Musicology: A tale of two chapters…

This post is from an essay I wrote in 2011 relating chapters from two different books. Here it is unedited.

I’ve chosen the final chapter from Rose Rosengard Subotnik’s Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music titled The Challenge of Contemporary Music and the first chapter from Lydia Goehr’s The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy titled Secrecy and Silence.

I am interested in the birth of the many philosophical positions musicians hold today and I thought that each of these chapters dealt with these notions from varying perspectives. Each author focuses on similar ideas but from different historical perspectives. Subotnik looks back to the cause of what she argues are the problems of contemporary music today. Goehr looks at the origins of the formalist and transcendentalist movements in the 19th century with a view to their influence and development leading into the 20th century.

I’ll first discuss Subotnik’s chapter The Challenge of Contemporary Music.

Subotnik asserts that the challenge for contemporary music is, “Not to society but to itself. The challenge is to recognise its own lack of autonomy and to use this recognition as an opportunity for contributing to a new paradigm for music that would preserve its own most humane values.”[1]

Subotnik traces the origins of the contemporary aesthetic back to the dichotomy of subjective and objective, based on the works of Emmanuel Kant.

(This dichotomy is a) reduction of reality itself, as an object of thought, to the status of a relativistic concept. These modes can be envisioned as two polarised theoretical models that Westerners have devised for defining and evaluating the humanly accessible domain: a generalised or objective model, rooted on a need for order; and an individualised, or subjective, model, rooted on a need for freedom.[2]

Kant’s autonomy is a fiction, says Subotnik, in that it is an ideal that can never be fully realised. Differences in perception and values between individuals and cultures make such a universal concept inaccessible.

The cultural paradigm for the objective model is science. Science is considered valid by it’s own internal structures and this guarantees its relevance and, therefore, existence in society.

Morality has been removed from the objective, and in doing so has become relativistic, leading to (rampant) moral speculation. There are many examples of cultures counting certain things as ‘objective’ in order to borrow its authority, and avoid having to answer some of the more difficult questions about the morally grey areas of life. Subotnik cites the American constitution as one example.

The cultural paradigm for the subjective model, according to Subotnik, is art. This idea crystallised in the late Enlightenment and reached its height in the 19th century, where it took on the kind of mystical reverence once the sole dominion of the church.

This subjective model tried, and for some time succeeded, in justifying itself as a self contained musical structure that didn’t ‘point’ to anything outside of itself. This was idealised in the romantic notion of absolute music (un-texted, purely instrumental music).

This is where the notions of the ‘masterpiece’ and the ‘heroic composer’ come from. The masterpiece was a structure of universal implication and the composer, “Imagined a kind of transcendently existing, self determined musical structure, which he translated into physical terms for society.”[3] Subotnik further adds.

As a result, in an age of disintegrating artistic and moral consensus, the musical structure became a perfect paradigm for the concept of integrity, in the sense not only of wholeness, but also of honesty based on inner conviction…Given the theoretical incorruptibility of self knowledge, the individualistic structure, such as the musical artwork, came to seem the last remaining safeguard for the very possibility of integrity in society.[4]

In post-Enlightenment culture this reflected the disparity between the individual and society. An individual vision is very easily affected by the demands and reality of society, where even a minor alteration can totally undermine the integrity of the internal structure of the work. Subotnik also claims that Western society threatens any work that relies on integral internal structure. “It is not just the existence of particular individualistic structures but the very category of such structures that is jeopardised by society in Western culture…This, I would argue, is the current situation of contemporary music.”[5]

There has been an ongoing effort by Western art music to claim itself, in the way science has, as valid by virtue of it’s own internal structures and thus guarantee it’s necessity (it’s very existence) in society. For some time it was successful (exemplified by the heroic Beethoven) and the notion of the masterpiece created a set of standards against which society could measure an individuals work. Those works not deemed great by these standards were (are) seen as lesser creations, and thus the standard repertoire was born.

The idea of a similar form of comparison between 20th century compositions seems absurd. “During the twentieth century, however, the contemporary composition has refined the principle of individualisation to such an extreme as to shatter social illusions of its own internal necessity.”[6] Later, I’ll mention a contemporary version of comparison or measurement that she offers.

By taking this idea to an extreme, contemporary composers have reached, and crossed, a dangerous threshold.

Contemporary composers have sought to render the composition tamper-proof by individualising each structure, encoded in a variety of private languages, to the point where it is protected against even the simple social activity of comprehending.[7]

Subotnik says that, unlike science, where a failed experiment does not threaten the validity of science in society, a radically individual artwork can be the very embodiment of the principle of individuality. Therefore, if society questions its relevance (due, for example, to incomprehensibility) the entire paradigm of individualistic art is threatened.

In summary Subotnik suggests that by clinging to the idea of its autonomy, contemporary composition refuses to define the context in which it exists, thus risking social validation, which is key to its very survival.

“The concept of  ‘contemporary’ music was created not by the general public but within a musically and intellectually elite tradition of specialists.”[8]

Subotnik places Schoenberg at the centre of the contemporary aesthetic. Other notable 20th century composers who fail to deal with his ideas are not rightly considered to be of the contemporary aesthetic. Contemporary has special meaning here. “It is a historically normative term, with aesthetic, intellectual, and even moral implications.”[9]

The relationship of a contemporary work to an audience has special implications also. If valued only by its fidelity to its own internal structure, any comparison to other works is inherently an inappropriate measure of quality. But general understanding almost invariably depends on comparison; so the very definition of individual contemporary enterprise is trapped in a contradiction.

“Its one rather wan hope is to coerce the public, through a sense of moral obligation based on faith in the composer’s integrity and in the authority of experts, into supporting contemporary music for the fact, rather than the substance, of its individualistic virtue”.[10]

It is the idea of a contemporary work that is put forward rather than the work itself. Concept is king.

Contemporary music considers itself superior to other new music because of a belief that it has kept alive the idea of individuality and thus the possibility of art…contemporary music (as Adorno laments on other grounds) has in effect worked out a Hegelian process of Aufhebung, whereby the idea has surpassed the medium as a locus of artistic value. More than anything else it is this priority that has given Schoenberg his towering historical importance in contemporary music; for Schoenberg “the idea”, as prior to the sound and style, generates and indeed is “the totality of the piece.[11]

Contemporary music further disengages with society because it requires a particular mode of listening: structural listening. This is another attempt to create an objective measure of the work. “In short, structural listening is seen to offer an objectivity that makes it an exact counterpart to scientific method, and as such it is regularly applied by experts to music of all periods in Western history.”[12]

This primacy of formalism over the sensuous has resulted in the loss of one of the most powerful attractions to art music. Subotnik argues that contemporary music requires structural listening. She also claims that this demand is impossible for the same reasons Kant’s ideal, mentioned earlier, is impossible. There is no way to account for individual, cultural, value, or stylistic differences in perception.

An engaged audience is a more intelligent audience, and it is this problem that has made contemporary music irrelevant in today’s society.

Subotnik sums up her argument.

For contemporary art music to sustain the humane purposes for which it came to champion imaginative freedom and honesty, it must struggle toward a new basis consistent with such purposes. It must find some way around the terms of the post-Kantian contradiction that has sapped it of its social vitality. This cannot be done by continuing to ask how an individual can create a complete musical universe and protect it against the depredations of an incomparably stronger society; this question merely perpetuates the terms of the contradiction.[13]

Subotnik sees the way forward as being a conciliatory one. Composers should learn to accept the fact of interpretation. Their works are part of an ongoing dialogue in society. They should begin by perhaps working in conjunction with art forms that have already established their place (for example cinema and other electronic mediums). She also suggests that they move into more popular areas into which, “elements of their heritage might gradually be absorbed.”[14]

In short, she seems to suggest they stop doing virtually everything she discusses in the chapter.

I find her discussion a fascinating critique of many problems with contemporary music, especially the various contradictions it seems to embody. Personally, I think the notion that the idea is more important than the work can be appropriated to defend the mediocre. This has eventually led to suspicion from the general public, that hinders their engagement with the work.

I’m disappointed, for some reason, with her suggestions for moving forward. It seems to me a total capitulation. Einstein said problems couldn’t be solved at the same level of thinking that thought up those very problems. I can see a way forward that seems less full of defeat and embraces more of an inclusive attitude toward other music mediums rather than in service to them. Collaborating outside of the contemporary sphere could yield some interesting developments. This is already happening in many other musical styles and cultures.

I find Subotnik’s writing style quite complex. There are sometimes long convoluted sentences that, as John mentioned, come from the German musicological tradition, which held the belief that complex ideas require similarly complex expression or explanation. I enjoy the challenge of following her arguments, as they seem very well conceived and researched. There is sometimes extensive knowledge expected of the reader, she does not go into depth explaining some philosophical ideas of Kant, for example.

Lydia Goehr. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy

Chapter 1 Secrecy and Silence: An introduction to music and its metaphor

Goehr begins this chapter by setting herself the task of explaining what is meant by musical and extra-musical, and also how the claim of music for music’s sake is construed in the argument against censorship of music.

Positing a meaning for music that is unknowable in cognitive terms, and understood only by a musically educated elite, has seemingly provided composers an effective defence against censors who are said to have judged music according to false criteria deriving either from society’s determinations or from their own ‘pathological’ tendencies.[15]

Composers have avoided having to resort to private languages to hide the real meaning of their work by claiming that the meaning of music resides only in it’s tonally moving forms.

To illustrate one of the problems this causes, Goehr quotes Hegel.

Especially in recent times, music has torn itself free from a content already clear on its own account [i.e. from poetic speech] and retreated…into its own medium; but for this reason it has lost its power over the whole inner life, all the more so as the pleasure it can give relates to only one side of art, namely bare interest in the purely musical element (das rein Musikaliche) in the composition and its skilfulness, a side which is for connoisseurs only and scarcely appeals to the general human interest in art.[16]

Goehr relates the story of the trial of composer Hanns Eisler by McCarthy. Eisler was accused of composing ‘communist’ music, but was able to defend himself with this argument of music’s formalist autonomy. He even managed the defence that the meaning of the words, written by Brecht, was not inherent in the accompanying notes. The meaning of the notes is what Goehr calls ‘extra-musical’.

Goehrs use of the phrase extra-musical is quite specific. The German phrase ‘das rein Musikalische’ is typically used to mean the particular technical characteristics of sounds in their rhythmic and dynamic combinations. ‘Das Aussermusikalische’ is intended to capture everything else; that is, anything not formally or specifically ‘musical’. However, Goehr contends that the term ‘ausser’ has meant ‘non’, ‘extraneous’ or ‘outside’ and at the same time ‘beyond’, ‘extra’ or ‘something more’. It is this ambiguity that has allowed the formalist claim that music’s extra-musical meaning can be either non-political or political depending on which connotation is employed.

Goehr then, helpfully, distinguishes the concept of extra-musical from that of non-musical. The non-musical plays no role in our understanding of the musical; the extra-musical does. The extra-musical is where resides the, “broader human and expressive significance of music.”[17]

Around the turn of the 19-century, the emancipation of music (from its traditional service to Church and court) brought the concept of the extra-musical to new prominence. Traditionally the matter of meaning was in the hands of the church but now music needed to relocate its purpose in the purely musical and extra-musical. Newly emancipated, composers did not want to become slave to new masters, in the form of music being merely a reflection of nature or the world. They refused interpretations of music as being non-musical, or perhaps even extra-musical. This was a socially privileged position, as Goehr illustrates.

One may say that music’s freedom from external constraint gives music a freedom to express itself in, with, and on its own terms, which in turn gives it a freedom to express or reflect upon society from a critical distance. By combining music’s freedom from with its freedom to, music achieves its desired position in society- its freedom within.[18]

Many years ago, the distinguished political philosopher Isaiah Berlin made an important distinction between “negative liberty” and “positive liberty.” Negative liberty is “freedom from”—freedom from constraint, freedom from being told what to do by others. Posi- tive liberty is “freedom to”—the availability of opportunities to be the author of your life and to make it meaningful and significant. Often, these two kinds of liberty will go together. If the constraints people want “freedom from” are rigid enough, they won’t be able to attain “freedom to.” But these two types of liberty need not always go together. (The Paradox of Choice pg 3– Barry Schwarz e-book)

This marked the rise of what Goehr calls the ‘work’ concept at the beginning of the Romantic era. She defines two steps in aesthetic theory called the transcendental and the formal. She uses the works of Hanslick and Schopenhauer as the archetypes of each step.

Each theorist gave the work its independence in objective and/or subjective terms. Hanslick spoke of the purely musical nature of purely instrumental music’s empirical and objective content; Schopenhauer spoke of purely instrumental music’s unmediated expression of the transcendentally subjective-objective Will.[19]

Two very different schools of musical aesthetics arose from these positions, but Goehr sees them as dealing with the musical (Hanslick) and extra-musical (Schopenhauer).

It is with this reconciliation that Goehr introduces one of the major concepts of this book; the concept of doubleness.

I find the term ‘double’ preferable to ‘dialectical’ because it stresses that the contradictions and conflicts in which elements or claims stand to one another are not always resolved (a) by picking one element at the expense of the other (b) by reducing one element to a function of the other, or (c) as traditional dialectics dictates, by allowing a synthetic or higher third element to emerge according to a logic of historical development. In my view, the contradictions and conflicts cannot and should not always be resolved. Sometimes the elements or claims function in independence, sometimes in union, sometimes in resolution, but sometimes also in a desirable antagonistic relationship to one another. This antagonism…helps sustain a dynamic or open theory or practice advantaged by a presence not just of plurality of claims, values and ideals, but also by claims values and ideals that conflict with one another in progressive ways.[20]

The implications of this, for music, are that a work can be both formalist and transcendental simultaneously. Again, the ambiguity of the extra-musical rears its head.

If expressing is something humans do individually and collectively when playing music, then music’s freedom less concerns us than does an individuals freedom through music. If music is composed by composers, to be performed by performers to be heard by an audience, formalism concerns us less than engagement with the music as an assertion of individual or social freedom. We would then think more about the political power of communication through expressive voice and performed act. Musical activity, then, becomes a quest for the autonomous voice. This thinking would soon lead us to understand the great refusal of music and its musicians as a cultural reaction to the regressive tendencies of music’s modern emancipation, to the tendencies on the part of musicians towards inexpression or disempowering disengagement, to the silencing of the autonomous voice.[21]

Goehr then introduces her main character in this book, Richard Wagner. She claims Wagner reconciles these two philosophies and exemplifies her concept of doubleness. Wagner, as a reaction to what he saw as constricting formalism, sought to reintroduce mousike the ancient Socratic perspective that saw music as a “philosophical quest for the cultivation of the soul and a political quest for freedom.”[22]

These arguments make up the remainder of the book.

I find Goehr’s ideas fascinating and fresh. By co-incidence, I have considered my own version of her doubleness. The necessary tensions that sometimes exist when great art is produced are difficult to replicate but Goehr’s concept is a way to discuss it.

There are times I can’t distinguish Goehrs own thoughts from the people she is talking about, which leaves me a slight confusion in some areas.

I do enjoy the almost detective like exploration of philosophical implication in her writing.

Crossover between Subotnik and Goehr

Goehrs description of the conflict between formalists and transcendentalists is the historical precursor to the utter formalist concept of Schoenberg. It is important to note what Subotnik points out, that, the contemporary aesthetic was not about denying the existence of the extra-musical, to use Goehrs phrase. It is about the creation of the work as a function of structure and whatever extra-musical qualities are there arise from the structure. This is a kind of solution to Kant’s dichotomy. It is relinquishing the attempt to control what is uncontrollable i.e. the extra-musical.

There is an interesting comparison of the idea of a composers ‘private language’. Goehr says, due to the formalist argument, composers did not need to resort to private languages (as some art forms did to avoid censorship). Subotnik says in the 20th century the ‘private languages’ of composers contributed to the demise of contemporary music. Today, secret languages and codes are popular in mainstream culture; but as Subotnik suggests, if it’s too complicated to understand, then it’s ignored, and this is what has occurred with contemporary music.

Between the two authors, the beginnings of the autonomy of music (Goehr) and its ultimate failure (Subotnik) are covered.

The end problem in Subotnik’s chapter is not dissimilar to that postulated by Goehr in regard to Wagner. I find Wagner’s attempt to reintroduce what he believes is missing a much better solution (not an easy one by any means) than Subotnik’s submission. Perhaps a personality such as Wagner could resolve some of the problems Subotnik identifies. But, in today’s society, personalities of that magnitude appear only in popular culture mediums.

All in all, both jolly good reads.


Goehr, Lydia. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy, The 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Subotnik, Rose Rosengard. Devleoping Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

[1] Rose Rosengard Subotnik, . Devleoping Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) pg 265.

[2] Ibid. Pg 266

[3] Rose Rosengard Subotnik, . Devleoping Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) pg 268.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Pg 269.

[6] Ibid. Pg 270.

[7] Rose Rosengard Subotnik, . Devleoping Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) Pg 270-1.

[8] Ibid. Pg 272.

[9] Ibid. Pg 274.

[10] Ibid. Pg 275.

[11] Rose Rosengard Subotnik, . Devleoping Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) pg 275.

[12] Ibid. Pg 278.

[13] Ibid. Pg 291.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lydia Goehr. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy, The 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Pg 7

[16] Ibid. Pg 8.

[17] Lydia Goehr. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy, The 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).  Pg 10.

[18] Ibid. Pg 13.

[19] Lydia Goehr. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy, The 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).  Pg 13.

[20] Ibid. Pg 14.

[21] Ibid. Pg 17.

[22] Lydia Goehr. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy, The 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).  Pg 1.

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