James Opie Urmson (1915-2012) was an Oxford philosopher with special interests in linguistics, aethetics and in the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. In Urmson’s “Representation in Music,” he discusses whether we can say music represents anything from the non-musical world of emotion or experience. Here, we apply his theory to Hadyn’s Oratorio, The Creation.
Haydn’s Oratorio and the Expression of Emotion
Haydn uses contrasts in this epic work to convey a sense of optimistic progress, from dark to light, from low to high, from chaos to order. In his introduction to J.O. Urmson’s essay “Representation in Music,” Robert Wilkinson says: “Pieces of music are characterized as happy, sad, serious, melancholic, despairing, rejoicing. We could assume the sadness in a piece of music expresses the composer’s sadness, and that perhaps it makes us feel sad too.”
What is this property of “sadness,” or of other emotional or visual experiences in music, claimed by Urmson and other aesthetic philosophers, to be “the most abstract of all the arts?”
Haydn: Moving Towards Chaos
The Largo orchestral introduction to the Oratorio, Part I, “The Representation of Chaos” begins on a long, loud, deep-pitched chord in minor key, conveying the solemnity of the work. Throughout the piece, the use of strong contrasts of softness and loudness, by short, sharp notes and long notes, from melodious bars to discord, portrays chaos; conveying a sense of matters that are yet unresolved.
The contrasts become more dramatic as the piece progresses towards the Angel Raphael’s “Recitative,” gently trailing off just before he begins.
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Now, long-held notes have a plaintive, dream-like quality, with small additional decorative digressions from the clarinet, some counterpoint between clarinet and strings.
Chaos increases with the use of drum roll and basses and eventually takes over. Or, perhaps, Haydn merely intends an anticipation of the stirring up of this formlessness by God Himself?
Urmson: A Sceptical Analysis
In his essay, “Representation in Music”, J.O. Urmson claims that to characterise music as sad or happy, solemn or joyful, “is very far from ascribing to it any representational function.
Beethoven directed that the slow movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 should be largo e mesto; but, if properly performed, the music is indeed sad, but it by no means follows that it represents, portrays or depicts anything. So far as I know, it does not.”
Urmson agrees that some music is representational, or contains representational elements, for example, the songs of the cuckoo, quail and nightingale in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
He says, “It is equally obvious that in Haydn’s Creation and Seasons, we find representations of lions roaring, tigers leaping, stags running, horses galloping, frogs croaking, crickets chirping, whales swimming and elephants stamping, to mention but a small selection.”
However, we should recognise that while there are numerous rhythmic representations of horses galloping in music, we might need “extra-musical evidence to make it quite certain that it is a horse and not a zebra.”
Resemblance is Not Representation
We need to clearly define our terms of reference, and consider the role of “intention” in the composer’s mind and whether it can be said to influence the theory. This seems to be a most difficult concept to pin down with any certainty. Here is Urmson’s view about intention.
“The introduction of intention into the analysis of musical representation is a proper move and must survive, perhaps in a more subtle form than any I have suggested, in any adequate theory of music representation… It would certainly be false to claim that any sound intentionally produced to resemble another sound will be a representation of it; thus if you sing an A and I follow suit with a note at the same pitch, what I sing will be a copy, or imitation or replica of what you sang, not a representation of it.”
Therefore, it is true that some music is representational and this is intended by the composer. However, sometimes it is not. With reference to the horse-zebra example, it is important to recognise that resemblance is not necessarily representation.
Resemblance is a symmetrical relation. If A resembles B, then the opposite is true and B resembles A. But, says Urmson, “No song of any cuckoo is a representation of anything in the Pastoral Symphony.”
Bearing in mind that representation is not necessarily resemblance, let’s look at what we think the composer means, and what the composer actually intended. Is there a disparity?
Portrayal of Joyfulness
The Angel Raphel’s “Recitative”, in bass voice, is deep and slow, further emphasising the nothingness of the earth, its lack of form or void. The soft, soprano chorus, tells us about the promise of light. The softness of the voices and gentle backing strings prove to be a foil for the brilliant climax, which is preceded by “And God said, “Let there be light.”
The word “light” is repeated, although the first time it is used in minor key and the second time in the fully resolved major key.
Then another surprise! This is the contrast of the much lighter treatment of the “Air with Chorus”. Faster, more melodious, it portrays joy, and there is a lilt in the voice of the Angel. Short phrases, with gaps between, further imply happiness and sponteneity. Repetition of whole sentences, and phrases within the sentences: “A new created world” – “A new created world” – “springs up” – “springs up,” offers further surprise and contrast to the dark, mysterious effect of the representation of chaos.
So, is Haydn’s joyful music actually… joyful?
The Boundaries of Sense-Modalities
Urmson points out: “…tastes, smells and sounds may all be called sweet… Colours as well as felt bodies may be warm or cold. The sound of a brass instrument may be sour, like the taste of a lemon. Colours, as well as sounds may be loud.”
Urmson mentions such terms as mellow, bitter, acid, smooth, rough, sharp, etc. which are used in everyday language to describe objects. He quotes an anecdote about a blind man who, when given sight, said that red was like the sound of a trumpet. Some people cross sense boundaries easily and naturally, and this is known as “synaesthesia.”
A metaphorical use of language suggested by Urmson is to describe a woman as “fragile.” He insists that he doesn’t intend us to believe she is about to break into pieces. He concludes that calling a mountain “majestic,” or a woman “fragile,” is analogous to referring to music as high, low, sad, etc. in other words, “purely sensible description.”
“So I think that it is most plausible to regard the ascription of such characteristics as we have been considering to music as a special case of the very pervasive ascription of characteristics across the boundaries of the sense modalities, e.g. sweet sounds, smells and tastes, and across the boundaries between sensible and non-sensible characteristics, e.g. fragile chair, fragile look, hard sound, harsh decision.”
We Cannot Explain Representation in Terms of Resemblance
J.O. Urmson concludes that he is “…quite certain that dramatic representation should not be explained in terms of resemblance” which he qualifies by adding that at least part of the explanation of representation in music: “...is to be given in terms of resemblance.” Urmson is aware that his conclusion is unfashionable, but says he is far from committed to the belief that representation can always be explained in terms of resemblance. This, he says, is false:
“Representation in general has many forms and may be achieved in many different ways.”
Haydn, The Creation. 1796-1798.
Urmson, J.O. Representation in Music. (1972). Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures. Accessed October 10, 2013.
Wilkinson, Robert. Theories of Art and Beauty. (1991). The Open University.© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past