Music can express things that cannot be captured by words. This is what Felix Mendelssohn meant when he said: ‘Music represents a higher form of language, one that communicates its meaning with a precision unmatched by the ambiguities of mere words’. In last Saturday’s music feature The Shorthand of Emotion on Radio 3, Katie Derham used the word spiritual to describe how the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy experienced the expressivity of music. She even suggested that Tolstoy might have found it easier to describe emotions through music than through words.
Mendelssohn was an expert in communicating emotions through music and each of his 48 songs without words expresses a particular atmosphere or feeling. Songs without words are short lyrical character pieces for piano. As textless piano songs, their melodies makes them easy to listen to. In expressing one mood only, they are very similar to folk songs in which the melody of the verses repeats itself and doesn’t respond to the content of the lyrics.
The very fact that songs without words express one atmosphere or feeling only, is their very strength. As the verse is repeated there is a sense of calm and time to really experience, and reflect on, the music. That this is a special quality becomes even clearer when we compare a song without words with Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Especially in the first movements of his piano sonatas, Beethoven embarks on an emotional journey in which we encounter a range of strongly contrasting emotions in quick succession. This makes the listening experience very intense and requires full attention.
What I appreciate in Mendelssohn’s songs without words (and similar songlike pieces by other composers) is that they allow for a less intense listening experience. Their lyricism makes them attractive even as background music.
If you want to explore this for yourself, you’re welcome to visit the cafe at Newton Dee (in Bieldside, Aberdeen) on Tuesdsay 6 September at 2.30pm when I’ll play a number of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words alongside similar mood pictures by other composers.
Copyright text Petra Vergunst