The Meaning in Music

4 min read

Rachmaninoff

Rybnikov

AVAILABLE IN PODCAST

(Listen to this letter to hear the piano music)

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Your job will change, where you live will change, the people in your life will change, but you will always have your music. It’s been my mantra for years, my go-to when my children wanted to quit piano lessons.

What is the meaning in music? And, what makes it lasting? The best music, like the best writing, depicts beauty and truth. Without analysis, we know this; we like what we like and we love what we love. Music may bring joy or sorrow, lifting the soul or plunging it into despair. Every human emotion may be represented in music. And wherever I am in life, especially when I’m adrift, music has the capacity to comfort me, to give me escape and reprieve, to let me pound out the anger, to soothe the beast, to settle my restless soul. And, when I play my father’s music, it restores a warmth deep in the breast.

Music is a universal language. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or whether you speak English or Russian or Chinese.

I’ve always wondered why certain music, like certain writing, sticks. A song stays with me and writing lingers. I go back to it again and again. Images and passages in writing, musical phrases and melodies are hardwired. Why? For most of my life I’ve been content to accept this for what it is.

In my graduate studies, I researched and explored the music in prose. A Chopin Nocturne is similar to Beryl Markham’s memoir, West with the Night. How so? Both begin with notes or words, build into phrases and sentences, then sections or paragraphs and chapters, which present discord and embellishment, tension, ultimately seeking and finding resolution. Even the words West with the Night are melodic. The author’s voice–the syntax and language-are authentic and natural, yet artfully constructed.

In song or ternary form, music moves from Part A to Part B and back to Part A. In writing we have the three-act play, the novella with its characters and conflict, the memoir with its narrator and struggle. The rising tension and resolution in story is the same as in the musical composition.

The mind finds beauty in pattern and structure. The most basic element of music is rhythm and a composition is built on that foundation. Writing is the same; it must have rhythm or cadence. When that is lacking, the writing is awkward and difficult. There are other elements to structure, such as tempo and voice, which make the music or writing memorable and lasting.

A song or story is an artful construction of notes or words, a development on a theme, building to a whole. This is the form or structure, an ordered and unified collection of parts.  It may be uplifting or comic or tragic; it moves us and resonates. In music, it may be as simple as a Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and as complex as a symphony. The same is true in writing, from a short poem to a tome. The skillful use of notes or words into a unified body creates something more than its parts, the gestalt. The best and most lasting works leave us with a satisfying experience, depicting a truth or beauty so deep and meaningful it changes us.

*

My daughter’s Russian friend stayed with us this week and lamented that she had not devoted time to study music. An exceptional athlete, she is heading to an elite university, having navigated the collegiate process on her own. She is reading Victor Hugo in addition to her studies for school.

We talked about cultural interests and I asked if she likes Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor; or, as one listener said, God in three forms.

As an amateur, I waited decades before attempting the “Rock”. I am working on his Etude-Tableau in G Minor, or a study which is not a study for a student to learn; it is a pictorial study, a musical interpretation of a visual external stimulus. When asked, the composer never revealed the pictures which inspired him, replying that the pianist would visualize his own images.

My house guest was not familiar with Rachmaninoff, but she asked me to play a contemporary song by Alexey Rybnikov, a living composer. It is a short piece. How does it make you feel?

(“The Very Same Munchhausen” by Rybnikov, link above to recording of author at the piano, 8FEB2022)

The young Russian sat on the floor by the piano with her palms together and eyes bright, happy to hear this tune from home. The theme song from a movie of lovers who are separated, it is sweet and haunting.

She has a music class now and I asked her to play a piece. She strummed the guitar and sang a Russian ballad. I thought I saw a glimmer in her eye. When asked if she missed home, she had said: Yes, the language, talking in Russian, her family. To hear her native voice in song had me close to tears and I felt that irrepressible quality that comes from a performance of the heart.

*

The tall, gaunt Rachmaninoff was described as having an austere manner and the cropped haircut of a convict. Another composer, Igor Stavinsky, went as far as to describe him as a six-and-a-half-foot-scowl. Those who did not know him found him severe or cold, yet he came alive when he sat down at the keyboard. His music comes from the depths of his soul and speaks to us of what it means to be human, that we are not alone in this world.

And, this is the meaning in music: its truth and beauty transcend the barriers of language, country, and even time.

[Etude Tableau in G Minor, Op. 33, No. 8 by Rachmaninoff; link above to recording of author at the piano, 28SEP2021]

Feb 9, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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