Do we covet music that signifies, encodes, or provokes sadness?

As a child, when told to play with feeling Jacob Lateiner asked, “Which one?”

In classical music, it does seem that emotion has come to mean sadness, or anger. When we see the marking “espressivo” we pour on the sentiment. The no-nonsense American clarinetist Charlie Russo told an over-emoting student: “Put a Band-Aid on it!” Not too many classical players explore emotion in performance with as much subtlety as a good actor.

It’s generally easier to convey sad or poignant emotion than humor. Comedy is local, and can’t easily survive the passage of time. The film version of Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners doubled me over with laughter — but not anymore. The silly phrase pile-ups of Beethoven’s Opus 31, Number 1 or the last movement of the C-Major Piano Concerto can be explained. But how to convey their genuine knee-slapping funniness now?

The link between real emotion and emotion in art is not direct. Paul Hindemith says feelings within music are like memories of places we have traveled.

Cliched music history is full of faulty correspondences. Mozart’s mother died, then he wrote the A-Minor Piano Sonata! Brahms had a nice summer vacation, his F-Major Cello Sonata is the result…

I prefer counter examples. A despondent Beethoven contemplating his very significant problems and even considering suicide penned his “Heilengenstadt Testament” in close chronological proximity to his work on the remarkably ebullient “Eroica” Variations…

Christopher Howard has described, “the artificial sentimentality built into popular music intended for personalization by mass audiences…” And the listener and performer are completely tied into the puzzle of musical “feelings.”

As I was practicing the original six etudes by Philip Glass in Manila, my host said matter-of-factly, “This Mr. Glass is not a happy man.”

I wonder whether my turbulent emotions when I first started playing a lot of music by Glass were expressed through the music as I played it — or if the music itself somehow made me feel that way, darkly affecting my feelings and psychology.

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  1. Paul Beaudoin says

    I am reminded of Stravinsky’s comment that music was powerless to express anything. Yet, I still had an overwhelming emotional response to hearing Ben Zander conduct Mahler’s 3rd when I first moved to Boston so many years ago. Funny that when I see clarinet players “over-emoting” I chuckle and think – “hey, just play the notes.”

  2. Roberto Poli says

    “It’s generally easier to convey sad or poignant emotion than humor.”

    I find this to be absolutely true. There are moments in Haydn or Beethoven that must have been absolutely hysterical when they were written. They might not sound as funny today, yet it’s also true that we generally tend not to make an effort to bring out their funniness. It may be because we don’t get it. But there’s also a restraint in the modern musician when it comes to comedy – as if it were an inappropriate form of expression and we had the responsibility to make classical music sound “serious”. A student of mine put it aptly, I think: “it used to be funny, now it’s ‘intellectual’.”

  3. says

    There was a book I read as a student – The Language of Music by Deryck Cooke – which suggested (if I remember correctly) that music almost had a vocabulary, the same as a spoken language. The obvious things were there, such as a falling minor 3rd. To me this book was irritating and far from convincing.

    However in film music there seems to be conventions for certain things and the word ‘encode’, in the original post, is the perfect description I believe. In the U.K. in the 1960s spy films invariably had a harpsichord playing the theme. No doubt the zither in the Third Man meant that sort of sound had become associated with spying.
    Hollywood film scenes with old sailing ships will invariably be accompanied by rolling pentatonic themes. As far as I know sea shanties are not usually pentatonic, however it has become a convention.

    I think music can trigger emotions and suggest emotions, however I am not sure it can communicate emotions.

  4. says

    I am not sure whether it can communicate emotions that clearly. We can associate minor keys and largo tempos with sadness, but as to whether it translates to some universal scale of human emotion is debatable. Still interesting to think about, though.