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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?


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.