How do you hear a composer's "voice"?

by Cinda Yager, Special to MPR
June 17, 2014

When I first heard the phrase "composer's voice," I assumed it meant the composer's singing or speaking voice. I wondered how anyone could possibly know how Beethoven's or Brahms's voice sounded. They were long dead.

Leonard Bernstein helped me understand what it really meant. While in college, I listened to The Unanswered Question, the Norton lectures he gave at Harvard University. In these lectures, Bernstein described music as a language with vocabulary and syntax. Just as writers in English use that language's tools to express ideas and tell stories, so do composers use the tools of music to express ideas and tell stories through sound.

What are those tools? For notated music, there are notes, chords, intervals, melody, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, dynamics, speed and meter. Each of these describes some aspect of the sound — like pitch. Composers also consider what musical instrument will play the notes. Each instrument has a certain color, or timbre, to its sound. How a composer brings all these elements together in her music creates that composer's unique voice.

At first, I didn't think too much about the differences among composers' voices. Of course, each composer has his or her own musical ideas. His or her music can also reflect the historical times in which it was written as well as the culture. I think of Dmitri Shostakovich's music, and how he orchestrated it. For example, Shostakovich used percussion instruments to sound hollow, like rattling bones, in his 15th Symphony. For his personal signature, he used the notes D-S(e-flat)-C-H(b) in his Eighth String Quartet and — most famously — in the finale of his Tenth Symphony. These elements are part of Shostakovich's unique musical voice.

When I think of Jean Sibelius's music, to take another example, I think of the open sky over the Baltic Sea outside of Helsinki Harbor on a sunny but cold, windy day. There is an expansiveness to the sound of much of Sibelius's music, a sense of depth and height, that I believe comes from the composer's unique way with intervals, chords, and orchestration.

Brahms's music used to make no sense to me. Then I fell madly in love with someone, and lost that love. The following year, I helped the college choir conductor prepare the chorus for Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem. As I listened to the music, the sound seemed to hit me between the eyes like a hand slap: "So that's what he's saying!" Brahms used rhythms as well as the intervals in melody to evoke the push-pull of the yearning heart. Here, his musical voice speaks of loss, of the desire for what cannot be.

Each composer uses the elements of music in her own unique way, creating a sound unique to him or her. If you listen to Classical MPR for an hour or two, you'll hear several different pieces from different composers with different voices. Or listen to a Brandenburg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach followed by the Concerto for Orchestra by Bela Bartok. These two works both employ orchestras playing music, and yet they sound radically different from one another.

I've listened to classical music all my life. I feel now that I've been eavesdropping on an amazing conversation among composers from Pergolesi to Bernstein. You can be a part of that conversation, too. Just close your eyes and listen.

Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minneapolis. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.

Interested in writing about classical music for Classical MPR? Have a story about classical music to share? We want to hear from you!

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