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 chord1 (Kramer can point to seven of the slow introductions to Haydn’s “London” symphonies); 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 fiancée 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.

Kramer’s ambition to explain the poetic meaning of Schumann’s fragmentary character sketches requires more good sense and less ingenuity than he is generally willing to offer. His remarks about Schumann’s “Pantalon et Columbine” are a typical misreading:

Pantalon et Columbine evokes the lecher’s pursuit with a frenetic, exaggerated staccato, and his prey’s escape with a slower, exaggerated legato. The piece ends with Columbine’s articulation gradually overtaking and retarding Pantaloon’s, as if, in a fulfillment of standard male anxieties, she were appropriating his phallus for uses of her own.

Kramer assumes that the staccato portrays the masculine Pantalon, and the lyrical legato Columbine, but listening to the piece will tell us that this is quite wrong: we begin with a dancing staccato motif that places the melody in the right hand or soprano part; the phrase is then repeated with the melody in the bass or left hand with loud accents added and an indication to use the pedal. A simple interpretation of this would hear Columbine as the soprano and Pantalon as the bass, or a pas de deux, with both dancers in a sprightly and jerky dance, and this would also be the assumption of anyone who had ever seen Pantalon and Columbine in a performance of the commedia dell’ arte. The legato section would confirm this, as it starts as an imitative duet between right and left hand, and its amorous tone suggests flirting and at least a pretense of yielding. I interpret the surprise ending as Columbine’s final pretense of yielding and then—with a pause and two soft off-hand staccato chords—a last-minute escape. Kramer obviously wants a more provocative scenario in which Columbine is appropriating Pantalon’s phallus, and I do not envy him.

When Kramer deals more closely with the details of Schumann’s score, the results are even more disconcerting. He would like to demonstrate the way male and female aspects mirror each other in a succession of four pieces of Carnaval: the two successive self-portraits of Schumann’s introvert and extrovert nature, “Eusebius” and “Florestan,” followed by “Coquette” and a short “Réplique.” “Eusebius” finishes with a chord that traditionally is resolved to a B flat major triad, while “Florestan” ends on an even more dissonant harmony. The next piece, “Coquette,” begins with a B flat major cadence, which Kramer calls the deferred resolution to “Eusebius.” After “Coquette” comes “Réplique”, and Kramer writes:

Réplique begins by mirroring in the upper voice a short figure first heard as an inner voice at the opening of Coquette. A reprise of that opening follows immediately, remirroring the figure in its original position.

All this is technically correct, but the way it is described betrays the fact that Kramer has looked at the score and not heard the music.

Listeners who want a resolution for the final chord of “Eusebius” (I am not one of these: see the note below) will not have to wait for the opening of “Coquette,” because there have been several resolutions on to a B flat triad in the course of the intervening piece, “Florestan.” Any desire for a resolution will have been by then fully satisfied.

It is also true that the beginning of “Réplique” mirrors the opening of “Coquette,” but that is not how one perceives it, because the last phrase of “Coquette” is the same as its first phrase. A listener will hear that the opening of “Réplique” repeats the end of “Coquette,” and any sense of mirroring with the opening will be radically undercut and can occur only on reflection or when one examines the score. Kramer’s way of describing the music works on paper but it neglects the most elementary facts of the experience of hearing or playing Carnaval.5

The inability to distinguish insignificant detail from more important ones has characterized Kramer’s work from the beginning, and frustrated his ambition to unite formal analysis and cultural history. Nevertheless, he is an intelligent critic with a great power of imagination and an intuitive grasp of what is interesting and fashionable in criticism today. The distinguished theorist now at Yale, Robert Morgan, wrote a review of Kramer’s first book which was as harsh as this one, and considerably more detailed; he concluded by saying “What is perhaps most discouraging about this book is that it has apparently impressed at least some members of the academic community who should know better and who should have been able to read it more critically.”6 I think Morgan was wrong to be discouraged: the continued favorable reception of Kramer’s work is a hopeful sign. It shows that there is a desire for a change in the air so urgent that it is worth overlooking or forgiving Kramer’s pretentious expansion of triviality; his defective perception of musical significance matters less than his 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. If I may be forgiven a phallic image, he is a valuable weathercock to show us which way the wind is blowing.


Perhaps the greatest stimulus for change, at least for the moment, comes from gender studies (and Kramer’s writings are a witness to the popularity of this relatively recent field). Work in this field, as in every other, is uneven, ranging from the enlightening to the loony, but musicologists—like artists—must be judged by their finest work, just as criminals will be remembered for their greatest crimes (as Lord Acton remarked about the history of the papacy). The acknowledged leader of these studies, the figure most in view, is Professor Susan McClary of McGill University.

McClary writes with a racy, vigorous, and consistently entertaining style. Her forceful, colloquial manner tends to frighten British musicologists. I should think that she enjoys frightening her colleagues. With McClary, we find a very different level of competence from Kramer. What she has to say specifically about the music and the text is sharp, accurate, and telling; she hears what takes place musically with unusual sensitivity. When she inflates her ideas, her purpose seems to be not so much to dazzle, or to attract admiration, as to shock. The initial form of one of her lectures can indeed cause a certain amount of consternation: the final published version may sometimes seem rather bland, as she has refined out and expurgated the more sensational points. Her critics unfairly—or, perhaps, fairly—tend to quote the original versions. They do, in fact, make better reading.

McClary’s account of Carmen is consistently interesting and often original. It is preceded, as its first chapter, by an unfortunate analysis by Peter Robinson of Prosper Mérimée’s original story, or rather the revised version to which Mérimée added a long disquisition of the Gypsy language. With the kind of exaggerated metaphor now rampant in the best circles, Robinson describes this as an attempt of the male writer to appropriate the language of the heroine, making her destruction complete, and writes:

Sealing every possible orifice, the sexual and the verbal, he brings the story to its end—silence. In this way he hopes forever to bury and deny the terrifying reality of Woman’s inalterable and unutterable superiority.

One can only admire Robinson’s humility, and his success at uttering the unutterable, but we may feel, nevertheless, that sealing orifices is an insensitive way to characterize the fate of a heroine who has been stabbed to death. I quote this only because McClary herself succumbs to the same rhetoric when she writes a very goofy metaphor about male attempts to suppress a figure like Carmen: “Not even José’s knife suffices to contain her.” With or without the knife, containment is not a happy description of what Don José wants from Carmen: he needs, in fact, to be owned by her, to be, as he says, her “thing,” and she is tired of being possessed by her possession.

McClary deals better than anyone else with the important questions about Carmen—its supposed vulgarity (which she rightly affirms), its supposed “Wagnerism,” the Spanish element, the ambiguity of its portrayal of relations between the sexes. Above all, she deals with the last topic not merely in terms of her discussion of the libretto, but as a musical issue. The following paragraph on the death of Carmen may give some idea of the deftness with which McClary unites drama and musical expression:

In this finale, Bizet gratifies simultaneously two very different notions of closure. On the one hand, José’s dramatic and musical trajectories here reach climax and resolution: he has managed to possess Carmen even if it has meant annihilating her. The instability of the final number encourages the listener both to fear his rage and to long for the event which will put an end to this turmoil. The urgency of Bizet’s music, in other words, invites us to desire Carmen’s death. But, on the other hand, the formal symmetries that had spelled normalcy throughout the opera and the promise of containment by the opening frame likewise achieve satisfaction here. The principal irony of the opera concerns a fatalism that engages with the most basic formal processes: the willful teleology of José’s actions results in the “necessary” return of [musical] materials announced [in the overture] before he even appeared. His agency dissolves into the fulfillment of a fate foretold.

It is rare to find so cogent an expression of the way the musical structure alters and even coerces our feelings about the stage action.

McClary’s collection of essays, Feminine Endings, alternates between splendid insights presented in a macho style and the kind of extravagance that provokes neither refutation nor assent. But her attempt to identify cadential closure in Western music with patriarchical domination in Western society is too facile to be convincing. Since the early Romantics, we have generally accepted that something as primitive as sexual desire and the way its expression is organized socially will be reflected at all levels of culture. Nevertheless, McClary underestimates how tenuous the analogy becomes as we move away from the basic appetites. Masculine and feminine rhymes, for example, are only distantly related to sexual difference, even if the origin is evident. In addition, any binary relationship, like male and female, will find an easy parallel wherever one looks for it: black and white, closed and open form, nature and culture, master and slave, classical and romantic. Some of these parallels may be stimulating, but it is difficult to know where to stop—or, indeed, why.

In a review of this collection, Ruth Solie said that it was full of “Aha” moments, which is true, but it is full of “Ho Ho” moments as well, like McClary’s suggestion that “orchestral musicians dress in black so as to minimize the embarassing presence of their physical beings.” McClary knows that soloists dress in black, too, and waiters, and boys at a prep-school commencement dance or coming-out ball, and, generally, most men and many women on formal occasions; but she is concerned at all costs to draw sympathy for exploited classes like women and orchestral players, and to emphasize the importance of the body in making music. W.H. Auden wrote that our

greatest comfort is music

Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,

And does not smell

(“In Praise of Limestone”)

but that is not the comfort McClary wants. She knows that sweaty musicians smell, and does not mind. If she deliberately cuts herself off from the ideal but sensuous pleasure that Auden celebrates, she tries with admirable spirit to restore our sense of the physical aspect of musical gesture. This accounts for her remarkable treatment of popular music and Madonna in particular.

Examples of her imaginative reponse to music and her efforts to force the works into a social and political interpretation are found in the collection of essays by different authors, Music and Society edited by Richard Leppert and Susan McClary. With the essay “The Blasphemy of Talking Politics during Bach Year” she sets up, like so many of the “new musicologists,” a straw man to knock down, the dogma that music has no meaning, and no political or social significance. (I doubt that anyone, except perhaps the nineteenth-century critic Hanslick, has ever really believed that, although some musicians have been goaded into proclaiming it by the sillier interpretations of music with which we are often assailed.) McClary writes first on the opening movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, probably the first keyboard concerto in history, which has an astonishingly long cadenza for the harpsichord alone without the other two solo instruments, flute and violin. She interprets this cadenza as political or social allegory: until then, the harpsichord was an accompanying instrument, always present in a Baroque ensemble, but providing only what is called a continuo part, a harmonic support to the bass instrument. She writes:

Anyone who has served as an accompanist knows the almost complete lack of recognition that comes with that position. As an active keyboardist, Bach was very familiar with this role and—if the narrative of this piece can serve as an indication—with its attendant rewards and frustrations. For in this concerto (in which he would have played the harpsichord part himself), he creates a “Revenge of the continuo player”: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else, large ensemble and conventional soloists alike, out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history. The harpsichord is the wild card in this deck that calls all the other parameters of the piece—and their attendant ideologies—into question.

But if, as McClary herself recognizes, the harpsichordist was most often the conductor of the ensemble—or, as she says, “a Svengali or puppet master”—are we justified in reading the inferiority complex of the present-day accompanist into the society of 1720 at the court of Cöthen? McClary forgets that today’s accompanists are paid considerably less than soloists, whereas in Bach’s case, as the well-paid director of music, the leader of the ensemble, and the composer, he was not likely to feel deeply frustrated. The outlandish length of the cadenza has probably a purely artistic explanation (anathema, I suppose, to McClary), a way of celebrating the invention of the keyboard concerto.

In her haste to arrive at a political interpretation, McClary misses the way the harpsichord a few pages before the cadenza starts with pure accompaniment figures, and then gradually—in fact, almost imperceptibly at first—assumes the soloist’s role while flute and violin take on accompanying figures. She almost arrives at this insight, but all she can say about this moment is that the parts of the flute and violin “no longer make sense.” But they do, just not the sense that McClary wants, and the typical ploy of claiming that some essential element has no meaning or no logic has begun to seem tiresome today.

McClary also treats the duet between Soul (soprano) and Saviour (bass) from Bach’s cantata Wachet Auf to a feminist interpretation. She remarks:

The duet operates on the conceit that the Soul, unable to perceive Christ’s presence or his responses, longs impatiently for him, continually asking when he will arrive…The Soul is presumably gender-free (male souls are also supposed to long in this manner for Christ’s coming, after all), yet the musical images Bach uses mark it as specifically female, or as femininity is frequently constructed in his—and our—culture, in any case. Put quite simply, the Soul here is a nagging, passive-aggressive wife, insecurely whining for repeated assurances of love and not hearing them when they are proferred…

It is true that the Soul asks repeatedly, “When do you come?” and the Saviour replies over and over, “I come.” Repetition of text is normal in Baroque cantatas, and seeing this as the image of a nagging wife is comic. McClary reminds me of the Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance, who hears the policemen’s chorus, “We go, we go, we go”, and objects, “Yes, but you don’t go!” She has forgotten the conventions of Baroque setting of texts, just as the Major-General is ignorant of the conventions of Italian opera choruses.

Clearly even when she is in error, McClary is fun to read, and it is also clear where her force comes from. Her essays on Bach are not only free-wheeling; they employ free association, a willingness to take chances with an engaging recklessness. McClary has faith, not always misplaced, in whatever comes into her head. On two occasions this faith created dismay among musicologists who felt threatened by her positions.

We have first her characterization of the moment of recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:

The point of recapitulation…is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.

The phrase about the murderous rage of the rapist has since been withdrawn, which indicates that McClary realized it posed a problem, but it has the great merit of recognizing that something extraordinary is taking place here, and McClary’s metaphor of sexual violence is a not a bad way to describe it. The difficulty is that all metaphors oversimplify, like those entertaining little stories that music critics in the nineteenth century used to invent about works of music for an audience whose musical literacy was not too well developed. I do not, myself, find the cadence frustrated or dammed up in any constricting sense, but only given a slightly deviant movement which briefly postpones total fulfillment.

To continue the sexual imagery, I cannot think that the rapist incapable of attaining release is an adequate analogue, but I hear the passage as if Beethoven had found a way of making an orgasm last for sixteen bars. What causes the passage to be so shocking, indeed, is the power of sustaining over such a long phrase what we expect as a brief explosion. To McClary’s credit, it should be said that some kind of metaphorical description is called for, and even necessary, but I should like to suggest that none will be satisfactory or definitive.

Sex and music have long been associated, although Richard Wagner’s insistence that music was female and poetry masculine and his conclusion that Beethoven was the greatest female sex organ in the history of culture is rather at odds with McClary’s vision of Beethoven as rapist.7 The problem is that the significance of music is extremely malleable, and allows infinite room for speculation and free association.

Schubert’s sexuality has provoked even more controversy than Beethoven’s, and still continues to do so. The instigation of the affair was an article by Maynard Solomon about a passage in the diary of one of Schubert’s friends: “Schubert half sick (he needs ‘young peacocks’ like Benv. Cellini).” This suggested homosexual slang to Solomon, who reinforced his proposal with two passages from Cellini’s memoirs, one in which his apprentice was disguised as a girl and compared to the women at a dinner as a peacock among crows, and another in which Cellini and his apprentices, feeling poorly, shot and ate young peacocks and recovered their health. Putting together the use of the image of hunting birds by Cellini’s contemporaries to mean cruising for boys and the well-known reputation of Cellini for homosexuality, Solomon concluded that it was probable that Schubert was homosexual: we know of no consummated affair with a woman, only that he caught syphilis from prostitutes of whatever sex. This created consternation among Viennese musicologists and their allies, who saw a takeover of Schubert by the Homintern, and have proceeded to invent an Immortal Beloved for Schubert like Beethoven’s and even to suggest that the keys of Schubert’s works are a secret code that identifies the name of the lady.

McClary, however, seized the opportunity to suggest that Schubert’s homosexual nature was revealed in the modulations and the harmony of the “Unfinished” Symphony, and she gave a sensitive analysis of these modulations. This proposal was received with some skepticism, and McClary has moved to a simple affirmation (printed in Queering the Pitch) that Schubert was providing an alternative to Beethoven’s phallic style. This turned Schubert into an Other, which is a good thing to be in gay and feminist circles, and it has helped to promote a healthy interest in, and research about, Schubert’s work. It is not, however, a critical advance on the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music more than a century ago in which Sir George Grove described Schubert’s as basically feminine in style.

The slyest and most pointed comment on the issue of homosexuality in music was made by Paul Attinello, the editor of the gay musicological review which published McClary’s article. In the issue that followed, Attinello remarked:

So, if Ravel was gay and Debussy was not: tell me, then, the difference between their musics. One interpretation: a subtle but extensive fracturing of the tonal system on the one hand, and on the other a reinscribing of classical structures, each beneath a sensual surface that appears rather similar. Yet which is which? They seem to be the wrong way around, according to my expectations of what a “gay” music might be.8

It is clear enough that a composer’s life and character including his sexual behavior ought to have something to do with his music. The problem is largely that homosexuality is a legal concept, not a character trait. Before we can conclude anything about Schubert and sex, we would have to know exactly what he did with which partners. Homosexual preferences can range from simple cuddling to physical mutilation. I presume—or I should like to presume—that a rapist and a foot fetishist would write different kinds of music, but I am not sure how one would go about confirming this.

McClary is reduced to speculating, not on Schubert’s sexual nature, but on the sense of alienation experienced by homosexuals which must have inspired them to produce a music which was satisfyingly “other”—that is, satisfying to modern critics. But is this so certain? Would not the alienated composer try to produce something deliberately conventional, as Schumann, afraid in his late years that he was going insane, tried to make his earlier music seem more normal, less mad? Although it is true that Maynard Solomon misinterpreted a few details, I myself think that his evidence makes it likely that Schubert was gay, but I am not sure that this accounts for the contrast of his style with Beethoven’s emphatic and more masculine manner. We must remember that Beethoven was a very successful and brilliant concert pianist from his earliest years, and that Schubert was only a modest performer. This gave Beethoven a large experience of the concert stage that must have shaped his style from the beginning; was his allegedly more “masculine” style a response to the growing importance of public concerts in ever larger halls? He wrote five piano concertos for himself to play and Schubert wrote none. Beethoven heard all of his symphonies and quartets and his opera performed for a large public: Schubert never succeeded in getting a public perfor-mance of his most ambitious works, and his experience of his own music was largely confined to small semi-private gatherings of friends. It is only modern prejudice that makes us think that one’s sexual proclivities have more influence on artistic style than one’s career. I might add that McClary averts her eyes from the frequent outbursts of savage violence in Schubert’s scores.

The issue of gay studies has served to illuminate the general difficulties of gender studies. There is no specific homosexual sensibility any more than there is a specific Jewish sensibility, two attractive fictions that Susan Sontag conflated and publicized in her well-known essay on camp. There are various styles of life open to homosexuals that have traditionally allowed them a certain freedom of expression—interior decorating, leather bars, fashion designing, the theater, ballet, and musicology—just as certain professions have traditionally been more receptive than others to Jews—nuclear physics rather than the chemical industry, medicine rather than automotive manufacturing. This has fostered the appearance of distinctive sensibilities that are of no use in dealing with individual cases, and with a composer like Schubert it is the individual case that counts.

Gender studies have come up against the same problem. It is now widely accepted that it is not the biological difference between men and women that can be studied for its effect on culture but the way society has organized the institutional relation of the sexes, and how men and women are affected economically, psychologically, and aesthetically by the sexual hierarchy forced upon them by different societies. Certain values have been labeled feminine, and women are presumed to be intuitive, subjective, maternal, illogical, and less aggressive then men—or, at least, aggressive in more subtle ways. Not all women or all men are happy with the roles they are expected to play. A female composer, for example, has to struggle hard to impose herself against this system. When she is able to do so, as Ruth Seeger did briefly with the extraordinary String Quartet of 1931, she may end up by abandoning composition and spend the next decade gathering folk songs for her husband. Feminist scholars have worked hard to rehabilitate a mediocre talent like Cécile Chaminade, while a major figure like Ruth Seeger remains neglected (in the New Grove, she received only two brief and uninformative paragraphs).


Both gender and gay studies have happily insinuated themselves into the vacuum left by the disappearance of Marxist and Freudian criticism; we should be thankful that they are trying to salvage what is most stimulating and valuable in those fields. Gender studies substitute women for Marx’s oppressed proletariat, and assume that the forms of culture recreate in various ways the forms of our social and moral organization of which we are largely unconscious. Gender studies are manifestly a polemic in favor of the equality of women, and so they should be, just as gay studies are essentially pursued for the sake of greater acceptance and tolerance of homosexuality. Besides the political benefit of gender studies, the greatest success in this field of literary interpretation has come through the examination of the role of women as consumers as well as creators of culture, and the way literary works can reflect, obliquely as well as directly, the role of gender in society.

Musicologists would like to achieve something similar in their own realm, but the relation of literature to language and to the portrayal of the world around us is obviously more direct than that of music. It is not that music is more autonomous, but more ambiguous, slippery: it will not allow itself to be caught and pinned down like a novel or even like a poem. Music has meaning but very little reference. Critics often forget this and would like to make music speak—which it does, but not often in a language they can easily translate. For example, the title of Schumann’s piece, “Chiarina,” from Carnaval, refers both to the music and to Clara Schumann, but the music itself does not refer to Clara although the title enriches the music’s meaning.

In short, the problem is to get from the music to a critical interpretation: we assume that different societies and different classes will produce exactly the music they want, and that the text of the music will contain clues to its significance for the listeners for whom it was intended. The difficulty is that music, more than any other art, can accomodate different meanings, different ideologies, different uses. A fugue of Bach does not make sense solely within the society for which it was produced; if it brings some of its original meaning to us, it can attract new ones. In fact, one of its most important functions in history has been its free relation to the meanings that are im- posed on it. The greatest disappointment for me in the studies of the “new musicologists” is the failure to appreciate the inherent instability of musical meaning. The search for meaning, historical and analogical, is a necessary condition of listening as well as of understanding, but we cannot impose as dogma what is at best provisional.

An argument about “close reading” between Lawrence Kramer and Gary Tomlinson in Current Musicology, (No. 53, pp. 18–40) reveals how the intractability of music to being transfixed by meaning has made a dilemma for critics. Tomlinson would like to dethrone close reading, the unswerving examination of the formal details of a work, from its central role in musicology: not only does this kind of analysis remove music from history, Tomlinson feels, but it also involves the musicologist too closely in the values of the music he is studying. Neither Kramer nor Tomlinson observes that the intense concentration on the text of a work of music is a joy, sensuous as well as intellectual, one of the main reasons for becoming a musicologist. Tomlinson deplores the way even ethnomusicologists transfer “onto the musics they study precisely the western presumptions—of internalism, formalism, aestheticism, transcendentalism—that we need to question.” This transference does sound very wicked, but of course the ethnomusicologist properly starts by trying to enjoy the music he is studying, relating it to the music he already knows, and gradually widens his experience and loses his deplorable prejudices as he becomes more deeply involved with his field.

It is, however, precisely this deep involvement that arouses Tomlinson’s suspicions. Kramer, whose heart is in the right place, argues for the importance of close reading in order “to trace out the interrelations of musical pleasure, musical form and ideology. Not to pursue that possibility,” he continues, “is tantamount to denying…the two cardinal, historically grounded truths that music (or art) is meaningful and that music (or art) gives pleasure.” The difficulty for the historian, however, is to connect historical meaning and pleasure: they do not work separately. Tomlinson, on the other hand, urges us to

dredge up our usual impassioned musical involvements from the hidden realm of untouchable premise they tend to inhabit, and…make them a dynamic force—to be reckoned with, challenged, rejected, indulged in, whatever—within our study.

“Whatever” is the right word here. Evidently it does not matter to Tomlinson what happens to our passion for music, even rejection, as long as the involvement ceases to determine our interests and affect our judgments. He ends up by asking, in short, for a value-free history, although he knows that this ideal of objectivity is impossible. (He cannot accept the term “objective,” because today that is a word equivalent to “modernist,” “positivist,” “aestheticist,” and “phallocentric,” all curiously synonomous.) As a practical matter, I have found that the attempt completely to divest oneself of all one’s modern prejudices ends up by making us blind to how much of later history was already active in the past. When Tomlinson says that “we might even find that Beethoven and Mozart are not so like ourselves,” he seems to be hoping that these figures from the past will turn to be absolutely Other, untranslatable for modern taste, incapable of receiving our appreciation. This is the view of history that Walter Benjamin called deeply melancholy.

The effort of the “new musicolo-gists” to escape from the formalistview of music by what they call “contextualization”—re-situating the music in history in order to reconstruct the various musical and extra-musical meanings of which it was the bearer—can be vitiated at the outset by a failure to realize that throughout history music has resisted, and has been intended to resist, such constraint. It is, in fact, a historical distortion to anchor music too firmly in history.

Paradoxically, “contextualization” can often turn out to be unhistorical. The “particular kind of aesthetic engagement” that Tomlinson locates in the eighteenth century is already found in the Renaissance: vocal settings of the ordinary of the mass were transcribed and played on the lute in the sixteenth century, and the music was enjoyed in and for itself without regard to its original liturgical purpose. Tomlinson’s identification of the formalist approach with modernism will not wash; I should imagine it started with the Greeks or Egyptians in some form or other. Detaching music from its original meaning or function continues to be one of the ways that music is traditionally intended to be used. The musicologist Alfred Einstein, disappointed that he could hear no opera in Italy on Sunday, found that arias by Donizetti and Verdi were sung with Latin words during the church services.

Tomlinson’s goal is a grand one: to widen our understanding and extend it to other musics besides our own, to comprehend how music has beenpresent in history. It is only the restrictiveness of his practice and of his theory that is regrettable. What is curious, above all, is his psychology. Without a passionate involvement in a particular form of music, an involvement largely unquestioned and unchallenged, the field of musicology will shortly become uninhabited.

Both Tomlinson and Kramer raise essential questions about how one can write properly and improperly about music. What they seem never to have asked themselves, however, is who wants to read about it. The most responsive audience for their brand of writing is found among literary critics, for whom musical detail or its accuracy does not matter, and among younger musicologists hungry to keep abreast of the latest news in their profession. It seems to be almost impossible now to write a book that both engages the specific form of the music accurately and intensely and, at the same time, assesses its role in cultural history, like Hermann Abert’s great book on Mozart, or Joseph Kerman’s books on opera and on the Beethoven quartets. Composers, performers, and listeners are being shut out by the latest trends in musicology, although the most specious popular treatments still fill the gaps as they have always done. I suppose that it is cheering, however, to reflect that just as bad theories of music have stimulated some wonderful compositions, so defective theories of history may still inspire some criticism good enough to survive.

This Issue

June 23, 1994