Boccherini's Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology. By Elisabeth Le Guin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. [374 p. ISBN 0-520-240170. $39.95.] Illustrations, music examples, compact disc.
Instrumental music of the second half of the eighteenth century is, by nature, an abstract art form. Barring a specific reference by a composer linking his or her work to a text, image, or idea, the analyst has traditionally turned to an objective approach in studying a work. One reason Jan LaRue's Guidelines for Stylistic Analysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970) has worked so well for so many is that it provides a common and straightforward vocabulary which can be used to discuss a composition. Small-, medium-, and large-scale levels with regard to texture, harmony, melody, surface rhythm, and the like can be distinguished, and comparisons with other compositions by the same composer as well as others are imminently possible.
In her Boccherini's Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology, Elisabeth Le Guin offers a different methodology. Drawing from cultural ideas of the eighteenth century, and incorporating theories and concepts from the fields of art, dance, and theater, the author proposes an approach which relies heavily on the subjective and physical nature of performance, one which she refers to as a performance- and body-oriented musicology. Boccherini's Body is a personal statement of the author's approach to Boccherini, informed as much by the physicality of the act of performance as the intellectual thought of the day. To complement the book, Le Guin has included a compact disc, filled with beautifully performed selections, some entire movements, some just snippets, so that the reader can hear all the written music examples.
Le Guin's basic premise, as outlined in her introduction, is that one can attach meaning, in the form of a physical response, to an instrumental composition by applying images, movements, and texts from art, dance, and theater, as well as infusing these with theories, either from the eighteenth century or the present day. The problem, of course, is in convincing one's reader of the viability of this approach and in making those connections work. From the very beginning, Le Guin "assert[s] the centrality of performance" (p. 2) and in fact, one finds that nearly every discussion relies on the physicality of performance. The author argues that the concept of kinesthesia, or fundamental feeling, is essential when examining Boccherini's works. Physical comfort and discomfort become primary means of explaining passages and even entire movements. Individual embodied experiences take precedence over communal music making or considering "what can I communicate to the listener?" By the end of the introduction, one wonders whether the intent of the book is a musicological study or a discussion of performance informed by historical and theoretical information.
Chapter 1 offers us a glimpse as to how Le Guin approaches a Boccherini sonata, in this case, the Cello Sonata in E-flat Major, Fuori catalogo. She argues that by fully identifying with Boccherini, the man, she can render a better performance of the work. Le Guin provides a lengthy discussion of the physical aspects of rendering the piece: comfort/discomfort, movement of arms and fingers, use of muscles, weight, gravity, and other aspects of cello performance. Ideas and motives are related to the body; physical sensations are equated with topos and affect. Through this approach, the author claims a form of communication with Boccherini himself: "I become aware of a poignance of presence, the unmistakable sensation of someone hereand not only here, but inhabiting my body" (p. 25). Here, as elsewhere in the book, Le Guin argues that her own physical and emotional responses allow her to understand Boccherini himself and his intent. She fails to address the notion that each of us will have varied physical responses to this particular sonata, none being more accurate or real than another. …