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Radical, Conventional Mozart’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Whoever would be guided in the interpretation of music by the rules that Charles Rosen has laid down in his December 19, 1991, review “Radical, Conventional Mozart” will have little to choose between giving up altogether and straying into confusion. If, as he says, “any criticism which discovers something in a well-known work that no one seems to have noticed before is not likely to be important, or to have anything to do with why the work is considered a masterpiece,” then so much for criticism. But this remark will probably carry about as much weight as the remark of Henry Ellsworth, first commissioner of patents, made in his report to Congress in 1843: “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity, and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end”; or as John Stuart Mill’s lament (in his Autobiography) that during a period of his life when he suffered greatly from depression, he was “tormented by the thought…that all of the beautiful combinations [of the seven notes of the octave] have been already discovered.”

The way to confusion lies in what Rosen has to say about how the music of Mozart and his contemporaries conveyed “extra-musical” meaning. It “almost always worked metaphorically,” he says, and explains that this depended on the imitation of something nonmusical: the clarinet imitates a cuckoo, which means, not that a cuckoo has got loose in the orchestra, but that there is a “rustic pastoral atmosphere” about the music. How literally his idea depends on imitation is evident from his rejection of the claim, in one of the books he reviews, that “the combination of the timbre, the crescendo, and the upward-striving chromatic surge [in the love duet near the end of Mozart’s I domeneo] bespeaks a sensuality that is at home somewhere below the petto (bosom) mentioned in the words.” No, says Rosen, there is no suggestion of the sexual act mentioned in the passage, because “neither rising nor falling chromatic lines sound like the sexual act.”

Eventually Rosen unrolls virtually the whole vocabulary for indicating the kinds of relationships that music can have to things other than its own sounds: a bagpipe could signify a rustic pastoral atmosphere, soft horn-calls could imply distance, he speaks of the passion and irony of a musical passage as if to say that the music embodies those properties, another passage represents an overflowing happiness, still another expresses the rage of the Queen of the Night. It’s not clear whether these verbs are still supposed to be operating under the aegis of imitation, nor whether they are all synonymous and just used interchangeably for variety. Certainly it is possible to think that each one says something different about how music has, or generates meaning.

With the appearance of the Commendatore’s statue in the Finale of Don Giovanni Mozart conjures up a portentous, threatening, frightening, supernatural atmosphere—spooky, one could say. Even if we could agree that a “spooky atmosphere” is something “extra-musical,” it has not been achieved through imitation. The two great tutti chords at the beginning of the scene, the Commendatore’s octave plunges and his steady chromatic ascent (NB!), the ponderous dotted rhythms of the strings, the trumpets in octaves, the blasts on the trombones, the rising and falling minor scales of the violins jacked up a half-step at a time—these are purely musical signs which yet together have in their meanings a very specific emotional state and dramatic situation. How they do so—by virtue of their intrinsic character, as a matter of convention, or both—is a great mystery about the powers of music that has been somewhat illuminated by a lot of discussion, but is not so easily laid to rest as by Rosen’s dictum about metaphor. If this is metaphor, then all expression or meaning in music—other than the expression of its syntactical or formal relationships—is metaphorical.

That seems to be the point of the distinction between “musical” and “extra-musical” meaning. But how easy is it, really, and how useful, to locate a divide between them in the music of the late eighteenth century? When Beethoven writes Largo e mesto (“broad and mournful”) at the head of the second movement of his piano Sonata opus 10 no. 3 as both characterization and instruction, is he referring to musical or extra-musical meanings? They are “extra-musical” only if we restrict “musical” to the patterns made by the sounds issuing from the piano. But that is not what most people mean by “musical,” or meant in the eighteenth century, and it is not adequate to account for most people’s responses to music.

Leo Treitler
Ph.D. Program in Music
City University of New York
New York City

Charles Rosen replies:

I should have thought that it was not only logical but self-evident to maintain, as I did in the sentence Leo Treitler quotes at the opening of his letter, that if a critic discovers something which had never been remarked on before in an acknowledged masterpiece—Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9, say, or Mozart’s Don Giovanni—then his observation probably has little to do with why the symphony or the opera has been so much admired by so many generations. In the very next sentence I went on to write:

The only recourse for the critic is to claim that we have been noticing it at least semiconsciously without putting it into words, or that previous audiences noticed but that we have lost the knack or the understanding.

In fact, analysts from Donald Francis Tovey to Heinrich Schenker claim to account for the way music is generally perceived; historians like Manfred Bukofzer and Hermann Abert have tried to restore ways of experiencing music that are lost to us. Treitler has no use for the qualifying sentence following the one he has ripped out of context, since his purpose is a jocular demonstration that I think that the criticism of famous works is either finished or will shortly come to an end. It is clear that I think nothing of the sort. I do not believe that it is impossible to find new and profound things to say about an acknowledged masterpiece, only that it is difficult. So it should be.

It is a pity that Treitler appears to think that this view strikes at the heart of his profession. I conceive historical and analytical criticism not as the attempt to find new and ingenious things to say about the music of the past, but to account for the way music has been experienced, understood, and misunderstood. This does not mean that I think it is worthwhile, as Treitler does, to list the most obvious details of the finale of Don Giovanni, details that have thrust themselves into the consciousness of all listeners since the premiere in Prague two centuries ago.

He does this, not to prove my point that it is hard to say something new about old music, but to disprove something I never maintained: that all musical expression is based on strict imitation. Treitler, of course, has the wit to understand what I was talking about, and it would be ungracious to speculate why he chose to misunderstand. What was at issue in my review is whether, in the late eighteenth century, there existed musical elements that are conventional signs of extramusical meaning, whether and to what extent there are specific motifs with specific significances that can be arbitrarily determined like the elements of a code.

Daniel Heartz contended—and Treitler appears to agree with him—that a rising chromatic line was such a coded element with a meaning so specific that it was a sign for “a sensuality…somewhere below the petto.” If Heartz and Treitler had wished to claim that the rising chromatic surge simply added urgency or greater passion to the phrase of the love duet, no one could object. When they insist that it is a sign easily recognizable by Mozart’s audience for a sensuality specifically located below the breast and, I presume, north of the knees, then Mozart’s affective language is being misinterpreted, and his style obscured. The same chromatic surge introduces the recapitulation in the Allegro of Mozart’s D minor Concerto, and is, in fact, exceedingly banal. Not that Mozart cannot write music of powerful erotic import, as the duet for Dorabella and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte shows: but in this case the musical gestures that represent caresses (the two lovers-to-be are feeling each other’s heartbeats) are immediately perceptible as metaphors. What I denied was that the meaning that Heartz ascribes to a rising chromatic fourth could be a conventional one for Mozart’s audiences. That Heartz and Treitler feel a stirring in the loins when they hear it is irrelevant—at least irrelevant to Mozart’s music although it is an interesting testimony to the effect of musicological scholarship upon the imagination.

Treitler’s letter betrays a radically deficient sense of history. Motifs with a conventional affective significance are employed early in the eighteenth century (although their systematic role in Baroque style has been a little exaggerated). Musicologists have even been able to compile a dictionary of melodic formulas for different sentiments in the music of Bach, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries. Motifs to which a specific meaning has been affixed return in the nineteenth century—there are many examples like Wagner’s leitmotifs and Schumann’s melodies built from the letters of his fiancée’s birthplace. In the late eighteenth century, motifs of this kind are rare and immediately recognizable by the uninitiated, like a drone base used to suggest bagpipes. The attempt to do away with conventional meaning, fixed arbitrarily within a system like a language, dominated the practice of the last decades of the century. Music held its prestige and became a model for the other arts in Romantic aesthetics precisely because it was able largely to dispense with the conventional and arbitrary signs for which Heartz continues to search.

Treitler’s observations on the finale of Don Giovanni reveal a fundamental confusion which would vitiate any discussion of the way music conveys meaning. Almost all of the musical elements he mentions do not act as “signs,” in spite of his claim, and his contention that they “together have in their meanings a very specific emotional state and dramatic situation” (my emphasis) is not tenable. They do not mean, but stimulate, emotion; they do not signify, they excite. This is the basic difference between the way Bach and Rameau handle sentiment and the way Mozart approaches it. Representing or signifying emotion works in music by metaphor or imitation: stimulating or provoking it may have metaphorical roots that helped to develop and elaborate the technique, but the metaphors are no longer immediately recognizable. It is evident that Treitler’s example has nothing to do with the kind of signs and meanings I am discussing. The music at the entrance of the statue in Don Giovanni does not portray fear, and does not signify fear; it strikes fear into our hearts.

It is true that one can stimulate emotion simply by portraying it, but to lump together the direct physical action of Mozart’s music with the imitative devices that were being considered in my review only obscures matters. Mozart’s music works immediately upon the nerves. So, of course, does the music of Bach and Handel, but it is not their principal way of conveying emotion. The generation of extra-musical meaning in the later eighteenth century moves away from the conventional representation like a code which needs the knowledge of an insider toward the physical effect of music upon the auditors in a concert hall or opera house. Treitler confuses two different ways of making music expressive of a world beyond itself; it is no wonder that he considers the process “a great mystery.”

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