even Felix Mendelssohn (who adored literature, and worshipped Shakespeare) observed that “People usually complain that music is ambiguous, whereas words can be understood by everyone. But to me it seems exactly the opposite”.
For Mendelssohn, music dealt with emotions that weren’t too vague for words, but too precise. After all, language is just a means of transferring concepts to the mind, either visually or aurally. Music doesn’t need an intermediate stage – it travels directly into your consciousness. You know exactly what you feel when you hear it, and it’s only when you want to share that experience that you need words. (It’s probably best to ignore Stravinsky’s typically mischievous comment that “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all”).
But which words? Musicians have their own technical vocabulary, and musicologists have refined that into a whole academic language in its own right. If you’ve studied music, you’ll be familiar with its jargon of first and second subjects, tonality and sonata structures. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have been told that an understanding of these concepts is crucial to enjoying classical music, which is like saying that you can’t appreciate the beauty of St Paul’s Cathedral unless you’ve made a comprehensive study of its electrical wiring schematics. Don’t get me wrong; it can be fascinating. For the concertgoer, though, it’s definitely “nice to have” rather than essential. And when you’re trying to articulate the emotions inspired by music, it can feel spectacularly beside the point. George Bernard Shaw once analysed Hamlet’s To Be or Not to Be soliloquy in the style of a musicologist:
Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at first in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognise the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends. Here we reach a colon; and a pointed pository phrase, in which the accent falls decisively on the relative pronoun, brings us to the first full stop.
That might be why many of us go for a very different approach, assembling ideas and images in an attempt to reproduce the emotional or sensual effect of hearing the music: in effect, “translating” music into English. It’s more readable, and it’s definitely more fun for the writer – sometimes too much fun. “Stimulated by the dialogue between the arts, she breathes the oxygen of imagination and finds balance in musing” runs the official biography of a well-known concert pianist. “On a human level, she is attracted more to equinoxes, being smitten by justice and seeking day and night in equal share. By lifting one’s eyes skywards one might notice her playing hide-and-seek with either Venus or Mercury. The cosmos is her garden and it is in its movement that she feels alive, astride a comet.”
I think what the writer is trying to say is that she plays Chopin rather well. Still, I can’t talk. I’ve got a bad habit of reaching for culinary metaphors: an orchestra once rejected my description of a Rachmaninoff concerto as “like the feeling you get after half a bottle of ice-cold salted caramel Stolichnaya” on the grounds that it sent the wrong message to younger audience members. But there’s no one way to write about music, just as there’s no right or wrong way to listen. When I‘m writing a concert review, for instance, I like to think of it as a form of news report. After all, if the London Chamber Orchestra have discovered something truly profound and fresh to say about Mozart’s Requiem, isn’t that just as vital to know as the latest Brexit bickering or the football results?
At its finest (in the poetry of Auden or Eliot, say) a written description of a piece of music can become a sublime homage from one art form to another. But most of the time, music writers gladly embrace the fundamental absurdity of their task, and set out to serve the other, more mysterious art – the one that’s too precise for words – by propelling the reader into a place and a frame of mind where they can respond to the music with as little mediation as possible. And if that means you’re now sitting in a concert hall, about to listen: mission accomplished.
Richard is a former orchestral cellist and used to be a concerts manager at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.