After Silence, That Which Comes Nearest

Part of the Comparative Philosophy of Religion book series (COPR, volume 1)


Poets and philosophers have often wonderingly noted music’s miraculous and paradoxical ability to express the ineffable. However, the mechanics of historical musical expression, relevant though they are, are not addressed. By the mid-nineteenth century, the expressive vocabulary of western instrumental music—closest to the inexpressible itself, since it did not rely on words—was highly developed and well understood, encompassing conventions of genre, key, texture, and individual musical figures. For example, a particular horn gesture would reference not only horns themselves but the hunt and all the outdoor vigor associated with it, and a barcarolle evoked not just the Venetian gondolier’s serenade but also the intimacy of the couple in the boat, the sweet lapping of the wavelets, and the blissful contentment of a carefree afternoon on the canals. Emotions were thus accessed by reference to the more quotidian aspects of life with which they were associated. Today, though, much of this language has been forgotten. Ultimately, what to many of us sings of the Infinite might in its own time have evoked something far more explicit or even everyday, and (as Mendelssohn believed) it was music’s specificity that made meanings impossible to discuss, not the opposite. Thus, musical expressions of the ineffable and thoroughgoingly effable are far closer than we might suspect, with perhaps the key difference lying in the musical and cultural experience of the listener, not in the music itself.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Northern ColoradoGreeleyUSA

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