Can there be such a thing as music criticism?

John Deathridge

  • Music and Civilisation: Essays in Honour of Paul Henry Lang edited by Edmond Strainchamps, Maria Rika Maniates and Christopher Hatch
    Norton, 499 pp, £35.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 393 01677 3
  • The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914 edited by Kay Dreyfus
    Macmillan, 542 pp, £25.00, December 1985, ISBN 0 333 38085 1
  • Musicology by Joseph Kerman
    Collins/Fontana, 255 pp, £10.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 00 197170 0

Musicologists are notorious both in and outside academic circles for their arcane habits of mind and their usually enraptured view of the mediocre and obscure. Paul Henry Lang – doyen of American musicology and the author of the magisterial Music in Western Civilisation – was never slow to point this out: ‘A scholar who, like a Hindu ascetic immersed in self-contemplation, confines himself to his narrow field of specialisation, loses the larger view. The first requirement for the musicologist is to realise that the choice of studying other disciplines is governed not by his tastes and ideas alone, but by sheer necessity. Further, he must not only absorb the content of other disciplines, but – and this is much more difficult – put each to constructive use in his own field.’ Lang believed that the musicologist should not shy away from his role as disturber of the peace in the serene and pleasurable world of music, where awkward questions about performing practice, sociology, theory and aesthetics are still too often regarded as an infringement of the right simply to ‘enjoy’ music. This view seems to have been taken to heart by most of the former colleagues and students who have contributed to the handsome volume in his honour. Their essays range from Rose Rosengard Subotnik’s philosophical investigation into aspects of meaning in Mozart’s last three symphonies to James McKinnon’s critique of the myth of the Phrygian aulos, the instrument whose exciting and sensuous sound was supposedly rejected on ethical grounds. The collection starts well, with a scrupulous examination by Christoph Wolff of Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah, which was highly respected until the advent of the historical performance movement tarnished its reputation for good. Wolff reflects on the spiritual link (as the late 18th century probably saw it) between a young genius and a revered master, and sets the tone of Lang’s Festschrift with some cogent remarks on the diplomat and music patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the guardian angel of Mozart’s late style.

Richard Taruskin accuses Stravinsky of lying about the original idea of The Rite of Spring, which was visual and frankly ‘Scriabinistic’ rather than purely musical. In various autobiographical statements Stravinsky dismissed the help of Nicholas Roerich in the elaboration of the scenario: Taruskin redresses the balance by describing in detail Roerich’s contribution and four Russian sources he probably used for elaborating the ballet’s striking visual imagery. Stravinsky shaped events to make them conform to the subsequent reputation of The Rite as an undisputed masterpiece in the mainstream of Western music. Taruskin’s scrutiny of biographical detail is not intended to damage that reputation or to reclaim for the work some kind of spuriously innate ‘Russian’ identity, but rather to highlight Stravinsky’s achievement by defining its origins and thereby showing how it has transcended them.

If Percy Grainger transcended much more than the boundaries of good taste, it would be difficult to tell from The Farthest North of Humanness. The philistine reaction to flagellation and sexual experiment was exactly what Grainger wanted, of course, and the reponse to this monster volume of letters, assisted by some unintentionally comic editing, is likely to be one that would have made even Grainger’s bruised loins throb with excitement. The ‘Glossary of Private Language’ conveniently provided at the start, and giving Grainger’s own names for intimate parts of the body, includes ‘ureure the male organ’ and the editorial comment: ‘[i.e. penis]. [This word is first used in letter 264.]’ Rushing aghast to letter 264 (addressed to Grainger’s Danish mistress Karen Holten), we read not only ureure but also: ‘Whipping is still lovely on all places, but, for me, most ravishing on the breasts ... Perhaps the effects are more painful when someone else strikes.’ The passage is well printed alongside a carefully placed facsimile of a bad drawing of the famous loins with the parts blacked in ‘where it is good and sharp’. Yet despite the grand presentation of excess (Grainger’s letters, like Wagner’s, sometimes read as if they were instruction booklets on how to satisfy ultimate needs), the man behind it only rarely transcends the feelings of an overgrown brat. This is the famous Grainger in extremis – a self-styled ‘lightning conductor’ of human feeling for whom, at least according to the revealing psychological double-think of the editor, even ‘boredom and emptiness were to be experienced to the full.’

By comparison, David Josephson’s more modest essay on Percy Grainger in Music and Civilisation comes as a refreshing surprise. Josephson is a victim of Lang’s musicological high-mindedness only to the extent that he distrusts any kind of ad hominem argument that could explain Grainger’s erratic career. Instead, Grainger’s subversive and scurrilous personality is – for once – set aside and various claims on his behalf are critically examined. Josephson dismisses all of them, including the naive view that Grainger’s music reflects Australia’s vast spaces and pioneering spirit and the more influential but equally naive idea that Grainger’s importance lies in his experiments with avant-garde ideas such as irregular meter and the beatless, pitchless Free Music. Not unreasonably, Josephson suggests that the reason for Grainger’s neglect by the musical mainstream and avant-garde alike has a lot to do with his roots in the popular music of pre-war England, particularly his interest in music hall and the musical comedy of Edwardian London. The fascination with music hall is the most palpable link between Grainger and the Kipling of the Barrack-Room Ballads, the Cockney dialect and heavy speech rhythms of which Grainger drew on many times. His preference for short forms and free scoring may be linked to the drawing-room ballad and the ‘vulgar’ instruments of the concert hall: but Josephson forgets to say that he may have exploited this, too, as an alibi to conceal the fact that he never bothered to master some of the basic skills of composition.

Josephson also offers important and well-documented insights into the English folksong movement. Grainger’s disputes with colleagues like Cecil Sharp (whose ideas about folk-song were later endorsed by Vaughan Williams) were superficially about Grainger’s pioneering use of the phonograph. But Sharp’s hard-nosed rejection of the infernal machine as the only means of accurately transcribing folk-song had less to do with practicalities (Grainger’s transcriptions tried to capture the ‘roughness’ of the music with a riot of notes, ornaments and verbal instructions) than with the issue of class. Josephson is right in saying that there was a broad moral and social agenda behind the ‘good taste’ of the transcriptions espoused by the Folk-Song Society (whose founding members included Victorian stalwarts like Sir Hubert Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford) and the idea that folk-song was a national treasure to be reclaimed in its purity and simplicity. Implied in the rejection of the phonograph as a musicological tool was a refusal to recognise, even to hear, the difference in class between the collectors and those whose music was being collected, but the policy also entailed the premature ejection of Grainger from the Folk-Song Society and his estrangement from England’s musical establishment. Josephson’s argument that Grainger has been misjudged because of musicologists’ stubborn cultural biases has a soapbox quality about it which Lang, a stern critic of provincialism masquerading as academic prowess, would never condone. The argument is difficult to sustain in any case since Grainger’s works fail both as serious art and as popular music – as Josephson himself concedes. But the music does have some sort of claim on us, even if it is only the modest one, as Josephson says, of an exquisitely wrought document of a faded people and their era.

Taruskin and Josephson get rid of non-sensical myths (most of them with an added bonus of plausibility) that could obstruct a direct critical response to the works of the composers they discuss. Yet there are many who would say that the kind of historical criticism they engage in has one obvious drawback: it does not really talk about music. This is not to reiterate the cliché that the musicological fraternity is divided by and large into historians, on the one hand, and analysts who investigate music ‘internally’, on the other. In fact, musicology is a discipline with many subdivisions, making it seem to outsiders like an endless hall of mirrors – something that clearly worries Lang when he speaks of the danger to musicologists of too much specialisation. Guido Adler’s division of musicology into two broad areas – historical and systematic – is still valid, even though the divisions themselves have become very much more complex since Adler, an Austrian musicologist who profoundly influenced composers like Webern as well as other musicologists, first published the suggestion in 1885. To the historical field belong, among other things, biography, bibliography, and histories of musical forms, theories and instruments, as well as practical skills in notation and statistics. The systematic field, on the other hand, is usually regarded as a rag-bag of subjects ranging from analysis and acoustics to sociology, music education, aesthetics and ethnomusicology. Clearly, historical subjects can be treated systematically and vice versa, so that in an ideal world the arrangement would lead to a rich synthesis of interconnecting interests and skills. In the essays by Taruskin and Josephson ethnography, folklore and sociology, treated historically rather than systematically, are combined with the history of musical forms and with biography.

This is not nearly enough for Joseph Kerman, however, who complains in Musicology that the seams in Adler’s musicological patchwork quilt are showing more than ever before. Apart from the alienating fragmentation of the discipline, his main complaint is that musicology has neglected criticism – a critical approach to music itself, that is, as opposed to the many subjects on Adler’s agenda that seem to circle around it. To those outside the field who read newspaper criticism almost daily, or who have studied, say, Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style, Hans Keller on Mozart, Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music or Alan Walker’s An Anatomy of Music Criticism, Kerman, like Lang’s Hindu ascetic, may seem in danger of losing the larger view. The complaint against musicologists is not new either: Carl Engel (one of the founding fathers of American musicology) is demolished at the end of Ernest Newman’s Wagner biography in a welter of prose that makes the fall of Valhalla look like a harmless firework. The very fact that Newman, whom Adorno called the Anglo-Saxon matador of music criticism, decided to end the most important work of his life with a thunderous tirade against a professional musicologist signals a difference in outlook between musicians outside and within the academy. Newman’s approach to music was very serious indeed (he even changed his name to show he was a ‘new man in earnest’), and while not, perhaps, a truly great critic, he made a stand against what he took to be the intellectual cowardice of musicologists reluctant to indulge in value-judgments, but more than willing to barricade themselves behind an allegedly neutral musical antiquarianism.

Profesor Kerman is uninterested in the intellectual jungle of newspaper criticism, although like Newman he parades a somewhat donnish suspicion of the academy too. (‘One sometimes wonders if anything is discussed in faculty clubs and senior common rooms besides political and meteorological trivia.’) At one point in Musicology he asks why, by 1965, there was no recognition of criticism in music-academic circles, given the major role it played in American academic literary studies, which at the time were engaged in a withdrawal from the New Criticism and in wrestling with the work of Northrop Frye. There was critical analysis of a particularly giddy sort centred on Princeton and, in particular, on the work of Milton Babbitt, whose brilliant sallies on musical structure and syntax, not to mention his public scolding of non-musicological colleagues like Peter Gay and Morse Peckham for botched attempts to write about musical language coherently, are still too little known. But the reason why criticism on this high level did not get much further than the pages of the Princeton-based journal Perspectives in New Music probably had less to do with the intellectual torpor of other musicologists than with the recalcitrant nature of the musical material itself. Kerman is strangely reticent about this and understandably nervous about the language of the logical positivists which Babbitt shares, describing its manifestation in music analysis as less than ‘humane’. Yet he is not very forthcoming about an alternative. The kind of comparison he makes between Byrd’s ‘Emendemus in melius’ and a piece by Alfonso Ferrabosco on which it is closely modelled allows him to highlight the originality and mastery of the former piece. But this seems haphazard as a critical method. And to argue that new Beethoven sketch studies have a ‘critical orientation built into [their] very source materials’ is to clutch at straws, especially since the sketches, as Kerman sees them, act as a catalyst towards a type of formalistic analysis he dislikes and which it is in any case possible to do without using the sketches.

With the spectacular success of the historical performance movement, the prestige of musicology has increased since Newman’s time. But so have complaints about jargon-infested programme notes, about new editions of established masterpieces which have been obfuscated by editorial zealousness, and, above all, about contemporary music. Kerman, of course, is aware of this appalling lack of communication and has tried several times to put other disciplines to constructive use in his own field – something Lang also suggests. His study of William Byrd in the context of the turbulent history of the Elizabethan Catholic community owes something to sociology and political history. But his most successful attempt is his first, and probably best-known book, Opera as Drama, which combines the dramatic criticism of T.S. Eliot, Una EllisFermor and Francis Fergusson with a highly selective view of operatic history. As with Taruskin and Josephson, the merging of the historical with the systematic sharpens the perception and makes sense of the material, with the difference that the systematic part of Kerman’s discourse is outside musicology altogether.

To what extent can the musicologist go on using other disciplines? As Susanne Langer pointed out long ago, musical structure and syntax are without fixed connotations. One consequence is that the need to understand music presents our literal minds with the almost ungraspable idea that something can be known which cannot be named. This insight was exploited long before Langer by Wagner, who allowed Hans von Wolzogen to construct a system of named leitmotifs for the Ring knowing full well that their precise ‘meaning’ had precious little to do with the import of continuous musical argument. Deryck Cooke, great Wagernian though he was, failed to understand this crucial point and wrote The Language of Music, where, via an assiduous and ingenious compilation of musical shapes extracted largely from vocal music, he constructed a system of absolute connotations for the elements of musical language. These, he claimed, could be used to analyse entire symphonies and sonatas. Cooke’s method, which is crudely literal, relied heavily on the confused idea that music was not merely a metaphor but a direct expression of feelings and concepts. Since, when applied to complete pieces of music, his categories of ‘meaning’ become so abstract as to be virtually meaningless, Cooke unwittingly manoeuvred himself towards the position of the logical positivists and the quasi-formalistic view of music he strenuously rejected. Kerman is fully aware that vicious circles like this are endemic to musicology and that more sophisticated music analysis, too, can become a kind of self-negating activity which is really a meaningless substitute for true criticism. Yet he is far from clear about how music criticism can be developed if it is forced to steer clear of content and even minimal interpretation. Sensing this impasse, music analysts, though normally reluctant to venture beyond music itself, have followed Kerman’s and Lang’s cue and attempted to make use of techniques from other disciplines. But a dissection of The Rite of Spring adapting from linguistics, say, John Lyon’s version of the theory of semantic structure, or a semiotic analysis of Grainger’s Handel in the Strand are liable to end up, too, as involved technical explanations communicating less real critical insight than the trenchant views of Taruskin and Josephson.

Beneath Newman’s critical bluster there somehow lay the tacit admission that, in the end, there is no such thing as music criticism in the strictest sense. This expressed, as Adorno noted, a kind of ‘ultimate doubt’ which turned a life devoted to music criticism into that of an intellectual gambler. Beneath the urbane prose and refreshingly practical suggestions for a ‘new musicology’ Kerman, too, seems less than sanguine about the future of music criticism. But it would be wrong to impute to him any ‘ultimate doubt’. This would be to make light of a strain of optimism about musicology, and about what ways there may be of communicating its best findings to a larger public, which he also shares with Lang.