Semiotic Analysis

In Thomas Turino’s Music as Social Life, he discusses the tools of semiotic analysis that are used to identify the components of a musical experience. These analytic tools include sign, effect, frame, symbol, icon, index, and object. In explaining and analyzing my own musical experience, I will use these tools to observe and dissect a personal musical experience.

On November 20th, I saw the incredible Yo-Yo Ma perform at Oberlin’s Finney Chapel with pianist Kathryn Stott. I was extremely privileged to see one of the most famous and talented classical cellists perform right on my college campus for only $13. He played a variety of works ranging from a Stravinsky Suite to compositions by highly influential Brazilian composers. In the second half of the performance, they began with a piece by Olivier Messiaen entitled Louange a l’Eternite de Jesus from Quatour pour la fin du temps. The piece was tender and beautiful but also horribly tragic. It began with only the cello, playing a doleful melody. As the piece continued it swelled from tragic to haunting. By the end, I was in tears. After the concert, I expressed my feelings about the piece to a friend. She admitted that she too had cried, due to the story of the piece detailed in the concert program. She explained to me that Quatour pour la fin du temps had been written by Messiaen, a French prisoner during World War II, while he was a prisoner of war. Now knowing this back story from the concert program that I had failed to read, I saw the intense message in the music. What I found most interesting was the fact that the music was so powerful that it displayed the same sentiment in sound that it did in a written description. 

Since knowing more of the back story of this piece and the circumstances under which Messiaen wrote the work, I am able to analyze it in a new, yet still deeply personal, way.

Semiotic Analysis:

Icon= the sadness of the music.

Index= We can tell that the music is in some way sad due to its structure. It relies on minor chords and dissonance that sounds as if the cello melody is constantly on its way to resolution but then led astray. Through these indexical structures, the music seems distant, mournful, and sparse, but also strangely hopeful.

Symbol= This sadness found both in the icon and indices is symbolic only because it relates to the composer’s struggle in the camp during World War II.

These three semiotic tools make up the sign of the piece. The sign signifies what the music we hear stands for, culturally, personally, and contextually. These components of sign described above compose the object. The object determines the sign and is a combination of the three elements of sign that highlight the fact that the sadness is both a result of the musical structure of the piece and also its context. My frame is that I’m a college student with no prior knowledge of the piece, and with limited knowledge about classical music in general, listening to this performance given by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott and later discovering the meaning of the work. For me, the effect of the piece is sorrow. Also, being Jewish, I feel a greater tie to the theme. Although, Messiaen, being French and a prisoner of war did not go through the same struggles that my ancestors did, as Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Yet, this piece has a greater effect on me given my own background.


Here is a link to a performance of the piece, although not the exact version referenced in this post:


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