The Emancipation of Music from Language: Departure from Mimesis in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics, by John Neubauer

October 1, 1987

The Emancipation of Music from Language: Departure from Mimesis in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics, by John Neubauer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986. 249 pp. ISBN 0300035772


It seems to me that the emergence of pure instrumental music as an autonomous and compelling art form—indeed an artistic "institution" with widespread sociological tendrils—is one of the most extraordinary events in the history of Western culture and one of the least understood. When you think about it, it is something of a divine mystery that a perfectly normal person should sit for two hours listening to four other people drawing horse hair over sheep's intestines. Yet a significant number of our fellow human beings do this sort of thing as a regular part of their lives; and the horse hair pullers, key pushers, tube blowers, et al. have come to occupy a status in our society that amounts, in some favored cases anyway, to a priesthood. How has this come about? Why? How is it that "mere sound"—and no matter how you transfigure it, that is what it is, after all—how is it that mere sound has achieved this power over us? If ever there were a subject waiting for an accounting, this is it.

The title of John Neubauer's book, The Emancipation of Music from Language, seems to promise such an accounting. The subtitle, Departure from Mimesis in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics, quickly corrects that impression. This is a book not about the emancipation of music from language and representation but about the emancipation of musical philosophy from representational and linguistic theory. Understanding how that happened is, needless to say, a contribution to the understanding of the other. For it seems unthinkable that philosophical theory and musical practice were not interacting during the crucial period in which instrumental music was emerging as an autonomous artistic enterprise. It is, however, notoriously difficult to draw connections between "pure" music and "ideas"; and except in the rare case, Neubauer plays it safe and makes no attempt to do this: his book is exclusively about the "ideas."

Some numbers will help here to suggest just what kind of a book Neubauer has written. The text is 210 pages long, and covers, roughly, the period from 1600 to 1814, ending with a discussion of E.T.A. Hoffman, and including introductory material on Greek and medieval music theory necessary as background. Neubauer's learning is impressive. The number of authors listed in the bibliography of primary works cited comes to nearly 150. Clearly the result of discussing 150 authors in 210 pages must be a survey of the territory rather than an in-depth analysis. And this is in no way offered as a criticism. A survey of this literature is much needed. Neubauer has provided, by and large, an excellent one. It will be an essential starting point for future scholars.

But surface analysis does have its dangers. If you are far enough away, Mars has canals and the Moon is a crystal sphere. And the distance from which Neubauer has had to view his texts has, at times, inevitably led to blunders. Let me instance a case in point.

Neubauer writes: "The later eighteenth century gradually repudiated the dogma of natural signs in music and the demand that they resemble the imitated object. [Daniel] Webb, for instance, admitted that we have no clear idea 'of any natural relation between sound and sentiment' [p. 136]." However, if we examine Webb's complete thought it is perfectly clear that it has nothing to do either with the notion of "natural signs" or "the demand that they resemble the imitated object," but with the Cartesian mind-body problem. Webb is claiming that musical sounds causally interact with the mind (by way of the vital spirits) to produce emotions, and raising Descartes's question about how this can possibly be, since sound is physical, emotions mental, body and mind completely distinct substances. What Webb says, more fully, is this: "Though the influence of music over our passions is very generally felt and acknowledged; though its laws are universally the same, its effects in many instances constant and uniform; yet we find ourselves embarrassed in our attempts to reason on this subject, by the difficulty which attends the forming a clear idea of any natural relation between sound and sentiment (Daniel Webb, Observations on the Correspondence Between Poetry and Music [London, 1769], 1-2)." Clearly, when the phrase "natural relation" is understood in its context, it becomes unmistakable that the "natural relation" in question is neither the sign relation nor the resemblance relation but the causal relation. What Webb is saying is that there is a causal relation between physical sounds and certain mental events, namely, passions, governed by causal laws, i.e., natural laws. And the cash value of the assertion that we have no clear idea "of any natural relation between sound and sentiment" is to emphasize that we do not, cannot understand how this causal connection works, because it is a special case of the connection between mind and body that, as the Cartesians saw it, is metaphysically inexplicable. The embarrassment that Webb refers to in attempting to understand how music arouses emotions is Cartesian embarrassment. And had Neubauer not glossed the phrase "natural relation" quite so casually, I think he would have seen that.

Let me now say a word about Professor Neubauer's method of analysis. There are two basic ways to approach the history of philosophy (and although few of the writers Neubauer considers are strictly speaking "philosophers," it surely is the history of "musical philosophy" that he is engaged in). One way of doing the business is to present the views dispassionately, without attempting to assess their plausibility. The other way is to engage them actively: to ask not only "What did he say?" but "Is it the case?" Neubauer pursues the former course exclusively. The views pass in review before us with never a hint as to whether the author considers them true or false, adequate or inadequate, in the ballpark or out in left field. My own sympathies are entirely with the method of philosophical engagement, and, indeed, I find it difficult to think about an opinion without, at the same time, becoming involved with questions of its truth value and evidential support.

Now it might be thought that this difference of approach between Neubauer and myself is merely a matter of taste or, at most, a matter of divergent intellectual goals. For I do find books that employ the method of philosophical engagement more engaging; and, as a matter of fact, I am involved with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aesthetic theories not only because I find them intrinsically interesting but because as a practicing philosopher of art I want to make use of them in developing my own philosophical views.

But no: the difference amounts to more than that; for it is my belief that philosophical engagement is a necessary ingredient in philosophical understanding. One of the nonpolitical lessons to be learned from John Stuart Mill's essay "On Liberty" is that you do not really comprehend a view unless you seriously consider the arguments for and against: unless, in other words, you seriously consider the possibility of its truth and of its falsehood. That, I believe, is the epistemological moment of such claims of Mill's as that "not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate [Chapter III]." To cease to consider a belief's truth value, either as a social, political, or personal policy, is to cease to understand it in depth. And that, I think, is why the views projected in Neubauer's book, well expressed though they may be, strike me as so many artifacts in a museum exhibit, whose uses have long been forgotten and whose dumb countenances therefore have ceased to convey their meaning.

I think I can best elucidate what I am saying here by way of an example from Neubauer's text. Neubauer writes of E.T.A. Hoffmann: "Though it may seem paradoxical at first sight, there is no clash between the Romantic belief that music utters the ineffable, a belief that Hoffmann deeply shared, and the attempt to develop a new language in which to talk about music. Since Hoffmann's criticism is based on the premise that music is a completely independent medium, he makes no attempt to articulate what is untranslatable in music but discusses rather musical materials and their uses [p. 205]." This seems to me to cry out for, to absolutely demand philosophical engagement if we are to understand, if we are to interpret plausibly what Hoffman is maintaining.

On one interpretation, the view seems utterly hopeless. Is Hoffmann really maintaining that music literally (and importantly) is an utterance of the unsayable, and that music criticism is possible? Imagine that I told you to criticize a poem, but that you were to say nothing about what was being "uttered"? What would be left of criticism? Doubtless there would be something. But what? Literary criticism is so completely dominated by interpretation that it is hard to imagine criticism without it. Of course there is structure. You could talk about that. But how long and to what extent could you talk about poetic structure, after all, without talking, inevitably, about poetic meaning, which it serves, or which serves it, or both?

It is no good to say that music is a different case because what it means cannot be said. If it means, then surely its "materials" serve its meaning, if its meaning has any importance at all to the music. And if you cannot, by hypothesis, talk about its meaning, you cannot talk about its materials, at least to any significant extent—to any extent that could legitimate an institution of musical criticism. The view is clearly impossible: the dual assertion of belief in an ineffable musical meaning and a belief in a viable musical criticism is deeply paradoxical.

But perhaps the notion of ineffable meaning is not to be taken literally at all. Perhaps it is merely a metaphor, or a Romantic buzz word for the view that pure instrumental music has no meaning whatever, although it "means" something to us, that is to say, we value it. In that case there is no inconsistency in asserting both that music has "ineffable meaning" and that it has a "criticism." For musical criticism then reduces to talk about structure (and, perhaps, expressive properties) without remainder.

Which interpretation are we to choose of the claim about ineffability? The literal or the metaphorical? Well, there is a perfectly sound principle of "interpretive charity" to the effect that, all other considerations being equal, that interpretation is to be preferred which yields the most plausible position. And in the present instance that is the metaphorical interpretation of "ineffable meaning." The crucial point to be underscored here is that we could never have used the principle of interpretive charity or reached this point in our understanding of Hoffmann, no matter what the correct interpretation turns out to be, without raising the question of whether what Hoffmann is saying makes any sense: whether, that is, it is true, or at least a candidate.

Another observation on Neubauer's method is, perhaps, in order here. There are times when one loses the thread. As there is danger in knowing too little, there is danger in knowing too much; and it is not clear that Professor Neubauer is always in complete control of the considerable information he has acquired. A historical narrative, of course, needs a theme, and Neubauer's book has one: it is meant to be the emergence of a pure musical aesthetic. But frequently this theme is completely lost in a barrage of quotations or an exegetical excursion (on Rameau's Nephew and its adventures, for example) in which one forgets just what the book is about. In short, we have here more of a chronicle than a history: a useful chronicle, to be sure; but others, I think, will have to make history of it.

Well, enough of criticism, and to end on a positive note: this is after all a book of considerable erudition that, as Claude Palisca remarks in a blurb on the dust jacket, "fills a void in the literature in English on eighteenth-century music aesthetics." It is an important contribution to our understanding of one of the revolutions in music history and the history of aesthetic thought. It will force many of us to revise our simplistic generalizations about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music aesthetics in light of the enormous variety of views Professor Neubauer has brought forward. There is much yet to be done. But Professor Neubauer has given us a very good start; and he should be congratulated for that. To ring some changes on a famous phrase of Sir Winston Churchill's, this may not be the end of the beginning, but it is the beginning of the beginning.

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