The Power Plant

In 1972, composer Leonard Bernstein returned to Harvard to live on campus and serve as the ‘Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry,’ a post first established in 1925. The most famous aspect of this prestigious role is the delivery of six public lectures. Bernstein’s cross-disciplinary investigation centered around music’s relationship with language.


“In any sense in which music can be considered a language—and there are some senses in which it cannot be considered a language—but in the sense in which it can be, it is a totally metaphorical language. Consider the etymology of the word metaphor: ‘meta’ – beyond. And ‘phérein’ – to carry. Carrying meaning beyond the literal, the tangible… beyond the grossly semantic. To the self-contained ‘ding an sich‘ of musical meaning.

Metaphor is the generator—the power plant—of music just as it is of poetry. Aristotle puts metaphor midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace. It’s a marvelous remark. It is metaphor, he says, which most produces knowledge. The artist cannot help but agree, nor can the lover of art. And Quintilian says it even more strikingly. He says that metaphor accomplishes the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything. And by everything he obviously meant our interior lives. The things that can’t be named otherwise. Our psychic landscapes and actions. And it is thus that poetry and music—but especially music, through its specific and far-reaching powers—can and does name the unnameable. And communicate the unknowable.”

(h/t Open Culture)