When did music begin to imitate its subject, begin to be ambitious about signifying? Is Mozart’s gentle rococo tuba mirum (so understated compared to Verdi’s dies irae or Mahler’s resurrection in his 2nd Symphony) an attempt to show us what it would sound like on that day, or rather a humbler idea of what the music accompanying the singer should do? When Handel’s trumpet sounds, and the bass tells us the trumpet shall sound, are we to think that the D major trumpet in some sense imitates what one would hear on that day? After hearing Hollywood movie music portend both God and Godzilla, my ear is jaded, struggling to get back to a purer sort of hearing beyond mere imitation.
At one time music had not yet become the Wagnerian monstrosity to which we’re now accustomed.
Music was not explaining. Music simply played.
Musicians weren’t expected to underscore the scene to explain the story.(affecting music for the heroine, scary music for the monster). Music simply played.
Music wasn’t burdened with meanings, telling us who was the good or bad guys. In Shakespeare for example, whether you’re a Stuart or a Plantagenet, you get a small fanfare to announce your entry (look for words such as “tucket”: a kind of ta ta ta ta to denote a major personage). Hm, so in the sense that music meant personage, its ability to signify goes back quite a way.
It may be simplistic to want to think of music having only recently acquired its baggage: its ability to signify beyond the moment. Maybe music always did this to some extent. Even so, listening to something like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I can’t help thinking that the process of signification is so much more innocent. Vivaldi did not worry when presenting the composition to the first audience about the possibility of anyone disrupting that first performance with a phonecall or a text message.
It’s summertime and for some of us the living is easy.
It’s so hot outside that it’s scary, global warming being the unspoken horror.
Tafelmusik’s innocent sound takes us back to a time when the seasons were natural and disciplined, surely less concerned with a perfect imitation of the weather in the music, than simply an occasion to raise our spirits.
As we zip along with the air conditioning blasting away any sensation of the inferno outside, Tafelmusik bring us a soundtrack of balance and harmony as green as an unspoiled forest filled with birds and animals, not yet poisoned or slaughtered.
The performances are a corrective on other versions I’ve heard. Jeanne Lamon’s solo violin has such calm tranquil beauty, without the neurotic tendency to rush, to over-emphasize phrases, as I’ve heard in so many versions. Is this the sound of nature? Perhaps that’s one way to understand it. But more fundamentally, Lamon and the ensemble she leads are playful, relaxed, and above all organic. As we drove along I could almost believe that the risks to the natural world were all in my head. Vivaldi in Tafelmusik’s recording puts me at ease with nature.
Of course the world will go on, with or without homo sapiens.