Music's Sentimental Role in Tristram Shandy

By Leslie, John C. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Music's Sentimental Role in Tristram Shandy


Leslie, John C., Papers on Language & Literature


We may consider ourselves lucky that Laurence Sterne did not have the modern musical greeting-card at his disposal. Imagine opening Tristram Shandy at volume six and hearing a recording of asses braying "G-sol-re-ut" until the page was turned, or listening to an electronically whistled "Lillibullero" through much of volume three. Given Sterne's penchant for demonstrative devices like pointing hands and squiggly lines, one might not be surprised to hear some of the novel's music realized in sound. In fact, Sterne portrays music in words frequently enough to constitute a major dimension of the novel. As Alexis Tadie has pointed out, Tristram Shandy is full of sounds that Sterne would like readers to hear quite literally, from a speaker's vocal infections to the tuning of Tristram's fiddle (20-23). Musically minded readers may discover along with William Freedman that the novel's embellishments and improvisations remind them of a virtuoso performance on the viola da gamba--Sterne's own instrument (40). Or they may hear Maria's disturbed piping so vividly that they linger over the pastoral scene with Tristram, coming away with a smitten heart (574; vol. 9, ch. 24). This scene is just one example of the key role that music plays in establishing Tristram Shandy as a catalyst of mid-eighteenth-century sentimentalism.

The functions that music performs in this novel all seem to reinforce the perception of Tristram Shandy as a work of sentiment. Frederick R. Karl characterizes sentimentalism: "There is a growth of pity and compassion for others, part of the 'feelingness' each individual was expected to have toward his fellow sufferers; similarly, characters are judged by their ability to feel, not solely by their achievements or lineage" (221). The judgment of characters' "ability to feel" implies a moral value behind sentimentalism that demands empathy and compassion for suffering, a moral stance that Sterne championed with the pen and from the pulpit. But he also advanced his sentimentalism with music, using it as a device to highlight moments of feeling in Tristram Shandy. As Janet Todd says, "In the sentimental work words are not left to carry a message alone, but are augmented by other heightening devices" (5). In Tristram Shandy, music heightens the sentimental text by communicating feeling and emotion; but it also champions compassion in opposition to insensitivity and to the ultimate lack of feeling embodied in Death.

Music animates the speeches in Tristram Shandy, enabling them to communicate emotion to the auditors, subtly impressing listeners with emotions they would not have felt otherwise. Sterne uses music and its theoretical language to describe the emotions underlying speech, thereby making particular speeches more expressive than others. This technical terminology creates what Tadie calls soundscapes: "Characters and readers are meant to perceive the environment through their ears as much as through their eyes" (21). For example, in one of his frequent bouts of irritation, Tristram's father laments the name "Tristram" with an emotional tone of voice "raised a third, and sometimes a full fifth, above the key of the discourse" (50; vol.1, ch. 19). The technical terminology used to describe intervals here conveys emotion and sentiment with the rising tones of Walter's voice. Musical intervals depict rising intensity in argumentation as he begins with a "soft and irresistible piano of voice which the nature of the argumentum ad hominem absolutely requires" (47) but rises to a contemptuous tone of voice with a third or fifth, much like Toby getting louder in whistling against something that strikes him as uncompassionate.

The musical elements in the tone of voice communicate just as powerfully as what is actually said. As Tadie puts it, "The sweetest modulations often appear to be the necessary condition for a distinct and clear utterance to obtain, or for a moving message to be perceived correctly" (20). …

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