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Ongoing Debate: Does Music Have Meaning or Not?

Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, Monday-Friday this week


Do you think music has meaning?

Music can move you; music can make you want to move. For most listeners, it’s a simple transaction. There are those who look deeper into our relationship to music, however, and wonder why it affects us so. Igor Stravinsky was one of them.

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“Exploring Music” host Bill McGlaughlin

Not always inclined to subtlety (think of the raw primitivism of The Rite of Spring), the Russian composer made a statement that has started arguments ever since: “music is … powerless to express anything at all.”

I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality.

—Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935

Many of his fans weren’t and aren’t ready to hear that. Violist Nadia Sirota wrote in a 2011 article for WQXR, “I find it almost enraging, actually! I am one of the biggest Stravinsky fans I know, and yet this quote seems totally out of place given the way his music moves me.”

Most musicologists and classical musicians find themselves defending or refuting Stravinsky’s statement at some point in their career, depending on where they stand on the issue.

The argument flared up as recently as the April issue of Opera News. It was a book review in which essayist Jonathan Cross counters Stravinsky’s statement: “key works of [Stravinsky's] years in Europe and the U.S. can in fact be heard as cogent expressions of the sadness of exile.” According to Cross, he can demonstrate that Stravinsky’s music specifically communicates those feelings. On the other hand, one in the Stravinsky camp might argue that if the music did express those feelings, Cross wouldn’t need to write out an explanation.

“What you’re going to see are…pictures and stories that music inspired in the minds…of a group of artists. In other words, these are not going to be the interpretations of trained musicians, which I think is all to the good.”

—Deems Taylor, Fantasia, 1940

Stravinsky’s famous statement was again reprinted in a recent CD release of violinist Gil Shaham and conductor David Robertson, which gave radio host Bill McGlaughlin the idea of turning the debate over to the music. This week on Exploring Music, Bill poses the question of whether or not music expresses anything, playing works side-by-side, in a week-long series called “Emotion and Meaning in Music.” The series opens with a story about violinist Gil Shaham and NPR’s Robert Siegel disagreeing over whether or not the Stravinsky Violin Concerto is emotional music:

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Gil Shaham and David Robertson with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA; the two are brothers-in-law and frequent collaborators, c. Chris Lee

“The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea “expressed in terms of” music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer’s feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.”

—Igor Stravinsky, Expositions and Developments, 1962

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