Clerkly Peter Quince, inept playwright of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is (loosely) the narrator of Wallace Steven’s early poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. I enjoy the poem for its “music is feeling, then, not sound.”
Music has expressive power, an ability to articulate that goes beyond language. Musicians and composers that sacrifice expressive meaning for superficial beauty might offer sensuality but can leave you frozen, the source, I suspect, of Beckett’s distaste for Bach, criticised for the ‘inexorable purposefulness’ of his music.
Attempting to describe how music can express a feeling or state of mind leads to inarticulacy, to the limit of language. Roger Scruton (I enjoy his writing on music far more than his politics) argues that concepts of pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm can only be described by recourse to metaphor:
It does not seem strained that Smetana’s music expresses the shining and silken qualities that we hear in it. Smetana’s music is not literally shining or silken. But its expressive power is revealed in its ability to compel these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. Of course, it is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable. Every metaphor both demands an explanation and also refuses it, since an explanation would change it from a metaphor to a literal truth, and thereby destroys its meaning.
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I didn’t know that Beckett disliked Bach…
By his cousin, John Beckett’s account (JB was a musician), Beckett hated Bach, called him “an organ grinder churning out musical phrases.”
Three things come to mind:
1. Obviously, Beckett did not fathom the depth of Bach’s art.
2. Metaphor is rarely effective for me in describing music, and
3. Smetana only elicits metaphors describing boredom for me.
Our reactions to art are so personal.