In his book The Romantic Generation, Charles Rosen devotes an entire chapter to fragments in Romantic literature and music. He states that, "The work [of art] is not intended to convey the artist's experience as directly as a telegram, or to substitute his memory for ours: it is made to be filled with our experience, as a vehicle for the feelings of all who perceive it." I have not come across a more concise definition of the function of music (and art in general).
Many writers have tried to read in between the notes of a composer’s work. Such writers (unsuccessfully) attempt to decipher the intention of the composer in hopes that the listener will understand why one note or chord was chosen over others.
This kind of specious spoon feeding is far more detrimental to a listener than helpful. This is especially in regards to non-programmatic music, because it suggests that there is a correct way for the listener to interpret what is heard.
As much as it may offer certain insights into the background of a given composition, correlating the composer's life with his or her work is not necessarily relevant in understanding it. The reason is simple: music and art are not created only at the conscious level. If this were the case, it would be highly unlikely that the depth found in a seminal piece by a composer such as Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto" would be present. Moreover, it is impossible to ever know exactly what Beethoven was feeling or thinking at the time the composition was penned despite what may have been occurring in his or her life at the time. Even if we were to know precisely what the composer was thinking, it still does not account for the subconscious elements that will be invariably infused into the composition.
If a composer had a specific program in mind for a work, it provides only a general framework or background for the listener. The program itself does not fill in all the pieces which would prevent or deny the listener from forming his or her own impressions. A work of Romantic literature does not create a world for the reader independently of him or her. This world must be created by the imagination of the individual, regardless of how the artistic medium (e.g. literary, musical, etc.).The listener is just as much a part of the composition as the composer who conceived it. This applies to both programmatic and non-programmatic music alike.
If absolute music is to transcend the written word as Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and others felt it does, is it not contradictory to attempt to guide a listener through a composition? The entire notion of suggesting or telling the listener what a composition is about is antithetical to the idea that the individual is the focal point as those practitioners of Romanticism did..
The individual does not refer only to the composers and virtuosos of the Romantic era; it also refers to the listener. The composition is designed to invite the listener into exploring his or her own personal feelings. If a composition is performed well, the responsibility of gleaning impressions is entirely up to the listener. If the listener fails to get anything out of the experience of listening to a composition being performed, it is more than likely the failure of the listener.
One of the great delights art offers is its ability to undergo different stages of metamorphosis throughout the life of the observer. In this sense the composition lives vicariously through the listener. It changes throughout time and thereby exists, as the Romantics perceived, in the past, present and future.
As much as hearing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the age of ten was an ear-opening experience, the affect of the piece on me is very different for me today.
Calling the composition a vehicle for the feelings of the listener, Rosen astutely captures the essence of music and art. There is no question that the way in which a listener perceives a work is a reflection of the person. It is unlikely that someone who is vacuous and guarded will gain as much from hearing a great piece of music as someone who is cognizant. To become an empty vessel into which the composition can be poured and digested takes courage and much faith.
In response to the scientific-based philosophies of the Enlightenment that preceded it, Romanticism sought to reestablish the magic and mystery in art and life. Any attempt to deconstruct art and music to a lowest common denominator only sterilizes it. Music and art do not present mathematical equations. On the contrary, they present personal equations possessing a multitude of answers. If a single, invariable answer existed for every work of art, there would never be any need to return to it later. The vehicle which Rosen speaks of is, in turn, reduced to nothing more than an equation that has only one invariable solution.
What magic can possibly exist for a listener if the goal is to dissect the composition into pieces without ever acknowledging its synergistic whole? Deconstruction not only strips the wonderment of the composition or piece of artwork, it also denies the listener or observer the element of self-discovery (and rediscovery). Ultimately, the individual must determine what the work means on his or her own without any external interference.