Musical Meaning and Human Values

Musical Meaning and Human Values

Musical Meaning and Human Values

Musical Meaning and Human Values


Musical understanding has evolved dramatically in recent years, principally through a heightened appreciation of musical meaning in its social, cultural, and philosophical dimensions. This collection of essays by leading scholars addresses an aspect of meaning that has not yet received its due: the relation of meaning in this broad humanistic sense to the shaping of fundamental values. The volume examines the open and active circle between the values and valuations placed on music by both individuals and societies, and the discovery, through music, of what and how to value.

With a combination of cultural criticism and close readings of musical works, the contributors demonstrate repeatedly that to make music is also to make value, in every sense. They give particular attention to values that have historically enabled music to assume a formative role in human societies: to foster practices of contemplation, fantasy, and irony; to explore sexuality, subjectivity, and the uncanny; and to articulate longings for unity with nature and for moral certainty. Each essay in the collection shows, in its own way, how music may provoke transformative reflection in its listeners and thus help guide humanity to its own essential embodiment in the world.

The range of topics is broad and developed with an eye both to the historical specificity of values and to the variety of their possible incarnations. The music is both canonical and noncanonical, old and new. Although all of it is "classical," the contributors' treatment of it yields conclusions that apply well beyond the classical sphere. The composers discussed include Gabrieli, Marenzio, Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Puccini, Hindemith, Schreker, and Henze.

Anyone interested in music as it is studied today will find this volume essential reading.


Lawrence Kramer

Isolde: Yet our love,
                Is it not called Tristan
And Isolde?
This sweet little word: and

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Act 2

We who think and feel at the same time are those who really
continually fashion something that had not been there before: the
whole eternally growing world of valuations, colors, accents,
perspectives, scales, affirmations, and negations.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, no. 301

As Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde discovered, there is a great deal to be said about the little word and. To speak of musical meaning and human values might be to ask how these things, in any of their numerous varieties, reinforce or oppose one another—or, rather, reinforce and oppose one another: the ambiguity of music as cosmic or natural harmony and as siren song is as durable as music itself. To speak of musical meaning and human values might be to ask how music expresses values per se or reflects their historical being. Or it might be to ask how values in either of these senses influence music-making as composition or performance, or again how they influence listening. the phrase “musical meaning and human values” leaves both meaning and values underdetermined, and deliberately so. the phrase seems straightforward, but in truth it is an enigma. It is less the designation of a topic than the opening of a question that cannot plausibly be closed. the way to answer, as the essays collected here suggest, is precisely to keep the question open: to keep it opening.

Each of the glosses offered thus far on the title phrase surfaces at one point or another in this collection. But the most important gloss, the one that gives the collection its underlying consistency, is more elusive and more challenging than the others. This gloss regards music as agency no less than as expression. It asks how music produces values. It asks, that is . . .

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