Death and The Maiden

My friend, Chris Beckett, suggested writing down what I thought about whilst listening to a piece of music…

I’m writing this listening to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in Dm, "Death and The Maiden"

The violence of the opening chords, the sense of impending doom that fills the first movement seems obvious to me, and a quick search on the internet suggests that others feel the same.

I often wonder where those emotions come from. Are they innate, part of the music itself, or are they associations gained through years of listening to music?

I believe the feelings generated by music are programmed into us at some basic level. It seems likely to me that we have a common operating system written into us by Western culture and conditioning and through this we interpret the music in the same way.

Extending the idea, if we were to play the music to someone from a different culture and then see that they feel the same emotions, could we deduce that the music is tapping into an operating system at a lower level?

Does it go even wider than that? I don’t think so. No one expects a dog to understand music. Like a book needs a reader, music needs a listener. I think that music and literature are both little parts of our intelligence that are extracted and replayed. Both need our intelligence to make them live.

But what if I’m wrong, that both are filled with some spirit that stands apart from us?

The second movement is playing now. I first heard this piece in my twenties, I think, and it didn’t move me then anywhere near as much as it does now. Has my ability to appreciate the music increased, does my life experience speak more to me, or is it a mixture of both?

It wouldn’t be true to say there was more sadness in my life at the moment, in fact I’d say I’m more content than I’ve ever been. I can, however, see the beginning of my decline in the distance. I’ve achieved nearly everything I set out to achieve in my life, and this too is an ending of sorts. Schubert died aged 31. Perhaps he saw more sadness than I did, or perhaps he crammed more emotion into that early part of his life. Or perhaps he was overly emotional, and I can tap into that better now I’m older.

I think Schubert was a genius, but I tend to think that an artistic genius is someone who was popular in a certain way at a certain time (perhaps that time was after their death, as is true for Schubert.) His music is very clever: the chromatic adeptness; the innovative use of the flattened submediant; the sudden modulations. I know all that intellectually, but that’s not why I’m listening. I’m sure the music wouldn’t have have been remembered if it didn’t have those melodies, that ability to touch emotions across 200 years.

Yesterday morning I walked to work listening to choral music. It made me think of autumn / winter; bare trees; cold stone buildings. Those feelings were not innate to the music. I know that the reverb sounds like empty churches, the voices remind me of carols sung by choirs when I was a child, they stir memories of Christmas, snow and frosty breath. Associations. A lot of music is like this: drums that beat military tattoos and trumpets that sound the charge.

I’m more interested in the emotions intrinsic to the music. I heard the seas rolling in the final movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade before I knew the story behind the music, but this too is an association of sorts: the rise and fall of the strings imitate the waves.

I’m listening to final movement of Death and the Maiden now and as an experiment I’ve tried imagining disparate pictures against the music – bees in a hive, people arguing, two lovers having a picnic, an icy pond, a fairy in a bottle, the US flag on the moon. Some of the pictures fit, some of them clearly don’t.

I think that much of music is association, but these associations are built on something intrinsic. I’ve read that children aren’t frightened of spiders, they have the capacity to be frightened by them, they learn this fear from those around them. This doesn’t work for everything: children don’t have this innate capacity to be frightened by bottles, for example.

The music has finished, and I’m left wondering where the intrinsic part of the music lies. In it, or in me?

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