Songs Without Words, or So They Say

A Meditation on Titles

by Chadwick Jenkins

10 January 2006

Exactly how should the title of a wordless piece of music influence our experience of the music itself? Jenkins muses on how titles interact with the instrumental pieces they represent and, furthermore, on musical selections with no titles at all.
Felix Mendelssoh 

I am sitting in my room, listening to my fiancée play Felix Mendelssohn’s famous Songs Without Words, Op. 19, published on 20 August 1832. She is playing the fourth in the set; it is entitled “Confidence”. There is something about this piece that strikes me. I cannot decide how much of it is in the piece and how much of it is in the performance (or, by extension, how much of it is in my fiancée). However, I want to try to convey some aspect of what it is that strikes me — not because I want to reveal some deep inner core of my being per se but rather because I think that music (especially this music) often asks us to contemplate it in this manner (that is, within the mode of reverie, of dreams, of desire). There is no per se here because the act of “striking me” is neither in me nor in the music, but somewhere in between the two. Such an impact derives from interaction; the interaction involved in one’s subjectivity while encountering and contemplating the presence of another. Perhaps to entertain the idea that a piece of music is itself a kind of subjectivity is to succumb to a rather bloated and untenable aesthetic inheritance from the 19th century, but I want to contemplate this idea for a little while and see where it may take us.

After all, so-called Romantic music in the guise of these character pieces for piano (created for the parlor as opposed to the concert hall) was designed for a sort of inner contemplation, isolated from those around you — personal, incommunicable perhaps. There is a famous painting by Josef Danhauser, Liszt at the Piano, of a performance in a parlor given by the piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, attended by such luminaries as Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, and Giacomo Rossini. They each occupy a world of their own. No glance meets the glance of another. They are each lost in a form of contemplation so personal that it would mean nothing (could mean nothing) to any of the others. This music, or so the Romantics hoped, was meant to crawl into the dark spaces of your soul and illuminate something you had lost or had, at the very least, forgotten.

Recommended Recording
Felix Mendelssohn, Songs Without Words (Complete), performed by Ilse von Alpenheim (Philips)
This is part of the series Philips has put out that essentially grants you two CDs for the price of one. There are other wonderful recordings of these works and to choose only one is necessarily an unwelcome limitation but considering what you get for the money, this is an ideal recording of these truly engaging pieces. You get all eight collections of the Songs Without Words. The performances are crisp when they should be and languid when required.

Mendelssohn wrote several of these “Songs Without Words”. They are solo piano pieces — character pieces. We call them character pieces inasmuch as they establish a certain mood and soon end. Along with his oratorios, these pieces were the cornerstone of Mendelssohn’s fame in the late 19th century but are now often dismissed as charming but largely vacuous. Music critic and pianist Charles Rosen, in his book The Romantic Generation (Harvard University Press, 1995), writes: “The Songs Without Words have a Mozartean grace without Mozart’s dramatic power, a Schubertean lyricism without Schubert’s intensity. If we could be satisfied today with a simple beauty that raises no questions and does not attempt to puzzle us, the short pieces would resume their old place in the concert repertoire. They charm, but they neither provoke nor astonish. It is not true that they are insipid, but they might as well be.”

One is forced to question this view on two fronts. First, I do not share Rosen’s faith in the careful discernment of audiences. I am not convinced that people habitually seek more than simple beauty; too often we seem to prefer that music supply us answers without questions. Second (and more importantly), I fear Rosen is too hasty in his dismissal of the demands the Songs Without Words make of us. Their brevity and simplicity belie some troubling exegetical dilemmas raised for the attentive listener, particularly when the listener is asked to reconcile the sound structure of a given piece with the title supplied for it. There is a marked drama in the understatement of “Confidence”, and a brilliant intensity to its pithy placidity.

The various “Songs Without Words” are not (generally speaking) elaborate pieces (or at least they are not elaborate structurally although, as I would argue, they can be quite elaborate emotionally) but they provide the listener with a seeming whole. I write “seeming” because there is a certain lack or excess (depending on the specific piece under consideration) that prevents them from being an entirely satisfying whole. They ask for more. They ask for a completion that is denied them and in turn denied us in listening to them. They require imagination both from the performer and from the listener. They must be completed for they are fragmentary. They are elusive, ephemeral. These pieces suggest but they refuse to define. And yet.

And yet they hint at definition inasmuch as Mendelssohn’s publisher supplied several of them with titles such as “Regrets”, “The Brook”, “Venetian Boat-Song”, and, of course, “Confidence”. They are “Songs Without Words” insofar as they have vocalize-like melodies but lack a singer articulating lyrics. However, they are not “without words” insofar as many have titles that suggest semantic security. But beware of titles; they can be the sources of as much indirection as they are of revelation. And even revelation comes at a price.

What is the function of a title in relation to a piece of music that lacks a sung (or spoken) text? There are those (let us call them “purists”) who would claim that the title should have no impact on one’s understanding of the piece of music. The music should be intelligible all on its own — through its structure, through its harmonies and its melodies — and insofar as the composer was unable to convey her/his point in pure sound (assuming that the title was designed to bridge the possible lack of comprehension) then that composer has failed as a composer. If the point is to communicate through musical sound, then a title is a superfluity at best and a charlatan’s trick (fooling the listeners into thinking they understand the music when they merely understand the title) at worst.

Such purists perhaps prefer the abstraction granted pieces that are known merely by their opus numbers (assigned more or less according to the chronology of publication). Beethoven’s F Major String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1 offers the listener a clean slate. Our determinations with respect to its meaning must come solely from the music. How annoying then that the slow movement to this piece has so often been connected to the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet as to have become almost programmatic (that is, the music serves to somehow illustrate the scene in sound for anyone misguided enough to read a program note or a CD cover).

On the other hand, perhaps a more even-handed view would be that titles do indeed contribute to the meaning of an artwork. After all, our experience of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica would be quite different if it were entitled Farmyard Orgy; Edvard Munch’s expressionist masterpiece The Scream would become rather banal if it were known as The Toothache. To a certain extent (and we are of course heading into murky waters here), the change of title might actually alter the meaning of the artwork. The Scream records the anomie and paranoia endemic to the late 19th century European mindscape; The Toothache is simply kitsch. Titles need not be mindless monikers slapped onto a piece of music so that one can remember it. The title becomes part of the work. It does not fuse with the piece of music or the painting. Indeed its refusal to simply be subsumed by the materiality of the artwork is precisely what makes the title so provocative and so compelling. It stands in relation to the work of art as an ambassador; it is part of the artwork but it is not wholly commensurate with the artwork. There is something supplementary about the title: it is somehow not the work and yet it completes the work.

A further difficulty arises from the fact that Mendelssohn did not advocate the application of titles to his pieces. Rather he desired that these be “Songs Without Words” in every sense. “Even if, in one or other of them, I had a particular word or words in mind,” Mendelssohn insisted, “I would not tell anyone, because the same word means different things to different people. Only the songs say the same thing, arouse the same feeling, in everyone — a feeling that can’t be expressed in words.” How should we assess such interventions on the part of the composer? I find it fascinating that Mendelssohn would allow that the same word means different things to different listeners but that we all understand the same (unutterable, ineffable) feeling when we hear it articulated through music.

Although we might hesitate to say so, he was clearly misguided. The emotions are not in the piece of music, nor do I project them onto the music; the emotion, the meaning lies in my confrontation with the music — my confrontation and mine alone. I can describe the nature of this confrontation to others and they may find it meaningful but it does not thereby become theirs. Nor is it pure solipsism; it is the creation of meaning that arises from my confrontation with the sound structure Mendelssohn notated and the pianist realizes (with all of the personal inflections and character the performer infuses into that notated sound structure). And in this confrontation the title provides an ideal place to begin. The flexibility of word usage that Mendelssohn registers is the very foundation of the usefulness of titles, particularly titles that are evocative without being concrete.

Of course, there are plenty of pieces of classical music that have been given titles by someone other than their composers. Beethoven never referred to his C# minor Sonata as the “Moonlight” Sonata and yet it sticks — partly, I suspect, because it functions very well as a sort of entry level exegesis. One thinks (or may think) of moonlight as embodying the kind of melancholy, shimmering stillness that the first movement of the Beethoven piece evokes. Such an image need not be the only interpretive engagement with the piece but it is certainly a reasonable starting point.

So to return to the original object of these ruminations: why should this piece be called “Confidence”? Granted, Mendelssohn may not have been thinking of any connotation of the term when he composed the piece, but his publisher obviously heard something within it that called the word to mind. Furthermore, this piece has been known by the moniker “Confidence” since its initial publication. As these were pieces largely intended for amateur piano performance at home, the title undoubtedly did and continues to serve as a sort of instruction for performance.

Indeed there are certain musical elements that may be heard as supporting the title. Most of the melodies involve an ascending figure that, taken in isolation, seems to move assertively up the scale. The overall reliance upon the fundamental harmonies of the key of A major (specifically the tonic chord A major and the dominant chord E major) suggests a certain straightforward conviction while the mildly palindromic layout of the structure of the piece promotes a feeling of rational control; everything is in its place, order is maintained, we end where we begin and the circle is closed. On the surface, this music appears to have been designed to convey the clarity, order, and forthrightness one might associate with confidence.

However, there is throughout a shadow lurking within the lucid simplicity of the surface. The harmonies, while never fully capitulating to the temptation, have the disturbing tendency to hint toward a minor key (the preponderance of minor chords threatens to pull the music away from A major, without every truly succeeding). Within the central part of the composition, that ascending figure — which might at first strike us as a bold gesture — becomes a melancholic, wistful dance and as much as it tries to recover its forthright character, it never extricates itself from its sense of loss. Indeed most of the piece sounds like a hauntingly nostalgic longing for the opening melody. But that initial melody hardly seems capable of sustaining itself; it sounds wholly introductory. It prepares; it does not instantiate. The body of the piece, therefore, represents a pensive cupidity for something that was never fully realized in the first place.

That introductory melody returns to close the piece (thus the palindromic structure) and its reappearance only buttresses our feeling of its insufficiency. As an introduction, it serves to establish the key and to create expectation for what is to come. As a conclusion, it is wholly unsatisfying. After that dance of longing, we expect something more. Memory and nostalgia augment the object of desire. It surpasses itself in our imagination. Mendelssohn’s insistence on a nearly exact reprise (the only change is that the final chord appears an octave higher lending the piece a modicum of closure that the reprise itself seems to negate) clarifies the inability of the desired object to live up to our investment in it.

Perhaps the publisher (with some justification, no doubt) heard the opening of the piece as presenting a musical homologue of confidence. But the body of the piece seems to tell a different story; a story in which our longing for confidence undermines that confidence and makes it seem insipid in comparison to our desire for it.

Have I thus solved the riddle of this piece? No, clearly not. There are plenty of other ways into (and out of) this composition. I have merely attempted two things. First, I have endeavored (pace Rosen) to suggest that there is a puzzle here and not merely trivial pleasure. Second, I wanted to intimate that the title need not be seen as an afterthought, a superfluity. Rather the title (although not attributable to Mendelssohn himself) was an effort to engage with the music. It is not sufficient (all interpretations are insufficient; vouchsafing the continuation of engagement) but it is a viable starting point, a first (if inadequate) attempt to solve the puzzle, or at least to demonstrate its presence.


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