My fiancee and I went Friday night for the PSO, with Emanuel Ax, for the second time this season. This time we came with four college music students, bringing them down to experience the Cultural district on a Friday night. Dinner was learning all about college life, and my fiancee quizzing the students, among other things asking if any of them looked up that night’s program. None of us (including me) did.
The evening’s concert featured a couple Debussy pieces, and Emanuel Ax playing Chopin Concerto No. 2. Ax also played an Encore by Liszt. But it was the Jeux (poeme dance) by Debussy that caught my attention. Listening to it, the impression I had was of encounering a sweeping expanse, and a period of searching for something. Later on, my fiancee pointed out that the Jeux was in fact a game of tennis, and in the piece, the players find themselves looking for lost tennis balls, and later the pursuit of romance. It is not obvious to me that the game was tennis in the absence of the choreography of dance, but that is almost beside the point.
One of many opposing views in the understanding of classical music as art is the question of meaning, does the music require an underlying story or meaning, or can the music exist in and of itself. (I’m sure there are technical terms for the opposing sides) I have taken the view on this blog that the best of music has intended meaning that the artist seeks to transmit, and the audience can hear it (or not) and has the right to develop its own interpretation. But the fact that the artist intended a specific meaning is still important (my fiancee leans toward the other view. We fight gently.) And so in this piece, I, as an untrained listener with no knowledge of the piece its origins, or the composer (for all practical purposes) can interpret the piece in a way, has similarities (and some differences) with the original ‘intended’ meaning. And this is an example of music used to transmit meaning (although even this is more blunt than required).
Why does this matter to me? I was at a party a few weeks ago, hosted by a musician. As part of the party several musicians present played some pieces. It was the very meaning of chamber music, music played in a private chamber, and it was a wonderful evening, of performers and audience, enjoying each others company, and sharing music, but the listening and the playing. While talking with another of the non-musician guests, they gathered that I write this blog, and were impressed by the association. They later learned that I am one who has gone of to fields of war, and exclaimed how big the difference between the two worlds, the beauty and wonder of classical music in one of its purest settings, and the harshness of the reality of modern war. And my reply was that music (as all the arts) has as its purpose addressing the whole of what it means to be human. And that means both the ability to appreciate and create beauty and wonder and hope, as well as the ability to bear through hardship and horror. More stark reminders of this exist in plenty. I’ve written here of Vedran Smailović, the cellist who played in the streets of Sarajevo during this midst of seige. Many of this nation’s newspapers have printed incredible letters from those who have gone to war, some after the writer has died in battle, whose mastery of language stands alongside the greatest poets and writers the english speaking world has known.
The difference can be jarring. I’ve gone from galas with tuxedo and evening gown, to stepping off a plane in a dusty field wearing boots within a space of weeks, and the reverse when I returned. But it really is not two different worlds, a world of art as escape and a world of harsh reality, it is one. And art (including classical music) is at its finest when it has something to say, both to recognize the reality of the harshness of the world and what man can create, as well as the hope and beauty of the world and what man can aspire to. And even something as light as the music of young men chasing a tennis ball on the court is an example of art transmitting meaning, and just like life, sometimes that meaning is lighthearted, sometimes weighty. But considerably more than only an escape (even if escape does have its place).