My mother took up painting many years ago, and what struck her most was that for the first time, she described seeing colors and textures and saturation she’d never seen. She’d noticed, but had never seen. Trees had always been green and brown, their textures rough.  

After a few lessons, there became many types of green, and sometimes not green at all. Browns were sometimes black, and sometimes red, and her entire notion as to the color of trees shifted. The more she looked, the more she saw. Trunks were rough, but sometimes they weren’t, and it’s as though she’d stepped through the looking glass, but instead finding magic, she found authenticity.

Look at the leaf and call it green, but remember what we call by one name, might actually take more than an artist’s palette to describe. It’s subtle, and it’s obvious, and isn’t that the point? Music, as life, happens in layers, and it’s those layers that provide the most satisfaction.

When a concertgoer stops listening linearly in favor of a more nuanced layered approach, a whole palette of sounds emerge. Linear listening puts all its energy into a melodic line.  Melodies are sung in showers, and who hasn’t enjoyed that odd narcissistic, or at least indulgent moment? And yet, maybe that’s not enough.

Musicians describe sounds in terms of colors, in part because our language is limited, and our ways of describing sound are often held in metaphor. There exists a phenomenon described by some musicians called synesthesia. Synesthesia is a rare condition whereby the listener actually hears in color.  Certain sounds are associated with certain colors. Notes and chords, keys and cadences are to the eye tangible and indelible. Apart from this rare occurrence, most references are held in metaphor.

Metaphors are fine, and they serve a purpose, and yet they are limited. Just as a roadmap is limited:  it can only describe, but can never be.

Whereas the face of an Audemars Piguet wristwatch may be lovely to look at, it’s its inner workings that give these great pieces their value. All the parts have to work perfectly, and in sync in order to create “timeless” craft. So too is the work of the greatest composers.  Schubert understood the value of the watchmaker; in fact one can hear this distinctly in the 2nd movement of the Great C Major symphony. During its exquisite B section, that is, the moment after the principal material, it’s the supportive material suggested by the cellos that provides the tenderness. How easily this can be overlooked if we listen (as we often do) only to the melodic line-to the obvious.

We are conditioned to listen for melody, and yet it’s the scaffolding, the watchmaker’s craft, that ultimately gives value. In the case of the Schubert movement, the celli coo in a supportive moment of gentle resolve. They lift the melody and proclaim its worth. They reflect, and describe, and remind us that, as John Donne suggests in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

       “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”   

So too is Schubert’s wonderful interplay between celli and violins. Whether he knew Donne’s remarkable 17th Meditation isn’t relevant, because we do. And that we do makes all the difference.

Schubert spun his melodic writing, as though it happened organically and without process. He touches on something wholly human as he whispers, and lulls, and yells, and makes human emotions audible. But it’s the other stuff, the supporting characters that make his work so timeless.

Colors become vivid and varied. One color melds into another, and it’s exactly that place of melding that gives it its beauty.

For the listener, it’s more than just “being in the moment,” or  “being fully present.”  It’s listening critically, and sometimes “hearing” moments that aren’t audible. Composers don’t necessarily write everything they hear, and it’s up to us to bring our experiences, our histories, and our inquiry to the experience.

When we hear something we can’t describe –when we can only hear in impressions or pictures– we are really listening.

To that end, invest in the Schubert Symphony and penetrate its layers. Listen to all its shades of green, or to any colors that come to mind, and see if your life isn’t enriched by the less apparent.

About the Author

Rictor Noren

Rictor Noren is a violinist and teaches at the Boston Conservatory of Music and MIT.

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