Ten years ago, when Michael Steinberg retired as the San Francisco Symphony's program annotator and music advisor, he had a farewell essay in the program, entitled "Why We Are Here." It is also part of the book For the Love of Music Steinberg cowrote with Larry Rothe, his long-time colleague at SFS.
Steinberg, who died Sunday at age 80, wrote memorably in that essay about music and talking about music, exercising his lifelong vocation and art:
"Tristan und Isolde, the very symbol for all that is recklessly emotional in music, depends for its effect on presenting a dissonance 15 seconds into the piece and refusing to melt it into consonance until 15 seconds from the end — something like five hours later. All that fever from an unresolved dominant seventh!
"I know that such talk can scare people and annoy them. But it's the talk that does it, the words — "dominant seventh," or even worse, "unresolved dominant seventh," "flat submediant," "Neapolitan sixth" — not the music itself.
"The words are useful: precise terms make conversation efficient and agreeable. Imagine the nuisance of not being able to say "bunt" or "béchamel" or "backhand"!
"The term "flat submediant" may alarm you. But I know your heart is pierced when, in Elgar's Enigma Variations, the strings sneak an E-flat under that delicate bridge of a suspended G to begin that noble paean to friendship, the Nimrod Variations …
In all his writing — urbane, sophisticated, encyclopedic, and always clear and illuminating — Steinberg elegantly bridged the daunting gap between academic knowledge and visceral experience of music, always aware of the importance of both, and — for the vast majority of listeners — the primacy of the latter.