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The Fate of Melody

July 31, 2007

This article is excerpted from the new book Why Classical Music Still Matters (University of California Press, 2007).


Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet begins with a consummation. The solo instrument gleams forth over murmuring strings in a single harmonious tone. It melts into a lustrous shimmer, gleams anew, and shimmers again. Then it broadens into a spacious, tranquil melody that slips at the end into the reedy twilight of the instrument’s lower register. For the first moment or two the mood is perfectly blissful, to be tinged — just tinged — by longing or melancholy as the melody expands.

What makes this opening so arresting is not just its sheer sensuous beauty but the implication that, starting at a point of fulfillment, there is no place to go but down.The very shape of the passage suggests as much. It is as if the formal necessity of expanding the opening moment into a coherent melody entailed the sacrifice of its lyrical self-sufficiency. This hint is confirmed by everything that follows.

The mood of this first movement gradually darkens so that the initial hint of longing becomes charged at the end with deep regret. The clarinet surrenders its melodic self-sufficiency to the strings, which at once introduce qualities of complexity and poignancy that they never surrender. Except in the purely formal repeat of the whole first section, the opening moment of fulfillment is never heard again. It is detached from the rest of the movement to dwell apart in a sphere of its own. Without drama or overt contrast, the passage recedes into the distance while still seeming close by. Throughout the whole movement it hovers tantalizingly just out of reach. The melody comes back, all right, but never intact. It is never quite the same.

Why? Why does Brahms tie this music so closely to the melancholy of transience? Among the many possible answers, one has to do with a deep strain of melancholy widely felt to pervade modern life, another with the melancholy of mortality. Brahms was over 60, feeling old and creatively exhausted, when he wrote this music. Both he and his century had only a few years left to live. But another reason may go even deeper, redirecting an awareness of both the beauty and the melancholy inherent in music itself. Whether this was Brahms’ awareness or only something embodied in the music I can’t say. But it points to something that matters deeply about the musical tradition that Brahms inherited and passed down.

My name for that something is old-fashioned; I call it fate. To start getting a sense of it — and getting at its musical sense — we might try shifting from a why? question to a how?
Enjoying Melody
How is it possible to enjoy melody? The question may seem strange, even absurd. No matter what kind of music you favor, the enjoyment of melody is likely to feel utterly natural. On redirection, though, a certain unspoken condition for it appears. To enjoy a melody, we need to be able to hear it more than once. A melody that vanished forever after one hearing would remove itself from the sphere of pleasure to the sphere of regret or indifference. It might not make sense to call such a thing a melody at all. Melody lives by defeating the necessity by which music must vanish in the act of being made. Melody arises as something that lingers and lives as something whose fate is to be restored.

One reason for this is the original identification of melody with the expressive force of the human voice. Historically speaking, instrumental melody derives from vocal melody, and it never wholly forgets its origins, however much it may go its own way. Most of us encounter music first as song, above all as sung by those who care for us as children; many writers have testified to the power of the mother’s singing voice, or the singing quality of the mother’s voice, in early childhood. Melody is passed from voice to voice, from one singer to another, from one generation to another. And this is not just a circumstantial fact about melody but part of its very concept. Melody sings because it is sung, but to sing at all it must be sung again. It must reach out from the heart of its own necessary transience to be reborn in new conditions, amid new people, in times that have changed. Melody is not just a string of notes: anything but.

Classical music finds its special character in a sustained encounter with this dimension of melody. Most of the music is solidly based on melody, even in the modern period, but to keep the promise that melody makes it must also let melody go. It must learn the fate of melody in order to know itself. The journey that classical melody takes can be perilous, long, and sometimes confusing, but it can bring extraordinary rewards.

As classical music construes its world, and ours, when melody comes back it should come back changed. Its meaning should be different, and so, in most cases, should its form, which both marks new meanings and makes them. Classical melody is left to disappear, even urged to disappear, on behalf of its transformative return. That return is its fate; that fate is its purpose. Classical music wants that fate for melody — the chief expressive resource of Western music — because it wants to take expression as a means rather than an end. It wants to trace the career, the adventures, the chances and mischances of everything that can be expressed. And so classical melody attunes itself to fundamental dramatic scenarios of loss and recovery, desire and destiny, forgetting and remembering, change and recognition. ...

Classical music constantly puts its claims of beauty, desire, energy, clarity, and so on at risk in the currents of contingency and metamorphosis. This willingness to engage with the passage of time from something like the inside gives the music part of its special character. Classical music allows us to grasp passing time as if it were an object or even a body. Time, which as mutability dissolves the solidity of our loves and beings into abstraction and memory, becomes a source of tangible, persistent pleasure and meaning.
How Long Does It Last?
Not that the insistence of loss is forgotten, or forgettable. The living grasp of time only happens for a time. But even where mutability presses hard, its realization as music makes that pressure feel like emotional truth. "Only through time time is conquered" wrote T.S. Eliot in poetry inspired by the late quartets of Beethoven, "music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts." While the music lasts: long enough, and yet not long.

Thinking of Orpheus, the mythical figure who epitomizes the confrontation of music, time, and loss, Rainer Maria Rilke makes the same realization: "Be as a ringing glass that shatters itself in its ringing." Classical music makes time ring well by wringing it well. Other types of music, composed music less moved by chances and changes, or improvised music less bound to melodic substance, can and do conquer time in their own way. But not in just this way.

Or ways: a classical melody can embrace (or resist) its fate in countless ways. Any part of it can be kept, and any part discarded, in the course of its disappearance and return. The rhythm of its coming and going, going and coming, can span a mere instant (the melody is repeated with variation), or occur at intervals, or emerge after long and often tortuous delay (the melody finds itself again, perhaps enhanced, perhaps depleted, after it engages with other melodies or breaks into developing fragments or changes its shape, perhaps again and again). The music we find most memorable is the music that chooses among these possibilities in the most compelling ways. It matters by making the choices matter, finding meaning in them, staking something on them.

The result is something perhaps unique to classical music and at any rate one of its superlative qualities. The works of music that become familiar and beloved assume a distinct personality, in a sense that goes beyond the metaphorical. We take these pieces into our lives, we think and talk about them, the way we do about other minds. We animate them, inspirit them, as we also do with favorite fictional characters and the anthropomorphized things with which we populate our world. We develop an intimacy with them that is as much a kind of companionship as a
kind of understanding. ...

Classical music acts like a spirit in need of a body, which it finds in us when we hearken to it as bodies in need of a spirit. These meetings leave us hungry for more, and for many reasons: because they can seem to touch us at the quick; because they are notoriously hard to describe, which makes them as elusive as they are vivid; and above all because each is by its very nature incomplete, no matter how fully achieved it is in the moment. The music demands that we know it again, and better, and in so doing that we know ourselves better, too. We can hear our own fate in the fate of melody, but only if we make its fate our own.

Like any experience that matters, that resonates, that gets under our skin, this music challenges our power to rise to its occasion. Any difficulty it gives us is not a product of esotericism; it is a product of life.

Excerpted from Why Classical Music Still Matters (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by the Regents of the University of California.