Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Touring the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, I came across a bizarre little note about the waterfall. The man who commissioned, upon its completion, insisted it was wrong and suggested to the engineer that he listen to Mendelssohn's "Spring Song." He did, and sure enough, was able to complete the waterfall perfectly.

I don't really think this is meant to be serious, that music can in fact convey precise engineering structures, but it got me thinking in conjunction with a previous post about what music means these days. Aside from the Elgar example in the post, Scott Spiegelberg notes from the AMS listserv:
ack to the American Musicology Society List (AMS-L), another (Canadian!) music historian (Jim Deaville) pointed out that Vincent Persichetti was commissioned to compose a work, Lincoln Address for Nixon's second inauguration. Persichetti set words from Lincoln's second inaugural address, including the reference to the Civil War as a "mighty scourge." The Presidential Inaugural Committee felt this could be interpreted as an allusion to the ongoing Vietnam War, and therefore replaced Lincoln Address with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. So, replacing reference to one war with another war. Ah well.

As I commented in his blog, does no one think there's an irony about replacing a work because of Vietnam with a work that celebrates Russia's victory over the French when we're fighting them ostensibly on behalf of the French? This is even more perplexing than the use of it on 4th of July programs.

Basically, it comes down to how we hear this music. Is music just a sonic impact, where Elgar can underscore any sympathetic scene, and the victory of Tchaikovsky can be anyone's, where Mendelssohn can convey something so concrete so broadly. There's something pleasantly liberating about this, the freedom to own any sound as your own. It's especially tempting I think now, when music is so available. But the scholar in me rebels. Ultimately, the truth is more complex. For the unknowing audience, what's wrong with Elgar, with Tchaikovsky? The music simply works. But for the knowing, the result can be difficult, and more difficult for those who know and are affected by this find it unpalettable.

This is all stuff I'm dealing with as I move into dissertation territory. I find it interesting to examine, to play example-counterexample, but ultimately fear that there's no real answer here. I can't really ignore the cultural meaning alongside the musical, but I also can't ignore the musical meaning either.


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