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Music à La Mode’

In response to:

Music à la Mode from the June 23, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Rosen’s attack on my work [NYR, June 23] does not clarify what is really at stake in our disagreements over classical music. Such a clarification, rather than a quarrel over details, will best refute his position.

Rosen’s review nominally concerns nine books, but deals mainly with Susan McClary and me, familiar representatives of the “new musicology” that seeks to retrieve music from its traditional self-containment and to uncover its many worldly meanings. Rosen welcomes the effort, but not the departures from musicological orthodoxy that it requires. He particularly criticizes work like mine for seducing “young musicologists hungry to keep abreast of the latest news” while excluding “composers, performers, and listeners.” But why should he think that composers (like me), performers (like him), and listeners are excluded by attempts to reconceive the music we all cherish? This is not a rhetorical question.

Rosen seeks to protect music from both meaning and mutilation. He accepts a traditional notion of musical meaning as vague connotation, but balks at “non-musical” meanings that involve critical reflection. Since the early nineteenth century, this attitude has underwritten an ideology of music’s transcendental apartness, which Rosen at bottom shares. He claims that “critics” like me “forget” that “music has meaning but very little reference,” and thereby alienate the “joy, sensuous and intellectual,” of “intense concentration on …a work of music.”

Fair enough: I think that denying music discursive meaning mystifies rather than enhances it, and that this attitude has increasingly encouraged people to believe that classical music has nothing to say to them. Rosen is far from the first to dissent. But there is no question of “forgetting”: I have repeatedly argued the point. Rosen presupposes that although music “can take on, or seem to take on” non-musical meaning, such meaning is ultimately extrinsic to it. There is a permanent separation between what is musical and what is cultural or historical. I argue that music is radically enveloped and interwoven with meanings, which can be discussed as musical without naive invocations of referentiality. The protective barrier between music and the world is fictitious; it can stand only as long as we misperceive it as a commonsensical, self-evident fact.

Even more crucial is the threat of mutilation, which Rosen identifies with my “weak grasp of the experience of music.” Here I must pause to rehearse his impassioned claims that I have little “sensitivity to the ways in which music can be perceived rather than analyzed on paper,” and that my “inability to distinguish insignificant details from more important ones” leads to a “pretentious expansion of triviality.” What do these lofty terms really mean? Why should readers be expected to accept their authority? What assumptions about music make Rosen seem to think that not hearing what he does is the definition of having a tin ear?

Rosen grounds musical understanding in a normative Musical Experience in which what is heard and what is true are synonymous and simultaneous. Such Experience is not subject to reflection or interpretation. It presents itself immediately to the well-tempered ear—an ear so authoritative that it is virtually the ear of Music itself—and thereby justifies statements like Rosen’s “listening to the music will tell us that this is quite wrong.” The proper content of Musical Experience is fixed, unitary, and firm. It rests on unproblematical binary hierarchies of more and less significant detail, of primary perception and secondary reflection. Aesthetically, it provides a blissful union of perception and significance, or, in traditional terms, the sensuous and the ideal. The function of the critic is to promote this union: to remind us continually of how music should always have been heard.

It is strange that Rosen does not see how nostalgic all this is. The kind of ideal totality he invokes has long lost its authority in most disciplines; the intellectual history of our time has turned on the doubt, fear, or confident certainty that such centers cannot hold. Younger musical scholars, like those Rosen ignores, know better. They recognize that it is no longer credible to make unproblematical assumptions about what is or is not perceptible or significant. They recognize that prescriptive forms of musical experience may be questionable, opaque, or self-deceived, even in music we care for deeply.

Musical Experience for Rosen is the last refuge of the aesthetic utopianism of the classical age on which his major writings focus. But this Experience is not what he thinks it is, the clear but deep, strong but warm matrix of musical bliss. It is a historically specific way of listening, with specific political and social values attached. As such, it is dependent precisely upon the contingent assumptions of perceptibility and significance that it seems to validate.

Musical Experience brands other musical experiences as false, pretentious, and insensitive. But music is actually encountered through a host of discontinuous and fragmentary experiences, shot through with reflection, memory, and desire, and sustained by wavering attention. This is equally true of listening to, playing, remembering, and reflecting on music. Rosen’s Musical Experience is merely one among many means of collecting and concretizing such musical experiences. Its value can no longer go without saying.

Rosen’s desire to give Musical Experience ontological status prompts the many rhetorical ruses that disguise his disagreements with me as a morality play of Truth and Error. The desire is not his alone. Rosen speaks for what was once the dominant culture of classical music, a culture that too eagerly monumentalizes what it values and too readily conflates artistry, esotericism, and passive yielding before authority. It is time, and past time, to move on.

Lawrence Kramer
Rhinebeck, New York

To the Editors:

Charles Rosen’s writings and recordings have instructed and entertained me for over twenty years. Especially in a book such as Romanticism and Realism (with Henri Zerner, 1984), he enjoys drawing due attention to overlooked artists of worth. Thus it was dismaying to find him, in an elegant essay (“Music à la Mode,” June 23, p. 61), giving the royal backhand to French composer Cécile Chaminade.

No doubt her numerous piano works are not intellectually challenging or stylistically pathbreaking. But as two successful CDs attest (Eric Parkin on Chandos 8888, Peter Jacobs on Hyperion 66584, soon to have a successor, 66706), this is music designed to give pleasure—a response Mr. Rosen’s article rightly holds in some esteem—and it does so repeatedly. Any listener fond of the lighter Faure should find her emotional range and witty craftmanship sympathique.

As an earnest composition teacher once asked a student, “Instead of writing an indifferent symphony or quartet…why not a piece of good light music? It takes every bit as much skill, and it’d give a damn sight more enjoyment to more people” (Gramophone, August 1991). Don’t sell Chaminade short as the New Grove did: listen to her characteristic signature-piece, “L’Automne.” Would that we could all write music this “mediocre!”—and touchingly unforgettable.

Warren Keith Wright
Arbyrd, Missouri

To the Editors:

I enjoyed reading Charles Rosen’s perceptive and wide-ranging review of several recent books by the “new musicologists” [NYR, June 23]. It struck me as critical yet fair-minded. I fear readers may be misled, however, by the quotation Rosen includes from my 1987 review of Lawrence Kramer’s first book, Music and Poetry, in which I express discouragement that “some members of the academic community [have failed] to read it more critically,” and by his subsequent comment: “I think Morgan was wrong to be discouraged: the continued favorable reception of Kramer’s work is a hopeful sign.” Rosen implies that I do not approve of the new directions in musical scholarship being explored by Kramer and others, whereas in fact I do. My words referred exclusively to the lack of musical-technical competence demonstrated in that earlier book, not Kramer’s “attempts to go beyond the purely formal analysis of music and his ability to suggest what is new and interesting in the world of criticism inside and outside of musicology.” Indeed, the opening sentence of my review (along with essentially everything else in it) is consistent with Rosen’s own position: “At a time when most analytical studies of music, due to their highly technical and specialized nature, have become significantly isolated from the intellectual community at large, interdisciplinary undertakings such as the present one are especially welcome.”

Robert P. Morgan
Professor of Music
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Charles Rosen replies:

Kramer’s reading of my review is as inventive as his reading of musical scores. I never reproached his work with “seducing ‘young musicologists hungry to keep abreast of the latest news.”’ I certainly did not, and would not, say that Kramer’s work was seductive, only that it was up-to-date. “Seducing” implies some kind of damage, and I do not think that Kramer’s writing does any harm. Far from it. In fact, I wrote that with all its glaring faults, the “favorable reception of [it] is a hopeful sign.” It is, however, disingenuous of Kramer to claim that I “disguise” my disagreement with him by “rhetorical ruses.” He thinks that my “quarrel over details” is a smokescreen. I do not know how to counter this absurd accusation of dishonesty except by saying that what Kramer calls my “lofty terms” describing his weak grasp of the experience of music are very down-to-earth. I was not talking about highfalutin or complex modes of interpretation but about the misrepresentation of simple acoustic facts. In the first writing of Kramer’s that I came across, I found his essay on Beethoven’s Quartet in C Major, op. 59 no. 3:

Contrary to Classical practice, the first strain of the Minuet is not repeated. But it is not exactly missing. After the da capo, Beethoven clouds the air with a very unclassical passage indeed. Much altered, the “missing” strain of the Minuet returns as a coda….

This is astonishing: Kramer noticed that the opening of the Minuet returns as a coda, but he failed to remark that nothing is “missing” at the opening. The first strain is repeated; Beethoven has written out the repeat of the first eight bars an octave lower, as he had done years earlier in the Quartet op. 18 no. 5. Kramer did not hear this, he only saw that there were no dots in the score at the double bar indicating a repeat.

Everyone makes silly mistakes. For example, in a hastily written preface to an opera by Méhul, I once idiotically described a passage in the overture as a solo for trombone instead of for cello: that is even dumber than Kramer’s error, but I was misled by the fact that the score indicated the instrument below the staff instead of above. However, I had never heard the overture played, and I like to think that if I had, I would have recognized the difference between a cello and a trombone. Kramer, however, has heard the Beethoven quartet and still not realized that the first strain was repeated.

This insensitivity need not prevent a brilliant career in musicology. Friedrich Blume’s errors (like not recognizing the theme in a set of variations by Mozart) make Kramer look like Donald Francis Tovey, and yet Blume became the most powerful German musicologist of his generation. I wish Kramer the same success—he has enough fantasy and erudition, but he must not imagine that my remarks on his aural insensitivity concern subtle subjective differences of philosophical approaches.

I hold practically none of the opinions that Kramer’s letter saddles me with, and I subscribe to most of what he says so generally and vaguely about criticism. Who wouldn’t? A large part of what is called “new musicology” is not new at all, but only entails a shift of emphasis. I do not underestimate the importance of this shift, which can be crucial. We understand somewhat better how our traditional view of music is historically determined, called into being by a specific kind of music within certain social orders: the concert-hall, the salon, and even music at home are artificial creations of an economic and cultural system sanctified by the way music is sold to us and reproduced. Where I might part company with Kramer’s position is in emphasizing that music of the past adapts only too well to new social and cultural conditions and was designed so to adapt, that it carries along into a later time some but not all of the values of the society for which it was created, and therefore no cultural or historical interpretation can take permanent possession of it. Music, of course, demands such interpretation and cannot even be conceived without it, at least unconsciously; a conscious and radical rethinking is all to the good. I only insist—and most critics would agree although they don’t actually like to think about it while they are doing their job—that no interpretation is likely to be definitive or to attach itself to the work for all time.

I do not wish to prescribe the way music can be listened to. Kramer does. He even knows how the dead listened to a work (unfortunately we can’t ask them). He claims that displacing a dominant pedal into a recapitulation and doing such a thing in an introduction “is to form what Haydn’s contemporaries would have understood as chaos: a crazy mixture, a Mischmash.” I only pointed out that it is not unclassical to put a dominant pedal there, and that the piece is not the kind of introduction that Kramer thinks it is. This is an honest “quarrel over detail,” not a rhetorical device. Unlike Kramer I am not trying to fix one way of listening.

Kramer has a point, but a small one, when he protests my claim that he cannot “distinguish insignificant details from more important ones” (why does he think that this claim was “impassioned”?—in fact, I felt regretfully cold-blooded in making it). Nothing in life is insignificant: anything can be made fascinating if one looks at it hard enough. I should have said that Kramer doesn’t listen hard enough and overlooks salient features that ought to hold his attention. Like that dominant pedal that was supposed to have upset Haydn’s contemporaries: Kramer never mentions that it resolves an earlier pedal on the flatted supertonic, a much more radical and ear-catching formal device than a dominant pedal. Either Kramer didn’t notice it, or he didn’t think it relevant to mention, and I find the latter possibility even more disquieting for his critical judgment. He later attaches a lot of importance to a descent from C to C an octave below: the flute stops playing on a C and the violins continue an octave below at the end of a C minor cadence. This commonplace detail can hardly be heard as a motif but Kramer thinks it is recalled by a descent from C to C in the soprano part in the middle of a full texture a page later, and he attaches the meaning of the later sung text to the earlier event. This is what I meant by overemphasizing trivial points: the detail will not bear the weight Kramer gives it; nothing in the score sets it into relief, and dragging it out of context detaches criticism from the act of listening—and I do not mean anything lofty or transcendent about listening.

Kramer is right to reproach me with not treating some of the other contributors to “new musicology.” My original review contained some unstinting praise of Carolyn Abbate and Anthony Newcomb and some, slightly qualified, of Rose Subotnick, all of whom are trying to open musicology up to studies of narration, gender, and social interpretation. It was first proposed to run my review serially (friends have spoken satirically of my compte-rendus fleuve), but it was then thought more effective to trim it. I thought it unfair to treat so prominent a publicist as Kramer with only a brief dismissal: he has his importance. Although he implies that I encourage a “passive yielding to authority,” it is he who bows down before every wave of fashion. This is a good thing, as it tells us which way the cultural tide is flowing.

Enjoying Chaminade is a good thing too, and I attach no importance to my low estimate of her talents.

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