Music as Message

An Introduction to Musical Semantics

by Constantin Floros (Author)
Monographs 339 Pages


Music is often defined as art for the ear, as the language of feeling, of the heart, as sound play, or as the science of composition. But music also conveys intellectual and emotional experiences, literary, religious, philosophical, social and political ideas. Countless composers encrypt contents in their music that can be deciphered by a variety of methods. This book is designed as an introduction to the basic questions of musical semantics and discusses Beethoven’s committed art, the core ideas of the «Ring of the Nibelung» and of the «Symphony of a Thousand», Wagner’s idea of a religion of art, the relation of music and poetry, the musico-literary conceptions of composers, the large field of program music and the history of the impact of Gustav Mahler.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • I. The Concept of the Message in Music
  • II. Public and Private Messages in Music
  • III. The Fear of Depth
  • 1. Esprit contra Profundity: Mediterranean vs. Germanic Music
  • 2. Music as Expression of the “Complete Human Being”?
  • 3. Absurd Music and Music as Message
  • IV. “Relational Magic” in the Music of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
  • 1. On the Function of the Leitmotif
  • 2. The Categories Presentiment, Realization and Remembrance
  • 3. “The Necessity of Doom”
  • V. Wagner’s Idea of a Religion of Art
  • 1. By Way of Introduction
  • 2. Art and Religion in Wagner’s Zurich Papers
  • 3. On Wagner’s Doctrine of Regeneration
  • 4. Christianity, Brahmanism and the Critique of Religions
  • 5. The Affinity of Art with Religion
  • 6. The Philosophic and Ethical Bases of the Religion of Art
  • 7. Parsifal: The Realization of the Idea
  • 8. Art as Substitute for Religion? Wagner as a Religious Founder?
  • 9. Hitler and Wagner
  • 10. The Performance Ban on Parsifal since 1939
  • 11. Conclusion
  • VI. The Symphony of a Thousand as a Message to Humanity
  • 1. Mahler’s “Mass” and “Gift to the Nation”
  • 2. Genesis
  • 3. Love as Productive Power: On the Intellectual Conception of the Eighth Symphony
  • 4. On the Translation into Music
  • VII. Basics of Program Music
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. “Characteristic” Music and “Painting Symphonies” (symphonies à programmes)
  • 3. Tone Painting and “Narration of Inner Processes”
  • 4. New Formal Concepts and Supposed Formlessness
  • 5. Mere Title Headings vs. Detailed Programs
  • VIII. The Discomfort with Program Music
  • IX. “Tone Poets” and “Specific Musicians”: 19th-Century Composer Types
  • 1. Art-Theoretical Presuppositions
  • 2. Composers and Fractions
  • 3. Schumann, Liszt and Wagner as All-Round Educated Musicians
  • X. Music and Poetry: The Views of Schumann, Wagner and Liszt
  • 1. Schumann’s Ideal of a “Poetic Music”
  • 2. Wagner’s Ideal of a Union of the “Purely Human Art Forms” in the Drama
  • 3. Liszt’s Ideal of Program Music
  • XI. Schumann’s Musical Poetics
  • XII. Autobiographic Elements in Schumann’s Music
  • XIII. Berlioz’ Conception of the “Instrumental Drama”
  • XIV. Liszt’s Conception of the “Musical Epopee”
  • XV. Liszt’s Faust Symphony: A Semantic Analysis
  • 1. Aspects of the Investigation
  • 2. Liszt’s Observations about Goethe’s Faust
  • 3. Themes and Structure of the “Faust” Movement
  • 4. Harmonic Symbolism: The Augmented Triad as Emblem of Faust
  • 5. The Semantics of the “Faust” and “Gretchen” Movements
  • 6. Tectonics and Character of the “Gretchen” Movement
  • 7. The Thematic Stock of the “Mephisto” Movement and Liszt’s Technique of Distortion
  • 8. The Concert Piece Malédiction as a Source of the “Mephisto” Movement
  • 9. The Curse as Key Idea of the “Mephisto” Movement
  • 10. Liszt’s Setting of the Chorus mysticus
  • XVI. Richard Strauss and Program Music
  • XVII. Hidden Program Music
  • 1. Preliminary Remarks
  • 2. A Survey of Works with Concealed Programs
  • 3. Why the Programs were kept secret
  • 4. Approaches to Semantic Decoding
  • XVIII. On the History of Mahler Reception
  • 1. On Mahler’s Topicality and Popularity
  • 2. The Spiritual Dimension of Mahler’s Music
  • 3. Mahler and the Schönberg School
  • 4. On Adorno’s Mahler Interpretation
  • 5. Mahler and the Avant-Garde
  • XIX. Music Must Become Language: On Hans Werner Henze
  • XX. The Co-Presence of all Eras: Messages through the Ages
  • Afterword
  • Abbreviations
  • Selected Bibliography
  • 1. Letters and Writings by Composers
  • 2. Works of Literature and Philosophy
  • 3. On the Subject of Music as Message
  • Index

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As long as people have been theorizing about art, there have been diverse conceptions of music. Some take it as an art that follows its own laws, a play of “moving tonal forms,” as the high priest of music Eduard Hanslick put it. To others, it is expression, an art of “inwardness,” the “language of the soul.” For some, music serves the purpose of amusement and entertainment, being an art designed solely for aesthetic pleasure. Others tirelessly point to its educational and therapeutic function – a function ascribed to it already in Greek antiquity. If in the 18th century it was widely held that music has a specific end in view, in the 19th the notion of music as pure, purposeless, so-called absolute music, began widely to prevail.

The words message and code denote basic concepts in the modern science of communication, in mythography and semiotics. Music, too, is a communicative phenomenon par excellence but has to date hardly been analyzed in terms of the communicative process. What do composers from Ludwig van Beethoven to Luciao Berio and Luigi Nono intend with their music? What do they want to say, and to whom do they address themselves? What is the nature of the messages they transmit, and how are they received and deciphered by the listeners?

The subject of music as message is one that has fascinated me for half a century. The book is intended as an introduction to the basic questions of musical semantics. Nearly all of my books profit from it (cf. section 3 of the bibliography).

The publication of the original German version in 1989 made a lasting impression in several European countries. The concept of the “message” established itself in musicological criticism and inspired several symposia on the subject: in Bratislava (Hudba ako posolstvo) in 1993, in Cracow (Music as Message of Truth and Beauty) in 2008, and in Vienna (“Music as Ideological Message”) in 2011. The second chapter of this book appeared in a Spanish translation in Quodlibet Issue 39 (September-December 2007) and in a Polish translation in Teoria Muzyki, 6 (Cracow, 2015): 211–226. The present English edition has been brought up to date and expanded by the chapters “Public and Private Messages in Music,” “Autobiographic ← 11 | 12 → Elements in Schumann’s Music” and “Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony. A Semantic Analysis,” as well as some additions to chapter V and XVII.

For the past ten years, I have been collaborating intensively with my dear friend, Emeritus Professor Dr. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch of Indiana University. He has carefully translated a number of my books, functioning at the same time as a very conscientious copy editor, who does not miss a thing. He has once again provided an expert translation, as well as making numerous fruitful suggestions. My most cordial thanks go to him.

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I. The Concept of the Message in Music

“Croyez-vous qu j’entends la musique pour mon plaisir?” Hector Berlioz

The notion was, and is, widely held that the music of Arnold Schönberg and his pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg is to be approached primarily, or at least predominantly, in terms of its constructivity. Schönberg himself protested against that notion. In a letter to Rudolf Kolisch of July 27, 1932, he stated emphatically that he did not want to be stamped as a constructor and complained that some of his adepts in analyzing twelve-tone music labored to realize how it was “made,” whereas he had always sought to make clear what it “was.” “For me,” Schönberg writes, “the only valid analysis is one that identifies the idea and shows its presentation and development. In doing so, naturally, artistic subtleties will have to be considered as well.”1

The more closely one studies Schönberg, Webern and Berg, the clearer it becomes that their nature, thought and work is characterized by a peculiar mixture of rationality and esotericism, calculation and intuition, conscious and unconscious elements. Thus Schönberg’s hitherto published writings contain, besides numerous rationalistic considerations of the technical aspects of music, philosophical reflections that, while often immediately plausible, are subjective” in that they cannot be proved. Of special significance among these insights are Schönberg’s ideas about art as message. “Message” (Botschaft) is a word that recurs in diverse of his essays.

Let us begin with the essay “Kriterien für die Bewertung von Musik” (Criteria for the Evaluation of Music), written in 1946, five years before Schönberg’s death. Here we find the lapidary sentence: “We can conclude from the lives of truly great men that the creative urge answers to an instinctive vital feeling, solely in order to convey a message to humanity.” And a little later we read: “My personal feeling is that music conveys a prophetic message that reveals a higher form of life toward which humanity is evolving. And it is precisely because of this message that music affects ← 13 | 14 → people of all races and cultures.”2 This observation might help to explain the enormous effect of the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss on people, for example, in Japan.

In another essay, entitled “Selbstanalyse (Reife)” (Self-analysis [Maturity]), Schönberg doubts that atonality or dissonance constitute criteria for the evaluation of music. What matters, in his view, is something altogether different. “True love of music,” he writes, “and a true appreciation of it will ask: What has been said? How was it expressed? Was a new message proclaimed in the music? Was a new personality discovered? Was the technical representation commensurate?”3

In the context of the essay “Brahms, der Fortschrittliche” (Brahms, the Progressive), finally, Schönberg speaks of works created by great artists toward the end of their life, saying that such works represent far more than ordinary opera. One can assume, he maintains, that the message of a man who already dwells half-ways in the beyond will “advance to the outermost limits of the still expressible.” Of such a work one could “expect an extraordinary degree of perfection,” because mastery would manifest itself for once in its entire completeness when it is a matter of formulating “a message of such importance.” On this occasion, Schönberg intimates that by message he means “a part of the wisdom” that a great artist has acquired in the course of his life. Such a person may feel the wish “to incorporate a word into the knowledge of mankind.”4

Other composers of the 20th century, too, make use of the term “message” when endeavoring to make their intentions transparent. Hans Werner Henze, for example, tells of his composing during the ten-year span between the Bassariden and We come to the River – that is, the years between 1965 and 1975 – that it was a “continuous movement, away from the drunken, hedonistic world of the bacchantes and maenads and towards the contemporary, the murderers and victims of the new piece.” It was, he says, a passage “full of difficulties, artistic and moral ones.” “During this time,” ← 14 | 15 → he professes, “my music became ever clearer and more definite and progressively a vehicle of messages and precisely nameable contents.”5

Essential ideas on the subject of music as message are to be found in the writings of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss spoke of a profound affinity between music and mythology, and compared the two areas on several levels. One of these levels is the relation to time. Both myth and a musical work are, he thought, languages “that, each in its own way, transcend the level of articulate speech” while yet requiring a temporal dimension in order to reveal themselves.

The terms with which Lévi-Strauss operates in his famous structural analysis of myths Mythologiques I. Le cru et le cuit are “scaffolding,” “code” and “message.” “Scaffolding” he calls the totality of the features that remain invariant in two or more myths. By “code” he means the “system of functions that each myth ascribes to these features.” “Message” he calls the “content” of a particular myth. Elsewhere he specifies that the codes whereby messages are transmitted consist of a grammar and a lexicon.

Another common property of music and myth consists in the fact that both emit messages. Myths, according to Lévi-Strauss’ basic thesis, “have no author: whatever their origin may have been, as soon as they are perceived as myths, they exist only as embodied in a tradition. When a myth is recited, the listeners receive a message that really comes from nowhere; that is the reason why a supernatural origin is ascribed to it.” Music, too, is a language, “by means of which messages are formed, of which at least some are understood by the great majority, whereas only a very small minority is capable of emitting them.” For this reason, the creator of music becomes “a godlike being” and music itself “the loftiest secret of the human sciences.”

The kinds of messages composers proclaim through their music – or, put differently, into whose vehicles they make themselves – serve Lévi-Strauss as a criterion for the division of composers into three groups, between which there are all kinds of intermediaries and connections. The representatives of the first group (cited are Bach and Stravinsky) explicate and comment in their messages on the rules of a musical speech; Lévi-Strauss calls them musicians of the code. The composers of the second group (Beethoven, but ← 15 | 16 → also Ravel) “narrate”: they prove to be musicians of the message. The representatives of the third group (Wagner and Debussy), finally, codify their messages by means of elements that already belong to the area of story: Lévi-Strauss therefore calls them musicians of mythos. This distinction, he says, remains instructive even in dodecaphonic music, enabling us to relate Webern to the code, Schönberg to the message and Berg to the mythos.6

The term “message” is also used in genetics, in communication theory,7 in semiotics and in sociology.8 In Umberto Eco’s Theory of Semiotics,9 it is among the basic terms, along with “code,” by means of which the author seeks to explain the process of communication between human beings and how messages are decoded.

Some startling observations were made around 1971 in rock and pop music. It was ascertained that some songs delivered two contrary messages. If the records were played at the normal speed, the texts proclaimed a “positive” message, for example, a commitment to Christianity or to Jesus. But if they were played backward, in “backward messaging,” or at a different speed, the message became sinister and was taken in unconsciously by the brain. The development went along with a tendency toward occultism, a commitment to Satanism and the Black Mass. A famous example was the Pink Floyd song “One of these days” (on the LP “Meddle” of 1971). If one plays the record at a speed lower than the official one, one seems to hear the sentence “I’m gonna dance with the Devil’s sister.”10

What uses can be derived from semiotic literature for a discussion of “music as message”? A study of Eco’s book makes clear that he uses the term message in a far more comprehensive way than Arnold Schönberg. To ← 16 | 17 → him message means any signal, any advertisement, and indeed any sense, whereas for Schönberg and Henze the term refers to the highest human knowledge and thus has a humanitarian dimension. I myself would plead for a narrower definition, lest it lose in sharpness, and in what follows I take message to mean an extra-musical idea, a spiritual-emotional experience, a meaning that is conveyed through the medium of music. Three things above all are to be kept in mind:

1. The question what music is and what purpose it serves can, of course, not be answered once and for all. Opinions about it are too divided, art-theoretical and aesthetic positions differ too radically. The various conceptions are clearly dependent on the particular cultural sphere, on nationality, on the time and the zeitgeist, on the prevailing tastes and on the respective intellectual and artistic currents and tendencies. Thus music has been, and still is, defined as art for the ear, as the language of the heart, of feeling, as science of composition, as “moving tonal form.” The mission of tonal art, it has been and still is said, is to provide pleasure, to educate, to teach, to move, to excite, to uplift, to transport, to interpret and deepen a text emotionally, to enhance drama, to convey an intimation of the other world, and so on. Perhaps we can agree that not every kind of music proclaims a message. The playfully concertante music of the Baroque and of Classicism differs considerably in this respect from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

2. Not every musical work that does proclaim a message is necessarily of aesthetic value. It would be a fatal error to confound aesthetics and ideology. Ideology does not determine the rank of a work of art. Robert Schumann, in taking position on the hotly debated question as to the value or lack of value of programs in music, expressed his conviction by saying: “First of all, let me hear that you have made beautiful music, then your program, too, will be pleasing to me.”11 Mutatis mutandis, Schumann’s statement is valid also for the conception of music as message.

3. In the recent past, there has been much discussion about the contrast between so-called absolute and program music. The conception of a certain kind of music as message might help to partly reconcile the contrast. For a ← 17 | 18 → musical message is something other than a musical program and pertains to a higher level of abstraction than the latter. Many works that do not seem to fit into the category of either absolute or program music can be placed under the rubric of music as message. Here, too, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony can be cited as exemplary.

1 Arnold Schönberg, Ausgewählte Briefe, ed. Erwin Stein (Mainz, 1958), 178 f.

2 Arnold Schönberg, „Kriterien für die Bewertung von Musik,“ in Stil und Gedanke. Aufsätze zur Musik, ed. Ivan Vojtĕch (Gesammelte Schriften I (Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer Verlag, 1976), 123–133; pp. 131, 132.

3 Ibid., 386.

4 Ibid., 69.

5 Hans Werner Henze, Musik und Politik. Schriften und Gespräche, 1955–1975 (DeutscherTaschenbuch Verlag, 1162) (Munich, 1976), 251 f.

6 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques I. Le cru et le cuit (Paris, 1964), 23 f., 205, 218, 26, 38.

7 Hannelore Link, Rezeptionsforschung. Eine Einführung in Methoden und Probleme (Urban-Taschenbücher, 215) (Stuttgart/Berlin/Cologne/Mainz, 1976), 27 ff.

8 Kurt Blaukopf, Musik im Wandel der Gesellschaft. Grundzüge der Musiksoziologie (Munich/Zurich, 1984), 154 f.

9 Umberto Eco, Einführung in die Semiotik, (Munich, 1972).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Basics of Musical Semantic Music as Language Robert Schumann's Music for Piano History of Symphony Richard Wagner's Musical Drama
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 339 pp., 2 b/w fig., 6 graphs

Biographical notes

Constantin Floros (Author)

Constantin Floros is professor emeritus of Musicology at the University of Hamburg. Among his monographs are volumes on the origin of Gregorian neumes, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Alban Berg and György Ligeti. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has translated several books by Constantin Floros.


Title: Music as Message