Student Voices: A Language for All: Musical Notation and the Art of Crossing Borders
By Michael Montgomery
“Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand…”
—Stevie Wonder, “Sir Duke,” 1976
As I sat in Jackson Hall on Sunday, October 14, reading the program for Sir James Galway’s flute performance, I was struck by the variety of composers it contained. Most were from the 19th century, which, I take it, is somewhat the norm for classical music. But rather than focus only on composers from a particular city or country (e.g., Vienna or Paris), Galway introduced the audience to a classical cohort from all across Europe.
From an arrangement of Irish folk songs by Northern Irishman David Overton to the “Swiss Shepherd” (Il Pastore Svizzero) of Italian composer Pietro Morlacchi, this selection of music, while by no means familiar to me, told a delightfully international story. We even got two composers with different versions of the same first name: Francis Poulenc of France, and Franz Doppler of what is today Ukraine.
This made me realize something. It may sound like a truism, but music really is a universal language. For instrumental compositions in particular, the notes that a musician reads on the page are the exact same as the notes that the composer put on that page (barring, of course, the occasional emendation or error that may be introduced over the years). Nothing gets “lost in translation,” so to speak, because there literally is no translation.
To the extent that written music can capture the intent of long-dead composers like Chopin or Beethoven, their work exhibits a remarkable continuity, not only in time, but in space as well. Imagine, for instance, how fragmentary our musical awareness would be if we each had to be conversant in German to understand one of Beethoven’s symphonies, or if we had to know Polish to appreciate Chopin. (German and Polish were the two composers’ native tongues, respectively.)
The reality, as we all know and love, is far more accessible. The universality of standard musical notation allows compositions to transcend their specific geographic (and thus linguistic and cultural) places of origin. It is what allows a Chinese pianist to play Chopin, or a Northern Irishman like James Galway to play Beethoven.
Consider, for a moment, what life would be like if the same thing were true of plays or novels. Imagine how much deeper our understanding and appreciation of world literature world be if language wasn’t an obstacle. Imagine if, instead of having to settle for the words of a translator, we could read the unadulterated original, without also having to spend years learning the author’s native language. The more books I read, the more I appreciate the fact that a work in translation can never be a substitute for the original, no matter how closely it hews to the author’s meaning. (Isaac Asimov once said one of the key perks of speaking English is that we “can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare.”)
How lovely, then, that music requires no such intermediary between author and audience. How convenient that one can travel from the plains of Italy’s Po River Valley to the opera houses of the Hapsburg Empire—or from a boulevard in Paris to a loch in the Scottish Highlands, or any other destination, for that matter—with little more than a sequence of finely arranged sonic frequencies to provide your transportation. All that is necessary for the journey is an interpreter, perhaps even a flute player, instrument in hand and score on the stand before him. The music will take care of the rest.
Author Bio: Michael is a third-year student at UC Davis. He is majoring in Marine and Coastal Science, with planned minors in History and Professional Writing, and is considering a career in science writing. This will be his second year serving on the Mondavi Center’s Arts and Lectures Committee.