More Must-Reads

To kick off the holiday season (and all that free time you’ll have sitting in front of the stocking-spangled fireplace), I’ve just updated the list for your Christmas-reading pleasure (see bottom of the list for update specifics). Keep the suggestions coming, and have a merrily musicological Christmas!

Mahler the Giant

… [A symphony] so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein – so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.   — Mahler

Ambitious goal, that. To Mahler, the artistic aim to create a “universal symphony”  translated into expanding both the size and scope of the ensemble and the form. Where the average symphony up until then typically had first movements lasting roughly 10-15 minutes in duration, Mahler upped the ante to over 20 minutes in Sym.2 and over 30 in Sym.3; where the usual, humdrum orchestra had 4-6 horns, for instance, Mahler brought in a cavalry of 10 parts for Sym.2. In order to express the universal, it seems, everything needed to be larger.

RT calls this expansion of symphonic means and ambitions “maximalism,” a term that implies an uncompromising dedication to the extremes. It’s a fascinating fin de siecle paradigm that shows up in areas outside of music as well (one recalls a particular super-sized ocean liner..).

You have to wonder how much of this “maximalization” of the symphony had to do with expanding the expressive range of the orchestra to encapsulate the whole world (nay, the universe), and how much of it had to do the same sort of hubris that lay behind the construction of the aforementioned ocean liner. I’m an ardent admirer of Mahler, but there’s a lot of arrogance mixed in with the audacity here (first, to think that the “universal” is musically possible; second, to think that he would be the one who could do it). There’s an odd conflation of universality and philosophical serious-mindedness with massive orchestral forces, volume, and duration. Could not a Mozartean symphony also be “universal,” or are claims of universality proportionately related to size, making the “small” simultaneously the “non-universal”?

As a companion term to RT’s “maximalism,” I might suggest “gigantism” as another designation of the ballooning of orchestral forces, time scales, and philosophical ambitions during this period. The OED defines the word as “abnormal or monstrous size,” and in the context of the book so far (and music after the first decade or two of the 20th century), Mahlerian scale does indeed represent something abnormal. Both maximalism and gigantism work in tandem here: ambitions were extreme, but the equation of expressive range (“the whole world in a symphony”) with size expresses a “bigger is better” mentality as well.

Arthur Sullivan

The nineteenth-century tendency toward specialization was much abetted by the widening gulf set in between “high” and “low” genres in the twentieth, which increasingly entailed the segregation of performers and audiences as well as composers, and a rigid hierarchy of taste that reinforced social distinctions. That hierarchy is already evident in the case of operetta, not so much in the way in which the genre was valued by audiences as in the way in which it was valued by its own specialist composers. The three with whom we are acquainted – Offenbach, Strauss, and Sullivan – all eventually aspired to the higher status of the very genre they spoofed.  (III, 657)

There’s something Faustian about this bargain: aspire to the “high” and risk alienating the masses (and their $) in the pursuit of Art; give “the people” what they want (ie. embrace the “low”) and risk forever being branded as an unserious, pandering lightweight. Operettas of the 19th century are a lot like musicals today – big market, little respect from the arbiters of high taste. For an ambitious, highly talented composer like Sullivan, this false dichotomy was an iron cage. When he attempted to make the transition to “serious opera” with Ivanhoe, his adoring public “betrayed him,” and he was mocked by the taste-makers. Embittered and ghettoized to the lighter genres, he soldiered on for the last ten years of his life with both inspiration and popularity flagging, dying at a fairly young age with the “feeling he had been mistreated and unjustly forgotten” (658). Ironically for such a master of comedy, poor Sullivan’s story is more fitting for tragic opera than the operetta form in which he so greatly excelled.

Victory over Vol. III, or, The Chaikovsky Problem

Appropriately enough, Vol. III ends with Tchaikovsky (RT’s more consistently anglicized “Chaikovksy”), the master of the (melo-)dramatic finale. It was an arduous journey through the thickest volume of the set but, like the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, we emerged triumphant. Three down, two to go!

As we did with the last two volumes, we’re going to take a short reading break before resuming the Challenge with the early 20th century. But before moving on, expect some catch-up posts on the fascinating last 200 pages of the text. Also look for a Must-reads update in the near future.

But back to Chaikovsky for a moment. As I ruminate on my personal history with this composer, I remember that, as a kid, Tchaik was on par with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as far as “greatness” goes. I even owned a plastic bust of the guy (bearded composers were my favorites). Pieces like the 1812 Overture and the Nutcracker were about as amazing as classical music could get (come on, it even has a part for cannon!), and my family, which is full of musicians, ranked him high on their list (although my curmudgeonly grandfather always liked to point out that he was “as queer as a three-dollar bill”). Imagine my surprise, then, when at the tender age of 18 my college music history prof dismissed his music as “sentimental.” I clearly recall the cognitive dissonance I experienced upon learning that the music of a great composer was really something twee, excessive, and – worst of all – “popular.” I guess I, along with audiences for over a hundred years, was wrong about the guy!

The reception history of Chaikovsky is a twisting and (at times) tragic story that highlights the seismic shifts in our musical values over the last 100+ years. By “our,” of course, I mean music scholarship. For many decades, Chaikovsky’s link to ballet, his homosexuality, and his grand, gushing melodies were enough to make more than a few musicologists blush with shame. How could such a composer compete with the “serious” (read: German) masters? As a result of this category crisis, Chaikovsky was denigrated, dismissed, and discarded by generations of scholars.

Not that the concert-going public would know any of this, however. Chaikovsky, along with composers like Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Puccini, and Sibelius, dazzlingly demonstrates the frequent disconnect between what scholars deem important and what actual audiences do. Even during the darkest years of Chaikovsky-negativity in the academy, music-lovers flocked to annual performances of the Nutcracker, tingled as the 1812 finale joyously marauded their eardrums, and pondered in rapt concentration the 6th symphony in a darkened concert hall (sharing a billing with Beethoven, no less!). While I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s musicology’s job to slavishly track the popular simply by virtue of the fact that it’s popular (though tell that to the growing Lady Gaga Studies crowd), such a profound disjuncture between what is “important” to the scholar and what is “important” to the audience should give us pause.

Of course, Chaikovsky (along with the others mentioned above) has since been rehabilitated, giving today’s scholars the opportunity to look back smugly on the benighted history of the discipline and revel in just how far we’ve come. It does make you wonder, though, what we could be missing or dismissing right now. Might the musicologist of the future look back with bemusement at the conceptual blind spots that caused us to neglect such “important” artists today (Lady Gaga)?


I’ve devoted a fair amount of post space to Wagner lately, despite the fact that he’s now 200 pages behind us in the text. I’ll dislodge my obsession shortly (Wagner skeptics, cheer up!), but before doing so, I wanted to pose a couple questions relating to Wagner’s impact.

The sheer force of Wagner’s music, along with its philosophical back-story, gave the Germanic tradition another big feather in its cap (as if the cap wasn’t be-feathered enough before Wagner came onto the scene). Indeed, the scales had been tilting heavily in Germany’s favor for quite a while before the magician of Bayreuth, at least among critics, music historians, and composers who happened to be German. But Wagner broke the scale (the weight of the Ring cycle had to break something). Not only were Germans the undisputed champions of “absolute” instrumental music; now they had wrestled control of opera from the Italians, and, as Tony Montana would say, the world was theirs. Even Verdi was “spooked.”

This historicist phenomenon – the privileging of musical Germanness – is captured in RT’s mouthful of a coinage, “pan-germanoromantocentrism.” Like Wagner’s music, the primacy of the Germanic tradition was a contentious, tangled, and deeply complex issue as is spread around the Western world. Many non-Germans embraced this aesthetic model openly (the Boston School and the Société Nationale de Musique, for instance [III, 769-778]); others defined themselves by how un-German they were (Debussy perhaps, but that’s an oversimplification), a negative self-identification which only confirms the hegemonic power of pan-germanoromantocentrism. Indeed, in the 19th Century, Deutschland über alles.

But why exactly? There are many ways to answer this question (which I hope readers will help me out with): German music gave primacy to instruments, which made it more romantically transcendent; it had a high degree of technical complexity, long fetishized as a yardstick for musical value; it tended to deal with more “tragic” themes (RT characterizes Wagner’s idiom as “tragic” and Verdi’s as “tragicomic”). There are gobs more. But the three explanations outlined here, as tentative and incomplete as they are, point to something else: German music gained its power and prestige from its “seriousness.”

At the root of pan-germanoromantocentrism is the idea that German music is fundamentally more serious than other models. It deals largely in instruments, vehicles of “pure Will” (Wagner is no exception), and not the shallow, quotidian stuff of language. It traffics in heavy philosophy. It’s encoded with all sorts of technical complexities that take gnomic study to suss out. It’s intellectual and masculine (thus the characterization of its musical others as sentimental and feminized).

Everybody wants to be taken seriously. Indeed, the charge of “unseriousness” can be damning and tricky to disavow; as RT points out, France’s late-century National Music Society was shaped by an “inferiority complex” in an attempt to challenge the (German) stereotype of French music as merely “culinary” (776). The values of “seriousness” and “lofty artistic aspiration” were explicitly written into the group’s manifesto.

The question of pan-germanoromantocentrism is thus not limited to musical aesthetics, but reaches deep into social history. When Verdi toyed with Tristanisms in his late operas, he was clearly intrigued by the harmonic doors this musical language opened; his engagement with Wagner was thus justified by art. However, it could be as well that this “purely musical” choice was conjoined by social factors, namely the desire to appear “serious.” This is speculation, to be sure. I do wonder, however, about the relationship between the “purely musical” and other powerful social dynamics (“seriousness,” intellectualism, masculinity, power, etc) in the spread of Germanic musical thinking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. (Anyone looking for a dissertation idea out there?) Like most questions of historical influence, this one is just as much about social power, distinction, and prestige as it is about the music itself.

Ross on Rheingold

The first reviews of the new MET Ring cycle are starting to trickle in. New Yorker critic and music blogger Alex Ross recently published his thoughts on “Rheingold” (“The Depths,” in the 10/18 issue) and the verdict is mixed. The big winner of this new production? Alberich. There’s a lot more to this bitter troll than is portrayed in the typical cycle, which tends to characterize the Niebelung as monstrous, buffoonish, or both. (Ross’s mainly positive review is a relief after seeing portions of LA Opera’s bloated, ill-conceived Ring over the summer. The Alberich in that production wore a massive mask that made him virtually impossible to empathize with. The whole affair was deeply alienating. Glad to learn that there’s still subtlety, grace, and deep psychological characterization left out there in Ring-land, though not here in Los Angeles.)

Wagnerian Aesthetics 101

What I experience when I experience the tonal tendency of a sound is the dynamics of my own desire, its arousal, its satisfaction, its frustration. It is my own desire for the leading tone to move up, the satisfaction of my own desire when it so moves, the frustration thereof when it refuses to budge or when it moves elsewhere, that I feel… Thus, the precondition of my being able to hear an imaginary pattern of lines of directed motion in a tonal work is that I first experience the desires, satisfactions, and frustrations of this sort. In tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire precedes any recognition of the represented object, of lines of directed motion, and is the necessary precondition of such a recognition. I must first experience the desire that the leading tone move up, before I can recognize the representation of an imaginary ascending line when it so moves.

It follows that tonal music, like a visual medium, may represent an imaginary object different from myself, an imaginary world, albeit a highly abstract one, consisting of lines of directed motion. But, unlike a visual medium, tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring, my own inner world, and it is this latter experience that is the more primordial one, since any representation depends on it. While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore and inner world of desiring. While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object.   — Karol Berger, quoted in III, 529-530

What perfect thoughts to frame the mammoth issue of Wagnerian aesthetics, and also to demonstrate Wagner’s fundamental contradictions and, as we shall see, “dangers.” In fact, like Wagner’s music, this lengthy excerpt (RT rarely interpolates quotes this extensive) is an exercise both in profundity (or seeming depth, at least) and in vexing frustration. Let’s start unpacking.

The philosophical premise of this observation is, of course, straight-up Schopenhauerian. Music in this schema (tonal music, to be precise) represents the inner stirrings of the Will, an unadulterated snapshot of “pure” desire. Berger, then, assents to the fundamental premises of Wagner’s own conception of music: it is deeper than simple harmonious arrangements of sounds, instead striking at the lived essence of being human. Indeed, it seems to me that without accepting this supposition on some level, even with a critical ear, Wagner’s “Schopenhauerian” operas would be at times utterly mystifying and, frankly, incoherent. More so than any other composer, a philosophical context is needed to appreciate what Wagner’s up to.

But when Berger and RT talk about the channeling of desire that lies at the root of Wagner’s tonal procedures, just who is doing the desiring, and what sort of desire are we talking about anyway? In this regard, the use of a false “we” glosses over an important question: just how universal is this representation of desire? (Berger, partially in his defense, promiscuously alternates “us” with “me.”) As Berger and RT point out – and Wagner requires – music has the power to stir us deeply by connecting with the fundamental temporal rhythms of life (expectation, desire, frustration, satisfaction, etc) in a mimetic relationship that can eschew metaphorical representation to strike at the actual feelings themselves. However, we must be careful not to universalize this phenomenon in regard to tonal music. Like any historically bounded cultural phenomenon, tonality is a construct, not a universal technology for the expression of human drives. Berger is correct when he specifies that he feels a certain way when listening to tonal music; when he switches to “us,” he strays from the fundamental claim, that as Westerners steeped in the rules of tonality from birth, we connect to tonal patterns as if they are idealized analogs to interior experience. Background and exposure are critical here: in the absence of enculturation into the tonal system, Wagner would make just about as much sense as the Klingon language.

Is there a claim here that tonality is uniquely qualified to represent the deepest desires of people? “Tonal” is the ubiquitous qualifier in this excerpt (RT adopts it as well): thus, “in tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire..” and “tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring,” etc. It is difficult to deny that tonality, in all its ephemeral glory, represents a certain triumph of expressive economy, but I don’t see how you could argue that it is more effective at channeling our desires than a vast array of other musical systems at mankind’s disposal. A Monteverdi madrigal, while not strictly tonal, manipulates desire in extremely effective ways; so does a Charlie Parker improvisation and a Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku piece. Is tonality sui generis in its ability to channel desire, or just one technique among many?

And just what are we desiring when we experience musical desire? It’s difficult not to broach the topic of sex here, though RT and Berger seem to safely eschew the issue (Susan McClary doesn’t, and neither, thankfully, does Wagner in Tristan). Not to venture too far into the trendy field of body scholarship here, but “desire” is a mighty abstract concept when completely decoupled from our experience as embodied beings. Is Berger relating his experiences of listening to tonal music to some disembodied, idealized form of desire? Is it a puzzle-solving sort of desire, an intrinsic compulsion to solve problems and work out conundrums, that a resolved leading tone connects us to? If limited entirely to that, what an impoverished sort of desire we’re dealing with. As reams of scholars have attempted to show, “internal” desires are directly related to the “external” desires of the body, and in this regard, in tonality we have a forcefully articulated symbolic system for talking about sex (and experiencing its impulses vicariously). It’s reductionistic to boil down all desire to sex, of course; the sexual experience is but one form of the bodily pattern of ebb/flow, tension/release that repeats itself in many guises. But it seems to me that the body at least merits some mention whenever the tricky question of desire comes up in relation to music. If we want to get into human universals as a grounds of music making, this seems a fruitful place to begin.

To close out this over-long post, let’s return to the issue of danger mentioned earlier. Wagner, more than anyone else in the history of Western music, is still, as in his own day, viewed by many as a threat. His connection to Europe’s brutal history of anti-semitism is the most obvious reflection of his music’s dangerous powers, of course, but there’s more to the problem of Wagner than this (or rather, this is symptomatic of a more general problem of danger and contagion that his music represents). As Hanslick observes, “while the other arts persuade, music invades.” (III, 531. Italics mine.) This gets us back to the dichotomy of inner/outer, hearing/vision, and to the fundamentally embodied experience of all music. It’s a problem with roots as far back (in the West) as Heraclitus, snaking its way through the work of Plato, Aristotle, and all the way to Rousseau and Kant – sight is the “objective” sense, and hearing is the “subjective” sense. Wagner himself followed this logic when he observed: “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (For a couple of great resources on this topic, see philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice and Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound.)

Music, in this schema, can be dangerous because unlike visual stimuli, it invades our very bounded sense of personhood without warning. We can shut our eyes to block sights, but we cannot easily shut our ears to block sounds. This makes us vulnerable to music’s potentially pernicious influences, and for a composer whose sumptuous, seductive music touches upon our (careful: tonally-trained individuals’) psychological drives to the extent that Wagner’s has the ability to do, this can be problematic. In a key sense, Tristan is basically one long auto-asphyxiation fantasy: orgasm and death are equated in a way that, when most of us think about it closely, is quite troubling. (See John Deathridge’s classic book Wagner Beyond Good and Evil for more on this.) But because the musical message has the ability (some would argue) to bypass reason to strike at the Schopenhauerian Will, our guard is down and we cannot block this dangerous, subversive message. Anxieties like these, similar to the taboos around dirt and contamination outlined by Mary Douglas, play at our deep fears of boundary crossing, of bodily invasion and contagion. What makes Wagner’s music so potentially dangerous, so argues Hanslick, is not necessarily its anti-semitic content (though this is repulsive in the extreme): it’s the inability for it to be contained. Wagner’s greatest power – the Schopenhauerian depths of his music, its ability to channel desire, its overwhelming expressive force – is thus also its most subversive quality.

Wagner’s Influence

Only because of Wagner (and the rampant “1870 Germany” he represented) did Italian and French musicians, whatever their level of patriotism, feel the need to become stylistic nationalists. Previously the style of Italian music had been the one European style virtually free of self-consciousness – a luxury enjoyed only by the self-confidently topmost, and a testimony to that happy state of security. But as we have just seen, by the end of his career even Verdi had been spooked. Even he needed to situate himself stylistically vis-a-vis the wizard of Bayreuth, and so have practically all composers ever since. Wagner’s own style, as we have also seen, was probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music. Unself-conscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age, and that may be the post-Wagnerian age’s best definition.   (III, 567-568)

Wagner’s influence on the national styles of Germany’s neighbors was no doubt profound, but I wonder if this might be overstating the point slightly. Was Wagner (and what he represented) really the “only” reason Italian and French musicians became stylistic nationalists around this point in time? Further, although Wagner’s style was self-conscious to the extreme, could this not also be said of other major innovators (and myth-makers) of the century? It could easily be argued that Beethoven upped the artistic imperative of the self-willed, self-conscious model even more than Wagner, in fact. The superlatives in this passage make me a bit squeamish; they seem to suggest a strict demarcation of “pre-” vs “post-” Wagner, a sort of “BC” and “AD” stylistic chronology with Wagner at the center. His influence was incalculable – this much we can agree on. Perhaps that’s why such pat attempts to calculate his influence fall flat.

Purpose, Progress, and Evolution

Occasionally throughout the OHWM, but particularly in the “Mid-century” chapter, RT veers away from music history proper in order to offer a history of music history. These sections, I think, yield some of the most rewarding morsels in the book, setting aside the characters and plot for a moment to focus on the structure of the narrative itself and how it got to be that way.

Reviewing the choice clip in the latest “Darwinian Music” post, a couple of words really stand out. As RT points out, musicians in the middle of the nineteenth century, inspired by the historical philosophy of Hegel (and the Young Hegelians), came to see that history had a “purpose,” and that the prime aim of any artist should be to align themselves with that forward-thrusting cause. The “artwork of the future” was a product of evolutionary progression, and those out of line with this ineluctable force were of no historical significance. (The implication here is that such musicians would be lost to history.) From this philosophy emerges a trinity of concepts which together make up the idea of historicism: purpose, progress, and evolution.

This notion is so natural to many of us today that it’s easy to forget just how historically anomalous this notion was. To create music based to a large extent on the perceived dictates of history? Surely as far as creative impulses go, this one is a rarity in the vast world of music. People make music for individual pleasure, for dancing, for socializing, for God, for courtship, for rites of passages, for a deeper relationship with nature… to make music in order to “further the ‘evolutionary’ progress of the art,” as RT puts it, would probably strike most people around the world as completely inexplicable. Yet somehow it stuck.

Purpose, progress, and evolution are directional concepts; they imply a goal towards which their momentum is directed. Inherent in this very idea, then, is a certain level of teleology, or goal-orientation. A purpose-driven, historically “necessary” music evolves towards something, and in doing so implies the end to that very process. There’s something vaguely apocalyptic about this philosophy of history; once this paradigm took root, the great Götterdämmerung of the Western art music tradition was prophesied, the wheels set in motion.

This has to do with the fact that, in the West, purpose, progress, and evolution were interpreted along entirely technical lines. That is to say, “historical” composition was that which pushed the envelope of harmonic innovation and structural daring, challenging conventional (read: ahistorical) norms in pursuit of progress. With the development of compositional technique yoked to an almost messianic devotion to the “impersonal aims of history,” an endgame is implied. What, after all, is left to be done after every conceivable technical wall has been knocked down, every note liberated? Schoenberg understood this well: history demanded the complete abolition of tonality. If he didn’t make the final leap, someone else would have, because this final step was required by the teleological treadmill. The 12-tone system, in this historical paradigm, was inevitable.

This isn’t the first time that an arms race of technical innovation was set into motion (remember the ars subtilior, for instance). However, in early eras, extreme complexity was put to the service not of historical imperatives but of game-playing and clever riddles (and to innovations in notation that allowed such complexity to take place on the page. In this regard, like Schoenberg, composers did it because they could.)

There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to discuss the “endgame” – and ensuing rubble – that this historical process unleashed. The rubble of the 20th century, of course, was not the end of music (though one recent reader cleverly quipped: “I won’t spoil the ending for you: by 2010 there is no music left at all!”) It did, however, represent in certain important ways the end of a particular historical path, one that was formulated and embraced during the mid-19th century.

I’m reminded of philosopher/art critic Arthur Danto’s brilliant book After the End of Art. Like the above, his argument is not, of course, that art “ended” at a particular time; it did, however, become unyoked from the historical trajectory that it had been on for a very long time. Art in the rubble of a collapsed historical purpose is “post-historical”: it exists outside of the driving narrative of the Western tradition, and is thus aesthetically diffuse. (The “Western” element here is imperative: perhaps this accounts in some ways for composers’ embrace of the East, particularly from the 1950s on. With the Western historical narrative at an end, musicians turned to different models of time, history, and creativity.) Today, argues Danto, there is no historical path forward. We are at a conceptual impasse: some of us are eagerly pining for a new, unifying historical model to take hold; others are happily dancing on the grave of history.

Purpose, progress, and evolution, when tied to musical technique in the service of historical advancement, led, paradoxically, to the end of history. Paraphrasing RT (in another context): is this “progress”?

Must-Reads Update

Have you been doing your musicological beach reading this summer? We’re in the process of updating the must-reads list with new entries, and I wanted to take this opportunity once again to solicit suggestions (either credited or uncredited). Let us know which works you find completely indispensable to the field (and for music-lovers generally), and we’ll make sure they’re included.