Kazuo Ishiguro, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, pinned his hopes to music before he committed himself to the novel. He abandoned this ambition as a young man, but nonetheless managed to carve space for himself to write lyrics for musicians like Stacey Kent. “One of the key things I learnt writing lyrics—and this had an enormous influence on my fiction,” Ishiguro told The Guardian in 2015, “was that with an intimate, confiding, first-person song, the meaning must not be self-sufficient on the page. It has to be oblique, sometimes you have to read between the lines.”
Ishiguro is hardly unique in having felt the pull of the lyre before the pull of the pen—James Joyce is said to have had a beautiful tenor voice, while Gabriel García Márquez auditioned for a radio singing competition as a child, and lost, inflicting no small embarrassment on his family. An even greater number of writers, whether they harbored musical aspirations or not, have been unable to turn away from writing about one of culture’s most elusive creations. Here is a collection of famous writers on the topic of music.
“Nothing is more futile than theorizing about music,” wrote the German critic and lyric poet Heinrich Heine, echoing the more often cited and apocryphal quotation, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
That music is the most singular of arts, and therefore the hardest to dissect, comes from a long line of thought. Walter Pater, the Oxford professor whose vibrant aestheticism influenced both Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf, claimed that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” A proper work of music is not so much about anything—it simply is itself.
Whatever the difficulties, writers will insist on writing about music. Sometimes music serves as a symbol, as when John Keats uses it when he wrote, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”—a romantic sentiment if there ever was one.
Singers and singing is a preoccupation of plenty of writers, with many seeing it as an emblem of vitality and verve. “If you have any soul worth expressing, it will show itself in your singing,” wrote the critic John Ruskin, and certainly this principle lies behind the appeal of acts today who can sell out 20,000-seat stadiums. Willa Cather, too, remarks on the raw, inimitable life a singer has, writing, “All the intelligence and talent in the world can’t make a singer. The voice is a wild thing. It can’t be bred in captivity.”
Music can also be cast as the battleground of cultural judgments, which writers have historically used as an occasion for snobbery. “The finer the music, the less the ignorant enjoy it,” said Honoré de Balzac in one of his more haughty moments. Or take fellow Frenchman and novelist J.K. Huysmans: “The loveliest tune imaginable becomes insupportable and vulgar as soon as the public begins to hum it and the hurdy-gurdies make it their own.” Voltaire also joined in this tradition, chastising the compositional fashions of the time when he said, “Music today is nothing more than the art of performing difficult pieces.” Perhaps there is something in Gallic water to impart such ressentiment.
Others, especially Shakespeare, are more ambivalent about music. Twelfth Night’s “If music be the food of love, play on,” may be the most famous line about music in the canon, but loses its meaning out of context. Duke Orsino is not pausing to appreciate rarefied musical experience or sensual delight, he is instead asking to be given “excess of it,” so that his appetite may be killed. Were it possible to vomit by way of music, that is what the duke chases. Similarly, in Measure for Measure, we hear that “Music oft hath such a charm, / To make bad good, and good to provoke harm.” There is an almost Platonic suspicion of music here, in which it is approached not so much as an exalted art but as a deceptive and manipulative force.
Though of course most of the literature on music is laudatory. “Music is a beautiful opiate, if you don’t take it too seriously," wrote Henry Miller, while his lover Anais Nin more or less concurred when she wrote that “Music melts all the separate parts of our bodies together.” Music as an inimitable salve to the spirit is advanced by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who said, “As oil will find its way into crevices where water cannot penetrate, so song will find its way where speech can no longer enter.”
Walt Whitman, the poet who mastered the art of combining the common with the noble in his verse, wrote that “All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments.”
“What passion cannot music raise and quell!” wrote the poet John Dryden in 1687, while in Don Quixote, Cervantes writes that “He who sings frightens away his ills.” Dylan Thomas was just as laudatory and faithful when he declared that “Dance tunes are always right.” On a good day, one imagines he would have made a lively wedding guest.
Though few, ultimately, have gotten closer to the mark than Friedrich Nietzsche, who insisted that “Without music, life would be a mistake.”