Misuse the word song in conversation, and you’re sure to rankle even the most gracious classical musician. It may be a subtle error, but go ahead! Try it. See if they don’t correct your language–or wince a little, at least. To those interested the rationale for this reaction, a song, according to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, is “a form of musical expression in which the human voice has the principal role and is the carrier of text…” Note the key elements: human voice (singer) and text (lyrics). By that definition, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony CAN’T be a groovy song, dude. We call that a piece, or “a composition, especially but not necessarily an instrumental one” (Ibid). So, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is also a piece–because yes, it has singers and lyrics, but only in its final movement.
Okay, enough with the definitions and on to some music. Today, I’m listening to Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte), op. 19, no. 1. Notice the use of the word song? “But it’s a piano piece. There are no words! No singer,” I hear you grumble. Yes. I could wax musicologist now and write about characteristics of the Romantic Era, with its shift away from strict Classic Era structures, its lyricism and “emphasis on the indefinable and the infinite” (Ibid). But there are already plenty of sources that describe the music of the Romantics. (Check out links here and here, or go to good music history book, like Norton’s History of Western Music.)
I’d rather write about this one little wordless song: Andante con moto (Walking, with motion). It crystalizes the things I love most about Mendelssohn’s music: its innate sense of hope, purity, and energy. It’s as though his compositions, even in their stormy moments, were bathed in glimmering yellow sunshine. Perhaps that has something to do with upward melodic gestures (Schenker friends, I’m not talking about the Ursatz, don’t get mad). Personally, though, I think Mendelssohn’s music was somehow impacted by his faith. Even now, he is often criticized for his sentimentality and lack of tortured Romantic emotion (à la Schumann or Mahler); but I feel as though I hear the song of his soul when I listen to him–a song too deep for words, evoking inner hope, peace, joy. Perhaps that’s what he meant by Lieder ohne Worte.
Listen to this recording by Daniel Gortler and see if you’re not feeling more hopeful.