“Many symbolists share the notion that all art should aspire to the condition of music, which was thought to be the most emotionally direct aesthetic medium” (Shaw J 2005). Music’s objective thus is indeed to evoke emotions, but it cannot imitate them as clearly as artwork. Love and pain can be drawn but their musical equivalent produces endless possibilities. This hard task of painting music is aided by examples of traditional religious symbolism, but the question then stands; how is it possible for music to so intimately communicate with each and every individual? Schopenhauer’s answer elaborates this conundrum; “Music is mimetic… by 'copying' and capturing the essence of those emotions (joy, pain, horror and so on)” (Schopenhauer A 1969). Without doubt composers can recreate real experiences. The rapid and erratic violin lines in Vivaldi’s Winter produce the imagery of a violent storm. But emotions are unchartered waters. Is love majestic as in the soaring runs and sweeping textures of Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet or is anguish heart breaking as in the dark orchestral colour’s of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde?
Composers have used variants in tone colour to extensively convey ideas and emotions not achievable using conventional harmony. In Bedřich Smetana orchestral work Má vlast (1872), the movement Vltava depicts the river Moldau as it runs from the forest to the countryside, through Prague and onto its joining with the river Elbe. Two flutes portray small intertwining brooks. The light and bouncy quality of the flute lines morph into string surges as river flows to form an ever-growing body of water. Smetana uses different timbres to express his journey, horn bursts represent a hunting party and polka connotes a rustic wedding celebration. Similarly Sergei Prokofiev develops symbolism in Peter and the Wolf. The work accompanies a children’s storybook were each character in the story is represented by their own instrument. Prokofiev’s achievement in contrast is astounding; that each instrument effortlessly sounds like the animal they rightfully correspond to.
A major breakthrough in contemporary symbolism came with the development of found sounds, where artists exploit objects not normally considered art. Found sounds enabled composers to accurately represent tone colours not previously available to them. “The musician may have a clear idea of the sound he desires to obtain, but it is, naturally, a musical idea.”(Chadabe J 1997) With the addition of field recordings, noise could not only accurately represent ideas but make the musical experience genuine. Pierre Schaeffer explored this in his Railroad Study sampling locomotives, calling the process musique concrete.
Whilst symbolism in music has been around for centuries, composers are constantly trying to give new meaning. Advances in techniques of composition have enabled composers to explore new and exciting ways of representation almost giving physicality to these sounds.
By Ben Seidman
Prunieres, H. n.d., ‘Musical Symbolism’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. xix, Issue 1, Pp. 18-28
Shaw, J. 2005, Symbolism, New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, viewed 28th April 2011,
Schopenhauer, A. 1969, Aesthetics : The Classic Readings, Blackwell Publishers
Chadabe, J. 1997, Electric Sound : The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, N.J.
Shepherd, J. Horn, D. Laing, D. Oliver, P. Wicke, P. 2003, Continuum Encyclopaedia of Popular Music of the World, Continuum, London and New York
Bratby, R.G. 2001, Vltava (Moldau), Classical Notes.co.uk, viewed 29th April 2011,