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Taking Note 3-4/2014: The path of Orpheus: music, literature and writing about music

"Music has the ability to prompt such a profound emotional sensation that words fail to describe it. Yet it also has the ability to prompt in us a desire to write about it – above all, paradoxically, in cases where the music seems the furthest removed from the realm of linguistic expression."


Laura Wahlfors (Photo: Marjukka Irni)

BY Laura Wahlfors

Music has the ability to prompt such a profound emotional sensation that words fail to describe it. Yet it also has the ability to prompt in us a desire to write about it – above all, paradoxically, in cases where the music seems the furthest removed from the realm of linguistic expression.


The problem of writing about music was one that fascinated literary scholar, philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes (1915–1980), a passionate music lover. Barthes wondered whether music was condemned to remain either ineffable, i.e. incapable of being described, or predicable, i.e. described in a general commentary that betrays the very essence of the music itself. He was vehemently opposed to a culture of writing about music and music criticism that reduced the enjoyment of music to a harmless petty bourgeois pleasure. Barthes particularly resented adjectives, which according to him are an easy tool for capturing music and whose use above all reassures the subjectivity of the listener. Saying that “this music is sad” or “what passionate playing” gives the experience an epithet, and it becomes fixed and static.


At this moment, music is lost, just as Orpheus ultimately lost the opportunity to bring Eurydice out of the underworld when he looked back at his beloved despite having been told not to do so. Barthes’s solution to the problem of writing about music was the language of metaphor, which covertly integrates music, musicalising the language itself. In the language of metaphor, language and music intertwine. Barthes thus concluded that music must be written about indirectly, using the means of literature.


Barthes was grounded in the strong Romantic-Modernist tradition that views music through literature and as a source of inspiration for the writer: a Proustian lost paradise, a fantasy of perfect presence and immediacy of experience that cannot be analysed. Music is the siren of inspiration that calls the writer to express the ineffable, to translate the most intimate experience into a linguistic utterance. In this conception, music is cast as the opposite of language, representing everything that transcends the bounds of language and representation. In the Barthesian language of metaphor, music becomes the shadow of language, a material reflection of sound; Orpheus only moves in one direction.




However, there are many other possible guises for the relationship between music and literature. Composers and musicians through the ages have been inspired by literature, seeking to give an auditory setting to poetry or to express in music the images prompted by literature. Music and literature have always coexisted, not only in vocal music or programme music, but also in a variety of intertextual relationships and indirect inspirations that nourish the work of composers and musicians.


Robert Schumann, for instance, noted that music would be a stunted art form if it consisted of nothing but notes, with no living link to literature. Like many other composers, he used literature as a means for rejuvenating music and for exploring alternative approaches to musical form beyond the established conventions such as the sonata form. Performing musicians may also delve into literature for inspiration, for instance by exploring the literary connections behind compositions and by allowing those connections to feed into their interpretation of the music. Orpheus the performer can also move from literature towards music, from language towards sound.


Language and music do not need to be set up as a dichotomy; literary and musical discourses can coexist, co-function, intertwine and layer in many different ways. The various approaches to cultural musicology have clearly shown that music is never pure form or opaque mystery but always full of cultural content. Music creates meaning in inseparable interaction with other modes of creating meaning, such as the literary and the visual. Music journalism embodies a wealth of potential for the meeting of discourses: musical with literary, scientific, artistic, ethical, political… Orpheus can, in fact, move all over the place.




What I myself find valuable in Barthes’s notion of the writer as Orpheus is that he focused on keeping the experience dynamic. Movement is important for critical and vibrant thinking; continuity of movement is what keeps culture alive. Writing about music – especially when music prompts in us an experience that is difficult to describe – is an excellent way of promoting such movement.


Barthes noted that one always fails to speak of what one loves. But perhaps adjectives have their uses: they may be momentarily acceptable as we seek for the words to describe our experience of music. Even if what we are aiming for eludes the grasp of words, the main thing is to keep moving, even if the movement takes us somewhere else. This allows the music also to keep moving us, time and again.

Laura Wahlfors is a music and literature researcher. She is also a pianist.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi