Settling scores

Music stirs our emotions more than anything we can see. But visual notation is alluring too

Stephen Hough

Music is invisible. We can’t see its vibrations in the air. The eye is the human being’s prime organ, sight our principal sense. We see before we hear, the flash of lightning before the clap of thunder, the speed of light effortlessly overtaking the speed of sound. Yet of all the artforms, the neuroscientists tell us, music appears to affect us emotionally in the most direct way. It’s as if for our work day, in our prosaic lives, we are “seeing” creatures, but at the end of the day the poetry of music takes over: the gravity of right-brain thinking and feeling has the stronger pull. We can remember a book or a painting and be deeply affected, but a piece of music lodges itself in the memory in a uniquely intimate way. It doesn’t just sit there; we hold it. Musical memory is an embrace. Ear worms burrow deep. And those same neuroscientists have in recent years proved direct physical reactions in the brain to organised sounds—major or minor, discord or rich harmony, music’s ability to tease neurons into play, synapses as dance partners.

For me (no surprise) this significance is supremely true of Western classical music. Yet there is another dimension to the sight v. sound analogy: classical music exists only with written-down notation. Without notes on a page—lines and dots, and, to a lesser but crucially important extent, slurs and dashes and instructions of tempo or expression—there would be no classical music. In jazz, written notes (often scribbled on the back of a whisky-stained envelope) are aides-mémoires to the act of improvisation. Songs can be classics but the jazz-club experience is expected to be a creation of the moment. In classical music not only is everything written down, but the sounds themselves would be a mere memory without the text. Perhaps it’s the difference between Protestant and Catholic: prayer as extempore or liturgical rubrics.

If the Torah were ever to be lost in its written form an extreme urgency would compel the first Rabbi to begin to write it down again, even though God (G—d) is invisible and the good He asks of us does not literally involve reading and writing. Something similar is true of classical music. If the scores of Beethoven’s staggering corpus of masterpieces were to disappear from the face of the earth they would be extinguished, except for recordings. However acute the ear (and some have managed to pick up complex works without reading music) it would only ever be a temporary preservation. Shakespeare, memorised by countless actors, could survive without text; Mozart could not. And that’s only to consider works with one performer. Mahler said that “a symphony must be like the world—it must contain everything”. His vast orchestral canvases, into which invisible world we are immersed as we listen in the auditorium, are notated with the precision of an aircraft manual.

When we play classical music without the score (from memory, by heart) it is because of our reverence for the score, not to prove we have the skill to do so. It indicates that we have so absorbed the text in its every detail that we are able to put it aside. “Write drunk, edit sober” is a catchy quote (mis)attributed to Ernest Hemingway. We must learn a score with a magnifying glass in practice so that in performance we can look with binoculars at a masterpiece’s vast horizon.

But what are we seeing through that microscope? The great pianist and Cornell University professor, Malcolm Bilson, has made some illuminating videos called Knowing the Score. No music student is without an armful of scores (or a well-stocked iPad); but how do we actually read those scores? What does the composer mean? Is a symbol or word in Liszt the same as in Chopin? Is the tempo Andante in Brahms the same as in Haydn? Anyone who has composed realises the anxiety of trying to convey exactly how one wants sounds to sound. How loud is mezzo forte? If I write crescendo there rather than half a centimetre to the right will the performer get loud too soon? Is espressivo enough or should I add molto?

Certain composers are more obviously concerned about this control-freakery than others. Despite his manuscripts of monumental mess, scratchings-out and ink-stains smudging every page, Beethoven is incredibly precise. He knows exactly what he wants and he is determined you should know it too. Beethoven’s consistency is breath-taking. Whereas Dvořák and Poulenc (to pluck two random geniuses out of the air) are sloppy. The Frenchman was a lazy proofreader, allowing for all manner of misprints and misreadings; the Czech a frustratingly inconsistent notator. Working on the latter’s piano concerto required quite a bit of guesswork, occasionally with notes, but constantly with note-values and dynamic markings.

A Twitter account called “Notation is beautiful” celebrates in photographs the visual allure of music scores, in print and in manuscript. Indeed, some hyper-complex 20th-century works have more artistic appeal on the page as drawings than as the sounds we hear when they are performed. But music only really comes to life when it leaves the page and enters the ear; it is written to be heard. Despite its rigour of construction and despite every logical marking on the page, music celebrates the irrational when we receive it with pleasure into our beings. For the listener it is thunder before the lightning, deep sounds which resonate without need for illumination.

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