''The best discourse upon music is silence.'' So wrote composer Robert Schumann, one of history's best and most prolific music critics. And I'm sure he was not the only one, musician or non-musician, who has harbored such a dialectic: the reverence for the unnamable in musical art and the explosive clamor for ways to describe it to one's fellow beings. I'm not certain that the word count in all the writings about music over the past 200 years would turn out to be greater than the number of notes put to staff paper. But I am unwilling to bank on any wide discrepancy.
The question of why so many individuals - plenty of good musicians among them , too - have seen fit to rattle on verbally about nonverbal music (when we all ought to know better) is a teaser that has puzzled me for years. Since I also am guilty of trying to strain the molasses of music through the cheesecloth of words, there must be something of an explanation lurking, though it habitually eludes me.
But there is a sense of comfort in considering that the best of the writing on music has been of some benefit and worth the trip. Schumann himself, perhaps a more consistent critic than composer, founded his own musical newsletter and was an energetic recording secretary of the arts scene of the 1840s, while also lifting contemporary tastes.
Modernism, pluralism, and literacy have given rise to the need for guides like Jacques Barzun, who has brought so much common sense to bear on music and all the other arts. Guides and chroniclers are one side of the coin, the obverse being the from-inside-out world of the musical diarist. In the pure sense, of course, that's Beethoven and Shostakovich, who wrote anguished diaries for string quartets to play.??? But plenty of other musicians have sought a verbal complement to what they were doing, and these are often fascinating windows onto a rarefied world.
Alfred A. Knopf has recently released the sixth of composer Ned Rorem's diaries, ''Setting the Tone.'' Rorem is among the best-known musical authors of our time, and very likely the most problematic as well. ''Setting the Tone'' features sharply focused portraits of figures ranging from Nadia Boulanger to Janet Flanner, and these should not be missed by any reader concerned with the inner workings of modern culture. The book's other half is also Rorem's other half: the diarist as performer, the kaleidoscopic, tragi-brilliant artist who, with so much artistic success to be grateful for, has never ceased snarling at the world and holding all but the most self-absorbed joy at arm's length. On the strength of his essays and portraits, one wants to take the whole of Rorem-author seriously, and that just isn't possible anymore. Not after so many of his petulant books in which Portnoyism is so embarrassingly passed off as insight.
Music, being so much further removed from our daily lives than word or image, for that reason, perhaps, retains a potency that drives the quantity and variety of musical literariness up and out. One hopes the quality of our critics and chronicles will also grow, for they shed light where it is needed. The book trade in general is seeing the stream of volumes on music history, performance, etc., continue unabated.
One would have thought the invention of the radio and phonograph would have cut the demand for writing on an art that was once tasted ''live'' by very few, very seldom. But despite all the media, including the Time-Life culture market, the words still pour forth as much as the tones.