New Podcast: Classical Music, Conflict, and Identity in the Contemporary Novel

Katie Harling Lee

When we listen to classical music, some of us might think we hear a story in the melody – but others will not. Some of us might know about the life of the composer and project their biography onto the piece – but others will listen with ears unbiased by context. The problem is that meaning doesn’t actually live anywhere that can be pinpointed in a particular sound or melody. Novels, on the other hand, tell us a story both about the characters within the text, and the music they listen to. So what happens when we read about music in their fiction? Can novels also help us to imagine the story of a tune? Does it change our interpretation of the novel if we already know the song being referred to and ‘hear’ it in our mind as we read? These are difficult and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions, but Katie Harling-Lee invites you to try in this composition of words and music.

Stream here or download via your favourite podcast player.

Listeners are advised that this podcast includes some discussion of conflict and violence. Due to copyright restrictions, we’re unable to integrate some of the music directly in the podcast and the talk has been edited accordingly; however, you can listen to the relevant extracts, which will be indicated at the appropriate time in the talk.

  1. Shostakovich, Symphony Number 5, Movement 1 (00:09-01:22)
  2. Shostakovich, Symphony Number 5, Movement 3 (00:06-01:22)
  3. Shostakovich, Symphony Number 5, Movement 4 opening extract (00:09-01:22)
  4. Shostakovich, Symphony Number 5, Movement 4 closing extract (09:25-10:52)

More about this podcast

Counter to the cultural and political instability of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in contemporary literature we can find convictions about the powers of Western classical music as a source of hope, survival, and rebellion. When the world around them collapses, characters in contemporary novels thematically concerned with music turn to the ideal that classical music offers a hope for survival and escape. However, musical description in literary narrative lacks sound, which leads to very personal descriptions of the experiences of music listening in the novel, further affected by the characters’ individual experiences of the time and place of the conflict setting in which such music is heard. This raises questions relating to a recurring debate in music studies: can music be expressive of human emotional experience or is music only a structure of forms with no extramusical meaning?

To engage with the debate around the ‘meaning’ of music and how this is impacted by a (fictional) individual’s experience of the time and place of the conflict setting, this podcast places a selection of literary extracts describing the music-listening experience in dialogue with audio extracts of the pieces of music in question, using examples from Fugitive Pieces (Michaels 1996), Orfeo (Powers 2014), and Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Thien 2016). These texts demonstrate that while music itself may exist in sound, the human experience of music-listening cannot exist in a vacuum, as it is tied to a specific time and place for a specific individual. Just as conflict is ‘an assertion of individualism’ (Burton 1991), the novels’ descriptions of music listening assert characters’ individual interpretations of musical pieces, and the assertion of the individual becomes paramount to an understanding of the novels’ use of music, and ultimately of our own music-listening experiences.

This podcast was recorded during our series of Late Summer Lectures 2019. Hear more from the series.

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