Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Mozart, Molecular Resonance, and the Musicality of Language
The musical genre derives it's name from the Italian divertire 'to amuse' and oft formed the lilting backdrop for social entertainments, a light-hearted accompaniment to tea, ices and the usual post-medieval repast of blood sausages and peacock pie. I, for one, cannot imagine engaging in idle gossip and societal chit-chat while Eine kleine Nachtmusik is being performed by a modest ensemble in close-room proximity; this particular work leaves me stricken, reaches inside to the heart and literally seizes the emotional seat. The piercing beauty of this piece (and indeed Mozart's other divertimentos) is almost painfully experienced: there is an internal resonance, vibrations of a molecular kind as if the very electrons that comprise the atoms of me have re-arranged their tiny dance to coincide with the cadence of Mozart; a deeply visceral response where the music flows and swells through blood and bone like an exotic elixir. The poignant rendering of notes escalate into delicate harmony that leave me breath-held, marveling at the improbable perfection of each succeeding musical phrase, astounded that these pieces, these divertimentos, were often composed and intended for immediate consumption - that is to say they were performed once - commissioned by leading families (during Mozart's Salzburg period) for single celebratory occasions such as birthdays, weddings or feast-days - and then promptly discarded like something old-fashioned, out-dated, unwanted and used up; which is why divertimentos and serenades often have not survived for posterity - these sumptuous musical marvels were symphonic supernovas that lit up the night in a crescendo of brilliance and just as quickly extinguished.
And so it is that this cool morning finds me embroiled in the deep expressivity of Mozart's divertimentos; my quiet mind soars with the notes as they come into cascading existence and then are as quickly gone like the perfection of a snowflake before the melt. Isn't this what we are seeking as writers? To provoke a resonance in our readers - to thrill and enthrall, to engage and empassion with literary snowflakes that are endowed with longevity? A little bit of Mozart encased in resin. Oh, to somehow capture and freeze that tender pathos of Nachtmusik brilliance! But of course Mozart is movement, always transitioning from one incomparably sublime musical phrase to another; each note born for a heartbeat and then gone, momentarily gilded like a fading dust mote in the dying light of the sun. It is, like the short extent of human life, a transitory pleasure.
Music and literature approach, intertwine and move apart in a sinuous weave of mutual influence; while both arose as a single activity (often in combination with dance) the subsequent proximity of literary and musical arts were culturally and chronologically-specific: interfused in the madrigals of Elizabethan England but less apparently so in the Augustan period. This musical-literary reciprocity is made manifest in the folk balladeer, Homeric minstrel, Anglo-Saxon scop, and the twentieth-century Yugoslavic singer of tales - none of whom could function without a musical instrument. In the literary epics, however, it has been at best vestigial and the musical connection with the Aeneid and Paradise Lost, for example, seems negligible. The current connectivity between music and literature is apparent on the musical stage (the broadway performance of Les Misérables being an obvious example) and in the opera with the librettist providing the literary counterpoint to the musical note. Within the operatic genre there is an auditory association with the dramatic, the timbre and pitch of anxious expectation, of choked expressiveness, of poignant yearning; the inked words are only a component of the final product with ongoing debate as to the dominant contribution: the musical score or the libretto?
Just as the beauty of Mozart's divertimentos plays the anatomical instrument (the molecular strings and ivory keys of heart and blood) the intonation of language can evoke a similar physiological response, arousing in the readership an affinity for the beauty of expression in the literary form. Shakespeare comes to mind - predominately as a poet rather than a playwright, and to truly appreciate the lyricism of his work, the rhythm and cadence of his language, his plays must be read aloud (as of course originally intended). The impassioned nature of dramatic soliloquy demands vocal declamation. I wonder whether poetry might comprise a bridge between music and literature? A form that seems to possess a closer acquaintance with musical cadence and syllabic rhythms, while prose is generally less constrained. But then I think of the great literary works and I cannot help but feel that they are imbued with poetry; that literature is no less laden with aria: it is the narrative sung by the author's soul.
So in the meantime - thank goodness for Mozart - and the deeply-felt resonance of his work, a thrill that seems grounded in anatomical roots, poignantly vibrant in the molecular dance...one which profoundly brightens the world. Of Eine kleine Nachtmusik Mozart's biographer Wolfgang Hildesheimer writes, "even if we hear it on every street corner, its high quality is undisputed, an occasional piece from a light but happy pen." So perhaps if we imagine words as individual musical notes, each a lyrical part of the whole, enabling transition from one segment to another, one scene to another...words indubitably as influential, as expressively passionate; however Mozart's music transcends page and deliberate thought, and speaks directly to the deepest emotive part of ourselves. Writers, to my mind, have to wrestle with words, have to twist and contort them into a fashion that conveys intended meaning; they are an imperfect vehicle tainted by varied interpretation, imprecise usage, and cumbersome coupling in our perpetual quest to express it more precisely. For it is one thing to perceive with studied delight the perfection of a snowflake, it is quite another to render that beauty in words: for better or for worse ours is a yearning defined and grounded in the permanency of ink.