Mu­sic and Mean­ing

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY ERIK ENT WISTLE Pian­ist, in­struc­tor and mu­si­col­o­gist Erik En­twistle re­ceived an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in mu­sic from Dart­mouth Col­lege. He earned a post-grad­u­ate de­gree in pi­ano per­for­mance at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis. En­twistle earned his doct

Irecently com­pleted a com­po­si­tion for vi­o­lin and pi­ano ti­tled “Sani­bel Suite.” It was writ­ten as a trib­ute to the nat­u­ral beauty of Sani­bel Is­land us­ing de­scrip­tive ti­tles for each of the four move­ments―“De­serted Beach,” “Cy­cling Through the Refuge,” “Un­der the Stars” and “Dol­phins in the Wake.” A friend heard the piece as mu­si­cal ac­tivism, bring­ing to mind the fragility of our en­vi­ron­ment and the con­tin­u­ous ef­fort needed to pre­serve our nat­u­ral re­sources. An ab­sence of such stew­ard­ship could re­sult in beaches over­run with con­do­mini­ums, refuges closed for lack of funds, the night sky ob­scured by light pol­lu­tion and dol­phins dis­ap­pear­ing. The idea that a piece of mu­sic I had writ­ten could in some way en­cour­age this kind of aware­ness was hum­bling.

Mu­sic has of­ten been about more than “just the notes,” but defin­ing those ex­tra el­e­ments can be chal­leng­ing. With the ad­di­tion of words, the task is made pal­pa­bly sim­pler: The notes be­come car­ri­ers of a mes­sage with spe­cific mean­ing and con­text, whether re­li­gious, po­lit­i­cal or some other as­pect of the hu­man con­di­tion. For ex­am­ple, protest songs such as “We Shall Over­come” point out in­jus­tices, in­spire sol­i­dar­ity and de­mand change, tran­scend­ing spe­cific ori­gin and gain­ing a uni­ver­sally un­der­stood mean­ing.

But words are not a pre­req­ui­site for car­ry­ing a mes­sage, as purely in­stru­men­tal works can also com­mu­ni­cate through sub­text and mu­si­cal sym­bol­ism. These might be in­her­ent to the work it­self, or at­tached to the mu­sic at some later point. As an ex­am­ple of the for­mer case, con­sider a piece such as the “Funeral March” move­ment of Chopin’s Sec­ond Pi­ano Sonata. Thanks to the ti­tle, we think we un­der­stand what the piece is about. But here is where the trou­ble be­gins. What Chopin was think­ing when he wrote it and what he wanted to con­vey to his lis­ten­ers, how­ever, we have no idea. As a funeral march the mu­sic serves as a re­minder of our own mor­tal­ity. This might lead us to a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of our lives, or al­ter­na­tively cause us to sink into de­spair. Or we might just en­joy the fu­ne­real mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence vi­car­i­ously. It’s up to us to process and in­ter­pret Chopin’s mu­si­cal mes­sage.

As an ex­am­ple of the case of adding a spe­cific mean­ing to a mu­si­cal work, there is Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­phony, used by the Al­lies as a call to vic­tory dur­ing World War II. The sym­phony’s fa­mous open­ing “short-short-short-long” motto cor­re­sponded to Morse code for the let­ter V for vic­tory and free­dom heard at the out­set of the BBC’s wartime ra­dio broad­casts.

Given that Beethoven was a Ger­man com­poser, the ap­pro­pri­a­tion was as ironic as it was in­ge­nious, even if only a few would un­der­stand the as­so­ci­a­tion.

So as mu­sic moves through our world, it car­ries with it a mul­ti­tude of mean­ings, which can be al­tered over time and vary from per­son to per­son. As a po­ten­tial force for change, mu­sic not only af­fects our own lives but also con­tin­ues to im­pact the world around us in pro­found ways.

How has mu­sic given mean­ing to your own life … and in what ways do you see it in­flu­enc­ing the world around you?


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