The Shape of Music: Maurice Sendak’s Insightful Forgotten Meditation on Fantasy, Feeling, and the Key to Great Storytelling
“Fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.”
By Maria Popova
“A rough sound was polished until it became a smoother sound, which was polished until it became music,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his ode to the enchantment of music. The trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered music “a laboratory for feeling and time.” Perhaps because we experience music with our whole selves, with sinew and spirit alike, it is impossible to consider it merely as a sound. Like light, it seems to be both particle and wave; a vessel, a form, a space for working out who we are and what we long for — an essential language for our inner storytelling, which is the narrative pillar of our identity. In consequence, the most powerful and enchanting storytelling, be it a fairy tale or a novel or a biography, has a certain symphonic quality that lends it its power and enchantment.
That is what Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) — one of the world’s most beloved storytellers — argued shortly after he revolutionized the literature of the imagination with his 1963 classic Where the Wild Things Are, in a beautiful essay titled “The Shape of Music,” originally published in a special 1964 children’s literature issue of the San Francisco Examiner and included a year later in Evelyn Rose Robinson’s excellent anthology Readings About Children’s Literature (public library).
Vivify, quicken, and vitalize — of these three synonyms, quicken, I think, best suggests the genuine spirit of animation, the breathing to life, the surging swing into action, that I consider an essential quality in pictures for children’s books. To quicken means, for the illustrator, the task first of deeply comprehending the nature of his text and then giving life to that comprehension in his own medium, the picture.
The conventional techniques of graphic animation are related to this intention only in that they provide an instrument with which the artist can begin his work. Sequential scenes that tell a story in pictures, as in the comic strip, are an example of one technique of animation. In terms of technique, it is no difficult matter for an artist to simulate action, but it is something else to quicken, to create an inner life that draws breath from the artist’s deepest perception.
In a sentiment evocative of Italo Calvino’s insistence on the art of quickness as essential to the magic of storytelling, Sendak adds:
The word quicken has other, more subjective associations or me. It suggests something musical, something rhythmic and impulsive. It suggests a beat — a heart beat, a musical beat, the beginning of a dance. This association proclaims music as one source from which my own pictures take life. To conceive musically for me means to quicken the life of the illustrated book.
In Sendak’s creative process, music — actual music, not merely the notion of musicality — becomes a kind of Rorschach test as ideas begin to take shape under its clarifying force:
All of my pictures are created against a background of music. More often than not, my instinctive choice of composer or musical form for the day has the galvanizing effect of making me conscious of my direction. I find something uncanny in the way a musical phrase, a sensuous vocal line, or a patch of Wagnerian color will clarify an entire approach or style for a new work. A favorite occupation of mine is sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk [demonic spirit from Jewish mythology], and allowing the music to provoke an automatic, stream-of-consciousness kind of drawing.
Sometimes, Sendak notes, these associative flights of musically propelled fancy become a kind of personal time machine, unlatching “childhood fantasies that are reactivated by the music and explored uninhibitedly by the pen.” Reflecting on “music’s peculiar power of releasing fantasy,” he recalls the centrality of music in his early memories — “the restless, ceaseless sound of impromptu humming, the din of unconscious music-making” that are a fixture of childhood’s make-believe — and wrests from it a universality:
All children seem to know what the mysterious, the-riding-fiercely-across-the-plains (accompanied by hearty, staccato thigh slaps), and the plaintive conventionally sound like; and I have no doubt that this kind of musical contribution is necessary to the enrichment of the going fantasy. The spontaneous breaking into song and dance seems so natural and instinctive a part of childhood. It is perhaps the medium through which children best express the inexpressible; fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words — beyond the words yet available to a child — and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music.
This musical quality, Sendak observes, is not only the chief animating force of his own work but also what he looks for in the work of artists he admires — artists who “achieve the authentic liveliness that is the essence of the picture book, a movement that is never still,” which children recognize and savor as native to their own experience. He points to André François and Tomi Ungerer
The sympathy I feel between the visual and the musical accounts for my liking to think of myself as setting a text to pictures, much as a composer sets a poem to music, and I have found that telling a story by means of related, sequential pictures allows me to “compose” with assurance and freedom. I do not, however, equate the musical approach to sequential drawings.
Sendak elevates William Blake — whose classic Songs of Innocence and of Experience he would come to illustrate in a rare gem of a book three years later, and who would would go on to be his greatest lifelong influence — as the highest master of quickening by means of musicality. (Blake’s particular musicality calls to my mind Aldous Huxley’s notion of music as a conduit to “the blessedness lying at the heart of things.”)
With an eye to “Blake’s incomparable genius,” Sendak writes:
How beautifully his Songs of Innocence and of Experience could be set to music, and how beautifully Blake did set them. The intensely personal images seem the very embodiment of his mystical poetry. His ingenious and wonderfully ornamental interweavings of illustrations, lettering and color visually animate the spirit of the poetry and create a lyrical vision of otherworldliness. And it is all expressed with an economy only the masters achieved.
Reflecting on the most resonant expression of this musical analogy in his own work, Sendak points to his lovely collaborations with the poet Ruth Krauss — so enchanting partly due to Krauss’s particularly uncommon originality, and partly due to poetry’s general quickening quality — and writes:
Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme, and perhaps the last page from I’ll Be You and You Be Me is the simplest expression of my devotion to the matter of music.
Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s lyrical reflection on the source of music’s supreme power, then revisit Sendak’s symphonic illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, his darkest yet most hopeful children’s book, and his wonderful conversation with Studs Terkel about creativity, storytelling, and the eternal child in each of us.
Photograph of Maurice Sendak by Sam Falk