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Words & Music

In response to:

Reading Opera from the February 9, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

In his review (NYR, February 9) of my book Mozart & Beethoven: The Concept of Love in Their Operas, Joseph Kerman complains that my “thesis” obscures the works and that I am guilty of “neglecting” music. These are serious charges and they should be answered.

The book sought to develop a new mode of understanding and experiencing the dramatic works of Mozart and Beethoven by focusing upon their mythic elements. My distinction between sensuous and passionate provided a useful perspective, but I continually emphasized that mine was only one among other possible approaches to opera—in fact, a supplement to what good literary and music critics regularly offer. Dealing with opera as an art that expresses human feelings, the book analyzes the many ways in which music, words, and dramatic situation make a unity that conveys affective realities. This kind of investigation requires conceptual analysis, exploration into the history of ideas and of literature, knowledge about the problems of philosophy, and sophistication about affective phenomenology. Musicologists and music critics rarely have the training to do such work.

If anything has been obscured by my approach, I would like to know what it is. At no point does Kerman indicate or even intimate which scenes or events I may have distorted. I confess to being a humanist philosopher, but it does not follow from this that I go about forcing procrustean beds upon unsuspecting masterpieces.

Kerman claims that my chapter on Don Giovanni contains “hardly anything” about the first and last scenes. Not only is this false, but the fact is that I examine at some length and reject Kerman’s own ideas about the ending of Don Giovanni, for instance his suggestion (in Opera as Drama) that the final scene degenerates into “accidental and unformed ambiguity.” There are several other places in my book where I disagree with Kerman’s interpretations, and sometimes criticize him. His reply seems to consist in quoting me out of context in a way that would make anyone’s literary style look ridiculous. I do not consider that to be reputable reviewing.

Finally, let me turn to the notion that I have neglected the music in these operas. My problem here is understanding the alleged offense since I never pretended to be duplicating the work of either literary or music criticism. What then is the nature of the neglect? Does it consist in not responding properly to the music, in not appreciating its uniqueness as a sonic entity and human event? That does not seem to be the complaint. Instead Kerman demands that writings about opera must always consider “tonality, rhythm, phraseology, and form.” He is, of course, willing to admit literary and dramatic elements into the discussion, but only if they arise out of formal analysis of the music.

While there is much to recommend the kind of approach Kerman advocates, I fail to see why it should be considered the only permissible one. Who hath measured the ground? Various musicians and professors of music, especially among the young, are now beginning to go beyond the formalistic preoccupation with structure that has prevailed for the last thirty years. The technical work of even the finest analysts has not explained why it is that music in general has such vital importance throughout human experience or how it can express ideas and feelings that do not originate in the sound patterns themselves.

In a mixed medium like the opera, it seems particularly absurd to ignore the ways in which dramatic music functions within a larger context defined by the emotional matrix of life itself. I am not saying that Kerman has to concern himself with this. But I am denying his authority to decide what others may or may not do in these areas.

In using his own approach as the sole criterion of how one should and must write about operas, Kerman would seem to relegate to a non-professional limbo (or worse) the essays of Shaw, Stendhal, Rousseau, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Nietzsche, Mann, Rolland, Turner, Sullivan, Bekker, Rank (to say nothing of the vast preponderance of writings by Berlioz, Wagner, and many other nineteenth-century composers)—in general, everyone whose point of departure is philosophical or literary rather than technically formalistic.

The writings of these non-formalists are often unhelpful, and sometimes irritating in their lack of precision. But at least they recognized the organic connections between operatic experience and the rest of life. The value and importance of musical analysis is not the issue. No one can doubt its great utility for those who wish to use it to understand what is happening in an opera. From this, however, one cannot infer that the world provides one, and only one, right way to explicate the art.

In my book there are long stretches, particularly in the chapter on Don Giovanni, in which I say virtually nothing about the music. Yet it is through music that almost everything happens in opera. The crucial question is whether my analyses of the mythic and affective dimensions in the drama enhance one’s total response, including the musical. If Kerman had been willing to read the book for what it does, instead of for what it does not do, he might have had something interesting to report. Certainly he would have got more out of the book.

Irving Singer

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Joseph Kerman replies:

I thought my example of “distortion” was clear enough. I said that Mr. Singer brushed aside two particularly important scenes in Don Giovanni which fail to support his view of the Don’s character. About two pages worth of commentary on these two scenes is scattered through Singer’s 50-page chapter on Don Giovanni, but most of it does not refer to the Don, and much of the rest is wrong. To say that Don Giovanni is “playing the game” in the first scene and that he sees death as “just another adventure” in the last is to contradict what Mozart shows in the music. As to critical methodologies, of course I agree that many approaches are possible to a work of art. Almost any approach, it sometimes seems, can provide insight if the critic is of sufficient sensitivity. But I also believe that since the essential artistic medium in opera is music—since “it is through music that almost everything happens in an opera,” as Singer puts it—a methodology that deals responsibly with the music is better than one that does not.

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