LENOX -- Does anybody read those old guys Keats and Wordsworth anymore? As the Tanglewood season winds down, their thoughts come to mind:
Keats: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter Š"
Wordsworth: "For I have learned / To look on natureŠ, hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity Š"
Tanglewood ends. Silence returns.
Well, not entirely. The Berkshires are not a vacuum. There is music to be heard in the off-season -- not as much as in summer, true, but musical life goes on. There are plays, lectures and the other attractions lumped together as culture (not to be confused with entertainment, which often masquerades as "culture").
But after the crowds have fled and traffic has thinned, after the bravos and busy-ness die out, we of the year-round species can hear --- if we choose to -- the unheard melodies Keats could hear from the piper on that Grecian urn.
We can wander the woods, hills and streams in solitude and silence as Wordsworth did, and sense the spirit he sensed that "rolls through all things."
It’s that larger spirit, not the celebrity hunt that often excites Tanglewood audiences, that dwells in classical music. You can feel it alike in Beethoven’s "Pastoral" Symphony and Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring," both of which have figured in the season. Both celebrate the cathartic power of nature -- benignly in Beethoven’s case, barbarically in Stravinsky’s.
But as our poets suggest, there’s also music in silence. The fraught silences in Schubert’s last three piano sonatas, as played by Paul Lewis, said more than an hour of jabber in a restaurant or on a cellphone clamped to the ear. The sonatas themselves: Well, they’re a universe.
You could say these late-in-life compositions -- Schubert never heard them played -- are spiritual. But in that sense, a lot of music is spiritual, and the word is overused anyway.
Brahms’ silences. Sibelius’ silences. Beethoven’s silences. The actual sounds are enlarged by the silences. A performer ignores them at his or her peril. A listener, too.
At the deepest level, works like these are about the powers that make us human. It’s a message badly needed in a noisy, busy world that conspires to keep us from thinking beyond the next incoming message.
What ever happened to silence?
Again and again these days, you hear calls for classical music to reform itself -- often meaning to act more like pop. Classical music is changing even now, as it has always changed with different composers, performers, customs and times.
Conductor Stéphane Denève, for example, gave a pep talk to the audience about his program with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Even Leonard Bernstein, talker that he was, didn’t make a practice of speechifying at a concert. Now it seems perfectly natural and O.K.
Music itself is changing. You won’t get much sense of it at Tanglewood from the BSO, where Stravinsky and Shostakovich are about as late as it gets. But strong, communicative music is being written. You can hear it in Symphony Hall, and you can hear it at the Tanglewood Music Center, where George Benjamin’s stunner of a new opera, "Written on Skin," has just climaxed the Festival of Contemporary Music.
Tanglewood needs its warhorses, which the BSO can knock off with minimal rehearsal, and it needs its audiences, which demand warhorses and stars. Yet programs like the BSO’s Act III of Wagner’s "Walküre," Lewis’ Schubert and "Written on Skin" -- music that digs deep into the mysteries of life and death -- played to rows of empty seats.
Infusions of pop will inspire more beeps on those body-counting ticket scanners at the gates, but there’s something more, something bigger, to aspire to.
Silence is to music what a frame is to a picture. It’s amazing to see and hear concertgoers leap up and burst into a standing ovation as soon as the music ends -- even before it ends. (The standing ovation: It’s so common now it’s a standing joke.)
"Yeah!" an enthusiast in the audience shouted between movements of the Brahms Fourth last Saturday. This, in music that shouts "no!" to such responses.
What do these people hear -- or not hear? There’s a music behind the music -- Keats’ unheard music, Wordsworth’s stillness -- that requires an ability to be silent. (That, of course, is why there are overtures: a bridge into music.)
Tanglewood exists as a music festival for 10 weeks out of 52 and then poof! is gone. Take it from Prospero: "Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air."
For some of us, one kind of music begins when the other ends.