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Music à la Mode


Almost everyone agrees that performing and listening to music are primary activities; writing about music is secondary, parasitical. Ideally, musicologists ought to write for listeners and performers. In real life, they write for other musicologists. Because they have to.

The profession of musicology is changing. European music from 1700 to the present is still at the center of music studies, even in Asian countries, but it has become less isolated. The canon of works to be studied is no longer sacrosanct: serious attempts to widen it are being made, above all to find a place for female and non-white composers, and for pop music. University music departments are understandably anxious to hire ethnomusicologists to salve their bad consciences about their years of neglect of other cultures rather than to strengthen the traditional teaching of Western art music.

There is a general, and not unfounded, sense nowadays that the historian of so-called classical music is being forced to rescue himself and his subject as well. If there were not a real intellectual crisis, then one would have to be invented, and the demands for an overhaul of musicology that have been advanced recently are only natural in this climate.

Despair, however, is the mother of invention. The “new musicologists” (they themselves use the term ironically and with a certain graceful embarassment) deplore the pretended autonomy of traditional musicological studies and present an explicit program of bringing the subject into contact with social science, political history, gay studies, and feminism, to achieve a genuine intellectual prestige, and to transform musicology into a field as up-to-date as recent literary criticism. In fact, the borrowings today from figures outside music like Derrida, Bakhtin, and Lacan are very heavy. This openness to new ideas from other fields has infused a sense of excitement into musicology, a recklessness missing before and badly needed.

I do not want to imply that more traditional musicology is not thriving and producing original and stimulating studies. Lewis Lockwood’s recent Beethoven Studies goes farther than any other work I know to show how Beethoven mapped out and controlled a large-scale form: the pages on the Eroica Symphony, above all, are definitive and persuasive. Elaine Sisman’s Haydn and the Classical Variation is the first satisfactory study of one of the most neglected aspects of Haydn’s art. After reading it, I am astonished that no one had considered at length so important a subject, but in any case it has now been done brilliiantly. A new book by James Webster, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony and the Idea of the Classical Style, discusses the works of Haydn’s middle period in great depth. I should perhaps say here that Professor Webster treats me at length but with great courtesy as the enemy, since I was concerned to set off Haydn’s late period from all of the earlier work and to show what he had in common with the much younger Mozart, while Webster demonstrates convincingly how much of the late style was already implicit in the preceding decades. There is not really much contradiction between us except that Webster is right to maintain that I insufficiently appreciated the earlier Haydn; he too, however, knows that Haydn changed in the 1780s and could tell us more about it. In any case Webster has written easily the best book I know about Haydn’s middle period. All three of these books, however, treat music in isolation with little relation to other arts or to contemporary history.

The attempt to drag musicology out of its isolation into—well, not the real world, exactly, but the other worlds of literature, history, and politics is marked above all by studies of the way music can take on, or appear to take on, a non-musical meaning, and the movement is well illustrated by several collections of essays that have appeared in the last few years. In two of these, Music and Text: Critical Inquiries, edited by Steven Paul Scher, and Musicology and Difference, edited by Ruth A. Solie, there are essays by Laurence Kramer, who is often referred to by the other contributors and who is also co-editor of 19th Century Music, the most influential of the professional reviews that are attempting to give musicology some of the glamour of literary criticism. Professor Gary Tomlinson of the University of Pennsylvania has called him “one of the shrewdest and most theoretically savvy of a younger generation of musical scholars.” Kramer is the author of two books, Music and Poetry and Music as Cultural Practice, 1800–1900; the titles give a good idea of the direction of his thought.

The strength of Kramer’s work lies in his passion for new ideas and the facility with which he can juxtapose music and contemporary developments in other fields. He has a remarkable range of reference to literature, is aware of the most recent developments in theory and criticism, and keeps abreast of the most innovative aspects of current thought. For many musicologists less gifted in this way, he provides their principal point of contact with critical theory outside their own fields of specialization.

The limitations of Kramer’s writing become apparent when he tries to submit these multiple layers of cultural history to “close reading,” to a scrutiny of the musical text. He has a weak grasp of the experience of music. He seems, indeed, to make a specialty of concentrating on a trivial point and reading an exaggerated significance into it; his favorite strategy is a kind of homemade adaptation of deconstructive criticism, a claim that some hitherto unnoticed aspect of a well-known piece is unintelligible within the aesthetic system of the work.

Both strength and weakness are apparent in his essay, which is printed in Music and Text, on the opening “Chaos” of Haydn’s Creation. In the first six pages of his essay he cites, among others, Plato, Boethius, Pythagoras, the seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville, the second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria, the musicologists Donald Francis Tovey, Edward T. Cone, Carl Dahlhaus, Anthony Newcomb, and himself, the early nineteenth-century poet Gabriela Batsanyi, the astronomer Kepler, Milton, Dryden, Mikhail Bakhtin, and the twentieth-century philosophers J.L. Austin and Nelson Goodman. Some of this, of course, is academic window-dressing, but much of it is genuinely instructive, and all of it is exhilarating, with the effect of watching a grand and motley parade.

With Haydn’s musical representation of chaos, Kramer is less convincing although he has taken some good points from Tovey, A. Peter Brown, and, above all, Heinrich Schenker and H.C. Robbins Landon. His own contribution consists largely of a demonstration that there is an inherent paradox in Haydn’s structure. Haydn calls his opening an “Introduction,” and Kramer observes that an introduction in the late eighteenth century traditionally moves to finish on a dominant chord^1; while the “Chaos” movement, on the contrary, ends on a tonic after a kind of sonata recapitulation (the latter point has been made by almost everyone who has ever written about the Creation).

Kramer then claims that this entails a profound contradiction with sonata form, as Haydn has placed a “dominant pedal” in his recapitulation.2 He comments:

In Classical practice, a dominant pedal often leads to a recapitulation, but the pedal is supposed to stop where the recapitulation starts. To displace a pedal into the recapitulation itself, as Beethoven made a point of showing in the “Appassionata” Sonata, is profoundly destabilizing. To do such a thing during a slow introduction, where no recapitulation belongs in the first place, is to form precisely what Haydn’s contemporaries whould have understood as chaos: a crazy mixture, a Mischmasch. A sonata-style recapitulation discharges tension, recalls the past, precipitates a definite end; an introductory dominant pedal accumulates tension, delineates the present, precipitates a definite beginning. Superimposed, the two processes create a temporal snarl.

Delineates the present” is a fine phrase, and even if it is distantly derived from Bakhtinian criticism, admirably characterizes the effect of a dominant pedal in a Classical work.

Nevertheless, Kramer’s reasoning rests on two elementary fallacies. The first is his absurd assumption that an introduction to an oratorio that lasts two hours will have the same form as a short introduction to a single symphonic movement. Whatever Haydn meant by calling “Chaos” Introduzione, he certainly did not think that we would expect an opening like the one to his last symphony.

Kramer’s second error is his belief that a dominant pedal after the beginning of a recapitulation is essentially contrary to Haydn’s style. The wonderful Sonata for Piano in C minor (H. 20), for example, has two dramatic dominant pedals in the recapitulation, and the emphasis on the dominant here takes up more than half the recapitulation. The Sonata for Piano in G minor (H. 44), as well, has a significant pause in the dominant in the middle of the recapitulation, with a long and expressive cadenza. In any case, a recapitulation is supposed to resolve the material of an exposition, and the dominant pedal in “Chaos” only transposes an almost identical earlier passage which appeared in the exposition at the harmonically very remote key of D flat major.3 Astonishingly, Kramer does not comment on the fact that all this material for the dominant pedal has occurred before. (A transposition to the dominant is, in fact, the only way that Haydn could have resolved the earlier passage and prepared his dominant/tonic cadence.)

Kramer’s assumption that Haydn’s contemporaries would have found the emphasis on the dominant “destabilizing” and “a crazy mixture” is gratuitous: as far as I know, Kramer is the only one who has ever worried about this detail of “Chaos” although other listeners have been impressed and even shocked by the chromaticism and the way the music refuses to complete most of its cadences until the recapitulation (which may, indeed, be described as two simple dominant/tonic cadences, the first almost complete and the second complete and deeply satisfying). I do not for a moment wish to challenge Kramer’s contention that Haydn’s “Chaos” is a genuine representation of its subject and not a piece of absolute or abstract music, but Kramer’s method of decoding does not correspond to Haydn’s sense of musical imagery. This is principally because Kramer’s grasp of cultural history, and his evident love of music and delight in its manifestations, are not matched by a sensitivity to the ways in which music can be perceived rather than analyzed on paper.

His treatment of Schumann’s Carnaval brings out these contradictions even more clearly.4 Perhaps it would only be fair to declare an interest here, since Kramer has characterized my sleeve notes for an old 1963 recording of Carnaval as “phallocentric.” He includes the most distinguished of recent German musicologists, Carl Dahlhaus, in his attack. This is rather flattering, and the word “phallocentric” in these days of gender studies has become a picturesque catch-phrase like the expressions “running dogs of the capitalist press,” “Fascist hyenas,” or “tax- and-spend liberals.” In any case, Kramer’s belief that my six-hundred-word sleeve note “set[s] aside Schumann’s claim to be engaged on significant terms with the social and psychological dimensions of carnival festivity” is unfounded: I should have thought that my emphasis on rhythmic vitality, about which he complains, would have given more than a suggestion of carnival festivity, and the only thing I set aside as of little interest for present-day record buyers was simply the question of which of Schumann’s acquaintances were supposed to be portrayed by Schumann’s character sketches and by the meaning of his anagrams. If Kramer were really concerned about this biographical aspect of Carnaval, he might have asked why young Clara Schumann was portrayed in a piece based on the musical notes corresponding to the letters in the name of the town in which Ernestine von Fricken, Schumann’s fiancĂŠe at that time, was born. Perhaps he would take more seriously Schumann’s contention about his music that first he wrote the pieces and then gave the titles to them.

  1. 2

    Pedal in this sense has nothing to do with the pedal on a piano, but means here a long-held note in the bass. Sustaining the dominant harmony creates tension by making the listener wait for the expected resolution into the tonic. It is often used for a dramatic effect.

  2. 3

    Extra emphasis on the dominant is very frequent in recapitulations, in fact, including dominant pedals when the composer wishes to add suspense (see, for example the first movement of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet and the slow movement of the “Dissonant” Quartet).

  3. 4

    His discussion is summarized in Music as Cultural Practice, but a more detailed account appears in the collective Musicology and Difference.

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