Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music

Article excerpt

Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music. By Michael P. Steinberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. [xiv, 246 p. ISBN 0-691-11685-7. $29.95.] Illustrations, index.

With Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century Music, Michael P. Steinberg offers a provocative, intermittently brilliant rooting of nineteenth-century music-that is, "the long 19th-century" that encompasses Mozart at one end and Schoenberg at the other-in contemporaneous cultural and intellectual history. Few major German composers of the era go unexamined, and few readers are likely to walk away from the book with their understanding of this repertoire, and the culture from and for which it speaks, unrevised. For all the abundance of the book's musical insights, Steinberg's perspective is that of a cultural historian, and he shares generously of his extensive and multifaceted expertise, lodging the book's musical dramatis personae in a kaleidoscopic array of fine-grained engagements with the thought and lives of philosophers, historians, journalists, poets, librettists, dramatists, psychoanalysts, set designers, and directors.

The book's unifying thread is music's "capacity to organize subjectivity" (p. 4), a formulation whose definition is the principal task of Steinberg's introduction. "Subjectivity" cannot be understood, in Steinberg's conception, simply as a property of the "subject" whom Enlightenment epistemology posited as observer and autonomous agent outside of the surrounding world; it represents, rather, "a mode of experience where self and world are difficult to distinguish. Subjectivity resides at the borders of autonomy and integration, and must be allowed culturally, politically, and discursively to live there" (p. 7). And it was by the Romantic theorists who ushered Germany into the nineteenth century, as Steinberg demonstrates, that music "was first anointed as a privileged discursant of subjectivity" (p. 11).

Steinberg's first chapter traces the rise of musical subjectivity through the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Don Giovanni (considered first) is here seen to stage the victory of Protestant modernity, with its spirit of subjective resistance, over the Catholic baroque's conflation of sacredness and political power. Steinberg hears the overture's opening chords, for example, as a critique of the baroque ideology of representation in their invocation of the unrepresentable, comprising a force of "other-worldly negativity" (p. 29) associated as strongly with Don Giovanni himself as with the Commendatore (and held only temporarily at bay by the "worldly affirmation" of the ensuing Allegro). Le nozze di Figaro stages the victory of subjectivity in plot and musical style alike (Figaro himself is seen, for example, to work from stylistic mimicry toward a musical language of his own), though its coupling of liberty with marriage provides a myth of harmonious social integration that will prove unsustainable in Cosi fan tutte, whose franker confrontation with the issue of desire leaves no simple answers.

Chapter 2 examines Beethoven's heroic style, placing at its aesthetic heart an element of "abstraction" that distinguishes it fundamentally from the ideology of "absolute music" later codified by Richard Wagner. Through encounters with the Eroica Symphony, the Andante con moto movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto (crucial here is "the piano's stealthlike and subversive appropriation of the work's narrative voice as a first-person voice" [p. 66]), Fidelia, and the Ninth Symphony, Steinberg argues for a conception of Beethoven's heroic style that "feeds no political ideology, [and] likewise provides no concrete charter of political emancipation" (p. 62). The third chapter seeks to distinguish Mendelssohn's "canny" sense of history from Robert Schumann's "uncanny" one. In a discussion touching on the Hebrides, Antigone, and the Lobgesang, Steinberg traces Mendelssohn's pursuit of an unproblematic mingling of subjective autonomy and an ideal of community, a mingling compatible with the composer's discernment, in Bach, of the "spirit of subjective modernity" (p. …