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An Exchange on the New Grove

In response to:

The Musicological Marvel from the May 28, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

In his illuminating review of the New Grove Charles Rosen raises a question of great importance to the lexicographer [NYR, May 28]. Since I am criticised for not addressing myself to this question I should like to make a brief comment by way of reply. The question is this: to what extent can the analysis of a term abstract from the historical context of its use? Mr. Rosen clearly thinks that it cannot, or should not, and that all such efforts at abstraction end by imposing Platonic Forms on a subject whose organic complexity defies their application. This belief has led Mr. Rosen to write music criticism of great significance and depth. Nevertheless it seems to me that the belief is ill-conceived. If it were taken seriously (and in practice Mr. Rosen does not take it seriously) it would lead to just that “isolation from reality” of which I am accused. It would lead to the view that one cannot know what one means by a term until one has explored the history of the thing defined by it. But how could one understand that history, without knowing the meaning of the term? It is true that there have been many “histories” of programme music, of musical expression, and the rest. But it seemed to me, when I was asked to write the articles on these themes, that they failed as a rule precisely because they did not specify what phenomenon they were discussing.

To take up the position that I advocate is not to suggest that there is “something eternally fixed and absolutely independent of culture called Music” (or “expression,” or whatever). For of course these terms denote cultural (and therefore historical) entities. But it is wrong to think that whenever you define something that has a history, you must make history part of your definition. You need only make sure that your definition shows how history is possible. Mr. Rosen thinks that, had I taken note of the fact that the term “absolute music” emerged simultaneously with public performance of instrumental music. I might have given a real, as opposed to an abstracted, account of its meaning. His suggestion is interesting. But what is a lexicographer supposed to do with it? The present use of the term “absolute music” has emerged largely from the quarrel between Hanslick and the Wagnerians, over the possibility of an “absolute art of sound.” When one has explained the meaning of the term, as defined by (although not in the course of) that quarrel, then one can begin to see significance in Mr. Rosen’s observation. Otherwise, I do not see why the observation is any more important than the fact that the term “absolute” was used of music just at the time that Hegel used it of ultimate truth.

What would it be to put the historical context back into a discussion of expression? Surely when we describe a Bach aria as expressing grief, and the prelude to Tristan as expressing unassuageable longing, we are using the word “expressing” in the same sense? That Bach would not have used that word is irrelevant. It is surely a real “isolation from reality” to think that questions about what we mean, here and now, by something, can only be settled if we look at what they might have said or meant, then, had it occurred to them?

Roger Scruton

Birkbeck College, London

To the Editors:

The analyst-vs-historian “rift in musicological ranks” portrayed by Charles Rosen is evidently paralleled, in his adversary-Weltanschauung, by a performer/critic schism still wider. How else explain his overlong, inordinately sharp attack on Andrew Porter’s “Verdi” entry in New Grove? A musicologist ex Academia, I leave to my analyst-colleagues the critiques, demurrers, and rebuttals provoked by Rosen’s detailing of Porter’s “errors” in music theory. My historian-confrères, for their part, may wish to reaffirm the virtues of pluralism in historical musicology, i.e., openness to individual variations of style and emphasis in the selection and evaluation of contextual data, on pain of the opposite: lock-step musicography.

I wish only to deplore what must be adjudged bad faith—in Mr. Rosen’s failure to display the very gentleness he finds so “heart-warming” in Winton Dean’s critical canon. Some years ago, in an appreciation of that master critic and incisive wit, George Bernard Shaw, Jacques Barzun hailed the Shavian manner of keeping criticism ethical: he “indulges high spirits…without ever being heedless,” refraining from “taking advantage of the critic’s power to misrepresent, wound, and cause public harm.” All of us whose words appear in print would do well to emulate such generosity of spirit.

Bea Friedland

Executive Editor, Da Capo Press

New York City

Charles Rosen replies:

Roger Scruton writes:

Surely when we describe a Bach aria as expressing grief, and the prelude to Tristan as expressing unassuageable longing, we are using the word “expressing” in the same sense?

The answer to his rhetorical question is “No.” Unless one gives to the word “express” a meaning so general that it would be more or less synonymous with “signify” or “represent” (as in “the following graph expresses the relation between juvenile delinquency and attendance at chamber music concerts”), the two uses of “expressing” in Scruton’s question have senses which overlap, but I do not believe they have the same meaning—and this is not only because the means of expression are different in Bach and Wagner, but because the nature of expression in Bach is not at all identical with Wagner’s.

No one—certainly not I—has ever made the absurd suggestion that what we mean can only be settled “if we look at what they might have said or meant, then, had it occurred to them.” How would one do this? Scruton’s heavy irony here is a smokescreen, like his observation that it is irrelevant that Bach would not have used the word “expression.” (Because Bach did not speak English? Or does Scruton think that Bach would not have known or employed any of the German, French, or Italian terms for “expression” current during the eighteenth century? Does he imagine that the subject was not discussed by contemporary musicians?)

His quibble that the modern sense of “absolute music” dates from Hanslick is unworthy of him. He does not ask whether the same concept, expressed in different terms, did not exist before Hanslick and the Wagnerians. The Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of January 1, 1801, page 228, makes a clear distinction between pure music and applied music (reine und angewandte Musik), proclaims the superiority of this distinction to the one between instrumental and vocal, raises most of the later problems of the subject of absolute music (for example, is the emotion of pure music definite or left vague?), and exhibits most of the later confusions. It also indicates that there was considerable philosophical discussion of these questions at the time. The concept of absolute music can be traced even further back, of course, but in each case it is illuminating to relate a concept to the phenomena that gave rise to it at the time.

Scruton opposes what he claims to be my view “that one cannot know what one means by a term until one has explored the history of the thing defined by it” with the observation that it is impossible to “understand that history, without knowing the meaning of the term.” I should have thought it impossible to do one without the other, and that the relation between philosophical definition and historical exploration was reciprocal and unremittingly continuous. It would be presumptuous to mention hermeneutic circles or dialectical processes to a philosopher, but I can assert that a lexicographer is supposed (at least by some of us) to help us understand how people use words, what the words mean today, and what they meant in the past. I never complained that Scruton’s articles were not splendid as far as they went, but only that he did no more than half his job.

If I were to imply that Ms. Friedland defends Andrew Porter because she wishes to butter up a critic in order to promote her books or because she is an editor of a series of musical reprints in competition with a series that I co-edit for a rival reprint house, she would find this justly absurd. I, too, would find it absurd, and am sure that she has written either out of friendship for Porter, or out of a purely humanitarian distaste for seeing any one of God’s creatures mistreated. But I find it equally absurd that she attributes my criticism of the article on “Verdi” to personal antagonism. No doubt in his heart, every performer holds that the only good critic is a dead critic. May I assure Ms. Friedland, nevertheless, that some of my best friends are critics?

However, she is right to say what I wrote was overlong. But if I had written briefly and concisely what I believed to be true: that “Verdi” was the only major biographical article in the New Grove to contain a pretentious technical musical discussion which was largely trivial and often inaccurate, and that this deficiency of analysis was not compensated by any profound historical understanding—if I had stated this laconically and unsupported, Ms. Friedland and others would simply have dismissed it as a pianist’s prejudice against a critic. If I wrote about “Verdi” at all, I realized, it would have to be at length, and my opinion would have to be argued. That way it would still be set down to malice, but it could no longer be so easily dismissed.

The New York Review of Books has delayed publishing Ms. Friedland’s letter because of her prediction of “critiques, demurrers, and rebuttals” from her “analyst colleagues”: the Review would have preferred to publish a documented attack in place of Ms. Friedland’s vague lament. These rebuttals have not been forthcoming, but out of fairness to Porter, I must report that two people have privately indicated to me they felt I was inaccurate on one point concerning Porter: Professor Edward T. Cone of Princeton, and Walter Frisch (the latter a very accomplished and intelligent student at Berkeley who has just received his PhD in music). Dr. Frisch’s letter is more detailed and explanatory than Professor Cone’s, and I have his permission to quote from it:

Most of your criticisms, though a bit harshly put, were just. I disagree, however, with your account of the Otello duet, “Sì, pel ciel.” In my (piano-vocal) score it does not begin on a 6/4 chord. There is a solid bass A in the first, introductory bar (Molto sostenuto), then another A two bars later under “ciel.” Although there is no explicit bass A in the bar between, I don’t think you can reasonably say the duet begins on 6/4. Surely we don’t hear an E in the bass.

Dr. Frisch’s point here is that in the second measure, in which there is a 6/4 chord alone in the strings tremolo, we must still take the low A in the previous measure as the real bass.

Professor Cone agrees with this, and remarked to me that the harmony of the second measure has the color but not the function of a 6/4 chord; he added that in trying to give it any further importance I would be guilty of exactly the mistake I found so consistently repeated in Porter: confusing a local phenomenon with a large-scale structural point. Although I think the intense sound of the tremolo gives the 6/4 chord an effect which is emphatic enough partially to banish the previous bass A as the tenor enters, I believe that Professor Cone’s and Dr. Frisch’s point is a just one.*

Their point, however, does not change my criticism of Porter’s account of this duet: I observed that a 6/4 chord sets in relief every important harmonic change in the first stanza, and that to pick out the appearance of this chord only at the opening of the second stanza after describing the first stanza in tiresome detail is to miss the forest for the trees. It is this aspect of the article “Verdi” that makes it finally unacceptable in spite of an excellent treatment of composer and librettists: the pervasive lack of distinction between significant and insignificant detail.

The errors pale beside this: I have already written quite cheerfully in my review that I have committed mistakes as gross as any in Porter, and one can find similar ones even in the work of genuinely great and distinguished musicologists. The trouble is that a corrected version of the article “Verdi” would not be much of an improvement.

Professor Cone suggested to me—and I think it quite likely—that the first error in the account of ways of approaching D flat major in Il Trovatore was due not to Porter but to an interfering and misguided subeditor. (Cone thinks that Porter might have written parallel minor, an Anglicism for tonic minor, but which to an American-trained music student with a German background would be taken to mean relative minor.) That is a reasonable supposition.

But in that case, why did Porter think it worth his time and our time to tell us that Verdi goes from D flat minor to D flat major? In a way, the correct observation is even less interesting than the incorrect one printed. Frequent changes from tonic minor to major are used by absolutely every composer without exception from the fifteenth century to Stravinsky. In what way is our understanding and appreciation of Verdi enhanced by knowing that he did what everyone else in the history of music has done? Now if Verdi had never (or only rarely) gone from minor to major, that would really be something to write home about.

Ms. Friedland hopes that her colleagues will reaffirm the virtues of pluralism. I hope so, too. I have never been a fanatic for a single view or a unique doctrine. Nevertheless, I do not believe Porter’s approach to the description of music is defensible.

Basically, Porter belongs to what might be called the Railroad Timetable School of Harmonic Analysis, if one adds the measure numbers. We used to find a lot of this in program-notes, and unhappily it still hangs on in some music departments and conservatories. It goes something like this: “At measure 200, Verdi starts in F minor, moves to A flat by 225, arrives at F flat at 240, and ends in D flat in measure 270.” The trouble with this school is that they are unable to distinguish between express and local trains: it does you no good to know that all the trains from New York to Philadelphia go through Princeton Junction, if you have no idea which ones stop there. That, essentially, was my criticism of Porter’s approach: he cannot tell when Verdi stops at F flat, and when he just slows down there going past the station. The metaphor breaks down, of course, because the nature and character of the final tonality changes according to whether one has stopped somewhere else on the way.

Ms. Friedland holds up Bernard Shaw as a model for critical manners. She does not realize herself that the first principle of critical etiquette is never, under any circumstances, to impugn a critic’s good faith, never to ascribe low, invidious, and personal motives to what must be taken as an honest expression of opinion. This is a rule that Shaw never infringed: he claimed that his opponents were ignorant, incompetent, and idiotic, not venal, resentful, or malicious (even when they were). And I offer the two following passages of Shaw’s critical high spirits as examples of his unwillingness to misrepresent and wound:

Mr. Tree only wants one thing to make him an excellent Falstaff, and that is to get born over again as unlike himself as possible. No doubt, in the course of a month or two, when he begins to pick up a few of the lines of the part, he will improve on his first effort; but he will never be even a moderately good Falstaff…. Mr. Tree might as well try to play Juliet.

M. Vladimir de Pachmann gave his well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin, a composer whose music I could listen to M. de Pachmann playing forever if the works were first carefully removed from the pianoforte.

I should like to thank Professor Cone and Dr. Frisch for their kindness in allowing me to quote from their letters and from subsequent conversations. Professor Cone’s letter has a final paragraph, which I append here:

One last little point: you are wrong in dividing writers on music into the contributors, the rejected, and the uninvited. I know at least one who belongs to a fourth class: those who were invited but declined.

  1. *

    Professor Cone adds in his letter: “You can’t have looked at the score when you were writing about it, for the cello never has the melody.” I did, indeed, mistakenly remember the cello as doubling the lower winds, but this does not affect the harmonic analysis.

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