In the Met there's a painting by Vermeer called Girl Asleep at a Table. It's an oddly arranged picture, the subject off to one side dozing on her hand, her elbow on a table with a bunched carpet and objects including a wine jug, an overturned large drinking glass, and, near the girl, a more delicate wine glass with some dregs. Just off-center of the painting is an open door. X-ray studies show that originally a cavalier stood in the doorway. Vermeer painted him out, leaving a door opening onto an unoccupied room with a table and mirror on the other side. This change was an utterly Vermeer move. With a guy in the doorway, we know who left the overturned glass, and we have a painting about something on the order of sex. With a void in the center, we have a painting about a girl dreaming of something we don't know about after having a drink with somebody we don't know. The empty doorway shapes a mystery.
Vermeer understood the power of withheld information. Composers have a similar understanding that in shaping sound, a nothing can be just as expressive as a something. It depends on the frame, what it is that echoes in the silence.
Some musical silences are simple enough. Recall the end of Handel's "hallelujah" chorus in Messiah, the brief pause of anticipation before the timpani-pounding climax.
Joseph Haydn was much given to musical wit, and the manipulation of silence had a place in his bag of tricks. There's the sublime joke that ends his string quartet from Opus 33, whose nickname is, in fact, "The Joke." It works like this. The piece ends and the audience applauds. Then inexplicably the music starts again. The embarrassed listeners quiet down. The piece ends again. The audience applauds again, a little tentatively this time. Once more the music cranks up. It ends. There are a couple of tentative claps. The music starts once more and finishes, leaving listeners with their hands in the air, afraid to applaud and, as the silence goes on, cracking up. It's the funniest silence in music, an effect that would be familiar to comedian Jack Benny. Robber: "Your money or your life! … Well?" Benny: "I'm thinking."
Haydn's most famous joke plays on a combination of two factors: his ability to convince you he's nice and predictable, while he actually sneaks around to kick you in the pants, and the presence in a slow movement of a pause that ends a rather dinky little tune. As soon as we've concluded we know how this tune works, things go boom.
Thus Haydn's so-called "Surprise Symphony." The point is that the surprise requires the previous silence for its setup. This is just one example of a remarkable quality in Haydn and his peers in the Classical period: their ability to be logical and surprising at the same time.
Beethoven was perhaps the first composer to treat silence as an actual motif, part of the basic conception of a piece. His overture to the tragedy Coriolan starts with some of the most searing silences in music.
At the end, when the hero falls on his sword, his faltering theme represents Coriolan bleeding away bit by bit. The course of the tragedy is captured in the journey from the active, violent silences of the beginning to the deathly silences of the end.
Beethoven's music covers the gamut of human experience, but one experience he generally left out was sex. He believed the erotic was not a proper subject for art, and he deplored the racy plots of Mozart's operas. The next generation of Romantic composers was not so prudish—least of all Richard Wagner, for whom sex was a serious business in life and in art. He wrote a whole opera on the subject, Tristan und Isolde. It ends with the "love-death scene," Isolde mellifluously expiring of ecstasy over the body of her lover. The opera's beginning is an image of the awakening of desire: a few whiffs separated by silence, then the deluge.
If Wagner defined German spiritualized sexuality, for Claude Debussy, sex was echt-French: feline and intoxicating. My nomination for the most deliciously erotic pause in music is near the beginning of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, based on a vaporous Stéphane Mallarmé poem in which our faun daydreams of an encounter with a nymph. In Debussy's realization, the faun's burgeoning dream is punctuated by this sultry silence, like a breath held in reverie.
When it comes to plain terror, it's hard to beat the silence after the conclusion of the fourth of Anton Webern's 1909 Six Pieces for Orchestra. It's labeled as a funeral march—in this case, a funeral not of this earth but in some nightmare cortege of the mind. Webern mostly wrote miniatures in which the sounds seem laid with utmost tact over an encroaching void. In the Six Pieces, written after his mother's death, Webern shaped one of the most viscerally wrenching works in the musical literature. The "Marcia funebre" features a percussion roll that mounts to a consuming roar punctuated by screaming brass until it falls suddenly into an abyss of nothingness.
Two American composers, each in his way, were fascinated with effects of chance in music, echoing the way sound happens in unplanned ways in concrete reality. In his youth, Charles Ives had listened to church congregations singing gloriously out of tune, drunk bandsmen playing in the wrong key in holiday parades, and the superimposed sounds of multiple bands on the march. He was the first composer to consider those phenomena not just as accident or incompetence but a vital part of the music. Whatever is authentic and real in life, Ives believed, is material for art. One of the signs of his reach for authenticity is the characteristic Ivesian ending, which seems to evanesce into silence, as if the music were continuing somewhere out of hearing. An example is the ecstatic end of his tone poem The Housatonic at Stockbridge, which builds up into a visionary whirlwind that cuts off to reveal an ambiguous fading harmony that suggests some other music heard by chance behind the foreground music.
It's similar to the Webern ending, but to opposite effect: Webern is existentially bleak where Ives is ethereal and transcendent.
John Cage pursued a career of making anything at all into music, and, naturally, he was drawn to silence—it's the title of his first book of essays. Silence was the overriding symbol for Cage's agenda. Artists from time immemorial had wanted their work to do something, mean something. Cage was having none of that. "How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)" goes the title of several of his essays. He aspired to meaninglessness, not in a German existential way but in a Zen way: All his music, whether for 12 radios (playing whatever happens to be on) or water gurgling in a seashell, aspired to the pure emptiness of silence. In his "Lecture on Nothing," he declared, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it." The epitome of that aesthetic, of course, was his most celebrated piece, the piano solo 4'33", in which the pianist sits there for the stated time playing nothing.
So there you have the power of nothing as it can be mysterious, funny, angry, tragic, sexy, terrifying, exalting, or an avatar of the spotless mind.