Can You Ever Really “Know” Classical Music?
By Simon Brackenborough
Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is never enough for music.
You might think that, because I have a music degree and I edit a classical music website, I would have an extensive knowledge of classical music.
In fact, there is a lot of repertoire – even by the most famous composers – that I have not heard. While I will improve on this over time, in truth not even a professional musician playing music every day can ever fully know such a vast tradition, one which spans centuries and to which new scores are constantly being added. To tweak the quotation by Rachmaninov above, a lifetime is not enough even for classical music.
Then consider the music I do know – what is meant by ‘knowing’? Take for example Beethoven’s eighth symphony. I have heard this piece at least twice in concert, and probably many times on CD or radio over the years. But at this very second, I could not hum you any of its themes. This is not the fault of Beethoven so much as my imperfect memory. I have a rough idea of its character and length, and through other works by Beethoven, I know what his music tends to sound like.
So in what sense do I really know Beethoven’s eighth? If I heard a performance, I would certainly recognise parts of it – the themes are lurking my head somewhere. Though if you mischievously told me that this music was from another plausible piece from the same period, I might believe you.
Music I have closely studied, or performed, may result in a different story. As anyone learning a foreign language knows, instant recall requires a lot more work than recognition. They are both forms of knowledge, but they are not the same.
But here’s the thing. If asked, I would say I know Beethoven’s eighth. Socially, this is simpler and it benefits me too – it projects authority. Admitting ignorance in an area you are invested in does not always come easily. From the knowledge-proud we hear the reluctant admission: ‘I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know this’, signifying that an oversight is not for want of trying.
There is something rather sad and futile about a shame of imperfect knowledge. Since a degree of ignorance is inevitable, should we not learn to make peace with this fact? Even while we cultivate knowledge, perhaps by embracing ignorance, and leaving shame behind, we can better understand what we know.
I know that I know nothing.
The ‘Socratic Paradox’
The fear of being ignorant seems bound up in the ugliness of the word itself. The phrase ‘pig-ignorant’ doubles the harshness – and is rather unfair, I think, on those charming and highly intelligent animals. And yet, as the pig contentedly wallows in the mud, there is the expression ‘ignorance is bliss’. We recognise that knowledge, even as it empowers, tends to complicate things.
In The Black Swan, Nassem Nicholas Taleb described the ‘antilibrary’ of the writer and scholar Umberto Eco. At over 30,000 books, Taleb argued that this collection was not a means of Eco putting his erudition on display, because for the dedicated pursuer of knowledge, the value is in having as many books that you haven’t read as possible.
Many people, myself included, have criticised classical concert programming for an over-reliance of a limited pool of familiar music. But would we want a concert series like the ‘antilibrary’, a constant stream of new discoveries and world premieres? You could argue that a narrow repertoire is a sensible response to an overwhelming avalanche of potential scores – that at least it allows audiences to develop a deep relationship with a certain set of pieces.
Part of understanding our knowledge is its multi-dimensional shape. With limited time available, how much do we pursue a broad scope, and how much a deep understanding of a particular field? This will have consequences on the patterns of our ignorance. But with the case of a musical canon, another question arises: what forces have constructed it, and what forms of power are involved in the processes of selection?
An example of such power can be found in a blog by Liz Garnett, which shows how through the 20th century, the Grove music dictionary – a standard scholarly reference text for classical music – ‘forgot’ women composers. By researching subsequent editions, she discovered how many women composers listed during their lifetimes would later disappear. ‘This was when I grasped, emotionally, that history isn’t a neutral collection of facts about the past’, Garnett writes, ‘but a collection of facts that people have actively selected. Or, in this case, deselected.’
The widespread ignorance of women composers is not only the fault of Grove; though it seems crazy now, I cannot recall being taught about any examples during my music degree. A few years ago I realised my ignorance on this topic and vowed to educate myself. It turned out there were many fantastic women composers I had never heard of, from all parts of history. Their forgetting is a particularly stark example of how cultural ignorance is developed, through all of the ways – many of them no doubt unconscious – that patriarchy operates within systems of authority.
Music’s only purpose should be the glory of God and the refreshment of the human spirit.
From today’s standpoint, we might associate classical music with the values of The Enlightenment – reason, liberty, the cultivation of knowledge through science and exploration. But travel far back enough in history, and we find the origins of western music notation in the chants of the Medieval church.
It is ironic that one of the earliest composers still regularly performed is also one of the women least marginalised by classical music history: the 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard was a mystic who claimed to receive holy visions (less inspiringly, some have speculated that these may have been migraines). She was also a polymath: besides composing music, she was a writer on the human body and herbal remedies, she even invented her own mysterious ‘unknown language’, the Lingua Ignota.
The range of worldly and spiritual knowledge that Hildegard cultivated exemplifies the fallacy of the idea that there has been some eternal battle between science and religion, fact and faith. And through the expressive concentration of her music, and we can sense something of the worldview of her distant Abbey, where study and spirituality complemented each other in understanding God’s creation.
Mysticism derives from the Greek for ‘conceal’ – it is concerned with what can only be known by means outside normal perception. In contrast to the harshness of ‘pig-ignorant’, compare the gentle poetry of The Cloud Of Unknowing – a 14th-Century Christian mystical text of anonymous English source. The author contemplates the unknowable nature of God: ‘beat evermore’, one passage reads, ‘on this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt thee and thy God with a sharp dart of longing love’.
It is a phrase that has provoked several musical responses, including a large-scale orchestral work by American composer John Luther Adams: Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing.
In a fascinating essay about his piece, Adams explains how the English text ‘has much in common with the teachings of contemplative traditions throughout the world’, whose essence he describes as ‘voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence far larger than ourselves.’ The aims of his response – to ‘consecrate a small time and space for extraordinary listening’ – are manifested in musical textures in which he ‘purposely tried to lose perspective’.
The relationship between ignorance and perspective can also be found in L’Infinto (‘The Infinite’) by the Italian poet Leopardi. The poem begins:
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
It isn’t hard to see a hedged-in hill as a metaphor for the limits of human experience. These lines were quoted by Edmund Rubbra above the score of the slow movement of his sixth symphony, whose music opens with a very musical ignorance – the elemental sound of bare ‘parallel fifths’, the crude mistake every student of classical harmony is taught to avoid. But with bold use of orchestral colours he, like Adams, takes us deep into the moment.
L’Infinito zooms in and out of perspective; from his lonely hill, Leopardi goes on to imagine ‘unending spaces /and superhuman silences / and depthless calm’. Rubbra’s music alternates between this mystical simplicity and a more learned style, with passages of flowering counterpoint. While Adams tried to lose perspective, Leopardi and Rubbra, in contemplating their smallness in a vast unknown, both seem to gain it.
A more ambivalent approach to mystery comes in Charles Ives’ short orchestral work The Unanswered Question. In an intriguing guide to the piece, Ives explained that slow string chords set out ‘The silence of the Druids -who know, see and hear nothing’. Beside this an atonal trumpet figure recurs throughout, ‘the perennial question of existence’, in response to which woodwind solos represent ‘fighting answerers’, who play at a different tempo, increasingly agitated, before giving in to futility.
The strings persist from beginning to end, indifferent to everything happening around them. Their quiet consonance is seductively soothing, but such unreal detachment is disconcerting, like the unchanging smile of a statue. The cares of foolish humans seem to simply pass as clouds in the sky. Nothing is resolved. In this short but radical work, the idea of knowing anything at all starts to feel worryingly absurd.
The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.
Even as the culture of classical music values learning, literacy, and mastery through hard work, the intangible nature of music makes it highly effective at expressing the unknowable. But classical music has its own unanswered questions. What is a ‘masterpiece’, for instance? Through its elevation and frequent invocation, this word has its own kind of mystical ring to it.
Even as they abound in classical music culture, I find terms like ‘great’ and ‘masterpiece’ a little boastful, if not hopelessly vague. What are such assertions if not claims to authority and denial of doubt? They allow us to bypass the messy business of articulating precisely what it is about music we value, and why. Yet the wish to do so is understandable. Music is a slippery medium whose effect is hard to understand, but our deep feelings for it demand some kind of articulation.
Perhaps no amount of formal analysis, or scientific brain-imaging, will ever fully explain our felt response to music. Or, as Mendelssohn suggests, could it be that words, as a means of communicating understanding, are simply inadequate for the job? Perhaps an understanding beyond words is precisely the communication that music enables, perhaps it is that which makes it so special. From this viewpoint, we could see a score as a repository of unspoken knowledge, interacting with the physical understanding the musician has cultivated through years of practice; the many subtle instincts of manipulating sound, the unconscious recall of ‘muscle memory’.
One radical challenge to the cult of the scored-out masterpiece arrived with experiments in ‘indeterminate’ music, by composers such as John Cage. By using elements of chance to define musical events, this music made a shocking embrace with ignorance – the composer becoming the designer of a process, while abdicating total mastery over the result. It was an idea which foreshadowed that which computers have more recently facilitated: the creation of music by algorithms and so-called artificial intelligence.
The paradox here is that such systems are still the products of human design. If we choose to create music where we are ignorant of the outcome, then that may deliver interesting surprises. But in removing ourselves so far from the process of creation, it makes more explicit the question of what exactly we want music to be.
Of course, it is important to remember that western classical music is unusual for the degree it transmits musical knowledge through notation, and for the relatively marginal place it gives improvisation in its traditions – something many other musics of the world involve to a greater extent.
It would be easy to create a mystique around improvisation; the quip often attributed to Louis Armstrong – ‘if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know’ – has the pithy formulation of a Zen saying. But any competent improviser draws on a deep knowledge of musical modes, harmonic progressions, and expressive gestures as they play. It is a place where intellect and intuition meet.
Nonetheless, by definition the improviser cannot fully know what is about to unfold. While we might cherish scores for their clarity, improvisation makes no pretence about the ephemeral uniqueness of a performance. It is an honest reckoning with the state of music itself, as it existed for millennia before recordings – ever-changing, unrepeatable, quick to evaporate. Its own cloud of unknowing.
I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.
Like me, you may have had the experience of taking a friend to hear a concert performance of music you adore, only to sense that – no matter how polite their comments afterwards – your response was clearly not shared.
On an intellectual level, the fact that music can affect people so differently ought to be one of the most fascinating things about it. But on a social and emotional level, it can be confounding and disappointing, particularly when the gap falls between a close relationship. We want people to share in our love for music, but if it is hard to sense precisely how it moves us, what hope is there to fathom its workings in others? So often the great communicator and unifier, music can also symbolise a troubling doubt – the thought that, alone in our heads, we might never fully connect with those around us.
Even so, it is surely how we respond to such confrontations with our limits that is more important than the fact itself. As we cultivate knowledge, it is important to remember that we inevitably sow the seeds of our own ignorance. Like Leopardi’s hedgerow, a dense body of detail will obscure a far horizon even as it fascinates us.
But by thinking about the ways that we learn, and the systems and powers bound up in this, we can contemplate what we might exclude, and what we may never be able to know. In doing so, we might arrive at a different place of understanding, one perhaps of a more cultivated ignorance. An ignorance not of shame or denial, but of better self-awareness.