I like that analogy. Or would you call it a similitude? Whatever it is, the idea that music from the classical era uses musical phrases like words, from which musical sentences are composed, is delightful. Surely, there are music professors who disagree. Disagreement about ideas is the engine of culture. Without it, culture would be stationery. Every little academic spat is a chug, as culture slowly, inexorably chug-chug-chugs along.
As an idea, Lakí’s analogy can be approved of or disapproved of; it cannot be proven or disproven. It has no empirical basis. It is a poetic truth. It is, like Keats’ urn, true because it is beautiful.
I don’t know whether it is an original idea of Lokí’s or if it has been rattling around music departments for a while. I’d never come across it before, and I am not going to divert myself by googling it. What Lokí is saying, or repeating, is that classical music (in classical’s narrow sense) employs a vocabulary. For composers in the classical idiom, there are a limited number of ways that musical notes (the letters of the alphabet) can be combined into phrases that others can recognize (words). These musical phrases evoke particular emotions (definitions). The composer arranges these phrases into melodies (sentences), each of which has a unique emotional coherence (meaning).
But isn’t that true of all music? Isn’t all music a series of notes and phrases that add up to a unique work of art? Sort of. But think of it this way: Beethoven broke the classical mode by inventing musical phrases that were not familiar to his audience. Their emotional content was clear, but no one had ever heard them before. Beethoven was doing the equivalent of inventing words. Literature has a tradition of invented words but, with a few exceptions which, outside of Joyce, are mainly to be found in children’s literature, they do not play an important role there.
It is easier for an audience to respond to new music, that is, new combinations of notes, than for a reader to respond to new combinations of letters. That is because music communicates through our emotions, whose range is infinite, while literature communicates through our reason, whose range is limited by our understanding. A musical passage composed of new combinations of notes might move us. Even though unfamiliar, its emotional force might be comprehensible. A sentence composed of new combinations of letters would be incomprehensible. New words sometimes can be accepted as novelties, but then they are only amusing at best, and their meaning is still better communicated through one, two or three old words. The few exceptions – most of which can be found in Jabberwocky – immediately turn into acceptable, universally understood, old words.
Emotion encompasses an infinite number of feelings. You could even argue that no feeling is ever exactly repeated. There are words which name these feelings, categorize them – love, sorrow, elation, repose, etc. – but they do not evoke them with the exactness that music does. No words, or combination of words, can completely convey a feeling – if for no other reason than that feelings are so fleeting. While music immediately evokes feeling, literature first evokes thought, and only after the thought is comprehended, comes an emotional reaction.
Music, through its play on the emotions, does not effect reason the way that literature, through its play on reason, effects emotions. It is here that a general parallel between music and literature breaks down. Inspiring an emotional reaction is the intent of both music and literature. It is the intent of art.
Lakí, as he says, is not telling us something about the art of music, but only about music of the classical idiom, the music of Haydn, Mozart, Gluck and their contemporaries, of composers between the baroque and romantic. His analogy does not add to our understanding of art, but adds another layer to, deepens, expands, our understanding of the Age of Reason.
There is certainly something musical about the first stanza of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and it could correspond, in a way, to the opening six bars of the Haydn piece:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
While thumbing through the Oxford anthology, I came across a touching poem by Anna Lætitia Barbauld. Not apropos of music, but simply for its own sake, here is Barbauld’s Life. Quiller-Couch does not include an epigraph, but the Poetry Foundation’s website does: Animula, vagula, blandula, which Google translates (commas notwithstanding) as “sweet little traveling soul.”
The third stanza reaches the heart.
Life! I know not what thou art,
But know that thou and I must part;
And when, or how, or where we met,
I own to me’s a secret yet.
But this I know, when thou art fled,
Where’er they lay these limbs, this head,
No clod so valueless shall be,
As all that then remains of me.
O whither, whither dost thou fly,
Where bend unseen thy trackless course,
And in this strange divorce,
Ah tell where I must seek this compound I?
To the vast ocean of empyreal flame,
From whence thy essence came,
Dost thou thy flight pursue, when freed
From matter’s base encumbering weed?
Or dost thou, hid from sight,
Wait, like some spell-bound knight,
Through blank oblivious years th’ appointed hour,
To break thy trance and reassume thy power?
Yet canst thou without thought or feeling be?
O say what art thou, when no more thou ’rt thee?
Life! we’ve been long together,
Through pleasant and through cloudy weather;
’Tis hard to part when friends are dear;
Perhaps ’t will cost a sigh, a tear;
Then steal away, give little warning,
Choose thine own time;
Say not Good night, but in some brighter clime
Bid me Good morning.