Extreme chromaticism

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Extreme chromaticism by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.jpehs.co.uk/2011/10/09/extreme-chromaticism/.

Review of Daniel Albright, Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2009), and Ruth Katz, A Language of Its Own: Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Published in the Times Literary Supplement, 7 October 2011, pp. 12–13.

Theodor W. Adorno

Theodor W. Adorno wrote that music has a ‘language character’ both mimetic and rational. Mimesis – of the human body, of dance, of ritual – gives music expressive and gestural range; the rational logic of its organization, the form and structure, lends music the identifiable air of a form of communication. Both sides of this language character exist perpetually in dialectical equipoise. Daniel Albright cites Adorno at the beginning of his diverting meditations on the language character of music, which however he views more strongly, with frank disregard for non-Western musical traditions, as ‘the one universal language, a sort of pentecostal tongue of fire, a language not learned systematically but understood intuitively by everyone’.

In a firecracker opening chapter, which sets the tone for a book full of restless energy, he draws comparisons between musical and linguistic features, before considering music’s status as non-language. He leaps from a rumination on the grammatical and philosophical implications of the fact that substantial musical ideas are called ‘subjects’ to a judgement of music’s capacity to generate rhetorical features such as anaphora. Occasionally there are misfires, such as his dubious insistence that ‘there are few effective acts of musical negation’. A moment’s attention to any eighteenth-century music will reveal perfect cadences that negate preceding interrupted cadences, Picardy thirds that negate preceding minor modes, the consequent phrase of a Classical period that negates the ‘failed’ cadence of its antecedent, and so on: the handful of specific examples Albright selects as ‘special stunts’ of negation – moments like the recall and upbraiding of past themes in die finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – are therefore nothing of the sort. It is the first sign of a mishap in a book that misses almost as many targets as it hits.

Albright’s basic technique is to juxtapose pieces of music with one other, with literature, with art, and with dance. Some juxtapositions are of a familiar sort (dramatic works by Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Strauss are discussed alongside the Greek authors who provided their source); others are more imaginative (ballet music by Beethoven and Delibes alongside pictures by Toulouse Lautrec and the notion of the ‘kinesphere’, the area of movement around a dancing body). All are revealing and thought-provoking, though seldom unproblematic.

Senta (Anja Kampe) and the Dutchman (Bryn Terfel) at the Royal Opera House, 2009

The chapter on Wagner’s Flying Dutchman exemplifies the glories and frustrations of the book. Albright starts by inverting a critical commonplace about the ‘Pirate Jenny’ song in Kurt Weill’s Dreigroschenoper, which he reads not as a parody but as a reprise of the ballad sung by Senta in Wagner’s opera. Contemporary and later (twentieth-century) responses to Wagner’s opera effectively illuminate its distinctive features. This historical context frames the chapter’s main objective, which is to compare Wagner’s telling of the story with Heine’s original. In Aus den Memoiren des Herm von Schnabelewopski, the character and actions of both the protagonist and ‘Mrs Flying Dutchman’ are subjected to such ridicule that it seems remarkable that Wagner, who based his libretto on Heine, should have written an opera around it. Yet Albright locates in the opera ‘resources of irony not usually ascribed to it’, many of them resulting from the implication Of Wagner’s claim that Senta was ‘the epitome of woman, the woman of the future’.

Much is made of Senta’s ballad, the kernel of the work and the part Wagner wrote first as a kind of conceptual basis for the whole. In each of its verses, it contrasts a torrid first section in G minor, representing the plight of the undead Dutchman who is doomed to wander the oceans for ever, with the major mode theme of his redemption, which will come with Senta’s sacrificial plunge at the end of the opera. Albright detects three elements in Senta of the ‘woman of the future’, the first being her enormous psychic and empathetic reach (into and towards the Dutchman). In the ‘extreme chromaticism’ of the G-minor section of the ballad, Albright hears a second futurism, this time at the level of the musical language, but the music unfortunately scuppers his argument. What Wagner actually writes for Senta is not the advanced chromatic slithering of his much later music but a couple of Mendelssohnian diminished chords preparing a simple dominant. An expected perfect cadence is interrupted by the second strain of the ballad but arrives unflustered, sixteen bars later, after two pairs of Classically balanced phrases. Far from being music of the future, this is music that would not be out of place in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries: no whiff here of revolution in its melodic, harmonic, timbral or metrical materials. In a book that professes to reflect on the sense of music as a language, this blindness to the syntax of a musical example that has been singled out to substantiate a claim is undermining; it is one of many such instances.

Albright aligns Senta with Kundry in Parsifal, suggesting that they both work ‘for good and evil’ – by which he means both veer between sexual innocence and carnality. It is true that ‘the sexually experienced Kundry can sing music of the greatest innocence and tenderness’ and that ‘the virginal Senta suffers from a sort of libidinous demonic possession when she sings her ballad’, but there is more to being human than a particular relation to sexuality, and it is therefore a stretch to claim that the third definition of the ‘woman of the future’ is that she ‘has the whole human repertoire of possible identities within her’ (he goes so far as to call her the embodiment of the Schopenhauerian Will). The sense in which he is reducing the figure of woman to a stereotype is clinched by his interpretation of Senta’s (non-existent) ‘expertise in chromaticism’ as evidence of a very modern feminine disease, hysteria. It is a perceptive observation that the unmediated motion from tragic to optimistic utterance, which we hear in the ballad, is typical of musical expressions of hysteria. There is also much in Albright’s adumbration of the way that Wagner siphons off in characters like Daland the comedy inherent in the idea of a young girl falling in love with a phantom she has never met. Stimulating, too, are the comparisons to Madame Bovary (both Senta and Emma are ‘victims of literature, of second-hand experience’) and the suggestion that the entire plot is a projection of Senta’s troubled psyche (an idea realized in Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth staging, strangely ignored by Albright). But the suggestion that this presentation of her madness ultimately gives us a good reason to laugh at her is, for me, a callous punchline.

Music Speaks started out as a series of talks, and therein lies its greatest problem. There is no real attempt to sustain or develop an argument; and Albright’s eleven light-footed essays seem by their very nature to suggest that the questions they pose are best answered fleetingly, fluidly, vacuously. It is a feint that murders proper scholarly thought.

Ruth Katz’s A Language of its Own: Sense and meaning in the making of Western art music cannot be accused of lacking sustained argument. Her ‘essay’, as she calls it, ranges from the earliest notations to the late twentieth century in search of what she sees as a historical development of a self-referential logical system in tones, ‘the rational base that underlies the development of Western art music’. Quite properly, and contra Albright, Katz acknowledges that ‘however coherent this music may sound to a Western ear, it is not so perceived by one whose ears are attuned to music of another kind’, and this admission tacitly functions as a means of almost entirely excluding Western pop music – which does not aspire to the same self-referential quasi-linguistic function from her discussion of music’s place in Western thought.

This is a history of Western art music ‘in its entirety’, a process of historical development, in the old-fashioned Hegelian sense, that ‘culminated in what is generally known as “absolute music”‘. The result is a Fukuyama-like reading of the end of a musical history that was completed by the composition of the great nineteenth-and twentieth-century works. The history remains apocalyptic in this sense, despite Katz’s denial in her preface that it in any way charts a ‘rise and fall’ paradigm.

The first of the book’s three parts establishes the rational basis of music’s world of self-referential signs. The story of the development of polyphonic music from chant is a familiar one. Indeed, it is too familiar, since it depends on American and German writing of the 1930s and 40s and mostly ignores more recent scholarship. For instance, Katz frowns anachronistically at fifteenth-century music for omitting ‘the third, the most characteristic interval of the Western harmonic system’ from its cadences. The triadic basis of later Western harmony, which the tuning system of medieval music could not have allowed, is presumed to be aesthetically superior. The end-loading of this history, and its presumption of historical progress, is palpable.

It is difficult for a single author today to attempt any kind of general history of music in the West, since the state of knowledge in different historical periods has become too specialized. Katz, like Richard Taruskin before her in his Oxford History of Western Music (2005–09), consequently relies on studies that were current when she was a student but which the work of scholars such as Margaret Bent and Sarah Fuller – neither of whom is listed in the bibliography – has long since superseded. The result is implausible history that has a toxic effect on medieval musicology: it deters students from continuing to breathe new life into the field by giving the false impression that all its questions were conclusively answered seventy years ago.

Coverage of the later periods is also traditionally couched. The book’s central chapters sketch a mostly conventional trajectory from the text-music relations of opera and song to the later development of an autonomous, abstract, ‘absolute’ music that is better suited to our subjective post-Kantian intellectual situation. Writers about music increasingly take centre stage in this account of what is significant in Western music history, while performers and listeners are pushed to the margins. So, in the final chapter, while signal works such as Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Britten’s War Requiem receive brief notice for their contribution to the twentieth century’s political impact on music, it is on writers such as Heinrich Schenker (who sought to establish the universals of musical structure) and those working in the traditions of comparative musicology, ethnomusicology and cultural studies (who conceive truth more contingently) that Katz concentrates.

Its historiographical failings aside, A Language of its Own is at bottom a fair and sometimes critical conspectus of the development of the discipline of musicology in the last century or so, but in the end it is not clear what distinctive contribution it aims to make, either for the generally interested musical reader or for the scholar. I feel tempted to respond in the spirit of Katz’s repeated reference to this 350-page book as an ‘essay’ (on, I suppose, the question ‘What in the history of ideas has affected the development of music in theWest?’) by giving it a mark – a solid 2:1.


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