Critics of Disenchantment

By Miles, Stephen | Notes, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Critics of Disenchantment


Miles, Stephen, Notes


In a recent essay devoted to "the new musicology," Charles Rosen added his voice to the swelling chorus of those decrying the presuppositions, methods, and conclusions of such socially conscious scholars as Susan McClary, Lawrence Kramer, and Philip Brett.(1) Though not entirely negative in his assessment, Rosen raised numerous questions about the work of these scholars. His critique merits a detailed response for two reasons. First, Rosen is one of the most distinguished scholars working today; he combines astonishing erudition with insights derived from his long career as a pianist. Second, the scholars whom Rosen discussed are among the most original and provocative of the younger generation; their approach to musicology and criticism is marked by both a strong sociological orientation and a thorough engagement with intellectual domains far beyond the reach of mainstream musicology. Rosen's essay, therefore, provides the occasion for a critical assessment of these "new musicologists," placing their work in the context of traditional musicology and the sociology of music. Before proceeding to that assessment, we must first consider Rosen's criticisms.

In works such as McClary's Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality,(2) Kramer's Music as Cultural Practice, 1800-1900,(3) and Brett's Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (co-edited with Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas),(4) these scholars have attempted to ground musical meaning in the context of social, cultural, and political conflict. They are dragging a most lively art (and a frequently moribund scholarly discipline) kicking and screaming into the broader world of cultural discourse. From Rosen's perspective, however, these scholars do not so much drag musicology into the world as into "the other worlds of literature, history, and politics."(5) As a practicing musician of the first rank, Rosen is concerned that something irreducibly "musical" in music's meaning is lost or corrupted when methodologies from other disciplines are applied without careful consideration of categorical differences. Lawrence Kramer, for example, may draw a connection between the expressive doubling of a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Beethoven's two-movement piano sonatas, but does his invocation of literary meaning translate adequately into the realm of sound? When Rosen makes the charge that Kramer has a weak grasp of the experience of music, he is expressing his disturbance at the way in which music as a sensual experience seemingly gets shifted to the background in Kramer's criticism.(6) Kramer frequently devotes as much space to the description of a literary model and its formal structure as he does the musical object itself. Music is then brought into play with this model in such a way that (from Rosen's point of view) its musical specificity is endangered: Kramer risks reducing music to literature.

When scholars attempt to draw correlations between musical structures and those of politics or literature, they inevitably exceed the limits of formal analysis and invoke metaphorical language. Rosen, however, contemptuously recalls the silly stories frequently offered to the musically illiterate to translate music's meaning into another domain, and asserts that "all metaphors oversimplify."(7) Are "the new musicologists" guilty of this error? Rosen singles out McClary for special criticism: "[McClary's] attempt to identify cadential closure in Western music with patriarchal domination in Western society is too facile to be convincing." Indeed, Rosen goes on to say, "Since the early Romantics, we have generally accepted that something as primitive as sexual desire will be reflected at all levels of culture."(8) As we shall see, the efforts of McClary to revive a musical semiotics (and of Carolyn Abbate to develop a theory of musical narratology) are fraught with peril, even as they yield valuable insights into the role of music in both shaping and reflecting cultural concepts. …

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