Critical Musicology Journal

A Virtual Journal on the Internet

Musical Meaning Revisited: Thoughts on an 'Epic' Critical Musicology

Liz Garnett

That musical codes can and do carry social values has become something of a semiotic truism in recent years. 'Classical' music - in the narrower sense - is routinely discussed in terms of expressive topics rather than organic unity,[1] and critiques of nineteenth-century music turn to literary and narratological modes of explanation.[2] The reputation of Schenkerian analysis as a means to engage with music purely 'on its own terms' has been disturbed by a renewed attention to the ideological and ethical commitments on which it was built and which it aims to demonstrate.[3] Even Kofi Agawu's blistering attack on the 'new' musicology at the 1995 SMT meeting did not question the emergent discipline's socially-grounded premises; rather, he claimed that its proponents were doing little that a more conventional theory was not already doing more competently.[4]

So, social meanings encoded in music now form part of our musicological landscape, and their existence no longer needs to be strenuously argued. What is still in dispute, however, is the status of these codes. Are they an inherent and unavoidable part of the musical fabric, for example, or products of cultural listening habits shaped by ideologically informed critical metalanguages? That is, are the apparently socially oppressive messages carried by the staples of the musical canon into which our culture has poured so much emotional investment an inevitable part of their meaning, or will the development of new interpretational frameworks allow them to speak to us in ways we find more ideologically acceptable?

If Critical Musicology aims to act as an 'epic theory' - that is, one which responds to a crisis in the world rather than in theory[5] - these are questions which it needs to address when developing politically responsible critical strategies. In this paper I aim to explore the alternative positions implied by the above questions by examining a number of theoretical constructions of musical meaning which can potentially embrace both of them. This will allow me to propose a range of approaches which will be of varying use depending on one's scholarly aims; of these I will suggest which I consider the most fruitful for an 'epic' Critical Musicology.

My immediate motivation for addressing these questions was an investigation into the relationship between gender and musical styles at the turn of the nineteenth century; hence my use here of examples framed in terms of sexual difference.[6] However, I believe that the theoretical issues my study has raised, and which I will present here, have a wider applicability to questions of music and ideology in general, and I hope that scholars examining other forms of cultural difference in music will find them of interest.

Firstly, the debate as it stands: there appear to be two basic, and fundamentally opposed positions on the status of socially-mediated codes in music. The first is that socially-grounded codes are 'composed into' the music, that they are immanent to the text, there to be discovered; this position is taken in the field of gender studies by Susan McClary, Marcia Citron and Eva Rieger among others. McClary and Citron have both traced narratives of power and sexual differences in sonata forms by mapping the gendered terms in which theorists have described them onto pieces which variously appear to enact or resist such constructions.[7] Rieger, meanwhile, has traced the increasing differentiation of musical affects by gendered characters in late-eighteenth-century opera, and charted their continued divergence through to contemporary film music.[8] Both of these approaches share a common assumption of a degree of awareness of such gendered codes at the point of composition, an awareness which, if not fully reflective, at least shows a composer's 'practical consciousness' of how musical expression works within his or her culture.[9]

The strength of this conception is that it permits music to participate fully in cultural processes, and thus allows us to bring cultural contexts to bear in our explanatory models of musical styles and forms. Its critics, though, argue that it also carries a risk: that it is all too easy for this approach to reinscribe the values it would aim to critique. Leo Treitler, for example, has accused McClary of 'adopt[ing] the very stereotypes she deplores';[10] similarly, Claire Jay considers McClary's and Citron's identification of musical difference with cultural difference to be an overinterpretation, arguing that, 'unless we go to some extreme of the avant-garde, we must concede that there is always going to be some kind of contrast in any music.'[11]

The other position - that taken by Treitler, and also argued by Brian Hyer - is that such metaphors and associations are merely functions of our interpretational frameworks, imposed on music from the outside. Treitler describes the way in which scholars from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries have differentiated between Old Roman and Gregorian chant repertories in gendered terms, and argues that these metaphors relate entirely to a project of Western cultural supremacy, and not to any immanent musical characteristics of the actual chants.[12] Hyer makes the same point about a different repertory: gender, he argues, 'is encoded not in the music, but in the critical language we use, much like Pigmalion's chisel, to bring the music to life.'[13] While this position is weaker than the other in an explanatory capacity - it cannot use social values to account for why a piece was written the way it was rather than any other - its value is that it allows us to develop fresh listening strategies which invest familiar and well-loved music with new and arguably more positive values. Hence, it is apparently more attractive for the development of a politically responsible critical strategy. Even in this respect, though, this position is not without its shortcomings, and these will become apparent if we examine a number of theories which seek to explain the relationship between musical material and cultural meaning,

The first construction is the classic tripartition of music semiology, proposed by Jean Molino and adopted by Jean-Jacques Nattiez.[14] This takes as its premise that there is no guarantee that how an audience understands a work will correspond to 'what the composer intended'. Consequently, it separates the process of musical communication into three radically disjunct phases: the poietic level, which concerns the production of a musical message; the neutral level, which concerns the music itself; and the aesthesic level, which relates to its reception. The value of this model rests largely in its response to certain methodological needs at the time it was produced: on the one hand it acts as a useful corrective to certain critical fallacies associated with Western music, and on the other it provides a vital clarifying framework for the ethnomusicologist entering an unfamiliar musical culture. At the same time it can provide a way to reconcile the Saussurean axiom that semiological systems should be studied synchronically with the phenomenon of musical works that remain part of the repertory over a considerable period of time.[15]

The ways in which this model has been used, however, are somewhat problematic; in particular, the principle of analysis of the neutral level as a means to circumvent cultural bias has come under attack.[16] It is the model itself, though, rather than the methods that have been built upon it that concerns me here, and my primary misgiving is that it is intensely individualistic: the composer, the listener, the work. The question of the work is one to which I will return; for now I should like to highlight the way in which such a construction of the process of musical communication obscures the degree to which there can be communities in which not only are there musical codes shared between producers and audiences, but in which also these roles are not nearly so distinct as they have become in the late-twentieth-century West. At the start of the nineteenth-century, for instance, such a rift between poietic and aesthesic levels - both in terms of understanding and of personnel - was only just starting: the bafflement that greeted Beethoven's late works is concurrent with, and to some extent legitimates, the emerging construction of composition as a specialised (and elite) occupation.

The problems with this construction, however, go beyond its limited historical applicability: a fundamentally individualistic conception of musical meaning puts in question the very possibility of socially mediated values in music, as it erases the site in which such meanings would be grounded. Indeed, one could argue that it reproduces in music theory the very crisis in the world to which an epic Critical Musicology has emerged to respond: the relationship of the individual to society has certainly become a problematic issue in the wider political reality of the last fifteen years.

Both of the other theories I will be examining posit just such a musical community, as they fold the poietic and aesthesic levels together to form a category of socially mediated meanings, as opposed to the 'music itself', equivalent to the neutral level. Lucy Green labels these categories 'inherent' and 'delineated' meanings, and glosses them as representing individual and collective responses respectively.[17] That is, inherent meanings subsist in the musical configurations experienced by the individual listener, while the associations a culture ascribes to these configurations define their delineated meanings. The two types of meaning are interdependent logical moments - that is, phenomena whose operation can only be separated conceptually, not in practice - whose relationship she describes as follows:

Individual experience is understandable only in the light of collective social meanings and structures: the individual is not isolated, and experience is not really immediate, but mediated through social history. Music could not be collectively defined without individual temporal experience of its inherent meanings, and such experience could not take place without collective definition of what music is. The two sides - individual experience and collective definition - have equal status in making up the whole story.[18]
Although the experience of 'inherent' meanings is, as Green repeatedly emphasises, a logical moment incapable of independent existence, the category itself is invested with a considerable quantity of musical content. As a paradigm for her inherent, 'purely musical' meanings, she takes Leonard Meyer's implication-realisation model, in which musical configurations set up expectations in the context of stylistic norms; musical meaning is generated by the ways in which these expectations are fulfilled or denied. To regard such meanings as purely musical as opposed to culturally-mediated, however, is questionable. Not only is Meyer's model strikingly similar to Schopenhauer's description of how music expresses 'man's nature' (a description which presents a particularly nineteenth-century model of striving masculinity)[19], but Meyer himself has used it to demonstrate the greater value and 'maturity' of Western, 'complex' music than 'primitive' music.[20] My point, then, is that much of what Green refers to as 'inherent' meaning is itself a product of culture, and therefore, in her terms, 'delineated'. 'Inherent' meaning may remain as a logical moment, but it is one which is emptied of many of its ostensible meanings.

'Inherent' and 'delineated' meanings become, in the formulation of Peter J. Rabinowitz, 'technical' and 'attributive' levels of musical meaning.[21] In this construction, the two sites of musical meaning are not only interdependent, but also interactive. That is, the framework which allows us to attribute meaning to music is formed both by prior experience of music and by the language which surrounds music, and this framework is not only used by listeners, but also by composers:

If the theory of listening I have presented is correct, then part of 'the music' as the composer originally intended it lies in the commonplaces and metaphors listeners were likely to use to organise their aesthetic experiences. And we can come closer to sharing those experiences by taking more seriously the discourse that surrounded the music when it was new.[22]
All of these theories, then, include distinctions between 'the music itself' ('what's there') and the cultural meanings it accrues ('how we understand it'). On examination, though, the level of 'what's there' becomes increasingly empty and increasingly shaped by the level of culture. Indeed, we may wonder, if the 'music itself' is always mediated by and only accessible through culture, what precisely is its role in these constructions? One answer could be that it ensures the specificity of the musical utterance. That is, it insists that we focus on the social meanings generated by this particular piece of music, so as to avoid the problem expressed thus by Edward Cone: 'it is easy to assume that one has explained content when in fact one has only defined genre.'[23]

Concomitant with this implication of specificity is that of invariance. The level of 'the music itself' guards the identity of the work, the conception of an invariant trace, recognisably the same for all listeners, despite the different cultural filters through which they hear it: this particular piece can be interpreted like this by one culture, like that by another. But this very invariance is a product of representational practices, and of attitudes towards this representation, which see an unproblematic and self-evident isomorphism between score and work; indeed, this very invariance is the product of a construction of music in terms of 'works' as discrete, ontologically stable (and hence invariably identifiable) entities. All of these defining conditions of 'the music itself' are, furthermore, functions of the cultural attributes of music. Hence, the 'technical', 'inherent' levels of musical meaning are not accessible through cultural codes, but are constructs of their attributive, delineated meanings. So, for Hyer and Treitler to regard cultural codes as residing in critical language rather than 'the music itself' is, I would suggest, disingenuous, as it suppresses the extent to which the very notion of 'the music itself' is a culturally contingent category.

This is not to deny the perceptible existence of the 'musical work'; discourse operates plastically on the material world, and a cultural construct is no less 'real' for having no pre-discursive existence. As the delineated meanings that surround music in Western culture frame it in terms of 'works', fixed by notation in 'scores' by specialist musicians known as 'composers', this is what has overwhelmingly been produced as 'music', reconstructing the categories and confirming their self-evidence with every opus number. The power of discourse to construct the material world is evidenced, for example, by the fact that I can go into a library and study 'operas' produced two hundred years ago.

The conclusion I should like to draw from this part of my discussion is that, while musical meanings are entirely a function of the culture in which they are embedded, this does not therefore accord them the status of a surface, removable gloss which can be peeled away from 'the music itself'. Rather, 'the music' is itself built by and within its parent culture. It can be transplanted from one culture to another, certainly, in terms of both distance and time, and that new culture will attribute different meanings to it as it is differently constituted by history and geography. There is, however, no extra-cultural locus from which to observe music, nor extra-cultural meaning to observe. Consequently, a politically responsible critical strategy will have to address socially constructed codes in music, even at the risk of reinforcing undesirable stereotypes; to decide unilaterally to bleach music of these meanings is not to transcend them, but merely to avoid them, and thus remain complicit with their ideological work by allowing them to preserve their invisibility.

So far my argument has decidedly favoured the position which regards cultural codes as inevitably built into musical configurations: while it has affirmed the role that critical metalanguages play in associating social values with music, it denies that this is the only site for the operation of cultural meanings in music. For music is not merely a sphere which can reflect a culture's ideologies, but is also an activity whose very conceptualisation is created by and within social beliefs.

This is, I feel, an important point, and the primary one I wished to make in this paper. However, the theories of musical meaning I have examined permit a range of approaches to their application, each of which could prove useful to different musicological activities. So, I would like to finish by briefly recapitulating these possible approaches, and suggesting which could be most useful for an epic Critical Musicology, and why.

The autonomist approach sees critical language as a gloss overlaid on self-sufficient intra-musical meanings, and declines to reinscribe verbal and social meanings back into the musical fabric. The discourse is the subordinated adjective, so to speak, to music as the primary noun. From this position, ideologically-loaded metaphors in theory and aesthetics tell us nothing about 'the music itself', but they can tell us something about the reception of music, about the interpretative frameworks which people bring to bear on music. This is the sort of approach adopted by the traditional conception of reception history.

A more historically focused conception of 'the music itself', however, suggests a more interactive process. That is, if instead of seeing music as a reified, trans-historical entity, we consider it within the musical community for which it was initially produced, we find that the critics who listen in ideological terms are often the same people as the composers whose works present similarly ideological characterisations. Hence, production and reception inform each other, and verbal and social meanings are folded back into the music. This approach is useful to the semiologist wishing to study 'the life of signs within society' (to use a Saussurean definition of the discipline), and adheres to the synchronic perspective of the orthodox Saussurean method.[24]

A third approach upends the question: instead of asking what social meanings can tell us about music, we can ask what music can tell us about social meanings. That is, if writers see sufficient isomorphism between musical features and certain cultural categories to use them as metaphors in their verbal accounts of music, then can music act as a descriptive adjective to the wider social reality? Such an approach would treat a socially-grounded metaphor, once associated with a feature of musical style, as a channel through which meaning can be transferred from one domain to another in either direction. Hence, to examine the disposition of styles which are described in terms of cultural difference can reveal the structural relations between those groups in society. This, I would suggest, is a promising approach with which to build an epic theory of Critical Musicology. For, by reversing the traditional inward focus of musicology, this approach moves beyond the attempts at interdisciplinarity that simply cull ideas from other areas for our own use, to put specifically musicological insights at the disposal of the field's explanatory structures. This is already happening in the area of film music, for instance, in which musicologists are starting to remove music from the mute, pre-symbolic realm in which it has been placed by psychoanalytically-oriented film critics in order to trace its role in the overall structures of signification.[25] More importantly, though, this approach is the one which has the potential to become truly 'epic': rather than looking to social contexts to address musical phenomena (in response to a crisis in the theory of a single, specialised discipline), it looks to music, to the area in which we have built our expertise, to engage with phenomena in the wider social world.



[1] For example, see Robert Hatten, Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

[2] Examples of these approaches are legion; some of the earliest and best known include Anthony Newcomb's 'Once More Between Absolute and Program Music: Schumann's Second Symphony', Nineteenth-Century Music 7 (1984), 233-50, and 'Schumann and Late Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies', Nineteenth-Century Music 11 (1987), 164-174.

[3] See Nicholas Cook, 'Schenker's Theory of Music as Ethics', Journal of Musicology 7 (1989), 415-439.

[4] Kofi Agawu, 'Analyzing Music under the New Musicological Regime', AMS/SMT/CBMR Conference, November 1995.

[5] This role for Critical Musicology was proposed by Dai Griffiths in his paper, 'Critical Musicology and the Subject Position: Towards a Creative Analytical Discourse', at the First UK Critical Musicology Conference, University of Salford, April 1995.

[6] See E. A. Garnett, 'Constructions of Gender and Musical Style, 1790-1830' (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southampton, 1995).

[7] See Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), particularly chapters 1 and 4; and 'Narrative Agendas in "Absolute" Music: Identity and Difference in Brahms's Third Symphony', in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. by Ruth Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Marcia Citron, Gender and the Musical Canon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), particularly chapter 4.

[8] Eva Rieger, '"Affecti Molesti" and the Dilemma of Pleasurable Pain', paper presented at the Feminist Theory and Music II conference, Rochester, New York, June 1993. My thanks to the author for supplying me with a copy of this paper.

[9] The term 'practical consciousness' has been coined by the sociologist Anthony Giddens to denote a level of consciousness at which a social subject understands his or her culture's ideologies without necessarily being able to say what or how he or she understands; it has been usefully appropriated to the discussion of musical meaning by Lucy Green in Music on Deaf Ears: Musical Meaning, Ideology and Education (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1988).

[10] Leo Treitler, 'Gender and Other Dualities', in Musicology and Difference, 37.

[11] Claire Jay, 'Alle Menschen Werden Brüder: Music Analysis, Beethoven and Men', presented at the Gender Theory & Analysis study day, University of Southampton, April 1994.

[12] Treitler, op. cit.[ While Treitler's point about the use of older repertories to assert cultural supremacy is well taken - quite clearly gendered associations were not an issue in the origin of these chants - he overlooks the possibility that modern critics might have musical reasons for interpreting these chants in gendered terms. In particular, the relative floridity of the 'feminised' Old Roman chants resonates with gendered compositional practices of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; see E. A. Garnett, ]op. cit., particularly Part III.

[13] Brian Hyer, '"Sighing Branches": Prosopopeia in Rameau's Pigmalion', Music Analysis 13 (1994), 41.

[14] See Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Fondements d'une Sémiologie de la Musique (Paris: Union Général d'Editions, 1975), 52-55.

[15] The chants discussed by Leo Treitler (see above) are a case in point: his argument that gender has nothing to do with the music itself is valid at the poietic level, but may be questioned at the aesthesic.

[16] For example, Jonathan W. Bernard contends in his article 'On Density 21.5: A response to Nattiez' that by deliberately ignoring culturally available knowledge about its composer's approach, Nattiez's 100-page analysis of this piece largely misses the point (Music Analysis 5 (1986), 207-31).

[17] Lucy Green, op. cit.; her formulation of this model of musical meaning is concentrated in chapters 2 and 3.

[18] Green, op. cit., 27.

[19] 'Now the nature of man consists in the fact that his will strives, is satisfied, strives anew, and so on and on; in fact his happiness and well-being consist only in the transition from desire to satisfaction, and from this to a fresh desire, such transition going forward rapidly. For the non-appearance of satisfaction is suffering; the empty longing for a new desire is languor, boredom. Thus, corresponding to this, the nature of melody is a constant digression from the tonic in a thousand ways, not only to the harmonious intervals, but to every tone, to the dissonant seventh, and to the extreme intervals; yet there always follows a final return to the tonic.' (Schopenhauer, from Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819), quoted in Edward Lippman, A History of Western Musical Aesthetics (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 229.)

[20]Music and Text: Critical Inquiries, ed. by Steven Paul Scher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[22] Rabinowitz, op. cit., 55.

[23] Edward T. Cone, 'Schubert's Promissory Note: An Exercise in Musical Hermeneutics', in Schubert: Critical and Analytical Studies, ed. by Walter Frisch (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 15.

[24]Cours de Linguistique Générale, quoted in Pierre Guiraud, La Sémiologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1973), 5.

[25] See Robynn J. Stilwell, 'Separation and Support: Function and Symbol in the Music of Truly, Madly, Deeply', presented at the First UK Critical Musicology Conference, University of Salford, April 1995.