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The Poetics of Musical Silence

Author(s): Thomas Clifton

Source: The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Apr., 1976), pp. 163-181
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Vol. LXII, No. 2 APRIL, 1976



TOtoFOCUS on the phenomenonof musicalsilence is analogous

deliberately studying the spaces between trees in a forest:
somewhat perverse at first,until one realizes that these spaces con-
tribute to the perceived character of the forestitself,and enable us
to speak coherently of "dense" growth or "sparse" vegetation. In
other words, silence is not nothing. It is not the null set. Silence is
experienced both as meaningful and as adhering to the sounding
portion of the musical object. Silence is experienced as embodied
substance or activity. This suggests that silence participates in the
presentation of musical time, space, and gesture. With the realiza-
tion that some musical silences are perceived as primarily temporal
or spatial or gestural, while other silences are perceived as any com-
bination of these, the task of an adequate description of musical
silence quickly manifestsitself.
If silence is distinguishable fromnothingness,it is because silence
is fundamentally not autonomous. In this respect "made" silences
are differentfrom "real" silences, e. g., the silence of outer space.
The significanceof silence is thereforecontingent upon a sounding
environment; in the resulting collaboration silence articulates the

Copyright? 1976 by Schirmer,Inc.


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164 The Musical Quarterly

sound, while sound confers a specific character on the silence. Both

Heidegger and Gusdorf have pointed out this necessary collabora-
To keep silentdoes not mean to be dumb. On the contrary,if a man is dumb
he still has a tendencyto 'speak'. Such a personhas not proved thathe can keep
silence,indeed he entirelylacks the possibilityof provinganythingof the sort.
And the personwho is accustomedby Nature to speak littleis no betterable to
show that he is keeping silentor that he is the sort of person who can do so.
He who never says anythingcannot keep silent at any given moment.Keeping
silentauthenticallyis possibleonlyin genuinediscoursing.'
Silence is not in itselfa particularlydense formof expression.It has meaning
only at the core of an existingcommunicationas a counterpartto it, or as the
final sanctionof an establishedlanguage. There are silencesof povertyand ab-
sence as well as pregnantsilences- and it is not the silence that makes the
latter full. ... Thus, silence possessesno intrinsicmagic: it is a blank in the
dialogue where the harmonicsof the existingaccord or discord may appear.
Silence gives voice to the depths,when they are in play, and to distances,if
thereare any.2

1. Temporal Silences

It is obviously not easy to separate musical silence into temporal,

spatial, or gestural modalities. Perhaps the artificialityof this separa-
tion can be rescued from impotence by letting the music itself sug-
gest how it illuminates any particular modality. In any case, I am
less concerned with imposing categories than with describing such
We can begin with a kind of silence whose main identifyingtrait
is that of a flat,undifferentiated,hard-edged object. This is a tem-
poral silence not because it itself is in motion but because its prin-
cipal task is to effecta temporal experience precisely by cutting off
a succession of events. The silence is a stop, a caesura. A word like
"flat" is used to indicate the silence's lack of significantshape or
gesture; "undifferentiated"refersto the absence of pulse or respira-
tion within the silence; and "hard-edged" describes the sharp con-
trastpresented by the sequence of sound/silence/ensuingsound.

1 MartinHeidegger,
Beingand Time,trans.JohnMacquarrieand EdwardRobin-
son (NewYork,1962),p. 208.
2 GeorgesGusdorf,Speaking,trans.Paul T. Brockelman(Evanston,Ill., 1965),
p. 90.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 165

This is the sort of silence presented in Ex. 1 below (from the

scherzo of Mahler's Seventh Symphony). The sudden assertiveness
of the timpani frightensthe movement off its metric track, and it
takes a repeated effortto get it going again. The experience of the
absence of a pulsating silence no doubt prompted Mahler to write
in the fermatas, a notational nuance which can be understood as
the result ratherthan the cause of the silence.
Ex. 1 Mahler,
Seventh third
Symphony, mm.147-50
Holzschligel kurz ku

Viola Celli pizz.

- pizz.

This example is instructive in that it provides a temporal experi-
ence in a negative way: the strong pulse is made conspicuous by
its absence, and we, as participants,have been abruptly thrown out
of the temporal life of the movement and back into ourselves. In-
stead of riding along with the movement, the percussive stroke and
ensuing silence create a momentary shift in awareness by briefly
turning from the time of the movement to our bodily time, since
it is in the nature of surprise to suddenly strengthenself-conscious-
ness. It is for this reason that we can distinguish absence from
nothingness, and can justifiably assert that in this silence the ab-
sence of any pulse actually provides a momentary opportunity to
grasp the rhythmof the movement from another perspective. (An
analogue might be the differentsorts of awareness one has of a river
in which one is at firstswimming, but then is magically ejected
from it onto the bank. The movement itself has not stopped, but
our experience of it has been interrupted.) It is helpful also to con-
sider whether the silence adheres primarily to the event just passed
or to the next (future) event. This can be most adequately de-
termined by considering whether one's experience of silence is
primarily that of surprise or anticipation. Here, the element of
surprise tends to attach the silence to the percussive blow; the re-
sulting silence is a bit too unfocused and unsettled actually to con-
stitutea pregnant,anticipatorysilence.

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166 The Musical Quarterly

On the other hand, the silences appearing just before the closing
measures of Berlioz's "Queen Mab" Scherzo clearly adhere to in-
coming events:
Ex. 2 Berlioz,Romeo et Juliette,"Queen Mab" Scherzo
ant. cyrn. Presto
1 Harp 67

Str. W.W. Str. Str

pizz-t t

PPP arco

There is some evidence why this should be so. While not absolutely
predictable, this moment is also not entirely unknowable. The
events leading up to it have helped considerably in forming and
trimming the nature of our anticipation. For example, the "stop
and start" quality of motion is presentedat the verybeginning of the
scherzo; the texture of "little atomies" and "wings of grasshoppers"
teeters on the edge of silence;3 finally,the combined effectof the
ritardando (at rehearsal no. 66) and the temporary withdrawal of
meter is one which prepares the auditor to anticipate something.The
consequent silences are then not encountered with surprise, since
they are heard as continuing, not interrupting,our projections; that
something, then, is the activityof drawing out the gossamer web of
an already established anticipation to a finer, more delicate line.
(At this point, it is important to note the distinction between an
activity of consciousness motivated by a silence and an activity as
part of the silence itself.)
Naturally, undifferentiatedsilences themselvescome in different
varieties. The boundaries of these silences, for example, need not
always be hard-edged. It is quite possible to experience a kind of
"sfumato" effectby a careful and deliberate smudging of the bound-
aries. Such is the case with the silent measure embedded in the well-
known opening to Debussy's Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Faun."
Once again it is primarily the minimalization of meter and rhythm
which accounts for the smoothness of this silence. With this piece,
however, the effectis that of arrestinga breath rather than a pulse.
The experience of rhythmin these opening measures is essentially

3 Shakespeare'sRomeo and Juliet,Act I, scene4.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 167

the rhythmof phrase and gesture. It is this rhythmwhich is gently

arrested,with the result that the silence is measure 6 "sounds" as if
the piece had momentarilystopped breathing. An important aspect
of this event is the placement of the silent measure: very near the
beginning, before a more pronounced regularity of respiration is
established. Indeed, the influence of measure 6 is strong enough to
cause the music to retrace its steps before continuing on its way.
These initial examples appear to me to epitomize Levi-Strauss's
insightinto one of the purposes of musical silence:
Music appeals not only to psychologicaltime but also to physiologicaland even
visceraltime; thisappeal is not absent in the case of mythology, since the telling
of a storymay be of "breath-taking" interest,but it is not as essentialas in music:
any piece of counterpointincludes a silent part for the rhythmicmovementof
heartand lungs.4

In furtherexploring the notion that silence may adhere to the

outgoing or incoming sound event, let us consider a differentsort
of temporal silence: one whose content is ridged by the perception
of continuing pulses. This is the sort of silence which Leo Smit ob-
served emanating fromStravinsky:

By followingthe printednotes and carefullylisteningto the sounds issuingfrom

the piano and fromhis mouth- indeed his whole body was tensewithmusic- I
was able to grasp in an entirelynew way the composer'sintentionsas expressed
in the subtle relationshipbetween the fixedsymbolsof notation and the fluxed
- I
pitchesof physicalsound. The silences of rests took on a fierceintensity
could see the beats hammeringaway in his brain as he breathedin anger-
so unlike the passivewaitingor the commoninjudious trimmingof the supposed
non-musicof rests.5

There is a moment in the Menuetto of Schubert's Piano Sonata

in C Minor, D. 958, in which the silence appears to adhere equally
to both outgoing and incoming edges. One simultaneously experi-
ences surprise at the withholding of the expected resolution, and
anticipation of an event whose featureshave already been forecasted.
This experience is compounded by another, somewhat milder sur-
prise as the silence ends:

4 Claude Levi-Strauss,
The Raw and the Cooked, trans.Johnand DoreenWeight-
man (NewYork,1969),p. 16.
5 Leo Smit, in "Stravinsky:A Composer's Memorial," Perspectivesof New Music,
IX/2 (1971),90.

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168 The Musical Quarterly
Ex. 3 Schubert,Piano Sonata in C Minor,D. 958, thirdmvt.(Menuetto),mm. 2942


do -i -

1-v? >

In fact, the music does not touch ground for a while. The two
silently pulsating measures collaborate with the harmonic implica-
tions to make the phrase between these measures sound like an in-
sert or parenthesis. A good idea of the way in which silence be-
comes both necessaryand significantcan be gotten by rewritingthe
piece, omitting both the silences and inserted phrase, and main-
taining the previouslyestablished register.
A ridged silence can also adhere distinctlyto the incoming edge
of a musical passage. Charles Rosen points out a good example of
this phenomenon in Haydn's String Quartet in E-flat, Opus 33,
No. 2. The reason for this particular kind of attached silence lies
in the handling of dynamic contrasts: "[The] brilliance of Haydn's
dynamic conception comes from the fact that each successive stage
is an echo of a beat and not a beat itself,so that the weight of the
beat is feltin the silence and reflectedin the sound."6
Ex. 4 Haydn,StringQuartetin E-flat,Opus 33, No. 2, thirdmvt.
I I Ff

pp p f S Sf Sf f
ff I

j f

8f, pp1 p
A_- _- A

It takes a moment to receive the full meaning of this event, which is

The miracle grows
precisely that sound can be an echo of silence.
when one realizes that this is not a uniquely musical phenomenon,
that it occurs in speech too, when one articulates in words what was
to realize
just implied in a pregnant silence. But the crucial thing
here is the affinity between music and speaking, something alto-

6 Charles Rosen, The Classical Style (New York, 1972),p. 91.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 169

gether differentfrom the alleged affinitiesbetween music and lan-

guage. (I shall return to another movement of this quartet later.)
The clearest example of a ridged silence which adheres to an
incoming edge is the silent beat with which so many compositions
begin. But while the idea itselfis clear as an experience, it is not so
easy to describe how and why this initial beat is experienced. This
sort of silence, which bridges the gulf between one's own (bodily)
time and the time about to be unfolded, is already more an essential
part of the piece itselfthan a part of the physical space in which the
piece is being performed. This is the silence of pure anticipation,
created now not by temporal or textural strategiesbut by the totally
impending presence of a work on the verge of becoming. It mani-
festsitself especially curiously when attached to a syncopated begin-
ning. One need only refer to the opening of Webern's Symphony
or of Stravinsky'sSymphonyin C to verifythe audibility of an open-
ing syncopation.
To understand the temporal character of an initiating silent
beat we have to refer again to the casual remark made earlier, that
"time is about to be unfolded in the music." The more frequent ex-
pression is that music is unfolded in time, thus inadvertentlycon-
fusing performancetime with what is performed,and time itself as
an attribute of the world. But if we understand the formerexpres-
sion correctly,then we understand also why anticipation is felt as
temporal. In order to experience time one must be conscious of
occurring events or changing objects. When a piece of music begins,
both conditions are put into play: the event is the beginning of the
piece, and the "object" is the person, who undergoes a change of
consciousness, attention, attitude, or mood. This relationship is im-
plied in the etymologicalaffinity between "begin" (anfangen, capere)
and "grasp" or "perceive" (fangen,percipere). The silent beat func-
tions as a specific activity which illuminates the general process of
linking the occurrence of the piece to changes in personal conscious-
ness. For the duration of the initial rest,this activityitself is briefly
lit up, followed by the result of the activity,namely, the sounding
elements of the composition. More specifically,a syncopated open-
ing is heard as either a contractionor expansion of a silent duration
by a musical sound effectedbefore or behind the temporal line con-
stitutingthe expected boundary of that duration. If the silent dura-
tion contracts,it is because the incoming sound absorbs a bit of that

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170 The Musical Quarterly

silence; if it expands, the silence itselfextends its boundary further

into the sound than is expected. A syncopated opening is the con-
firmation,arriving a bit earlier or later than scheduled, of a belief
that one is beginning to have a musical experience. None of this
language is going to make any sense, however, unless one observes
the motions of his body, however sublimated they may be, as it
yields its time to the time of the syncopated opening. The body
knows exactlywhat to do with such an event.
A final example of temporal silence combines every type dis-
cussed so far. I refer again to Haydn's Quartet in E-flat,specifically,
to the ending (or endings) of the finalmovement.
Ex. 5 Haydn,StringQuartetin E-flat,Opus 33, No. 2, last mvt.
? Adagio 5

I F 1
0, 71- op

I'- r G.P"

G.P. I I G.P.

opslo -

1' iLJ T i..P

The silence before the adagio passage leaves time for the beat to
flattenout, so that as we pass from measure 148 to 150 to 152 the
silences become progressivelymore undifferentiatedand homoge-
neous. But with the return of the presto tempo, surprise and
anticipation combine with a growing exasperation with, and eventu-
ally a humorous acceptance of, the quartet's seeming inability to

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 171

recognize its own ending. And because the belief in "ending" is

also at this point rather strong,the reawakened pulsating silences at
measures 155 and 159 once again tend to flattenout. The "closing
time" of the piece is inflatedto cover not only the very last measure
but all the events within measures 153 and 172. This inflation of
an ending process is one factorwhich tends to cut offany reverbera-
tion of silent pulses; another factor (another aspect of the same pro-
cess) is the deliberate mixing of a musical time and the time of our
own bodily continuity,in which the musical time is unfolded. It is
this interaction of two times, combined with all the feelings and
beliefs about the musical events themselves,which again contributes
to the pulseless quality of these closing silences.

2. Silences in Registral Space

In many ways, describing the use of silence as a spatial element

in music is simply to regard the same (temporal) phenomenon
from a differentperspective. The common bond is the notion of
form; and musical silence, like "empty" space in sculpture, has a
lot to do with the way in which a piece of music is formed. Regarded
fromthe point of view of registralspace, silence can be said to func-
tion in any of the followingways:

A. Highlighting the arrival of another part, or a differentactivity

in the same part.
In the fugue subject below, observe how the C-double-sharp/
D-sharp motion creates the register to be later used by the answer,
while the remainder of the subject creates the silence which now
occupies that register. Sound and silence thus collaborate in that
sound provides a place of habitation, while silence guarantees the
availability foroccupancy of that place.
Ex. 6 Clavier,Book I
J. S. Bach, fromFugue XVIII, Well-Tempered


This interplay and cofunctioning of sound and silence can become

quite dramatic, especially when the boundary between sounding
and silent registersprovides the occasion for tension. There are mo-
ments when silence is felt as a pressure or an obstruction, resisting

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172 The Musical Quarterly

the intention of a sounding part to move from one register to

another. This correlation between tension and the formativeprocess
is particularlymanifestedin the example below, from Berlioz's "Le
Spectre de la Rose." The melodic arch beginning at "Ce ldger par-
fum" achieves a special intensityprecisely because of the felt space
beneath it. The only "audible" means of support is this upward
pushing silence, against which the descending bass line has to press
to bring the singer, the music, and the listener to the arrival on the
low A:
Ex. 7 Berlioz,"Le Spectre de la rose," fromLes Nuitsd'etW

ni De Pro - fun- dis. Cc l - ger par-fum est mon

14 poco cre seen

g- , - me, . . .. -me,
Ce 1 par-fum estmon- Et
- '-,ger j'aIr

cm sen
do c ralll
, f, ,, I
OCO, ,..

ri- ve, jar-ri - ve du pa - ra-dis, Jar-ri - ve, j'ar-

do nf cso. trasc.
" "! -[ 1[Ii ,

Copyright? 1969 by G. Schirmer,Inc.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 173

B. Emphasizing long-spanconnections.
This heading is familiar to those who already understand the
notion of "obligatory register." But it is interesting to note that
what makes this notion structurallyand aurally relevant is that cer-
tain registersare not occupied all the time. If they were, we should
have no clear guide for interpreting tones which are structurally
important and those which are not. We must, therefore,consider
the formative role that silence plays in isolating and defining a
structural register. This role is differentfrom the first function,
described above, in two ways. An importantdegree differenceexists
between the way in which sound and silence both contribute to the
shape of purely local events, and the way in which they contribute
to the connection of nonconsecutive events. The temporal expan-
sion involved in the latter makes greater demands on our ability
to experience prolongation and preparation. The second difference
- a difference in kind
--exists between the primarily affective
function described above and the more structuralfunctiondescribed
in this section. To put it more simply,section A presented examples
of the way silence is used to express "how" the music is speaking,
while in this section, the adherence of silence to the grammar of the
musical statementis being examined.
The notion of obligatory register has, of course, already been
discussed in the writings of Heinrich Schenker, Oswald Jonas, and
Ernst Oster. To their comments I shall add two things: a sugges-
tion to listen to the handling of registralsilence in the many works
cited by Oster in his article on the large-scale connection,' and an
example of registral silence from an orchestral work, the introduc-
tion to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
Ex. 8a. Beethoven,SeventhSymphony,Introduction
mm. .1 _ 15 21 40 43 53-62

Here, brackets enclose areas of silence attached to islands of sound

located by measure numbers. Beethoven frequently helps the lis-
tener in understanding the importance of these high silences. Ob-
serve how he leads the opening gestures away from the space of a3:

7 Ernst Oster, "Register and the Large-Scale Connection," Journal of Music

Theory,V/2 (1961), 54-71.

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174 The MusicalQuarterly

the motionnot only is downwardbut becomesprogressively darker

in timbreas the line is takenby oboes, clarinets,and horns:
Ex. 8b.
Clar. Horn

However,in measures14-15,the silence is rapidlyfilledin by the

flute'sascendingpassage. Indeed, not only does Beethovenclearly
carve out specificareas of silence,but assignsthe flutethe task of
creatingthesesilencesand fillingthemin withstructurally important
Ex. 8c. --


Once the main tone e3 is reached (at measures53), two important

eventsoccur: the firstviolinsstab into the upper silence,continuing
to bringit to our attention,and later(measures57-62),the alterna-
tion of silencewitha multitudeof e's appears as a condensationof
the more farflungalternationof sound and silencewhichhas been

C. Creatinggapsor absencesin registralspace.

Some of the discussionof temporal silences centeredon the
ability of a pulselesssilence to create a heightenedawarenessof
musical time. Perhaps the reason for this is the realization that
musicaltime is a fragilestructure, held in being by a participating
consciousnesswhich is now required to do more work to hold the
pulselesstimestogether.As Merleau-Ponty writes,a "break in time
cannotoccurunlesseach of the twospans is of a piece."8So it is the
verycontrastofa pulsed timebeingemptiedinto pulselesstimethat
heightensthe awarenessof an underlyingunity.A similarheighten-
ing can be effectedby the handlingof registralspace. Here, a gap
is createdwhichseemsto absorbor evenratherbrusquelyto swallow
up a prolongedsound or a more activegesture.Althoughobviously
a metaphor,thissortof silencecould be likenedto a black hole in
space,havinga definiteedge into whichvisible mattercan fall and
disappear.The resultis not just emptyspace but an invisiblepres-
8 Maurice Merleau-Ponty,Phenomenologyof Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New
York, 1967),p. 438.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 175

ence, and is precisely experienced as "not-given." But rather than

feeling anticipation or surprise,such a silence is felt as a loss. Again,
consciousness does more work in endeavoring to keep the "just-
having-been" within the horizon of the now. The paradox is that
we feel the loss of tones which have stepped over the edge (or have
been pushed over), and at the same time feel that, without the edge,
the significance of the music would be not only less effectivebut
The last measures of Alban Berg's Lyric Suite end the com-
position is an empirical sense, of course, but the manner of that end-
ing involves a consideration of the role that silence plays in achieving
its unique phenomenal ending. One by one, the instrumentsdrop
off,drop out; its registersempty themselves of all perceivable con-
tent,and only the viola remains to die away gradually on a repeated
The uniqueness of this particular ending lies in the way it en-
larges some of the processes involved in the general notion of ending.
It seems that silence is used here to throw light on the very process
of disengaging oneself fromthe composition. This process results in
the form of notation chosen by Berg, a notation which cuts short
any attempt at interpretingthe silences as primarilyeither temporal
or registral.What we feel is not so much an absence of musical time
or space as the piece itself becoming absent, and with it, its phe-
nomenal world. It is rather unnerving to see those time signatures
referringto a meter not given or those staves referringto a register
not given. And it is this process which creates in consciousness a com-
plex web of feelings: First, the withdrawal of the piece into silence
is an act which intensifiesawareness of the bond between ourselves
and it. Second, one is aware of a feeling of resistance toward the
moment when it will reside only in recollection; this resistance in its
turn is softened by the smudging of the usually distinctline between
the time of the piece and one's own time, or between presentnessin
real or imagined performanceand presentnessin recollection. Third,
"the end" here involves the experience of a duration including both
perception and retention ("primary" or short-termmemory),or, in
other words, the experience of perceiving the music moving toward
its end while keeping in mind "the way it was."9

9Cf. Hans Redlich's discussion of the last movement of the Lyric Suite in his
Alban Berg: Versucheiner Wiirdigung (Vienna, 1957),p. 201.

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176 The Musical Quarterly

A similar example, although not as explicit, is the ending to the

final movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Once again, the gaps
take on a very human significance, as pointed out quite convin-
cingly by Leonard Bernstein in his lectures at Harvard University.'o
The composition, by gradually giving way to all those silences, re-
veals to the listener the process of its own ending (there are five
indications of "ersterbend" in its last thirty-threemeasures). More
metaphorically, the ending is about Mahler's foreknowledge of his
own death, as well as about the ending of a styleof music as Mahler
knew it.
The ramificationsof this role of silence coincide with Heidegger's
phenomenological description of death, as discussed in Being and
Time." We can consider the way music presentsthe essence of dying,
rather than just the metaphor of dying,by removing the presupposi-
tion that there is only one kind of reality, the material, sensually
evident kind. In any case I think it is importantto realize that when
Mahler writes "ersterbend" he is not thinking only metaphorically.
After all, we do not have to think in fancy images; we can always
look at, and listen to, what is actually happening. For one thing, it
is obviously true that every composition moves toward its end, even
certain contemporarycompositions which "finish" in an incomplete
manner. We can say that its ending is impending, imminent on the
musical horizon. But so, for instance, is a development section "im-
pending" on an exposition; the feeling of impending conveyed by an
ending must therefore be of a special quality, not comparable to
other kinds of impending situations. This particular quality can be
defined as a situation devoid of any furtherrelationships,which the
piece cannot avoid, and beyond which it cannot go, in the same ex-
periential mode. The expression "devoid of any furtherrelationships"
is left open with regard to its interpretation.In general, it means the
nonavailability or absence of any elements capable of receiving what-
ever relationships a mind wishes to draw out of them. Speaking
more phenomenologically, if I were the piece of music, I would ex-
perience my end when I become finallyand irrevocably disengaged
from relations which I have formed with my past and any possible
future. (Luckily for music, we can, of course, play the piece over

10 Leonard Bernstein,in the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University,

1973,recordedon Columbia Records.

11 Op. cit.,pp. 289-311,passim.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 177

again and bring it [back] into being.) The single point that I wish
to inferfromall this is that the use of silence can be an efficientand
effectiveway of removing the possibility of constructing relation-
ships. Just as mankind is a networkof relationships, the composition
is to the extent that it is capable of presenting a complex of musical
and transcendentalrelations; and when silence intervenesto remove
those relations completely,the piece itselfpasses over into nonbeing.
It then has to be reawakened, or relived, in memory or in another
At this point, I would not want to convey the impression that the
two compositions cited here uniquely present the notion of silence
as absence, or that this kind of silence must occur only with endings
of a special nature. It is not difficultto findexamples in the literature
of the special effectthat a gapped silence has on the flowof melody.
Indeed, Joseph Kerman specifically describes the subject to Beet-
hoven's Grosse Fuge as gapped.12 Beethoven himself describes the
melody of the middle section of the Cavatina of his Opus 130 as
"beklemmt" ("oppressed"). To understand the constitutiverole that
silence plays in conveying the quality of "oppressed," tryplaying this
passage legato, substitutingsounding durations for the rests:
Ex. 9 Beethoven,StringQuartetOpus 130, "Cavatina"

IIo pr P
_~jw ,I

V mr100 I.- -. . . 1 06 l
. . . II I I I I !

__ I I III I I J
', ', L.. . .. , .. .
1. 1r
Still another example of gapped silences in the interiorof a work
can be observed in the second variation of the slow movement to
Beethoven's Opus 135. As with all these examples, the experience of
a melodic line threadingits way along the edge of nonbeing includes
another, opposing tendency,namely, the resistance of the melody to
actually stepping over the edge and disappearing. The resulting
interplay between sound and silence is not so much an agreeable
12 Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven
Quartets (New York, 1967),p. 277.

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178 The Musical Quarterly

dialogue as a confrontation,producing, according to differentcon-

texts, a rhythmic stiffness,or a halting, staggering effect in the
melody. Paradoxically, it is precisely this confrontation which en-
hances the experience of continuity,since both the melodic flowand
the gaps call attention to the phenomenal field which is their com-
mon possibility.

3. Silences in Motion

Of course, not all silences demonstrate this peculiar gapping

tendency.The literatureis just as full of instances in which melodic
motion carries itselfrightthroughthe silence, and these tend to look,
in termsof the visual appearance of the score itself,verymuch like the
gapped silences described above. In fact,there is no way to determine
which is which except by listening; and there is no alternative to in-
cluding the contributions made by the listening subject in the de-
scription. I mention this because the sort of silence which is ex-
perienced as moving owes its genesis primarily to the experiencing
body, to the listener moving to the music in such a way as to cause
the gesture to bridge the gap between points of sound. As might be
expected, fairlyclear examples of moving silences can be found in
music to which the body can easily dance. Ex. 10 includes a silence
which not only is in motion but in which one can actually experience
a motion which is changing direction:
Ex. 10 Mahler,FifthSymphony,thirdmvt., 6

J -
Agop.. i i
- w

In a rhythmicpatternlike K;
the change in direction involves
a characteristicrebound offthe firstbeat and a landing on the third
An even more interestingpossibilityis a gesture which moves in
the spatial dimension of depth rather than the dimension of ver-
ticality. Referringonce again to Mahler, that master of gesture, we
find in the firstmovement of the Third Symphony (at 42 in the
score) a two-notegesture which at firstrecedes, then comes forward,
and finallyrecedes again. It is important to understand that these
brusque announcements are not just being presented with changing
dynamic levels, but that these changing dynamics create a curving

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 179

motion, away from,toward, and again away from the listener (who
is, of course, the zero point of all possible coordinates of lived space).
And it is this motion in which, in my listening, the intervening
silences participate.
Ex. 11 Mahler, first
mvt.,(at 42)

w- OP 10
V?., Cb. Trb., Tuba


s,. -v if II"low i -

------- --- --- -- --- ---

Vc. Cb. Trb.,Tuba Vc.,Cb. Trb.,Tuba

I close with a similar example of moving silence, the enigmatic
"grand pause" in the second movement of Elliott Carter's Piano
Concerto. Here, the impression of motion is conveyed partially by
dynamic control, but mostly by texture and register. Carter de-
scribes the overall idea of the concerto as a "dramatic . . . conflict
between the pianist, whose part emphasizes sensitivity,variety of
feeling, and virtuosity,and the orchestra, which progressivelydis-
sociates itselffrom the piano part, becomes increasingly insensitive,
unvaried and brutal... . . He also describes the particular moment
seen below, as a "big stringsound effect. . . crowding the piano out,
reducing its part to almost nothing.""14(See Ex. 12, page 180.)
By carefullycontrolling registerand dynamics, the "path" taken
by the piano sounds, in its retreat from the wall of stringsound, can
be heard as being compressed to a single thread on fl, dying away at
measures 614-618, and reappearing on the other side of this sonic

13 Elliott Carter (with Allen Edwards), Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds (New
York, 1971),p. 105.
14Ibid., pp. 109-10.

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180 The MusicalQuarterly
Ex. 12 ElliottCarter, Piano Concerto, second mvt.

,m benseni//o



Brr7 3p p
- po C
pP " , ,

I I -I I

Br (henin Tmpo)Sr
>? Hn

Tp T"- -i


T1> run

1-% ; ; #
_. pp. :.. __

Copyright@1967 by AssociatedMusic Publishers,New York.

All rightsreserved.Used by permission.

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The Poetics of Musical Silence 181

arch. But "dying away" does not mean (in this case) "being gone."
It is, rather,as if those F's disappear beyond the threshold of audi-
bility, but, being still there, return over the threshold (after having
observed that the string sound itself has disappeared) and begin
expanding again.

4. Conclusion

Implicit in all the examples above is the presence of the varied

interaction of silence with musical tension. It seems safe to say that
the experiences of anticipation and surprise are at least linked up
with the experience of tension as being either maintained at a con-
tinuous level or increased. On the other hand, silence also functions
effectivelyas a means of drawing off,or grounding, the amount of
felt tension, as in the conclusions to the Lyric Suite and Mahler's
Ninth Symphony.With the recognition of the element of tension,
which is never wholly absent from musical discourse, the network
of relations that silence forms with other elements is now circum-
scribed, at least in outline. This article has attempted to show that
silence, since it is not nothingness,is an experienced musical quality
which can be pulsed or unpulsed in musical time, attached or de-
tached to the edges of a musically spatial body, and finally,which
can often be experienced as being in motion in differentdimensions
of the musical space-timemanifold.

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