Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics

By Agawu, Kofi | Notes, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics


Agawu, Kofi, Notes


COMPOSERS Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics. By Stephen Rumph. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. [xi, 265 p. ISBN 9780520260863. $49.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Stephen Rumph's new book is a textcentered study of musical meaning. Philosophical texts discussed include selections from the writings of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Adam Smith, and others; musical texts are mostly familiar passages from Mozart's operas, piano concertos, symphonies and sacred music; and musictheoretical or musicological texts include books by Leonard Ratner, Wye J. Allan - brook, Robert Hatten, Raymond Monelle, and Elaine Sisman. Rumph reconstructs two competing paradigms from the writings of Enlightenment philosophers and theorists of language: a rationalist model based on rhetoric, and an empirical model rooted in cognition. His aim is to encourage a shiftof attention from the dominant rhetorical model to the empirical model because he believes that the latter more fully captures the contradictory essence of Mozart's style. Rumph's method, then, involves an impressive mix of philosophical exegesis, forays into intellectual history, and close musical analysis. He ascribes meanings and describes the mechanisms by which they are generated. He is especially alert to deeper-level processes involving metrical shifts, textural succession, and the working out of motives; indeed, some patterns of sub-surface activity, he argues, reveal strong affinities between Mozart's compositional manner and certain modes of eighteenth-century theorizing. Wideranging and ambitious, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics aims to capture a series of historically-grounded musical meanings while unveiling deep affinities between music and ideas.

The book contains six chapters, a cogent introduction, and a brief epilogue. According to Rumph, "we lack a 'historically informed' semiotics of eighteenthcentury music" (p. 3); he aims, therefore, to plant Enlightenment sign theory firmly within music history and music theory. Music and ideas share "common foundations" (p. 4), and Mozart's music "embodies the ideals [of the Enlightenment] with unusual clarity" (p. 9). So if we can reconstruct the ways in which the composer and his contemporaries "understood language, rhetoric, or signs" (p. 3), if, in other words, we can gain access to a " 'native' perspective" (p. 3), we can get a better-that is, historically more plausible-handle on meaning.

Chapter 1, "From Rhetoric to Semiotics," argues directly for the greater relevance of the linguistic model over the formalrhetorical one. The demonstration piece here is the opening movement of Mozart's G-Minor Symphony, K. 550. According to Rumph, the movement does not set out to persuade or communicate; indeed, its phrase structure is said to enact a dancebased binary impulse that releases it from certain rhetorical obligations. Rather, the movement enacts its own analytic process by, for example, creating an initial structural problem (based on the repetition of a sigh motive in the opening melody) which it eventually solves. Rumph approaches this analysis through Condillac's "sensualist philosophy" (p. 21), which, among other things, "demonstrates the interdependence of signs and thought" (pp. 22-23). The idea of music as thought, inscription, or writing has been advanced in connection with later composers like Brahms and Beethoven (see, for example, Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven [Princeton: Princeton Uni ver - sity Press, 2006]), but Rumph sees signs of it already in the G-Minor Symphony.

The second chapter, "The Sense of Touch in Don Giovanni," explores the epistemological fallout from elaborations of the sense of touch in the Enlightenment imagination. Citing the living statue in Don Giovanni as a ready reference, Rumph restates Kant's idea contrasting the rationalist's preferred modality (sight) with the empiricist's (touch). …

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