Off the edge

Frank Kermode

  • Musical Elaborations by Edward Said
    Chatto, 128 pp, £20.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3809 2

The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, are meant to be about Critical Theory, and up to now they have, for good or ill, been faithful (in their fashion) to that intention: but it was an enlivening idea to ask Edward Said to talk about music as well, or instead. Said is a good enough pianist to understand what the professionals are up to. He knows a great deal more about music than most amateurs, and argues persuasively that it should not be left entirely to the rigorous mercies of the musicologists. The result is this very interesting, excited, crammed little book, in which admirable and questionable propositions jostle one another so bewilderingly that it isn’t always easy to know exactly where one is, or what might come next, rather as in a late Beethoven quartet.

There are really two principal subjects, and they remain somewhat at odds with one another. The first is a dutiful act of loyalty to the fashionable notion that works of art must be removed from the sphere of aesthetics for subjection to cultural-historical analysis. The most illuminating sort of writing about music, Said says, is ‘humanistic’ rather than merely aesthetic or technical – it must have its various roles in society and in history, its relation to the discourses of political power, strenuously investigated, just as literature is nowadays primarily a matter for ‘cultural studies’ and routinely submits ‘to ideological or psychoanalytic analysis’. Many pages of the book politely argue with Adorno, who did that sort of thing, though before it became the vogue, with magisterial strength and gloomy inclusiveness. Said, deferential but still his own man, characteristically points out that to treat modern music as a reflection or portent of the world’s present or impending ruin is actually a Eurocentric view, taken, with unconscious colonialist arrogance, to apply universally.

He knows far too much about music to believe that the musical canon is, like the literary one, a white male bourgeois fraud, and the second subject of his transgressive sonata is, roughly, the experience of music in solitude, of private performance and properly creative listening. This is far more interesting, and it establishes the right of Said’s book to be taken more seriously than if it had offered nothing but a Foucauldian exercise in musical ‘archaeology’ or a New Historicist negotiation between musical and other discourses.

His views on world politics, and on literary and cultural history, are seriously held and already well-known, and he was of course under no obligation to put them aside when writing these lectures, even if they seem to have no very intimate connection with his personal experience of music. His most political moment occurs in a slightly apologetic digression on the life and work of Paul de Man. As everybody knows, de Man’s most notorious wartime article argued that to tidy the Jews away somewhere – say, into ‘a Jewish colony isolated from Europe’ – would not be much of a loss to European culture; and commentators have rightly been shocked at this perhaps juvenile but callous anti-semitism. Said’s point, however, is that at the time when de Man was writing there already was such a homeland, in which the indigenous population was already being expropriated. The youthful Nazi sympathiser was casually recommending Zionism; and Said, whatever he’s supposed to be discussing, will not lose his opportunity to point out the connection that existed between right-wing Zionism (now represented by Yitzhak Shamir) and ‘officials of the Third Reich’.

These are serious matters but they have very little to do with music. It is as if he wanted to remind himself, and us, that there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. It cannot have been easy for one who can lose him self, as Said can, in the apparently autonomous structures and private pleasures of music to take this line, but a sense of civic or intellectual duty drags him away from contemplation and compels him to write about these ‘worldly’ matters.

More germane to his musical interests, though still classifiable as cultural criticism, is his study of the conditions of modern performance – for instance, the alienating social arrangements of the concert hall. ‘Performances of Classical music’, he rightly observes, are ‘highly concentrated, rarefied and extreme occasions’. Performance is a feat quite distinct from composing, which it has in large measure displaced from public interest.

Nowadays sharply differentiated from composers, performers are also clearly marked as separate from their audiences. They are even dressed differently. Most members of the audience play no instrument, can’t get to know music by playing piano transcriptions as they once did, and in any case couldn’t hope to play the way the pianist does: so they observe him or her in alienated but reverential ignorance, much as they might a pole vaulter.

True; and more might be said on this head. The most effective deterrent to concert-going is the nonsense in which all, performers and audience alike, feel obliged to participate, perhaps to establish that elusive rapport – the absurd, ritually prolonged applause, the ceremonial entrances of leader and conductor, the marching off and on-stage, the standing up and sitting down, all reaching its farcical nadir in the yelling, stamping foolery of the Proms. Nor can these antics be altogether avoided by staying away, for they are invariably described with affectionate condescension by Radio 3 announcers, who, day in and day out, do so much to represent every kind of music as a cosy indulgence for retired persons.

Said laments, along with Adorno and many others, that social and technological developments have gone far towards ruining Classical music by making it available in this way, or in recorded performance, invariant and therefore falsifying. He also deplores the musical pollution of our aural environment (‘the demotion of music to commodity status’). On the other hand, he dislikes the way musicologists barricade themselves behind abstruse textual analysis, not risking the more ‘humanistic’ approach which places music in social and psychological settings. It sometimes appears that he wants music to suffer all the pains literature is currently undergoing (often at the hands of critics who remain unfamiliar with the private experiences that literature can provide).

This is conscientious, but it seems strikingly at odds with the preferred inwardness of his own experience of music; and it makes for a certain apparent confusedness of exposition. It is not easy to grasp the structure of these three lectures right away; listening to them must have been strenuous, despite the relief of musical illustrations. Said talks about a great many things, digresses, honours his critical commitments, and returns, with some relief but too rarely, to music as such. So there is a continual struggle between an intense private love of music and a conviction that the modern way of treating the discourses of art as unprivileged in relation to other discourses ought to be applied to music as to everything else.

Hence the stress on professional performance. The pages devoted to Toscanini and Glenn Gould are extraordinary. Said has to weigh against their admired interpretative skills the fact that they in different ways conspire to the maintenance of a social order: Toscanini giving performances appropriate to the sponsorship of a giant industrial concern, Gould abjuring the concert hall but making that very gesture an index of apartness and a permanent part of his performance. He most approves works which transgress social norms, or musical norms socially imposed – for example, Cost fan tutte and Bach’s ‘Canonic Variations’ on Von Himmel hoch, the latter because it is so enormously and gratuitously in excess of the ‘pious technical sententiousness’ of the chorale: ‘pure musicality in a social space off the edge’.

He nevertheless complains about Bach fawning on the Elector of Saxony (and, presumably, Frederick the flautist), insisting that we ought to ‘read’ the B minor Mass not only for its ‘astonishing demonstration of piety and invention’ but as an instance of this crawling servility: ‘the awe we feel in the Credo ... reinforces the separation between ruler and ruled, and this in turn is made to feel “right” in great outbursts of joy (et resurrexit and hosanna).’

I don’t find this acceptable. Is there not a surprisingly elementary confusion between music and how it was paid for? Not that it is wrong to be interested in the original situation of such a work, or for that matter to relate Aida to the ‘European domination of the Near East’, or, for that matter, to acknowledge Mozart’s endless willingness to comply with the demands of the people he wrote for and the customs of the countries he wrote in. But some discrimination is surely needed. The tone of dedications and letters soliciting patronage from potentates may strike us as embarrassing, but their language was surely well understood as conventional. You wouldn’t write so when sending a manuscript to a publisher or even applying to the Arts Council for a grant, but in either case you would do appropriately what Bach was doing appropriately. Dr Johnson wanted a patron for the Dictionary and the fact the we remember the case chiefly because he didn’t get one doesn’t mean he didn’t quite properly try to. And surely the equation between specific sections of the Mass and the reinforcement of the political hierarchy is rather crude? Who would be bold enough to say that Said’s own achievements are attributable to his willingness to benefit by pleasing the American academy? That the arguments of his splendid Orientalism are the counterpart of his desire to establish himself as an original, an émigré with distinctive gifts, and that we should ‘read’ him in this mode as well as the other? For he is surely affected by consciousness of his position in the top rank of American critics – at times he even writes like them, affecting that slightly condescending clumsiness that now passes for a grace in those circles. Yet I, and I daresay he too, would call it an impertinence to judge his work in that manner.

What makes his book valuable is simply his profound understanding of music and its performance. There is, in the final lecture, a fascinating account of what it was like to listen to Alfred Brendel playing the Brahms Piano Variations, Op. 18, a work he had not known, though he at once realised its connection with the String Sextet in B flat. He subtly distinguishes between that experience, and the experience of listening, in the same recital, to the Diabelli Variations, a work he knew well, so that during its performance he was attending to Brendel’s interpretation rather than to the music itself, as he had done with the Brahms.

What is admirable in such anecdotes – including a few pages on the Arabic singer Umm Kalthoum, heard in his youth in Cairo, and a reminiscence of his own teacher Ignace Tiegerman – is an unmistakable and eloquent musicianship. The final lecture takes off from Proust’s many meditations on music, and again Said’s deepest pleasure seems to lie not in exhibitions of cultural criticism but in the recognition of music that occupies ‘a social space off the edge’, music that he experiences as indifferent to, as ‘transgressing’, cultural norms and conventions.

He applauds (but cannot spell) Messiaen and admires the Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss, ‘an essay in almost pure repetition and contemplation’ – ‘pure’ because independent of contemporary preoccupations and pressures not strictly musical, ‘radically, beautifully elaborative, music whose pleasures and discoveries are premised upon letting go, upon not asserting a central authorising identity’.

This passage, stressing the privacy of his experience of this late Strauss work, comes almost at the end of his book. It seems decisive, until he adds a last sentence that hardly seems relevant to what he has just been saying: ‘in the perspective afforded by such a work as Metamorphosen, music ... becomes an art not primarily or exclusively about authorial power and social authority, but a mode for thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, noncoercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.’ Here the exaltation he feels when he listens to the Strauss, sensing its solitude within his own, has got itself illicitly transferred, out of a sort of academic loyalty, to a professional critical programme for which he probably cares much less.

In short, the switch from private ecstasy to ‘cultural practices’ reflects a conscientious unwillingness to let go himself, and, in writing about music, to refrain transgressively from obeisance to professional formations and deformations. And yet, in the end, his awareness of the conflict between pleasure and duty adds to the interest of a remarkably rich and interesting book. Some obscurity, and some wavering of the expository line, may at least tempt one to read it again in search of the full sense of the argument, thus to be rewarded by the proof Said offers, out of his own experience, that when great music is heard by good listeners all talk of cultural criticism, and of aural pollution and European decadence, ceases for the moment to matter very much. Here if anywhere, in the solitude of the intent listener, is that small utopia, worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.