Music and Meaning and Is My Heart in the Right Place?

Some people warn against trying to interpret the emotions behind a piece of music. I can see the point of such a warning. We can’t always know for sure what the composer intended, and even if they had a definite intent, everyone reacts to works of art differently.

That said, even though the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, for instance, always argued against attaching specific meaning and emotion to music, he also said, “What the musical composer, in effect, says to his performers is: ‘I desire to produce a certain spiritual result on certain people …”

So maybe the problem is just being too literal or concrete.

Except, even Vaughan Williams seems to concede that it’s okay to get more specific sometimes. I was looking into the history of one his pieces which I love, Toward the Unknown Region. The text for the piece comes from a Walt Whitman poem about death. Here’s what Vaughn Williams said about poetry: “To a listener who understands the meaning of the words the actual sound of those words has a powerful emotional effect but only in connection with the meaning and association of the words spoken.”

Vaughan Williams selected this particular Walt Whitman poem, no other, this one. Yes, you’re getting his interpretation, but he picked these specific words which he then augmented and enhanced with his music. The conclusion is inescapable: when he handed it to singers everywhere, although he realized they would do whatever they wanted with it, he still hoped for something in particular, a “certain spiritual result.”

When I sing it, I can’t stop myself from believing that what I’m feeling is just what Vaughan Williams wanted me to feel. In my head I know that I can’t know for sure, but my heart isn’t buying it.

Ralph Vaughan Williams and his second wife Ursula.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

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