Beginning with a personal account of my early experiences of Chopin's B-Minor Prelude and A-Minor Waltz, I argue that “musical meaning” arises neither simply from the music itself nor simply from a listener's or performer's self projections into the music. Instead it arises intersubjectively , from a relationship that subsumes a musical self and a musical other within the virtual (i.e., imaginary or fictional) environment that fully engaged musical experience engenders. Such an intersubjective exchange is likely to be especially acute in the compositional process itself, as the composer creates through music an “other” in dialogue with his or her self. The actual relationship between this other and the composer's own character and experience is rarely possible to ascertain with any degree of certainty: the music is better understood as self-creation than as self-representation. But paradoxically, pieces that are somehow atypical for their composer sometimes epitomize that composer's musical character most strongly and can suggest autobiographical motivation more specifically than many of the composer's other works. Such is the case with Chopin's relatively few solo pieces that suggest vocal duets, whether straightforwardly, as in the C#-Minor Étude, op. 25, no. 7, or through marked contrast with a solo voice, as in the two op. 27 Nocturnes. In each of these pieces, Chopin explores a problematic relationship between two “others,” one of them unattainable or elusive. If one of them mirrors Chopin's musical self, perhaps the other, the more remote, can be understood as a musical image of the self that Chopin needed to develop in order to negotiate the “real world.”
In two of Rachmaninov's last works, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini of 1934 and the first of the Symphonic Dances of 1940, a stylistic contrast between an opulently scored lyrical theme and the more angular, dissonant music that surrounds that theme throws into relief the extent that Rachmaninov's musical language had changed and developed since his first great successes thirty years earlier with the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony. The words that motivate a similar stylistic contrast in the song Son (Sleep), composed in 1917, near the end of his most compositionally productive years, suggest an interpretive reading of such a stylistic contrast: the earlier, lusher style is associated here with dreams, and hence with memories; while the later, sparer, more tonally ambiguous style accompanies an evocation of something more impersonal, in the case of the song the stillness of a dreamless sleep. Some of the developing aspects of Rachmaninov's style revealed in these later examples are already evident even in the more traditional-sounding pieces of the last decade (1907––17) of his Russian period, which is shown in an analysis of the piano Prelude in G## Minor of 1910. Even this seemingly traditional Prelude, but more and more in his later music, Rachmaninov emerges as an indisputably twentieth-century composer.