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More on Musical Meaning

Scott’s article on Monday seemed a good occasion to make (finally) a brief post that had occurred to me some time ago. Scott wrote the following:

[M]usical communication occurs because of . . . natural associations. Combinations of dynamics, tone colors, rhythms, and tempos can combine to mimic the natural way we feel inwardly or physically respond outwardly when we experience certain emotional states.

One piece of music that illustrates this remarkably well is Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. An eight minute (give or take) tone poem, it includes a melody that will be familiar to most of our readers, Finlandia Hymn, better known to most of us as the tune of “Be Still My Soul”.

The melody appears three times in the piece, all of them in the second half. The first, at 5:32 in the video below, is carried by the woodwinds with the lightest of string accompaniments. At 6:17 the arrangement is reversed with the low winds supporting the strings’ melody, and, finally, at 7:43, the brass make the final statement of the theme with the full orchestra accompanying.

Please give it a listen, and, as you do, ask yourself some questions. What moods and emotions are suggested by the different treatments of this one melody? Do you notice an intentional progression of these emotions/sensibilities? If so, what is the composer trying to convey through this? If not, why did the composer handle the melody differently each time? What is the relationship between this theme (and each of its restatements) with the rest of the piece? Could the composer have handled this theme very differently and still have achieved the same perceptions in his listeners?

Enjoy.

About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.

4 Responses to More on Musical Meaning

  1. Martin says:

    Seems to be hard to get some interaction going on this one? I had to listen to it more than once to figure something out. I found the first five minutes to be rather heavy, often in the minor mode, expressing gravity, maybe even oppression. Until then, as kind of a prelude there is an awakening, a faster section that sounds merrier and keeps rising, as if in awakening from a sleep or some kind of liberation.
    In that sense, the first melody at 5:32 is light and soft; to me, it feels like flying or running free – maybe in the sense of a little child that explores the world outside in the spring sunshine after a long, hard winter – but it’s peaceful, rather than playful. The second time, when the low winds join in, it’s as if the parents are there, too – a bit more mature and serene.
    Then it goes on to the finale, with more instruments, noise, and the melody going up and up and up repeatedly. It sounds triumphant – as if maturity or victory has been achieved. So one could read a historic progression into it, such as growing up or coming out of something, and towards something better.
    My ideas here may be quite different from another’s, and I did not try to find out what commentators or Sibelius himself may have said about it.
    Maybe I haven’t really specified emotion but rather, meaning (which is rather uncertain with music) but I would say that the winds at the beginning are quite good at expressing peace and release; this might have been hard to do using drums or trombones. Likewise, the upwards melody fractions towards the end suggest strongly some kind of upward movement, be that liberation from fetters, a swimming towards the light, or some other such movement – and the use of many different instruments in unison (to express a finale, triumph, victory or utmost joy) is a common tool to create such feelings or ideas – which, again, would be hard to do just with some flutes or violins.
    So I guess the idea is to realize there are stylistic means that composers utilize that have some commonly understood emotive effect (whether culturally learned or inherent in the music and instrumentation themselves), and I’d have to agree. Same as in poetry, where stylistic means are used to express more dramatic moods versus levity or romantic feelings. Music has analogous means of achieving such moods.

  2. David Oestreich says:

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the interaction and the very interesting thoughts.

    By the way, it’s not my purpose to opine as to whether anyone “gets it right” or not. I’m just happy if people undertake the excercise thoughtfully.

  3. Martin says:

    I guess I’m always curious to see what the author himself actually thought about his own question (Scott sometime reveals his own thoughts at the end of a discussion) :-)

  4. David Oestreich says:

    Ah. :)

    If, in a couple days, this turns out to be the end of the discussion, I’ll post my own perceptions.

    Thanks again.

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