Edward T. Cone's The Composer's Voice - Introduction: The Composer's Voice as Music Theory

October 1, 1989

Edward T. Cone's book The Composer's Voice is an important and distinctive contribution to recent music scholarship, but it has received relatively little public discussion.1 The following papers show the potential fruitfulness of the book by investigating some of its analytical and theoretical consequences.2 This introduction offers a general description of the book, a brief summary of the argument and of recent changes in Cone's position, and a few comments on the papers and on Cone's responses to them.

Like Cone's other works, The Composer's Voice is unobtrusively elegant in its style and argumentation. Certainly the qualities of Cone's prose have helped to create the affection that many musicians feel for him—or, one could say, for the personas he has created in various writings and lectures. Wallace Berry, in reviewing Cone's earlier book Musical Form and Musical Performance,3 pauses to admire "the tone of the essays," which

is strong and full of conviction, but at the same time a model of the assured but quiet address characteristic of the artist-scholar-theorist who has thought his thoughts, pursued careful methods of analysis, and laid out with perfect lucidity and, when appropriate, eloquence, but never with strident insistence, the conclusions to which he is led.4

Berry describes effects that many readers will recognize; they are characteristic of The Composer's Voice and, indeed, of most of Cone's writings. But to some extent the literary qualities of The Composer's Voice may also explain the lack of professional response to the book.

As Berry's comments suggest, Cone's prose has a remarkable capacity to conjure up a figure of "the artist-scholar-theorist" who speaks with a distinctive, trustworthy voice. One way to consider the style of The Composer's Voice is to ask, more precisely, what kind of presence the book creates. Who—what sort of thinker—is speaking? In what manner does the book approach its reader?5

The Composer's Voice, like Musical Form and Musical Performance, presents its train of thought with a calm confidence that does not permit any display of exertion. The lack of "strident insistence" seems to imply the attractive possibility that each stage of the argument will readily generate consensus. This aspect of the writing makes for relaxing reading. The style could hardly be less polemical; no one is trying to bully us into changing our minds. But in this respect the writing may disguise, for some readers, the degree of innovation in Cone's ideas. Or, again, such assurance may be peculiarly unsettling for a reader who finds parts of the argument difficult, obscure, or arbitrary, but who finds no apparent anticipation of such reactions in the book itself.

The argument of the book is intricate and moves quickly. At the beginning, the book passes through a series of models of vocal music; a reader must sometimes master a dazzling, possibly unintuitive construction, only to be told that it is ultimately unsatisfactory—"Our model has done its work; let us dismiss it." (p. 37) Later, the book develops primarily by introducing an idea and then fine-tuning it for a longish series of ingenious applications to different works or different genres. No doubt all of this results from hard work on the author's part. But there is no dramatization of intellectual labor; for the most part, the atmosphere is one of cheerful experimentation and tinkering. The book sustains a sense of pleasurable inventiveness, hovering somewhere between rigorous theoretical inquiry and sheer intellectual play.

The tone and argumentation are, of course, at odds with the grim quasi-scientific mode of much professional writing about music. The unaggressive, playful voice of The Composer's Voice does not seem to demand of its readers an immediate, argued response. Apart from noting that this pleasant character may have delayed professional response to The Composer's Voice, I want to observe that, in general, musicians are not in the habit of discussing the role of such stylistic features in theoretical discourse—despite the fact that many important texts about music are quite astonishing, considered purely as writing. (Within the canon of music theory, think of the work of Schenker, Schoenberg, and Tovey; or of Babbitt, Berry, Boretz, and Randall.) We need to develop ways of thinking about these issues.

But in the meantime, one can distinguish, however contextually or provisionally, between stylistic features of a book and the theoretical content it presents. And, apart from the way The Composer's Voice addresses its readers, the originality of its theory is sufficient to explain the difficulty of integrating its ideas into current professional discourse, and the consequent neglect of the book.6

Indeed, The Composer's Voice reveals a strikingly novel conception of what it can be to theorize about music. Though it is theoretical, the book contains little of the technical discourse one associates with music theory.7 Its concerns resemble those of aestheticians, but mostly the book seems to evade the aesthetician's preoccupation with "expression," "meaning," "representation," and so on. And rather than pursuing the philosopher's austere quest for generality, The Composer's Voice moves flexibly between generalizations and detailed analytical observations, apparently with equal emphasis on both.

In relation to current professional music theory and aesthetics, The Composer's Voice can be seen as a potential "paradigm shifter" rather than as a "normal" contribution to either discipline.8 The book has little or nothing to say about such familiar issues as Schenkerian graphing technique or the proper philosophical explication of sentences like "the music is sad." Rather, the argument proceeds as though new insights may result from setting aside such preoccupations. For the most part, The Composer's Voice substitutes new vocabulary and new questions for the older vocabularies and questions that have governed the disciplines of music theory and musical aesthetics. This sense of a fresh start, free from academic inhibitions, is one of the book's great strengths. And a further virtue is that the book actually tends to obscure the distinction between music theory and aesthetics.

To grasp the degree of innovation in The Composer's Voice, one might try to imagine what musical scholarship and education would be like if the influence of the book were to become pervasive—if talk of "personae," "protagonists," "agents," and so on became as comfortable and routine as talk of motivic connections or harmonic progressions.9

Given the density and subtlety of The Composer's Voice, there can be no expectation of conveying its thought in a brief summary. The essays that follow should be read, eventually, in conjunction with the book itself. But a few quotations and paraphrases may increase the initial accessibility of these papers.10

The Composer's Voice begins with a question that "is seldom, if ever, asked: If music is a language, then who is speaking?" (p. 1) The question seems to depend on an assimilation or comparison of music and language, but the book soon broadens the scope of the comparison, suggesting

that the expressive power of every art depends on the communication of a certain kind of experience, and that each art in its own way projects the illusion of the existence of a personal subject through whose consciousness that experience is made known to the rest of us. (p. 3)

And this leads to the question: "what is the . . . experiencing subject in the case of music?" The answer states the basic hypothesis of the book:

that all music, like all literature, is dramatic; that every composition is an utterance depending on an act of impersonation which it is the duty of the performer or performers to make clear. If, as I believe, Wilson Coker is correct in suggesting that "one can regard the musical work as an organism, a sort of spokesman who addresses listeners," then the performer, far from being an imperfect intermediary between composer and listener, . . . is a living personification of that spokesman—of the mind that experiences the music; or, more clumsily but more precisely, of the mind whose experience the music is. (p. 5)

The book develops this claim with reference to various musical genres. There are four chapters on vocal music, followed by a rather long chapter on instrumental music. Two more chapters discuss "identification" with the "personal subject" of a composition; and a final chapter or "Epilogue" steps back from the question of the "personal subject" to present a more abstract theory of music as "symbolic gesture."

The reasoning in this progression can be restated as follows. Given a conviction that music is dramatic, one can try to elaborate the point theoretically by borrowing well-established vocabulary from (other) dramatic contexts and applying it to music. But there may be a danger of arbitrariness in such borrowings. Accordingly, one can begin with vocal music, where the text provides both motivation and constraint in the application of a "dramatistic" vocabulary, moving on subsequently to the apparently more problematic cases of instrumental music.

More precisely, the texts of most art-songs can be regarded as brief dramatic scenes, and literary criticism provides vocabularies for describing their dramatic aspects. Literary critics write about the "persona" or "voice" of lyric poetry—the fictional speaker whose qualities are evoked by the words of the poem. The question arises whether this vocabulary can still apply to the poem in its musical setting, and if so, how one should describe the musical aspects of the work to show their relation to the poem. Cone retains the association of the verbal text with a persona, called a "vocal persona" when the text is sung. The accompaniment is said to function somewhat like a narrator, creating a sense of another subject or persona; and the whole fabric of text, voice, and accompaniment implies a total subjectivity, a mind to contain everything in the song, labelled the "implicit persona" or "complete persona."

To cross the gap between vocal and instrumental music, the book turns to program music, in particular Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony.11 The dreaming artist, the consciousness that contains the fantastic events of the piece, resembles the complete persona already described in relation to vocal music; this programmatic consciousness provides a model for the total experiencing subject of any instrumental composition. The book draws on Berlioz's orchestration treatise to add a further complication: within an orchestral texture, instrumental lines may develop sufficient individuality to imply separate characters, rather than mere aspects of the persona's experience. But these instrumental parts do not seem to constitute fully developed characters, and so they are called "agents" rather than characters or personas. The notion of interacting agents extends readily to individual lines within a musical texture, even when they are not realized by separate instruments.

Having introduced these various fictional beings, the book asks how a listener or performer will relate to them in musical experience, and answers that we identify with these personas and agents, or participate in their perspective. And finally, the "Epilogue" reverses the opening question. If music is the utterance of a persona, what does the persona say? The reply sketches a theory of gestural meaning.

Recently Cone has returned to the ideas of The Composer's Voice in two papers that argue for significant revisions in his account of vocal music. With regard to accompanied song, the new position claims that the vocal protagonist can often be understood as a character who consciously composes and sings the vocal line that we hear, and that the accompanying music can be heard as the content of this character's musical thoughts. The triad of vocal persona, instrumental persona, and complete musical persona, as delineated in The Composer's Voice, now reduces to a single character.12 Similarly, the new position claims that operatic characters consciously compose and sing their vocal lines. The Composer's Voice distinguishes between most operatic numbers and those rarer songs (serenades and the like) in which the characters believe themselves to be singing; in the revised theory, this distinction is not maintained.13

In my experience the initial reaction to these revisions has usually been a strong preference for the older, more complicated account. But, of course, the apparent strangeness of the new views may simply show that it will take time to assimilate and evaluate them—as it has for the views in The Composer's Voice itself.

It may be helpful to indicate a few points of contact among the papers that follow.

Most broadly, the papers seem to divide between those that employ the notion of a unifying persona (Fisk, Warren) and those that express reservations about the notion (Guck, Maus, Webster). But two considerations complicate this apparently straightforward disagreement.

First, the papers draw examples from various musical genres, and a notion of persona may be more useful for some genres—or even for some individual works—than for others.

And second, one can wonder whether The Composer's Voice articulates a single, unequivocal conception of a persona. The book identifies the persona both as a speaker and as a consciousness; sometimes it likens musical experience to encountering another person, sometimes to occupying a certain perspective. No doubt one can distinguish sharply, in some non-musical contexts, between a persona and a point of view.14 That is the easy part; the hard part is to understand why The Composer's Voice persists in running these ideas together, and to determine whether this elision of a prima facie distinction actually captures something about musical experience.15 Without resolving these issues, it is hard to know, for instance, whether the papers by Webster and Warren take opposing positions on some definite theoretical issue.

With regard to agents, Webster and I share a tendency toward proliferation—finding more agents, and more kinds of agents, than The Composer's Voice would authorize. It is an interesting question whether Webster's multiplication (multiplicity) of types of agent and my ultimate "indeterminacy" come to the same thing. Guck finds talk of agents useful but optional and—unlike the other authors—reminds us of the value of non-animistic metaphor in communicating about musical experience.

As I already indicated, The Composer's Voice raises questions that have "seldom, if ever," been asked, and refines a special vocabulary for asking and answering them. But it also implies remarkable reconceptions of traditional music-analytical topics, and the following papers develop some of these implications. Fisk's overview of the "Wanderer" Fantasy is the most ambitious attempt to deal with formal issues, but there are others—Webster and I offer dramatic interpretations of instrumental postludes in vocal works, and Guck describes a long passage from the "Waldstein" Sonata. Further, the papers repeatedly address issues of texture: Cone's ideas seem particularly useful in approaching this notoriously difficult area of analysis. For example, Webster gives a detailed account of the relation between voice and accompaniment in a Mozart aria; Fisk and I write about the evocation of voice within a piano texture; Guck draws on textural evidence in pursuing an interesting distinction between music oriented toward activity and music oriented toward character.


The concepts of persona and agent, and their application to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art music, are basic to The Composer's Voice. The papers in this set address the fundamental concerns of the book. But Cone's discussion is wide-ranging, and it may be helpful to indicate several important aspects of The Composer's Voice that the following papers do not address.

(1) In the course of its exposition, The Composer's Voice develops an elaborate technical vocabulary—"virtual persona," "unitary virtual agent," "permanent agent," etc. A codification and evaluation of this vocabulary would be helpful.

(2) The "Epilogue," as I have mentioned, proposes an intriguing theory of musical gesture, well worth considering in detail.

(3) The Composer's Voice sometimes prepares or supports its points by drawing on various writings about music (by Berlioz, Gurney, Sessions, and others). These moments often yield intriguing interpretations of the texts cited; perhaps ideas derived from The Composer's Voice could provide a basis for more extended readings of historical texts about music.

(4) Though the following papers cover several genres within classical art-music, The Composer's Voice is more venturesome. It offers interpretive ideas about art-music from polylingual motets to Babbitt's "Philomel," and moves outside art music to consider hymns, national anthems, "Happy Birthday," and so on. Warren's paper, moving boldly from opera to film, is the only one of the set to follow Cone's example in this respect.16

(5) At several points the book draws informally on the vocabulary of psychology. For instance, it aligns the distinction between text and music in song with a distinction between "conscious" and "subconscious," and it devotes considerable exposition to "identification"and "participation." Further discussion of this material might well be illuminating; in particular, one would be grateful for scrutiny of these ideas in light of current psychological or psychoanalytic theory.

(6) The Composer's Voice is concerned throughout with musical performance, and the issues that arise are quite different from those discussed in Musical Form and Musical Performance.

Obviously, if the basic approach of The Composer's Voice is valuable, musical scholars should explore the ramifications of these related concerns.


Finally, a brief word about Cone's responses to the papers. They are notably imaginative and generous. Also—like The Composer's Voice—they are sometimes quite difficult. And, of course, they leave the reader with the responsibility for pondering in each case whether Cone and the other author have understood one another and—where there are disagreements—who is right.

1The Composer's Voice (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1974).

2Earlier versions of these papers constituted a panel session of the American Musicological Society's 1988 annual meeting, held jointly with the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, in Baltimore.

3Edward T. Cone, Musical Form and Musical Performance (New York, 1968).

4Wallace Berry, review of Musical Form and Musical Performance, in Perspectives of New Music 9/2-10/1 (1971): 289.

5In the paragraphs which follow I give a brief "character sketch" of the theorist in The Composer's Voice; but the description could be expanded greatly. Further, it may be that one should resist, to some extent, the effect of a speaking presence; the resistance could involve detailed, even clinical examination of the book's rhetoric. Such examination can be very demanding. No matter how rigorously one begins by distinguishing actual authors from their personas and insisting upon the artificial or illusory quality of any persona, sooner or later one is likely to slip back into descriptions that imply direct interpersonal contact between readers and writers. This introduction does not attempt such rhetorical investigations.

6Interestingly, music historians seem to have shown more interest in the book than other music scholars, although The Composer's Voice is for the most part as "New Critical" as Schenker or Babbitt in its reliance on acontextual evidence from "the work itself." See the prominent mention of the book in Joseph Kerman, "How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out," Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 330.

7As exemplified, for instance, in such valuable and conspicuous institutions as the Journal of Music Theory, Music Theory Spectrum, the Society for Music Theory, etc.

8Cf. Thomas Kuhn's well-known contrast between "normal" and "revolutionary" science, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1970).

9I do not want to exaggerate the uniqueness of Cone's innovations. If The Composer's Voice becomes widely influential, it will probably contribute to some amalgam involving other "literary" or "non-technical" approaches to music. One could mention James K. Randall's work during the seventies, for instance "how music goes" (Perspectives of New Music 14/2-15/1 [1976]), or Anthony Newcomb's work on music and narrative, for instance "Once More 'Between Absolute and Program Music': Schumann's Second Symphony" (Nineteenth Century Music 7 [April, 1984]) and "Schumann and Late Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies" (Nineteenth Century Music 11 [Fall, 1987]). And there have been interesting contributions by musically knowledgeable philosophers; see, for instance, the essays on music in Roger Scruton, The Aesthetic Understanding (London, 1983); or Kendall Walton, "What is Abstract about the Art of Music?" Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 [Spring, 1988]). The work of comparing and coordinating such material has scarcely begun.

10Since Cone, in the responses that follow these papers, graciously describes my summary of The Composer's Voice as accurate, I should mention that he is referring to my paper on agency, not to this introduction (which was written after his responses were completed).

11The discussion is remarkably independent of the technically-oriented analysis Cone supplies in his critical score (Berlioz, Fantastic Symphony, ed. Edward T. Cone [New York, 1971], 249-77).

12"Poet's Love or Composer's Love?" presented at the conference "Music and the Verbal Arts: Interactions" (Dartmouth College, May, 1988); forthcoming in the proceedings of that conference. Participants in the conference began referring to the theorist of The Composer's Voice as "Cone 1," the creator of the revised theory as "Cone 2." (The enumeration leaves the early paper "Words into Music: The Composer's Approach to the Text" a bit stranded. That paper offers yet another account, and deserves attention. It has been reprinted in Cone's collected essays, Music: A View from Delft, ed. Robert Morgan [Chicago, 1989], 115-23.)

13"The World of Opera and its Inhabitants," in Cone, Music: A View from Delft, 125-38.

14See Seymour Chatman's discussion of narrative voice and point of view in Story and Discourse (Ithaca, 1978), 151-58.

15Kendall Walton has argued that music can be indeterminate with regard to the distinction between first-person and third-person perspectives; his claim may shed light on Cone's procedure. See Walton, "What is Abstract about the Art of Music?" (see note 9 above), especially 360-61.

16A further issue, which the book does not broach: can the claims in The Composer's Voice extend beyond Western music? Discussion by ethnomusicologists would be fascinating.

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