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The Sense of Music

The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays

With a foreword by Robert Hatten
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Sense of Music
    Book Description:

    The fictional Dr. Strabismus sets out to write a new comprehensive theory of music. But music's tendency to deconstruct itself combined with the complexities of postmodernism doom him to failure. This is the parable that framesThe Sense of Music,a novel treatment of music theory that reinterprets the modern history of Western music in the terms of semiotics.

    Based on the assumption that music cannot be described without reference to its meaning, Raymond Monelle proposes that works of the Western classical tradition be analyzed in terms of temporality, subjectivity, and topic theory. Critical of the abstract analysis of musical scores, Monelle argues that the score does not reveal music'ssense.That sense--what a piece of music says and signifies--can be understood only with reference to history, culture, and the other arts. Thus, music is meaningful in that it signifies cultural temporalities and themes, from the traditional manly heroism of the hunt to military power to postmodern "polyvocality."

    This theoretical innovation allows Monelle to describe how the Classical style of the eighteenth century--which he reads as a balance of lyric and progressive time--gave way to the Romantic need for emotional realism. He argues that irony and ambiguity subsequently eroded the domination of personal emotion in Western music as well as literature, killing the composer's subjectivity with that of the author. This leaves Dr. Strabismus suffering from the postmodern condition, and Raymond Monelle with an exciting, controversial new approach to understanding music and its history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2403-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Robert S. Hatten

    The author of these essays, Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh, is well known to music semioticians internationally as a keynote speaker or invited lecturer throughout Europe and North America. He is also a recognized scholar of eighteenthcentury music. But those music theorists and musicologists who have not encountered his insightful survey,Linguistics and Semiotics in Music(1992), may not appreciate his role as one of the leading music semiotic theorists of our time. If that volume signaled Raymond Monelle’s authorial presence with an absorbing exploratory essay on deconstruction in music, the present book of essays, devoted entirely...

    (pp. xv-2)
    (pp. 3-13)

    It was to be the climax of his career. Dr. Strabismus of Utrecht (whom God preserve) had spent a lifetime writing about music theory—not only about musical syntax and analysis, but also about meaning, sense, interpretation, heuristics. Now, he intended to write a comprehensive theory of music, to replace those great enterprises of the past, the treatises of Zarlino, Rameau, Marx. But unlike his great predecessors, he would embrace semantics as well as syntactics. He would describe how music comes to signify things to its listeners; how it participates in the whole signifying life of a culture, echoing the...

    (pp. 14-40)

    The theory of the musicaltopos,developed in Leonard Ratner’s masterpieceClassic Music(1980), is a refinement of previous semantic theories which have appeared from time to time. It is undoubtedly an important key to musical signification, and it has been taken up by a number of writers (for example, Kofi Agawu 1991, and Elaine Sisman 1993). Of course, the idea that music should be appropriate to its subject, either in the setting of words or in the instrumental portrayal of scenes, is universal. Ratner’s mission was to show that certain portrayals are conventional, and that musical figures can therefore...

    (pp. 41-80)

    Theleitmotivein wagner’sringoperas constitute an extraordinary inventory of musical topics of every kind. Yet some leitmotivs are not topics, because they are not conventional; and in any case, our theory needs to advance considerably beyond the limits of Ratner’s exposition before the Wagnerian canon can be considered.

    It is strange to find leitmotivs listed as though they were purely musical ideas or given numbers instead of names, conveying the impression that the operas are abstract symphonic works. This is the policy of William Mann in his translations of the libretti; he avoids naming the leitmotivs because “no...

    (pp. 81-114)

    One could hardly exaggerate the importance of temporality—cultural time—in musical decisions, because music is predominantly an art of time. Although we live in the “monochronic” west, where time is imagined to be uniform and linear, we nevertheless possess a musical culture that reflects several forms of temporality.

    It is important to distinguishtimefromtemporality.These two aspects, the first natural and the second cultural, have quite different functions in music as well as in perception. Natural or “objective” time is a condition of life, a “transcendent form” in the expression of Kant. It is continuous and irreversible,...

    (pp. 115-146)

    A world in which the moments of present time are transposed into the past or the future; in which all love and romance seem beyond the subject’s grasp, lost in the personal or historical past, where passages of terrible sweetness are always touched with nostalgia and regret—this was the temporal dynamic of the nineteenth century, and it was reflected in music. A temporal dialectic now joins hands with a dialectic that is ontological and sentimental. Time-in-a-moment and progressive time respectively evoke lostness and struggle; the extended present of lyric time becomes a space where the remembered and imagined past...

    (pp. 147-169)

    Paul ricoeur wrote a famous article entitled, “Que’est-ce qu’un texte?” It is not so much a question as a gesture towards the enigma of the concept. What is a text? The answer must itself be a text. There is no ostensive solution; you cannot point to a text and say,thatis a text. A text is a semiosis, something understood—but understood textually.

    In addition, literary writers have to struggle through the apparent layer of reference which usurps the place of textual signification, and consequently they have been preoccupied with problems that should not trouble the musician; the questions...

    (pp. 170-195)

    Mahler’s music has been described as sui generis, unique in the history of Romanticism. It is “so very Mahler-like in every detail”, according to Aaron Copland. It is not at all Brahms-like or Tchaikovsky-like; it lacks the “great melodies”, those memorable tunes, focused by apodeictic signs, which dominate the symphonies of Mahler’s predecessors. Mahler’s melodies can be bombastic and vulgar, like the “Alma” theme in the Sixth Symphony, or jingling folk-tunes, like the main theme of the first movement of the First, taken from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; they can be veiled quotations from Beethoven and Schubert, from street-songs...

    (pp. 196-226)

    The concept of the symbol has appeared often in criticism of music. This is a different kind of symbol from that described by Peirce; for the American semiologist, symbol is opposed to icon and index in a trichotomy of signs. But for the aesthetic idealists, the symbol has a transcendent resonance which gives it a master-function in music and makes it a determinant of moral force and aesthetic value. In this kind of symbol, the relation of signifier and signified is asymmetric; what is signified is a radical idealism, an overcoming of the antinomy of thought and object. The imagination...

    (pp. 227-232)

    A musician, more than anyone else, ought to be aware of the need for faithfulness to one’s material. The philosophical mind seeks logi cal sequence and noncontradiction; but the best composers override logic in a desire to let their material work itself out unhindered. For this reason, Jacques Barzun identified Romanticism with realism, as I recorded above in Chapter 5. The process of stylization in Romantic art was aimed “not in the direction of a common norm, but in the direction of complete expressiveness. This is the desire to make each object disclose itself as fully as possible under the...

    (pp. 233-242)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 243-248)