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.