Wednesday, August 4, 2010
or Songs Without Words
“Elf.” “Foreboding of Suffering.” “Slumber Song.” Evocative titles, whether of character, emotion, or ambiance, belonging to the “characteristic” piano pieces in Robert Schumann's Album Leaves. These are brief works, many less than a minute long, which present a vivid image, a tableau vivant, a snapshot of something small yet significant. (For some reason, the titles also make me think of department store perfume counters, but that's not Schumann's fault.)
During Schumann's lifetime (the first half of the 19th century, more or less), instrumental music came into its own. Until then, the idea that its expressive power could give vocal music a run for its money had been rather a new one. Some 75 years earlier, a Frenchman at an instrumental music concert was known to have asked in exasperated perplexity, “Sonata, what do you want of me?” If music was to have meaning, it needed to have text; if it had no text, you should be able to dance to it. (Or march to it, or walk down an aisle to it, or talk over it.) But just to sit and listen to instruments—why? What could they possibly have to say? The idea that instrumental music could express something that words couldn't, that it might reach deeply enough to grasp inexpressible shades of meaning that words were too definite to capture—let's just say that it took a lot of getting used to.
I've been thinking about the idea of characteristic pieces during these weeks of midsummer when even my plants that “bloom all summer” (ahaha) are conserving their resources for a last burst of energy before frost. What remains to enjoy are the leaves, which are certainly beautiful on their own. And yet, we seem to expect more of leaves than we do of blossoms; mere beauty is not always enough. If summer flowers offer us a little color, a little pizzazz, then we're happy. But leaves? Leaves are the kinds of things that seem like they are about to mean something—that have texture, shape, design—but never quite get around to telling you what it is. Gosh darn it, what do they want of us? They have the characteristic pieces' sense of individuality, of intensity compressed in a small space, of a snapshot that says a great deal with economic means. But what do they say?
If we are going to be mundane about it, I suppose yarrow tells a kind of story about sunshine and drought, of frugality and thrift; sweet potato vine of plenty and profligacy. But Tiger Eye amaranth? Purple basil? Once plants are that highly bred, I sometimes suspect that all they say is, “I'm bright red and green!” Or “I'm purple! And ruffly! With nifty green edges!”
But why be mundane? If leaves refuse to offer us easy meaning, then it's up to us to immerse ourselves in their language, to follow the rhythms in their veining, the contours of each ridge; to limn each edge with light. Even with all that effort, though, perhaps all they really say is, “I am a leaf. I grow.”
Which is actually pretty ineffable.
(Possibly coming soon to this blog: Stems!)