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The Meaning of Song. A Quotation from Mendelssohn.

Music is more definite than words, and to seek to explain its meaning in words is really to obscure it. There is so much talk about music, and yet so little really said. For my part, I believe that words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found that they did suffice, then I certainly would compose no more music. People often complain that music is so ambiguous that what they are to think about it always seems so doubtful, whereas every one understands words.

With me it is exactly the reverse, not merely with regard to entire sentences, but also to individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so unintelligible, when compared with genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. What any music I love expresses to me is not thought too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite. I find in all attempts to put such thoughts into words something commendable, but there is yet something unsatisfactory in them all; and so it is with yours. This, however, is not your fault, but that of the words, which do not enable you to do better.

If you ask me what my idea was, I say just the song as it stands; and if I had in my mind a definite term or terms with regard to one or more of these songs, I should not like to disclose them to any one, because the words of one person assume a totally different meaning in the mind of another person—because the music of the song alone can awaken the same ideas and the same feelings in one mind as in another—a feeling which is not, however, expressed by the same words. Resignation, melancholy, the praise of God, a hunting song—one person does not form the same conception from these that another does. Resignation is to the one what melancholy is to the other; the third can form no lively idea of either. To any man who is by nature a keen sportsman, a hunting song and the praise of God would come pretty much to the same thing; and to such an one the sound of the hunting horn would really and truly be the praise of God, whereas we hear nothing in it but a mere hunting song, and if we were to discuss it ever so often with him, we should get no further. Words have many meanings, but music we can all understand correctly.


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