Words and Music

by Andrew Crumey

Talk given at "Scotland - Scottland", Schönburg (Germany), May 2011


In considering the relationship between music and literature - and in particular between classical western music and novel-writing, as I intend to do - Scott and Scott-Land offer an interesting starting point. A great number of composers, both major and minor, produced Scott-inspired works. Among operatic versions, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is perhaps best known, while The Lady Of the Lake prompted both Schubert's Ave Maria and Sousa's Hail To The Chief.

Beethoven wrote settings of a number of Scott poems, as part of a large series commissioned by the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson. Beethoven also read Scott's novels, at least according to his notoriously unreliable biographer Schindler, who describes the following situation from November 1826, when Beethoven was in what would prove to be his final illness:

"The doctors prohibited any writing but suggested some light reading. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were just then in vogue, and the patient was easily persuaded to make the acquaintance of the 'Great Unknown'. But when he was still on the first volume of Kenilworth, he grew angry and threw the book on the floor, exclaiming: 'The fellow is just writing for money!' "

This amusing link between Scottish literature and German music takes a further twist when Schindler adds that Beethoven, having discarded Scott, then turned his attention to some Schubert songs brought by Schindler, including the Ossianische Gesänge.

My real subject, however, is not music drawn from literature, but the musicality of literature, and while there are many possible examples, I should like to begin with one connected both with Scotland and with Beethoven. George Farquhar Graham (1789-1867) achieved renown as a musicologist, editing an important anthology, "The Songs Of Scotland", and contributing the article "Music" to the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But as a young man he wrote what is possibly the earliest example of a poem in English directly inspired by Beethoven's music. It appeared in The Scots Magazine of October 1813.

Hark! From Germania's shore how wildly floats
The strain divine upon the dying gale;
O'er Ocean's bosom swell the liquid notes
And soar in triumph to yon crescent pale.
It changes now! And tells of woe and death;
Of deep romantic horror murmurs low;
Now rises with majestic, solemn flow,
While shadowy silence charms the wind's rude breath.
What magic hand awakes the noon of night
With such unearthly melody, that bears
The raptured soul beyond the tuneful spheres
To stray amid high visions of delight?
Enchanter Beethoven! I feel they power
Thrill every trembling nerve in this lone witching hour.

The form as well as content of Graham's poem illustrates an obvious musicality. Poetic rhythm has its origin in musical rhythm, and the poet, like the musician, is fundamentally concerned with sonority, being reliant on that indefinable quality, a "good ear". But if we want to make a meaningful comparison between music and literature, then Graham's poem also serves as a warning. The danger was appreciated by Lessing in his 1766 essay Laocoon, about the analogy between painting and poetry. Lessing began by noting how both arts can produce the same pleasing effect, making the absent appear present. Yet this, said Lessing, is the view of the amateur, concerned with effect rather than cause. We detect it in Graham's poem, which actually tells us nothing at all about Beethoven or even about music, except as something that can rise and soar, enchant and enrapture. The emotional power of art is what attracts and interests us as receivers, but if we want to speak about artistic production - and as a practising novelist this is what I am really concerned with - then we must be careful to distinguish between stimulus and response.

Lessing's essay alerts us to the importance of seeking differences as well as similarities. What musical and literary works share is temporality: they are experienced over time, with a beginning and an end, unlike spatial forms such as painting or sculpture. But while the poem or musical work is typically meant to be absorbed in a single sitting, the novel is not. The distinction was important for Edgar Allan Poe, who saw temporal unity as an essential feature of the "poetic principle". According to Poe, this unity is necessarily broken if the work must be consumed in stages, so that the novel - and even epic poetry - can at best be considered a succession of smaller unities. The novel, it would appear, is inherently unpoetic, leading Henry James (in the preface to The Tragic Muse) to ask, "what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?" For James, "organic form" was to be achieved through "complete pictorial fusion", a reminder that novelists will always differ in being drawn to the visual, the musical, or some other ideal.

I have cited temporality as a feature common to music and literature. The inverse of time is rhythm, which music and poetry obviously share. But what about rhythm in a larger sense? E. M. Forster considered this in Aspects Of The Novel.

"Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for instance, starts with the rhythm 'diddidy dum', which we can all hear and tap to. But the symphony as a whole has also a rhythm - due mainly to the relation between its movements - which some people can hear but no one can tap to... [The] first kind of rhythm, the diddidy dum, can be found in certain novels and may give them beauty. And the other rhythm, the difficult one - the rhythm of the Fifth Symphony as a whole - I cannot quote you any parallels for that in fiction, yet it may be present."

What Forster calls the rhythm of the symphony could equally be called its shape; four movements describing a certain arc or pattern. We can think of the symphony spatially because when seen as a whole, it is removed from the time in which it is performed; and we can only attain this view once we have heard an entire performance, or more likely, many performances. The unity of a poem can be perceived in a similar way; typically we will read a poem several times, pausing or retracing our steps, going over particular places, until it can become a single object in our imagination, one we can view from different angles.

The unity of music or poetry is only perceived through multiple exposure. Novelists can't generally take such repeated attention for granted: if my novels get read once then I'm grateful. But the novelist can nevertheless aspire to re-readability, and it is a characteristic of fine novels that we would wish to re-read them, whether or not we ever do. This desire to re-read may stem from no more than a wish to repeat a particular pleasure, like going back to a restaurant and ordering the same dish we ate there before. But if our interest is in stimulus as well as response, then re-reading could be motivated by a desire to find things we may have missed first time round.

The artist who aims to provoke re-reading will be inclined towards a degree of richness and complexity that goes beyond what can be immediately assimilated. As an aesthetic principle, we certainly find this in Beethoven, whose works were recognised from the earliest part of his career as being unusually well stocked with ideas. This was noted by E.T.A Hoffmann, a figure who commands our particular attention since his creative life was divided between publishing fiction and composing music. In his famous review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (1810), Hoffmann notes that the composer's inventiveness creates such a powerful emotional effect that the casual listener might lose sight of a rational unity for which Hoffmann offers not only an organic, but also a significant literary comparison.

"Beethoven's music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism... But even the multitude oblivious of Beethoven's depths will not deny him a high degree of invention; on the contrary it is usual to regard his works merely as products of a genius who ignores form and discrimination of thought and surrenders to his creative fervour and the passing dictates of his imagination. He is nevertheless fully the equal of Haydn and Mozart in rational awareness, his controlling self detached from the inner realm of sounds and ruling it in absolute authority. Just as our aesthetic overseers have often complained of a total lack of real unity and inner coherence in Shakespeare, when only the profounder contemplation shows the splendid tree, buds and leaves, blossom and fruit as springing from the same seed, so only the most penetrating study of the inner structure of Beethoven's music can reveal its high level of rational awareness, which is inseparable from true genius and nourished by continuing study of the art."

Hoffmann himself has been seen as a whimsical, impulsive, irrational artist, a view implanted in English-speaking minds by the first major review of his works, Walter Scott's 1827 essay, "On The Supernatural in Fictitious Composition", where, as well as offering some qualified praise, Scott commented that "the inspirations of Hoffmann so often resemble the ideas produced by the immoderate use of opium, that we cannot help considering his case as one requiring the assistance of medicine rather than of criticism." Speaking of the "fantastic" in literature, which he identifies as a specifically German invention, Scott writes, "Sudden transformations are introduced of the most extraordinary kind, and wrought by the most inadequate means; no attempt is made to soften their absurdity, or to reconcile their inconsistencies."

Compare this with a description of Beethoven's music in a letter by Carl Maria von Weber, written in the same year as Hoffmann's review of the Fifth Symphony.

"The fiery, indeed almost incredible, inventiveness of which he is possessed is accompanied by such confusion in the organization of his ideas that only his early compositions appeal to me, while the later ones seem to me nothing but utter chaos, an incomprehensible striving for novelty, from which there shines forth an occasional lightning-like bolt of genius, showing how great he might be if he would only rein in his exuberant fantasy."

Weber misses the unity in Beethoven's music that we all now recognise; Scott is similarly bemused by Hoffmann's fantasy, recognising talent but regretting it was not kept under greater control. It is not a musical but a pictorial analogy that Scott offers, contrasting the "rich superfluities" of Hogarth with the "diablerie" of the Baroque artist Jacques Callot, whom Hoffmann particularly admired. "The works of the one painter [Hogarth] resemble a garden carefully cultivated, each nook of which contains something agreeable or useful; while those of the other are like the garden of the sluggard, where a soil equally fertile produces nothing but wild and fantastic weeds."

Scott's concept of the organic is a well-kept garden; Hoffmann's own concept, which he found in Callot, Beethoven and Shakespeare, was the infinite richness of nature itself. Scott ascribed the contrast to national character; we might see it as classicism versus romanticism, though in the same essay Scott compares Hoffmann unfavourably with Wordsworth. What is of more importance to the present discussion is the concept of literary musicality we can draw from Hoffmann.

Like Scott, Hoffmann inspired musical works, mostly freely varied dramatisations or depictions of plot (for example Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker). But Hoffmann also inspired music suggestive of a deeper aesthetic engagement with the source. Robert Schumann borrowed three Hoffmann titles for piano suites: Night Pieces, Fantasy Pieces and Kreisleriana, the latter referencing the series of stories and essays featuring musician Johannes Kreisler, and also perhaps Hoffmann's novel The Life And Opinions Of Tomcat Murr. The novel was not among the works Scott reviewed, but one can guess what Scott's opinion would have been, of a book consisting of interleaved stories written by the possibly deranged musician Kreisler, and his cat who has jumbled the pages.

In terms of plot, Hoffmann's novel is wildly disordered, but its dual narrative has a simple, obvious shape; a rhythm we could call musical. Schumann's suite likewise alternates between fast and slow movements. Rather than try to identify particular scenes in the music, we are invited to see a structural correspondence, which in turn invites us to consider the literary text not for its surface content, but for its deeper unity.

Hoffmann's Kreisleriana contains an essay, "Thoughts about the Great Value of Music", that demands to be read ironically. "One can look at a painting for only a very short time," Hoffmann/Kreisler writes, "since one's interest disappears as soon as one has guessed what it is supposed to represent... [Music] exercises a wonderfully soothing charm. It completely relieves one from having to think." Kreisleriana depicts a world of bourgeois card-players and tea drinkers for whom music is a background to conversation; Schumann's piano suite begins with such violence that any conversation is silenced, thinking is demanded.

We can say that the literary pattern of music is something more than a correspondence of text or plot; Schumann's piano suite conveys an attitude. And in speaking of the musical pattern of literature, we would similarly wish to go beyond a correspondence of movements, tempi or leitmotifs, though these may certainly be an important part of the whole. Forster called this sort of structural articulation "rhythm in the easy sense", offering as an example Proust's "little phrase", the passage of music by Vinteuil that appears at various points in Proust's novel and gives binding rhythm to the narrative; not a fixed symbol but a developing motif that has "a life of its own" and is "almost an actor". This sort of rhythm can be defined, Forster says, as "repetition plus variation". But then he returns to the harder question he posed.

"Is there any effect in novels comparable to the effect of the Fifth Symphony as a whole, where, when the orchestra stops, we hear something that has never actually been played?... I cannot find any analogy. Yet there may be one; in music fiction is likely to find its nearest parallel."

A novelist who has considered this particularly deeply is Milan Kundera. In The Art Of the Novel he speaks of the influence of the composer Janacek, who eschewed the refinements of classical technique. "Harsh juxtapositions instead of transitions, repetition instead of variation, and always head straight for the heart of things... Roughly the same idea applies to the novel: it too is weighed down by 'technique', by the conventions that do the author's work for him." Kundera speaks of novelistic "polyphony", making the basic but important point that in music, we can hear polyphony as the simultaneous sounding of several voices, whereas in the novel we are always presented with a single line. The challenge for the novelist is to give this narrative line a vertical as well as horizontal dimension, to make the reader feel the presence of another voice, or many voices.

Though he does not explicitly mention Bakhtin, Kundera's analysis owes a clear debt to that theorist, who used the term polyphony more or less synonymously with dialogism, the relativising of text so that it becomes inflected by the registers and attitudes of different speakers, rather than being monologically controlled by a single authorial voice. We find this dialogism in the free indirect style of Jane Austen and subsequent novelists. But free indirect style could be considered a local rather than global effect within the novel; Kundera's polyphony is concerned not so much with tonal register as with the larger notion of theme. This deeper musicality manifests itself in shifts or juxtapositions that break the continuity of plot or tone, but create a larger unity which may be only gradually perceived by the reader. Then, as with the Fifth Symphony or, to use Kundera's examples, the music of Janacek and the fiction of Hermann Broch, we can be left with the final impression of something greater than the sum of its parts, something that, in Kundera's words, conveys "the complexity of existence".

I should briefly like to reflect on these ideas in relation to my own novels. The first, Music, In A Foreign Language, had as template Bach's Goldberg Variations, which dictated the number of chapters. Following Forster, we could call this "rhythm in the easy sense", a plan imposed from without. Another of my novels, D'Alembert's Principle, is in three largely independent sections, like musical movements. I considered calling the book The D'Alembert Suite but thought it sounded too much like something in a hotel; my American publisher opted for a pictorial metaphor, subtitling it "a novel in three panels". The book's musicality, I would say, resides not in its global structure, but in the recurrence and development of themes within it.

Kundera remarks, "Each of the parts in my novels would carry a musical indication: moderato, presto, adagio, and so on." He sees this in relation to the length of the section, the time it represents, and its emotional atmosphere. I became particularly aware of this issue of tempo and rhythm when writing my novel Mobius Dick, which has a long section set in a Swiss sanatorium, an obvious reference to Mann's The Magic Mountain. I saw this section as the book's "slow movement", no doubt influenced by Mann's handling of time, though for me, the tempo was chiefly set by the circumscribed spatial setting. I consciously applied this in my next novel, Sputnik Caledonia, which is in three contrasting sections or movements, the middle one again being spatially constrained, this time in a closed town that serves as military base in an alternative Soviet Scotland. Again, the three-movement structure is, in itself, no more than "easy rhythm", the aesthetic task being the achievement of unity from those parts, and, I would hope, the conveying of some greater impression that remains in the mind afterwards, and encourages re-reading.

The analogy I have been outlining could be called narratological: the literary work is seen as an autonomous entity whose structures are thought to have some musical correspondence. The novel is a medium in which time and subjectivity are represented in ways about which, following Bakhtin and Genette, we can be fairly precise. Musical structure is accessible to equal precision, and some would speak of music as being a form of narrative. I am nevertheless sceptical of attempts to find a direct structural correspondence. Certainly we can speak informally, and usefully, of "rhythm", "tempo" or "polyphony" in novels, as Forster and Kundera have done, and we could also speak loosely of musical "narrative"; but if the analogy is forced too far, it risks becoming formulaic, like the three-act structure of Hollywood screenplays, or the rigid sonata form of nineteenth-century theorists.

In music there is something that can never be put into words. What Forster appears to have been suggesting, and with which I agree, is that in novels too, there is something that cannot be put into words, and it is in this non-verbal plane that the analogy between music and literature is strongest.

In any case, artworks are not really autonomous; they are produced and experienced within fluid social contexts. The concert-goer knows that a symphony will be in several contrasting movements, and the theme that appears at the start may not be present at the end. The novel reader has different expectations of continuity, and the novelist has to deal with those expectations. The novelist, I would say, is a performer, and an important task of the performer is to convey confidence. We know the difference between hearing a professional musician and an inexperienced amateur: the amateur makes us constantly aware of the possibility of error, the professional makes us listen to the music rather than the mechanics of its production.

Having begun with Beethoven's opinion of Scott, I shall end with a comment from Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic Of Enlightenment:

"The mortally sick Beethoven, who flung away a novel by Walter Scott with the cry: "The fellow writes for money," while himself proving an extremely experienced and tenacious businessman... offers the most grandiose example of the unity of the opposites of market and autonomy in bourgeois art. The artists who succumb to ideology are precisely those who conceal this contradiction instead of assimilating it into the consciousness of their own production, as Beethoven did."

The particular connection between music and literature highlighted here is a unity greater than the work itself; it is the unity of that work with the society in which it is produced, and against which it may simultaneously stand in opposition. The dichotomy of innovation and convention is one that every artist must face. Scott found untamed gardens offensive; but to some, that wildness is their attraction.