MEANING IN MUSIC, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 21st January 1956

Music is an international language; or so we are told. Harmony in the ears makes harmony in the heart and obliterates the passport; savage breasts may be soothed and love may be fed, and the apposite choice of music for strings might even unravel the disquieting knots of Cyprus and Jordan. Walford Davies once said that a single “perfect cadence” rightly beamed into space would establish friendly relations with the inhabitants of Mars. For some time the B.B.C. tried this, sending out “BBC” as an interval signal. The Martians remained singularly unresponsive.

Nevertheless, composers (and others) have frequently tried to express more than mere friendliness in music. It is as if they were dissatisfied with the vocabulary, and found it too vague, too inexpressive of actual meaning.

For a start, there are too few letters. Bach signed himself in the “Art of Fugue”, but unluckily he could not add both his initials, as there were no notes labelled with the appropriate letter. Sooner or later this will lead to delightful confusion, and some tomfool musicologist will attribute the whole work to one of his sons or orchestrators.

Schumann did his best in “Carnaval” to tell us that Asch was the town where he longed to be. But he could not spell out his lady-love in full, nor sign himself more clearly than as “Scha.”

Elgar evaded the issue by putting initials or pseudonyms at the head of his Enigma Variations, rather than incorporate the words in the actual notation. In fact the language of music seems to be in its infancy. Heaven may lie about it, but it remains obstinately inaccessible.

The Tonic Sol-fa provides something of an alphabet, but it is as crude as Hittite Cursive, and only suitable for domestic messages in pidgeon parlance. “Me fah te” (come to tea with me) may be answered by “Soh-re ma-ma fe-le se-de me soh-soh” (sorry, mother feels seedy and I feel so-so), but this jargon is clumsy for communicating profounder ideas such as we are to believe surge up in every composer’s heart.

A long time ago I saw a spy film in which the heroine was sent during the first world war on a secret mission to a hospital in a part of France then occupied by the Germans. Her task was to play the piano in the evenings to the other nurses, poor things. The piano was wired up so that a certain note operated a fullerphone* which communicated with the Allies. Thus, by dexterous playing (improvising and transposing) she was able to thumb out the morse code while rattling through a Mazurka. The nurses did not seem to notice the inevitable liberties she took with the music—or was it that the music had already the seeds of her messages? Was not Chopin’s “Raindrops” Prelude, with its repeated note, in reality (when performed with proper rubato) a disquisition on troop strengths, ammunition dumps and civilian morale? Very possibly.

In the last war customs officials became curious about the export of certain musical scores to a neutral country. It was very modern music evidently, for an expert had to be called in to judge whether it was really music or a novel mode of smuggling illicit information. The expert deemed the scores to contain not music but cipher. To-day, these scores might well be performed on the Third Programme. The pity is that the key to the cipher has not been published: therein may lie the secret for which all composers are yearning, the real key to musical communication.

Still, there may be some that know the secret. Beethoven and Mozart are found to have used tone-rows from time to time, which may have been a rudimentary cipher. Was there a freemasonry that passed the precious knowledge from initiate to initiate? Did Schönberg and Webern learn the clue? Such questions must spring to mind as we listen to any contemporary music. What is it really trying to say?

It is possible that foolish critics inadvertently tell the truth when they claim that this or that opus is crammed with “significance”; there may indeed be in it a vital “inner meaning”. Some of us, however, think otherwise. When we peel a banana, we are content to find banana, not cotton wool.

Peter Tranchell

* a sophisticated type of Morse telegraph set suitable for clandestine use