Thursday, October 20, 2005

UGH, Hanslick.

I'll get off my soapbox soon enough, but Hanslick really rubs me the wrong way. While I endorse his contempt for Wagnerian-brand antisemitism, I can't help but feel irked by his bowdlerized take on aural pleasure, that beauty is independent of the observer:

"If the contemplation of something beautiful arouses pleasurable feelings, this effect is distinct from the beautiful as such. I may, indeed, place a beautiful object before an observer with the avowed purpose of giving him pleasure, but this purpose in no way affects the beauty of the object. The beautiful is and remains beautiful though it arouse no emotion whatever, and though there be no one to look at it. In other words, although the beautiful exists for the gratification of an observer, it is independent of him." (pp.9-10, trans. Gustav Cohen, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1957. [I like this translation better than Payzant's.])

Hrm. Where to begin?! I shall spend the next few days pinpointing exactly why this concept vexes me so -- I'll start by revisiting Lacanian notions of pleasure and the ideal -- but first, a question for all of you:

Assuming that we all undergo the same psychic battle between intellect and emotion when subjected to music of any sort, what role(s) do you think fantasy might play in the internalizing process? In other words, to what extent do you guys think we simply feel whatever it is we think we should feel when we hear a piece of music?

When Prof. Subotnik played us the Mozart today, she summarized the piece's emotional constitution as "melancholy," and even, "devastating." But, I wanted to ask, how did you tap into that core of your being that said, "Be sad now"?

Greatness, post-hero?

Listening to the presentation of my classmate’s paper on Beethoven last Thursday, and re-reading some of the assigned texts later that day, I was struck by a recurrent, seemingly predestined conclusion: Beethoven was a genius.
The following questions have largely shaped my approach to this paper: Why is Beethoven considered Great? Why, paradoxically, does that “greatness,” still palpable as an artifact today, seem so to have become so devoid of cultural substance, and even relevance? And finally (and I promise these are not ancillary questions), Where does Berlioz fit in? What about Boulez?

My first reaction, besides an impulse to make some kind of joke about the spelling of the composers’ names, is to suggest that the notion of Greatness that seems to follow Beethoven everywhere is a product of Hegelian dialectics. It was Hegel, after all, who gave us the philosophical prototype for the Romantic Hero, the singular mythological individual who became the agent of historical change and thus actualized human progress, fusing his sacred individuality with the historic collective, or in Hegel’s terms (and he is very easy to misread here, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt), the “state.” This quintessentially “dialectical” synthesis of individual and collective was to inform a certain tendency towards positivistic meta-narrative, particularly in Germanic bourgeois culture, which remains today in a diluted form in the common notion that an artist whose work may seem extreme, peripheral, beyond or alien to the present paradigm may herself realign or even recreate that paradigm, and through a sort of double appropriation become central to cultural production, and thus, a “major figure.” (Hegel, 49)

Beethoven is mythologized in our cultural mainstream as the quintessential hero, perhaps even the architect, of this grand historical narrative. In the most simplistic sense, his synthesis of classical formalism with a strongly individual voice, seen in the emphasis on extra-formal, superficial elements that both enlarge and individualize the form itself, was retroactively immortalized as the opening statement of Romanticism, and thus a dialectical intervention and an essential turning point in the grand narrative of post-enlightenment humanism. Whether or not he actually fulfilled this role is another question, one that begs a long look at the late string quartets. In a way, though, any question of Beethoven “himself” is out of place here. In the Germanic cultural tradition I am thinking of, a tradition whose vestiges remain curiously strong, if paradoxical, in current discourse, there is no pre-myth Beethoven. He has disappeared, as Magritte’s pipe did for Foucault, beneath the layers of historical mythologization and recontextualization which condition a nearly indecipherable web of associations. But what I am more interested in for the moment is that internally complex, constructed, dialectical hero, and how that hero compared to Berlioz, who seems never to have had such a role carved out for him. An excerpt from Reason in History gives us some idea as to why this might have been.

“It is of no help when pretentious aesthetic criticism demands that the material, the substantial of the content, ought not to determine our aesthetic pleasure, but that beautiful form as such, or greatness of imagination and the like, is the aim of the arts; it is claimed that it is this which ought to be noticed and enjoyed by a liberal taste and cultivated mind. Sound common sense does not tolerate such abstractions and does not assimilate works of that kind…. There is not only a classical form but also a classical subject-matter.” (Hegel, 87)

Hegel gives us a clear sense here of that ineffable “spirit” or “truth” at the center of the historical narrative. It is a truth for which Berlioz doesn’t seem to have held much reverence. And history hasn’t given Berlioz much credit for actualizing that truth, thus his absence from this particular canonic narrative and his inability to become “influential” in the Hegelian/Beethovenian sense. Indeed, Berlioz’s correspondence about the Symphonie Fantastique suggests to us that “aesthetic pleasure… the beautiful form as such, [and] greatness of imagination…” were precisely his aims. (ibid)

There is, I think, much that is significant for the contemporary critic in Berlioz’s obvious insignificance to the German Romantic project, and the broader musical mainstream beholden to it. He was eccentric both to his own French cultural mainstream, which he viewed as conservative and uncreative, and to the more progressive German cultural zeitgeist, which he seems to have idolized and yet hardly aspired to, considering the idiosyncratic, defiantly un-classical nature of much of his music. Where Beethoven might be viewed as a composer who played a role in a paradigm shift, Berlioz stumbled into a new paradigm without causing much immediate cultural change.

And yet few would place Berlioz outside the Canon, and fewer still would deny his influence on musical culture. One need look no further than the concert programs from all over the world which celebrated his sesquicentennial in 2002, or the critics, notably Tovey and Boulez, who take for granted the importance of grappling with his legacy. We are all still talking about Berlioz, and listening to his music. So why is his impact so difficult for us to theorize?

The question is endemic of a broad contradiction which, as far as I can tell, musicology is still battling. From my own, admittedly limited knowledge of cultural history, coupled with my readings of the struggles of critics from Schumann to Boulez, my sense is that the great difficulty with Berlioz is that we have no meta-narrative in which to place him.

But we aren’t supposed to be using meta-narratives anymore, are we? And yet we know that Beethoven is a genius. Maybe we should reevaluate.

What strikes me most about Beethoven, the longer I spend with him, is that his output doesn’t line up with the mythology through which he is venerated. The fifth symphony, of course, falls right into line with the Hegelian reading outlined nauseatingly above. But, to echo a question Adorno raised in his own critical language, what does the critic do about the late quartets? Specifically, I am drawn to opus 132, a piece which even today seems profoundly strange. The eighteen minute third movement, constructed out of a four note melodic cell, develops through surface-level similarity and iteration, lacking the rigorous structural coherence essential for the mythologized dialectical achievements of Beethoven’s middle-period compositions. It is some of the most self-consciously stylistic music of Beethoven’s that I have heard, from the enormous, often awkward dynamic contours to the open intervals to the even more idiosyncratic baroque trills and melodic figurations in the fugal section. It is hard for me to listen to this distinctively beautiful and obtuse music as anything but a commentary on its own particularity.

All of a sudden, Beethoven the venerated genius begins to break down. What emerges, for me at least, is a composer not entirely dissimilar from Berlioz, a human being reacting to the ideological tensions of his time not through some kind of sanctified, redemptive synthesis, but rather through a personal and unabashedly particular creative intervention. More specifically, though, I see a musical connection between the two composers that the Hegelian narrative would have blinded me to: a distinctively modern focus on timbre over structure. I would argue, moreover, that this expanded interest in timbre, or in a broader sense sound quality, as an element a priori to formal structure, and perhaps even a site of structuralization in itself, requires a dramatic break with the Hegelian narrative. Schoenberg, the last exponent of that narrative, foresaw its demise in his frustration with the aural dogma imposed by classical harmonic formalism. And yet he resisted the full explication of the serialist techniques he developed because he remained firmly within the discursive system he was trying to escape: a personal need to write “universal music,” to live up to the challenge of Kant’s categorical imperative in historic German fashion, prevented him from taking a critical stance towards the ways in which his revolutionary new harmonies were being physically produced, the musicians who were producing them, and the cultural environment that accommodated them.

The serialization of so-called “superficial” parameters, from timbre to musician placement, was achieved by a defiantly un-German composer already familiar to our class: Pierre Boulez. It’s is an amusing tangent point, although I would argue that the Hegelian dogma was not fully overcome until formalism was not only externalized from traditional harmony but in fact reversed and deconstructed, by composers like Ferneyhough, Murail, and Saariaho, along with early electronic composers, who derived structural parameters for pitch development based on that most basic sensuous physical parameter, the harmonic series. Beyond this, one would want to acknowledge the shift beyond sound quality to extra-aural sensuous properties of sound production, the physical elements of performance. As early as the 1960s glam-bands focused as much or more on the visual and spatial fields of production, from image to genre, venue to scene… broadening the compositional focus to confront the broad field of representation associated with any given musical utterance, such that abstract structural parameters become just one of many potential sites of artistic manipulation, and a subtle and often ignored one at that.

So what happens to our Hero?

The artistic production of the past fifty years, and the theoretical production that has sown its ideological seeds and tended its growth, would suggest that he no longer carries much weight. The master narratives, as Lyotard reminds us, have fallen apart, fragmented into an infinite plurality of localized, synchronic micro-narratives, sites of criticism where acts of artistic intervention have affected the broader social consciousness while forfeiting the right to a categorically valid individual consciousness. Whereas for Hegel, and even to an extent his modernist interpreter Adorno, the dialectical movement of history was achieved through the synthesis of a heroic consciousness with the historical narrative, now that narrative has collapsed and the emphasis on subjective agency has been supplanted by a conceptually shakier field of subjective utterances whose agency can never be fully theorized. Thus the “zeitgeist,” if such a thing can still be said to exist, is much more ambiguous; it can no longer be allegorized through an individual consciousness. (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, xxiv)

Before we mourn the loss of heroic agents of historical change, though, we ought to remember that we still have great composers. How can we say they are great? This is perhaps the next challenge. How do we criticize music without a set of cultural parameters in which to position either ourselves or the music itself? Indeed, how do we talk about music without a stable concept of “music itself” ? My hope is only that we might begin confronting these questions in earnest, and thus resist the resurging cultural drive towards normative, universalized discourse.


Hegel, G.W.F., tr. Robert S. Hartman. "Reason in History." Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis: 1953.

Lyotard, Jean-François, tr. Geoff Bennington. "The Postmodern Condition: A report on Knowledge." Univeristy of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 1979.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Listening to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Francois-Joseph Fétis stumbles as he tries to understand what most people listen for in instrumental music, humbly concluding “I simply do not know what they look for in it”*1. Just as Fétis does not understand how others listen to music, I believe that most people—myself included—are generally baffled by the experience of listening to music. We just don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps this explains the abundance of social norms attached to musical experience: at a classical music concert, one sits enraptured and applauds only at certain times; at a metal show, one thrashes with utmost righteousness. Of course, such norms are more or less flexible and they are only outward displays for the benefit of social lubrication. Rules that govern the inner, phenomenological experience of listening to music are more difficult to quantify, but across genres there are certain accepted heuristics used to guide the listener’s experience.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique generates controversy among his peers because it defies traditional listening practices of classical music; neither his supporters nor his detractors know quite how to listen to it. In earlier forms of classical music, the experienced listener might follow the formal structure of a piece or count how many variations a theme undergoes, appreciating the coherence and beauty of the music. If all else failed, the listener could simply close her eyes and be moved. When listening to the Symphonie Fantastique, however, such strategies lead only to frustration—the form of the piece constantly subverts expectations and the distinctive idée fixe ruins the fun of counting variations. Quietly appreciating the beauty of the piece can be similarly frustrating because it is not quite beautiful; Fétis is not unfair, I think, when he remarks that “the audience thought it was having a nightmare during the whole performance” (217)*2. Without functional listening practices to fall back on, the audience is unsure how to listen to Berlioz’s music.

In writings about the symphony, this lack of listening strategies manifests itself as a common trope of inexpressibility. Although Fétis is certain of his dislike for the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, he’s not quite sure what to write about it: in his exasperation, he can only exclaim “The pen falls from my hand!” (220). Robert Schumann, strong in his support of the piece, is equally baffled by it. Upon first reviewing the score, he finds himself “dumfounded” (222) and in a later essay he apologizes for his previous “failure to discuss the actual musical composition” (226). This inability to talk about the piece stems from an unawareness of how to listen to it.

As if anticipating the befuddlement of his listeners, Berlioz has provided us with a program. The original program does more than simply tell a story; it tries to teach the audience what to listen for. In his description of the first movement, for example, Berlioz writes: “This melodic image and the [beloved ideal] it reflects pursue [the protagonist] incessantly like a double idée fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every moment of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro” (23). Perhaps the program, then, provides a clue for how to listen to Berlioz’s music. Unfortunately, Berlioz himself wavers on the importance of his program. The second edition of the program includes this note: “If the symphony alone is performed in a concert…one can even dispense with distributing the program, keeping only the titles of the five movements. The symphony by itself (the author hopes) can afford musical interest independent of any dramatic purpose” (32). In the end, the program is a tool for listening to the symphony, but a tool of limited usefulness. It is a metaphor for the music; an analogy but no more.

How shall we listen to Berlioz’s symphony, then? This is a difficult question, and one for which I do not have a ready answer. Certainly, he asks us to listen for new things, and in a new way. Perhaps we should listen for orchestration instead of melody. Perhaps we should appreciate that Berlioz’s music endures in the mind not because it is a beautiful dream, but because it is a disturbing nightmare. The genius of the Symphonie Fantastique lies in its subversion of listeners’ expectations; it makes us learn again how to listen.

1. Fétis, Francois-Joseph in Franz Liszt "Berlioz and His ‘Harold’ Symphony” in: Source Readings In Musical History. Ed. Oliver Strunk, 1998: p.868
2. This and all ensuing page numbers refer to: Fantastic Symphony, by Hector Berlioz. An authoritative score, historical background, analysis, views and comments. Ed. Edward T. Cone. New York: W.W. Norton, 1971.