Music as the Ideal Medium of Modernism

That music is particularly intriguing to various modernists is not surprising considering its inherent abstract quality, a trait that steadily gained value during this movement. One could argue that music can never absolutely represent anything other than itself because it lacks direct representation whereas visual art is its own subject matter and literature communicates ideas via a language that can be spoken and read. However, as Schoenberg points out, many people still expect that music must “summon up images of one sort or other” and if it does not then “the piece of music is misunderstood or worthless”(39). Of course music can have aspects that seem somewhat universal, such as specific sounds that evoke intensity or suggest melancholy for example. However, expecting that music on its own should convey a very specific subject matter devalues its profound ability to affect us in a different way than literature and visual art. I certainly agree with Schoenberg that music “ought perhaps remain incomprehensible and only perceptible” especially because language seems to continuously fall short of a true explanation of the medium’s essence. When one is willing to suspend their need for a singular interpretation, it is possible to see that an artwork may simply be about itself, which does not necessarily render it valueless.

This is not to say that all music cannot be inspired by a specific story, poem, historical event, etc. However, it is possible to create music (perhaps any work of art) without knowing what its “supposed” to be about beforehand, if ever. Schoenberg explains that he often does not know what the intended messages of his songs are until after he has completed them, as if his songs speak for themselves. In an anecdote he recalls reading poems that Shubert based certain songs of off of, long after being familiar with the composer’s works and not comprehending the poems themselves (40). I was immediately reminded of the many songs I heard on the radio as a child whose lyrics I completely made up. Years later, when I discovered the correct words, it did not alter the emotions that were evoked by the sound of the music or the voice of the singer when listening to them again. Like Schoenberg, learning the intended sentiment of the song did nothing for my understanding of them and that I had “grasped the content…perhaps even more profoundly than if I had clung to the surface of the mere thoughts expressed in words”(40). This so perfectly demonstrates the modernist notion that art can indeed be effective and important to the human experience without needing to present a singular, clear meaning.

However lyrics and poetry must not be completely discounted when considering music, as they certainly can play an important part. The modernist writer James Joyce saw his own work as being influenced by music, though not necessarily by specific pieces, but the art form itself.  In the excerpt from Joyce’s “Sirens”, he seems to be playing with the effect sounds can have based solely on their arrangement and structure.  Although this is often used in poetry, what is interesting is that most every line and “word” seems nonsensical.  However, when read aloud, it still has an effect on the listener despite its absence of a clear meaning, much like the effect of any piece of music.  Joyce seems to suggest that perhaps direct communication from the art to the audience is not necessary in order to conjure a legitimate emotional response.

Rigid expectations of art to have concrete meaning seem to spring from some anxiety that firstly art must represent something and also that its meaning must be evident simply by viewing, reading, or listening to it.   This also highlights the unease of society of the time and their difficulty of letting go of established order. However, in the wake of devastating warfare and the great paradigm shift that came with industrialization, many artists no longer accepted the direct and universal truths that had been held for so long.  So if there were any righteousness among the modernist artists, it is possible that they viewed themselves as ushering mankind into a better, more authentic understanding of life.  What’s more is they revealed that although the essence of an artwork may elude us, perhaps the value is in the not knowing and the continual questioning based on our perceptions making art much more engaging and crucial to humanity.