Here’s a brief anecdote that comes up a lot.
Robert Schumann sat at the piano to play a new composition to a friend. When Schumann had finished playing, the friend asked, ‘what does it mean?’ Schumann replied, ‘it means this’, and played the piece again.
I can’t remember where I first heard or read this. It’s been used in all sorts of treatises on aesthetics and whatnot. For me, it’s a superb example of what music has in common with myth: they are tautegorical. Tautegory is distinct from allegory. If allegory is a way of talking about something else — the meaning is to be unpacked or decoded — in tautegory, the meaning is what it relates. If there was another way of saying it, it would say it. With music, as with myth, we can talk about and around the piece — sometimes endlessly — but a description cannot replace the experience of the piece itself.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) introduced the term to modern aesthetics, when he defined the Symbol in Christian scripture as aei tautēgorikon: always tautegorical. Following Coleridge, F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) linked this explicitly to myth.
I don’t know if Schumann (1810-56) was familiar with Schelling’s argument (he was au fait with Romantic and Idealist literature, so it’s not impossible). And, of course, it may well be apocryphal anyway. (The story has also been attributed to Beethoven (1770-1827) and Schubert (1797-1828).) Nevertheless, it’s apt to associate it with the time of the discrete Romantic movements in poetry, music, and philosophy, and their investigations of the ineffable, or the transcendental.
The earliest published reference I can find to the anecdote is in Donald Whittle, Christianity and the Arts (1966, p. 52). This is cited in Leland Ryken, Culture in Christian Perspective: A Door to Understanding and Enjoying the Arts (1986, republished as The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, 1989, p. 129), where the alternative attribution to Beethoven is also claimed (p. 159, n. 6). The Schubert version, which is identical except that we are told that Schubert said nothing at all, but just returned to the piano, is told in Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz, Introducing Semiotics (1997, p. 27).
Coleridge writes about the ‘Symbol’ in Biblical texts as ὁ ἔστιν ἄει ταυτηγόρικον in The Statesman’s Manual (1816; page 40 in the edition here). This passing comment is helpfully glossed by Jon Whitman as ‘always saying something identical with itself’. Schelling acknowledges Coleridge in his discussion of myth and the tautegorical in Philosophie der Mythologie (1842). NB, the full title of Coleridge’s work is The Statesman’s Manual; or, The Bible, the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society. It speaks for itself.