Herbert von Karajan

It is often said that every word has a ‘meaning’, and that the meaning of a word is the object referred to by it. Wittgenstein dubbed this the Augustinian picture of language (PI, 1-4). This referential conception of word-meaning underlies much human thought. Wittgenstein treats it not as a theory of language, but as a ‘picture’ or presupposition tacitly underlying philosophical theories.

This picture underlies our thinking about the meaning of the word ‘soul’. We say that every human body has a soul. The meaning of everything bodily, if you like, is the soul which tacitly underlies it. One may say that while the soul is in the body, it is not of the body. But, it is nonetheless essential to every bodily experience. 

We find the Augustinian picture at play when we think about music. All music has a ‘meaning’, it seems. Since the meaning of music is the object it refers to, it appears as if the function of music is to represent this meaning. We find it natural to compare music with language: words and melodies refer, sentences and symphonies describe. It is immediately clear, however, that the meaning of music does not lie in correspondence with an object, be it abstract or concrete. For music is expressed in terms of pitch (e.g., melody), rhthym (e.g., tempo), and quality of sound (e.g., timbre). It is auditory communication.

Unsurprisingly, most of us are undeterred by platitudinal reminders. We feel strongly inclined to say that music ‘points’ to something beyond itself. Nevermind the auditory bit. Admittedly, we can never see it, the ‘meaning’, that is, but we think the music expresses it everytime; can ‘point’ to it. Paradoxically: the meaning in music is hidden, yet visible.

We are tempted to say that Mozart’s music ‘points’ beyond itself. But what of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? What of Schoenberg, Debussy, or Mahler? The first point I wish to make is that tonal music is naturally associated with the Augustinian picture. Why? Because it has a home key. The home key represents the object referred to by a word in the Augustinian picture. The purpose of the music is to resolve itself by returning to the home key in the final cadence. But atonal compositions lack a home key. Are they judged to be meaningless?

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) is almost all atonal music except for the final cadence in F-sharp major. It is not expressed in tonality or rhythmical order, and there is no sense of an ordered progession of tonalities that find purpose in the home key. While many of us would be disinclined to say this music is meaningful, equally there are many others who would in fact say it conveys something. But do we say it because we apprehend the object the music ‘points’ to? That is to say, is the sole function of music to represent extra-musical reality? Is the sole function of music to illustrate something else? My question is: If music conveys a narrative, can it actually tell a story?

Look at the photo of Karajan above. There is a sense in which the music is ‘talking’ to him. The music he is conducting is a narrative in which he lives as one lives in a conversation. Because he is for the time living in the music, even living as the music, the music becomes the narrative of his own being. I am trying to say that music is not about anything. It has a narrative structure that is its own subject. Its gestures are our own.