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What does the music mean? We need to know. We've got to know. Maybe we can read the composer’s private correspondence and figure out what the music means. What does it mean? What did the composer’s father do to him? What did his love-life involve? Was he gay? We need to know what the music means. Tell us what it means.


Bruckner Symphony No 8 C minor Karajan Wiener Philarmoniker

The idea here is what does the music mean.

When there is text in the music then the meaning becomes more solid. When a composer has added a title such as Don Juan or 1812 then the meaning becomes more clear.

When there is no text or title, what are we supposed to do? How will we know what the music means? What does it mean? I was thinking about this the other day and recalled an incident from my relative youth.

Once upon a time, I was busily proselytizing my roommates regarding classical music. One night they appeased me and we sat down to listen to Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. At one point in the first movement, roommate Bruce piped up with, “So, what did that part mean?”

Uh — what?

I didn’t know what it meant, so I started bullshiting. It’s just what you did when you’re living in Ocean Beach in the 1990s and listening to Bruckner. I can’t remember what I came up with because there is no meaning to Bruckner’s Eighth. Bruckner's Eighth is all about how you allow yourself to feel. On some level I knew that but I couldn’t put it into words.

The meaning of the music is either secondary or nonexistent. What the composer was going through at the time, or what the circumstances of the sociopolitical system were, et cetera, are influences on the music but we are not in those circumstances. We are in our own circumstances.

What the music makes us feel is preeminent — even when there is text and a title involved. In opera or lieder or choral music, there is text guiding the meaning but the feeling we get from the music with the text supersedes what we would experience if we merely read the word-for-word libretto of Madama Butterfly.

We can experience music all over again if we shift from trying to define the meaning and instead live in the feeling. Maybe we can even let ourselves go a little. Maybe we’ll end up squeezing out a few tears for no other reason than that’s where the music took us.

Instead of bringing our mood to music and then selecting the piece that will reinforce our mood, perhaps we can bring a blank slate to music and let it write something new into our experience.

Are you feeling me on this?

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