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Musical Communication Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2623 words Published: 1st Jun 2020

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The nature of musical communication and the framework of thought, feeling and behaviour within which this communication takes place.

Musical communication is commonly associated with place or location; for instance a piece of music will often bring about a flood of memories recalling the place the piece was heard, perhaps the people in whose company the time listening to the piece was spent and certainly the mood of the piece. A piano recital is the cultural event we will focus on, using specific examples of piano recitals held around the world, drawing on reports about those recitals from performers and audience alike. The framework of thought, feeling and behaviour which takes place at a piano recital is different from any other cultural environment, primarily because it the most special and intimate of instruments, one which connects the player with the listener in intimate and unmediated communication, in a pure communicative act. The piano is an instrument which evokes extraordinary passion, requires considerable dedication and patience, together with skill and flair to bring about a perfect percussive performance.

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There are a number of key players in a piano recital, not least the composer who communicates his art to the pianist and onwards, through the instrument, to an audience. The composer is the translator of musical ideas into a symbolic form, usually the twelve semi-tone scale on a musical stave. The standard Western musical notation is a treble clef and a bass clef. Each note can be between lines or on a line and the piece is given a time signature denoting the rhythm of the music. Other symbols signify changes in tone, pace, volume and feeling. The behaviour of the player is also communicated from the composer to the pianist using symbols, including Italianate adjectives, although with more modern piano pieces the Italianate is often replaced with words from the composers’ usual vocabulary. Examples include piano, meaning quiet and forte, meaning loud.

The nature of this communication is symbolic, or in the words of Roland Barthes, the literary critic, semiotic Barthes (Barthes 1977) views semiology as underlying all communication, an ’empire of the signs’ that extends over film and photography, music criticism and reading and writing as historically situated activities. He identifies two natures of music:

There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are totally different arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic; the same composer can be minor if you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly) – such as Schumann. (Barthes 1977, p. 149)

We will employ this distinction between passive and active to our discussion of the piano recital, where passive music is the music we listen to and active music is the music we play. Schumann is the composer we will focus on when discussing the cultural event that is the piano recital.

Robert Schumann was a significant figure in German musical romanticism. (Jensen 2001) Schumann specialised in writing lyrical piano music and songs, but also composed notable orchestral choral and chamber works. He literary output was motivated by his love of literature which informed his musical criticism and composition. He was forced to abandon his career as a pianist after critically damaging, with a strengthening device, a finger on his right hand. Schumann wrote piano works that were a linking of short sections, such as Kreisleriana and Carnaval. Linked together, these sections paid extreme attention to detail, forming an interlocking composition. A talented music journalist, he was editor on one of the most significant journals of his day, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In 1840 he wrote over a hundred songs, a year that became known as his year of song, including the song cycles Dichterliebe and Liederkreise. Schumann suffered from depression and mental instability as a result of syphilis and died in an asylum.

Schumann believed that musical communication was under attack from virtuoso players who had little thought or feeling for music. His mission statement was given in his journal Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which, perhaps in spite of its name suggesting new music, promoted music proven by history – music which had withstood the test of time. His era saw the rise of piano virtuosity from players who wanted to become celebrities in their own right without recognition of whose music it was they played, going so far as to compose pieces without thought about the framework of the musical communication, preferring technical complexities over clearly communicated music. Their ignorance of the thought, feeling and behaviour of composers, said Schumann, was philistine. He thus founded the Davids bündler, or League of David, named after the biblical King David, who composed music, wrote poetry and slew the Philistines.

Barthes speaks of piano recitals as an active form of music that has declined in practice to almost extinction where the piano has been forsaken for the guitar recital:

The music one plays has disappeared; initially the province of the idle (aristocratic) class, it lapsed into an insipid social rite with the coming of the democracy of the bourgeoisie (the piano, the young lady, the drawing room, the nocturne) and then faded out altogether (who plays the piano today?). To find practical music in the West, one has now to look to another public, another repertoire, another instrument (the young generation, vocal music, the guitar). (Barthes1977, p. 149)

Barthes’ interest in the piano recital as a cultural event for a particular social grouping, the bourgeoisie, is part of his semiotic history, analysable through the distinction between active and passive:

Two roles appeared in succession, first that of the performer, the interpreter to whom the bourgeois public (though still able itself to play a little – the whole history of the piano) delegated its playing, then that of the (passive) amateur, who listens to music without being able to play (the gramophone takes the place of the piano). (Barthes 1977, p. 163)

We muster cognise that Barthes is writing from a French point of view and that his critique of the piano recital as bourgeois is not necessarily relevant to our discussion of the piano recital as an event instructive for an analysis of the nature of musical communication, although it does give some behavioural insights of the social roles of the performer and the audience at a cultural event, despite its over-politicisation of the framework within communication occurs. There is something more peculiar about Barthes’ role in the study of culture, namely that whenever a term is difficult to define, translators forget their native English tongue, as in this example, again discussing the piano:

The melody succumbed to its salon image, this being a little the ridiculous form of its class origin. Mass ‘good’ music (records, radio) has left it behind, preferring either the more pathetic orchestra (success of Mahler) or less bourgeois instruments than the piano (harpsichord, trumpet). (Barthes 1977, p. 187)

This is not biased criticism: the death of the French language is acknowledged by Barthes himself, therefore it seems right for us to acknowledge his language together with his semiotics as being nothing more than an exercise in textual ambiguity and irony. (Barthes 1977, pp. 187 – 188) The melody is not significant for the history of the piano recital and is perhaps more relevant to another form of musical communication, such as the voice, however. >From Barthes we do have one definable framework within which musical communication takes place: the political. What Barthes shows is that the nature of music is to some degree governed by the environment in which it takes place, namely the background and political situations of the participants, who in the case of the piano recital are, according to Barthes, middle class. As a descriptive fact, the piano player and the passive audience will behave according to certain middle class conventions or thought or feeling, though what such middle class behaviour might be is not discussed by Barthes, who confines himself to semiological vagueness.

How is culture to be evaluated ? According to its origin? Bourgeois. Its finality? Bourgeois again. According to dialectics? Although bourgeois, this does contain progressive elements; every one of them bourgeoisified. There are some who finally prefer to give up the problem, to dismiss all ‘culture.’ (Barthes1977, p. 211).

If piano recitals are to be dismissed as ‘culture’, then we would be obliged to reject Barthesian discourse as overly polemicized, concerned overly with the political and insufficiently with the communicative, because the music of the piano is not bourgeois. Far from it, as Schumann argued, the piano is an instrument through which thought, feeling and behaviour can be transmitted; and although Schumann was not completely apolitical, his compositions must be musical first and foremost.

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Musical events such as a piano recital have a specific format. Firstly the audience is seated in front of stage upon which there is a piano. The stage marks the boundary between the active musician and the listeners, who with their programmes know the pieces that will be played, before the recital starts. Secondly, the pieces (whether they are by Schumann or another composer) are performed. Finally, the passive element joins the active element during applause, concluding the event.

Musical communication can take the form of quoting ideas from previous musical compositions in new ones. Schumann borrowed from Beethoven, Clara Wieck, and other composers. For the cultural event that is the piano recital, this is the nature of musical communication, because it is history and allows us to place Schumann, or other composers of piano music, in historical context. Continuing with the example of Robert Schumann, we can say that Schumann borrowed from Beethoven because he came afterwards. Schumann built upon the musical framework left behind by Beethoven in the piano recitals Schumann attended, so much so that he could incorporate Beethovenian thoughts, feelings and behaviour into his own compositions.

Amore prosaic framework of musical communication is the biographical context of Robert Schumann’s life. Schumann was born in 1810 and died at the age of 46, in1856. He was a major figure in German musical romanticism, amongst the leading composers of his day, whose communications are highly regarded. The descriptive term of the time was Neu-Romantisch, or Neo-Romantic, the earlier Romanticism being associated with composers of Beethoven’s period. We should not try to define the meanings of feeling, thought or behaviour within a discussion of German Romanticism. The movement is its own framework, with Schumann at its editorial front, writing for the Davids bündler.

Piano music is its own form of musical communication. The music played at a recital is not only a communication from the composer to the audience; it is also a communication of the ideas behind the music, such as in Schumann’s case from Beethoven, to the audience. An educated audience will be able to hear these audible messages. The programme notes may even identify an idea to the audience explicitly, for instance in a performance of Carnaval, where the final section is March of the Davids bündler against the Philistines. Similarly there is a quotation of a musical theme, also in Carnaval, called Papillons. (Jensen 2001, p. 83)

The mood of the piece Carnaval is quixotic, a description that may also be used of Schumann’s nature, because he loved to incorporate cryptic communication within his compositions. For instance, Schumann received the idea for the musical mottos that serve as the basis of Carnaval from the name of the home town, Asch, of a female correspondent. (Jensen 2001, p. 119) There are three combinations of Asch possible, in musical notation: S, C, H, A; AS,C, H; A, S, C, H. All but two of the twenty-one compositions that make up Carnaval use the latter two, which from the German musical system transcribe to the notes A flat, C, B, or A, E flat, C, B. Schumann decided to call the mottos Sphinxes. (Jensen 2001, p. 150) Each of the pieces comprises a musical representation of a masked ball during carnival season.

Jensen describes Schumann’s behaviour laconically and contradictorily:

It says much about Schumann’s naivete that he was convinced the sphinxes in themselves would create something of a sensation and sales of the work – as if there were widespread interest in such musical games. But for much of his life Schumann was fascinated by puzzles and ciphers, particularly if they could be applied to music. His interest in ciphers was one that was common to not a few writers andarti1sts associated with German Romanticism; Friedrich Schlegel, for example, described art as inner hieroglyphic writing. (Jensen 2001, p. 151, citing Dieckmann 1955, p. 311)

We should recognise this relationship between codified musical communication and German Romanticism. It was shared by other writers:

Schumann’s interest in cipher, number symbolism, and musical/word puzzles is frequently encountered in his writings. [] Such an approach permitted him to add both mystery and extra musical significance to his works. [] An entire section of Aesthetics is devoted to the creation of secrets and hidden identities, all for the delight of the unravelling of little knots for the reader. (Jensen 2001,pp. 152 – 153, citing Richter 1973, p. 195)

In conclusion, a framework of communication, we have shown, can be semiological, cryptic and political. Barthes’ semiological analysis of a piano recital tends towards the political, with his disdain for the bourgeois influencing his dislike of the politics of those attending piano recitals. If Schumann is played at a piano recital, there are semiological frameworks of musical communication derived from Schumann’s interest in musical code. What is certain is that the historical context for each, the composer and the cultural analyst equally, is of paramount importance Without musical communication with Beethoven, Schubert would not have composed vastly different piano pieces, not to mention the pieces he composed for other instruments; and without a French social milieu Barthes might have had more tolerance for the piano recital as an excellent cultural event through which to investigate the nature of musical communication. As an event, the piano recital will generate a flood of memories for the active player and the passive audience, whose mood will be affected by the communication of thought, feeling and behaviour of the composer and by the music. Therefore historical is probably the best discussion of the specific type of cultural event that is the piano recital, because the music is historical, as is the event, and the environment.


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