MUSIC / Where words fail: In the light of a new series of concert handbooks, Bayan Northcott asks to what extent words can ever explain music

In September 1957, listeners to the BBC Third Programme were treated to a curious performance of Mozart's String Quartet in D minor, K421. For between its actual movements, the Aeolian String Quartet proceeded to interpolate a kind of composed commentary - juxtaposing apparently unrelated ideas from different parts of the work; gradually transforming one thematic shape into another, and so on - by that provocative young critic, teacher and theorist, Hans Keller.

His intention was nothing if not polemical. Most writing about music, he claimed, was tautological in that it tended to describe features which attentive listeners could hear for themselves, whereas what it ought to concern itself with was bringing to the surface the more hidden unities beneath the contrasting surfaces of this or that masterpiece. But since, in his submission, the laws of musical continuity and conceptual reasoning were essentially different, verbal commentary upon music would always remain problematic. Hence his new method of wordless 'Functional Analysis', which proposed to scrutinise music entirely through music.

In retrospect, it might seem surprising that something of the sort had never been tried before. Keller went on to devise another dozen FAs, as he called them, over the next 20 years. If the idea has, so far, failed to catch on more widely, the reasons doubtless range from the paucity of musicians with anything like Keller's variety of skills and depth of insight to the suspicion that an FA of, say, a Mahler symphony, could go on for hours. Keller himself seems to have tacitly acknowledged the drawbacks, since he also continued to pour forth inimitable articles on music up to his death in 1985.

All the same, there can be few scribblers of programme notes, let alone academic analysts, who have not at some time or other doubted the point of what they were doing. Keller himself used to argue that no technical commentary or background information could explain the workings of a masterpiece to a listener who had not instinctively understood it in the first place. His theory of musical understanding was, admittedly, rather specific. What true composers did, he argued, was to summon up the common experience of whichever genre they were writing in - whether symphony or popular song - as a background of expectations, which they then proceeded to modify or contradict point by point in their foreground invention; the tension between foreground and background constituting an exact measure of the new content they were communicating.

It has been objected that such an explanation would hardly account for non-European traditions; that it ignores textural, social, ideological and historical issues which may also impinge on musical meaning, and that it implies a context in which composers and audiences share the same musical backgrounds - something the 20th century has no longer been able to take for granted, with its endless attempts to invent new musical languages (to say nothing of its endless composers' programme notes attempting to explain them). Yet for confirmation of his theory, Keller needed only to point to the Austro- German tradition in which he had been raised. For a substantial proportion of its repertoire was understood and accepted long before anyone ever heard of a programme note.

Those who attended Haydn and Mozart concerts in the late 18th century or Beethoven premieres in the early 19th would have had little more than handbills listing works and movement titles to guide their hearing - perhaps with the addition of a few descriptive sentences once more programmatic pieces, such as Weber's Konzertstuck and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, came into vogue. But it was not till the 1820s that something like programme notes in the more familiar form began to emerge, and then probably for social rather than musical reasons: to fulfil the cultural aspirations of the same upwardly mobile middle classes that were anxiously purchasing grammars and books on etiquette.

Long before the end of the 19th century, annotators such as Sir George Grove had arrived at the kind of genteel, pseudo-academic programme note that so provoked the derision of George Bernard Shaw. In our own century, such activities have, of course, spread to the craft of radio announcing and the record sleeve note, and though the genre has thrown up the rare genius - most obviously, Tovey - it is sometimes hard not to feel that the old programme notes so frequently recycled for standard concerts by the London orchestras are designed less to inform the audience than to wrap revenue-raising adverts around.

Nothing daunted, Cambridge University Press has been putting out a new series of music handbooks over the last three years, each of them constituting in effect a book-length programme note on a major work, or group of works, in the concert repertoire. The general editor, Julian Rushton, and CUP's commissioning editor for music books, Penny Souster, seem to have plumped for representing most of the standard figures, but not necessarily by their most obvious works. Twenty handbooks have appeared to date, and despite a brief that has restricted each writer to some 35,000 words and a dozen music examples, the volumes so far have proved nicely varied in approach.

Some writers, such as Malcolm Boyd on Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, or W Dean Sutcliffe on Haydn's String Quartets Op 50, adopt - but adopt very well - a straightforward treatment: the genres are described, the source materials scrutinised, performing problems discussed and each work clearly analysed. Others are more slanted. Elaine Sisman brings 18th- century concepts of rhetoric to bear on Mozart's Jupiter Symphony; Susan Youens is concerned to rescue Wilhelm Muller, the poet of Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin, from charges of mediocrity; Stephen Walsh conducts a mordant inquiry into the dramaturgical puzzles of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex; and Michael Russ is necessarily preoccupied with the graphic source material of Pictures at an Exhibition - though he also finds illuminating things to say about Mussorgsky's compositional originality.

More questionable, perhaps, is Nicholas Cook's account of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony largely as a story of the ideological distortions subsequent generations have thrust upon it - an exercise in the currently fashionable mode of reception history that will infuriate more traditionalist musicians. Yet James Hepokoski's study of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony is little short of revelatory. For a start, he is the first to have gained access to the complete sketches, and it is as touching to see the familiar tunes emerging from Sibelius's initial doodles as it is awesome to learn the full story of the work's tortuous conception. But within a mere 102 pages, the author also manages not only to outline a novel theory of Sibelius's compositional procedure - which he calls rotation form - but to sketch an entire new overview of the late Romantic-Modern period and Sibelius's place within it.

Hans Keller had a freely confessed deaf spot for Sibelius - the Violin Concerto aside. Yet he would surely have conceded the value of a book that should enable even listeners who have loved the Fifth Symphony to death to approach it again with fresh ears.

Cambridge Music Handbooks: pounds 19.95 each, hardback; pounds 6.95, paperback

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence