Selected letters of Mendelssohn/Letter 29

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Berlin, 15th October, 1842.

There is a great deal of talking about music, and very little said to the purpose. My own belief is that words are inadequate to express it, and if it were otherwise I should end by leaving off composing music altogether. One constantly hears people complain that the meaning of music is so indefinite, it leaves them in so much doubt as to the significance intended to be conveyed in it; and yet they imply that language is intelligible to everybody. With me it’s exactly the opposite. And that not only with complete sentences, and so on, but single words also seem to me vague, indefinite, and very open to misunderstanding in comparison with real music, the music that fills one’s heart with a thousand things finer than any language. What any music I care for means to me is not an indefinite feeling which one might render definite by translating it into words, but something perfectly clear. And, therefore, all attempts to express these ideas strike me as accurate, perhaps, but always as unsatisfying, and that is the impression I gain from your own. Not that that is your fault; it is the fault of language itself which, indeed, must fall short here. If you ask me what was in my mind while composing a particular song, I answer, the song itself precisely as it stands. And if, indeed, there was in any case some particular word or particular sentence in my thoughts, I can tell no one what it was, precisely because that word does not carry the same significance to one person that it does to another, and it is only the song itself that can express the same meaning, or suggest the same emotion, to one as to the other.

Resignation, melancholy, worship, a hunting call; these words do not call up the same feeling in two different persons; what is resignation to one is melancholy to another, while a third person attaches no definite significance to either. If one were a downright keen hunter by nature, perhaps the hunting call would come to signify to one pretty much the same thing as worship, and the notes of a horn be veritably a sort of anthem. We should hear nothing in it but the hunting call, and however much we might discuss it with the huntsman we should never come to an agreement. The word would still be many-sensed, and yet we should both understand the music.

Will you let that pass for an answer to your question? It is, at least, the only answer I know how to make, and it is nothing itself but words of doubtful significance.

  1. This letter was written in reply to Herr Souchay’s question as to the meaning of some of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.”