Grammar of Music

The temptation is great to think of the music of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Torroba and Rodrigo as a substance or thing present-at-hand. “Music” is a common noun in our language, after all. Nouns name things. Music answers the question “What?”

What is music? In the skillful and loving hands of world conductor Philippe Entremont, the Munich Symphony Orchestra and the guitar virtuosi of the Romero family, the andantes and allegros, the concierti and the symphonies are a kind of direct object. Music, as a substance, shows up in the spruce, silver or brass curvatures of guitars, violins, horns, drums, bassoons and their glistening friends. Music, as an object, is housed in the looming walls of the concert hall, staged in the reverent dark dress of the orchestra members and in the footstool used to raise the classical guitar to playing position, absorbed in the sloping cave where we now sit.

But this showing, absorbing, staging and housing is not a thing at all. It is participial and verbal–an activity we call listening and playing. The challenge is to think of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, the Concierto de Malaga, the Concierto de Andaluz and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 as verbal and personal. The challenge is to understand that music answers the question “Who?” So who is music? Tonight, I propose four answers.

Answer 1: Professor Emerita Barbara Hall–about whom I always think when any note sounds anywhere on Centre’s campus–is music. She once visited my German class to teach us an ancient folksong. It was a song about what perishes and what stays, about the fragility (“vergehen”) of heaven and earth and the durability (“bestehen”) of music: “Himmel und Erde müssen vergehen / Aber die Musica, aber die Musica, bleibet bestehen.” This mid-November evening, we have the best of all possible worlds, it seems: heaven and earth have not yet passed away and the Munich Symphony Orchestra is in town!

Answer 2: The Munich Symphony Orchestra is music. But ladies and gentlemen, I have a shocking announcement: it is not the Munich Symphony Orchestra that is in town. No, it is the “Münchner Symphoniker,” the professional musicians who have journeyed here to play for us. The German name for this orchestra is more informative than the English translation because it refers to people who have devoted their lives to practice and performance. As in the English compounds “ditch-digger” or “train-robber” the “-er” ending in German signals this vocation and dedication (of which only an elite seems capable). These are not ditch-diggers or train-robbers, however; they are symphony-makers.

Answer 3: The symphony-makers are not alone. They have invited special guests, Pepe Romero and the Romeros. Music is a special guest. It is the Romeros who dare bring the six-string orchestra of arpeggios, ligados and tremolos into the oceanic power of the Munich Symphony Orchestra. These guitarists, they are courageous, harmonious and alone! What can we possibly do to help?

Answer 4: We can listen. This is the hardest lesson of all for us to learn. We like to talk. Talk, talk, talk. Language is a show-off, a know-it-all, a wise-guy, a data-operator, a train-robber. It is risky to fall silent because no one trusts that we listen—not even ourselves. No one trusts. No one listens. Yet we are the music to which we listen.

Was it Goethe who said that music begins where words end? If so, it is now time for language to fall silent, to withdraw as ushers would in a concert hall, softly closing the dimly lit doorways. Now is the time. To listen.

Ken Keffer
Stodghill Professor of French and German

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Ken Keffer is a professor of modern languages at Centre College, where he has taught since 1979. He has held the Stodghill Professorship in Modern Languages since its inception in 2004.He was a Fulbright Exchange Teacher in Germany for a year and has pursued advanced research at locations in France, Germany, and Spain.In 2010, Keffer was named the 2010 Kentucky Professor the Year by The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Categories: Notes from the Faculty

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