Meaningful Like a Lullabye

In Poetics of Music, Igor Stravinsky states that music has no meaning. He does not argue that music has no effect on people. And neither does he argue that certain types of music do not have meaning for individuals or groups. He simply states that a tone or chord, sounded, is not a word. A Bb major chord is not “cat” or a certain melody does not mean or imply “sword” unless we are told or shown the meaning. This is one of the central mysteries of music: it sounds, it effects, but it does not mean anything.

This mystery makes it difficult to argue for the superiority of one musical style over another. Take the trombone. You might be surprised to find the trombone is the oldest instrument in continuous use. For five hundred years, it has remained fundamentally the same instrument physically. Heinrich Schutz, a seventeenth century composer and contemporary of J.S. Bach, wrote complicated, beautiful music for trombone quartet.

Trombone players have been well represented through the years. Mozart wrote solo music for the Austrian Virtuoso with the funny name Thomas Gschlatt. During the Gilded Age there was probably no player finer than the Sousa band’s Arthur Pryor. He played unhindered by the  supposed superiority of the classical canon or dime-a-dozen cornetists. Band music was popular music, dance music. He played with a facility unsurpassed in his day. “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who played in Duke Ellington’s band, created an amazing “singing” effect using a trumpet mute and the business end of a toilet plunger. Tommy Dorsey played stratospherically high on the instrument; Bill Waterous plays high and fast. Stewart Dempster created his own bag of tricks.

Does the trombone solo from Mahler’s Third Symphony mean more than the trombone solo from Edith Piaf’s Polchinelle? Mahler’s solo is louder, larger scale, longer, but more meaningful? Music well written (or well conceived) and well played is meaningful like a lullabye and not like an argument.

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