But there my triumph's straw-fire flared and funked;
Their betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men--
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
It's vapor done up like a newborn babe--
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!
-- Robert Browning, "Fra Lippo Lippi"
What is music for? It's a trite question, but one that I find myself wrestling with every time I sit in front of a piano.
Part of me wants to tie up every seam, preserving the illusion of a coordinated whole with a presentation so compelling and forceful that it makes you literally forget where you are. I want to ravish you, dear listener. I want you to believe that a bunch of vibrating air actually means something. (I want to believe it too.) And I want it to be aspirational and positive: this is a glimpse of something higher than the often-horrific, often-ridiculous way life can be. Something beautiful, that speaks to the soul.
At other times that approach feels like a supreme contrivance. An intellectualized put-on. A walking shadow, woven of escapist impulses. Shouldn't music at least occasionally take a penetrating and critical look at its own damned self? Point to the means by which it is made? Take you backstage? Sit you down at the desk upon which it was written? Stop in medias res to reveal the fragile, flawed humanity behind the end result?