Tone Poetry: A Category Mistake?
February 5, 2010

Last week, when Pinchas Steinberg summarized the story that Smetana’s Vlast narrates through music, he implied several times that the listener does not need to know the story but can understand it through the music. The following post is my trying to work through the idea that music can tell a story.

Symphonic poems and the pastoral: the association seems inescapable. Coming out of German Romanticism, tone poems focus on harmony, voicing, and texture to paint a musical image of mountains, trees, rivers, lakes, clouds, pastures, etc. I have three major problems with the concept of symphonic poems.

First, the phrase smells funny: a symphonic poem is neither a symphony nor a poem. A poem can–and usually does–have musical qualities, but to say that a poem can exist in music is to cheapen poetry. Poetry is made out of words, and while the sounds of those words certainly contribute to the poetic effect, they do not count as a poem themselves.

Second, the phrase reduces music to mere signifier; the pastoral images become the referent, the desideratum of significance. A symphony can conjure poetic images, but describing a bucolic scene in music relegates music to the purely representational. If that doesn’t sound like a problem, see my friend Dan Clemens’s recent blog post for a short plea for alternatives to representational theories of art.

Third, the phrase reinforces the historically dependent association between tone poems and the pastoral. A poem can also do much more than recount emotion recollected in tranquility. Not all poems are about communing with Nature. Could there be industrial tone poems? mechanical, fierce, humorous, sarcastic, spooky, silly, spritely tone poems?

The source of the problem is not the need to name the form of a musical work, but rather has to do with the conceptual limits of symphonic poems. They are like reverse ekphrasis. Instead of being about another work of art, tone poems attempt to do what another art form already does. They have another mode of art thrust upon them.

And they can’t handle it. The listener can follow an already known story as the music provides a soundtrack, but music cannot narrate a story. This conclusion (which will remain tentative) is not a complaint about music’s shortcomings, but an affirmation of music’s non-linguistic powers.