Edward T. Cone's The Composer's Voice: Responses by Edward T. Cone

October 1, 1989

There is probably less disagreement between Marion Guck and me than she thinks. Our chief difference arises from her attempt to separate the musical persona from its musical experience. I may not have made this point clear enough in The Composer's Voice: the musical persona exactly is its musical experience.

I do not believe that music is "about" characters, or actions, or emotions, or storms: it can present none of these directly. What it is "about"—what it does present (or represent)—is an experience that may be appropriately interpreted, according to the context, as referring to a character, or an action, or an emotion, or a storm. If we as auditors are to participate in such an experience, we must live through it ourselves: that is what I meant by identification with the persona. So to Guck's interpretation of that identification as "reading the mind" of the persona, I prefer a different formulation: it is sharing, through recreative hearing, the experiences of the persona. Those might be, as she puts it, "reflections of a hypothetical individual . . . upon any conceivable subject"; but contemplation is only one possibility. The "Waldstein" Sonata, as she makes clear, does not reflect: it acts!

Guck points out, correctly, that experience often involves not only human but also "non-human objects, concepts, forces, acts." Where I think she is wrong is in her insistence that "not all those experiences are what might be called human." How can they not be human? The experience of a storm is not the storm's experience but ours. Guck tacitly acknowledges this point in her conclusion,: "Music can be represented by models drawn from the human world, but it can equally be represented by models drawn from what we know of the non-human world" (my emphasis).

It may surprise Guck to learn that I consider her discussion of the "Waldstein" excerpt to be an excellent characterization of the musical persona as revealed in that passage. As I read her analysis, it supports my contention that "an instrumental persona . . . is actualized only through instrumental sound. Sounds are not a means of mediation by which we are enabled to hear music; they constitute the reality of music, and they effect the realization of its persona. . . . The persona of a composition for a single instrument is symbolized by the musician-cum-instrument, but it is realized in the voice of that instrument. . . . The persona of a piano sonata is a pianistic persona."1

If Guck prefers to think of the persona in terms of action rather than of actor, well and good: that persona would still be symbolized by the playing, but realized in the music played. In the last analysis, however, as Fred Maus has aptly reminded us,2

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?


Charles Fisk does an admirable job of summarizing the overall structure of the Schubert Fantasy and relating it to the program implied by its derivation from the "Wanderer" song. In particular, his discussion of key relations demonstrates how those contribute to—or indeed establish—the "Fremdling" character of both protagonist (song) and persona (fantasy). He is quite right, for example, about the "unsettling impression on the final return to E" in the song—"an E that at first re-emerges ambiguously and then never has time to reconfirm itself fully." But he could have strengthened his point by referring to the that transforms another "final return to E"—the one at the end of the Adagio movement—into a dissonance: a dominant seventh that becomes an augmented sixth.3 That move, unavailable to the composer at the conclusion of a song, but here usable as a transition to the Scherzo, vividly illustrates the persona's "Entfremdheit."

Fisk's analysis of the chief harmonic and rhythmic articulations discusses the form in terms of what I call structural downbeats. Although he does not use that terminology, he shows how the constantly required reinterpretation of those focal points, and of the formal areas they set off, reinforce our perception of the persona's restless striving. I should put the case even more strongly, for I hear each of the first three movements as ultimately transformed into an upbeat to its successor.

Had Fisk devoted more attention to the motivic relations within and among the movements, he would not have understated the persona's unity. For example, the rhythm of the E-major theme in the first movement comes right out of the opening dactyl, and its own typical melodic turn (-B-A) gives rise to the subsequent theme in . The "Wanderer" theme incorporates both of those motifs.

The question of how to hear the Fantasy in relation to the song is not easily resolved. At one time I was certain that the way Schubert composed the piece—whether he intentionally drew it out of the song, or whether he found the song gradually "imploding"—should have no effect on our hearing it as a Fantasy developed from its own opening measures. Since that is the way it transpires in performance, that, I concluded, is the way the composer meant us to hear it. On thinking the matter over later, however, I hedged: "Viewing the entire composition as an object, one could see the Adagio as a center from which the three surrounding movements are derived. Historically, that would be correct. But temporally—and therefore formally—the Adagio and the two subsequent movements are derived from the first."4 Further elaborating the historical point of view, I suggested: "One who is familiar with the song and is aware of the chronology of the two compositions might possibly wish to consider them together and thus to hear the Adagio as a spectacular case of rederivation—after a period of years!"5 Perhaps, then, there are really two Fantasies. One is the Fantasy alone, in which the derivations occur as the piece unfolds in time. The other is Song-plus-Fantasy, in which the remembered song is gradually disclosed by rederivation. The latter is the richer of the two versions; and when Fisk refers to "knowledge of the song as part of the Fantasy's reception history," he implies that it is the version he favors.


Fred Maus has done me two favors, for which I must thank him. First, he has summarized my position in The Composer's Voice both accurately and sympathetically, a coupling that may have proved difficult to achieve. Second, he has complemented my views in that book by adducing other, later essays of mine: "Schubert's Promissory Note," "The Authority of Music Criticism," and the recent, as yet unpublished "Poet's Love or Composer's Love?"

What I think Maus underestimates is the extent to which these essays attempt to criticize and modify the views of The Composer's Voice. Very roughly, I should say that whereas in the book I emphasized the difference between the composer's person and his persona (or rather, his various personae), in the later essays I tend to bring person and persona closer together, although maintaining the distinction between them. As a result the persona becomes something very like Booth's implied author, and Maus is on the right track when he discusses Booth's concept.

In literature one can multiply that implication—to the extent of infinite regress, as it were. I call your attention to the extraordinary passage in A la recherche du temps perdu where Proust seems to speak for once in his own voice—not that of the fictional Marcel: "I, I who am writing this story, tell you that this event really happened!" (Or words to that effect.) But isn't that voice equally fictional? No matter how many times, on how many levels, the "real" author tries to come forward, there is always another one behind—the "really" real author, who can never actually speak within the framework of the book. In music, I do not see how such multiplicity can be feasible. So when I say things like "make the composer's voice our own," I mean the composer's voice as we hear it in the composition—which must be through his implied self, or, as I call it, his persona.

With respect to accompanied song, "Poet's Love" tries to effect another rapprochement: of the composer's persona and the protagonist. I spoke there of "a unitary vocal-instrumental protagonist that is coextensive with the persona of the actual composer of the song." I chose the word "coextensive" carefully: I did not mean "identical." If I had expanded on that sentence, I should have said that from the point of view of the world of the song, the protagonist is the "author" (of words and music); but we know that to be a fiction. We can, however, look at the same construct as the persona of a real composer, who created the song that presents the protagonist: this is the composer's persona—or, as I sometimes call it, the complete musical persona—which I now find very similar to Booth's implied author.

Maus's discussion of the Schumann song can serve to point up the difference between my earlier and present views. When I wrote The Composer's Voice I should have gone along with Maus's second interpretation of the postlude: it "is not the address that the protagonist thinks he hears." I should probably have considered it a comment from a relatively autonomous instrumental persona. I do not now reject that interpretation absolutely; but since I now try whenever possible to fuse protagonist and complete musical persona, I should now emphasize the continuity between voice and postlude, noting the way the melody resolves and continues the verbal quotation from the flowers. The postlude extends the thought of the protagonist: it is the music he is hearing in his own mind, which he interprets as a continuation of the flowers' song. We, the audience, may accuse him of indulging in the pathetic fallacy; but the song itself takes the situation at face value. I disagree when Maus says that the postlude "eludes both of the interpretive models presented by the text." I should say rather that it accommodates both of them.

Maus's discussion of "Blumenstück" focuses on the relation of an instrumental persona to its component agents. He suggests several possible analyses of his chosen excerpt: as a single agent; as two agents—the outer parts, which jointly produce the chords; as three agents, of which the chords comprise one; as even more, each member of the chords being a separate agent. My own concept of agent would admit all these except the last. (I have specifically suggested unifying such chordal textures as implicit accompanying agents. [The Composer's Voice, pp. 95-96]) But it is important to realize that each choice implies a different performance of the piece. Do we, for example, play the outer voices as contrapuntal, or as melody with bass? Do we try to individualize the inner chords, or to submerge them? As I wrote, "All these decisions depend on an interpretation of the dramatistic structure of a piece, on an apprehension of the extent and nature of the role of each implicit agent, as much as on formal criteria narrowly defined. Or perhaps form, from one point of view, consists in the establishment and the precise definition of these roles." (p. 99)


With Webster's program of operatic analysis I am in complete sympathy. Moreover, I find that the methods he derives from The Composer's Voice are equally applicable when opera is approached from the revised point of view of the recent essay he mentions, "The World of Opera and Its Inhabitants."6 Everything Webster says in his analysis of Pamina's aria, for example, is relevant whether or not Pamina is fully conscious of singing, whether or not she is fully conscious of her accompaniment, whether or not she may be thought of as composing her own accompaniment.

My new essay, I must confess, treats the question of orchestral consciousness rather perfunctorily; but what it has to say of Wagner is, I think, of general applicability: "It would require careful analysis of a scene to reveal which orchestral music should be construed as being in the ears—i.e., in the musical consciousness—of which characters; and which music, on the other hand, is best understood as subsisting in a kind of universal world consciousness." (p. 138) In the latter case it becomes, to quote Webster, "an especially vivid and powerful manifestation of 'the composer's voice' itself."

Webster calls the issue of the composer's operatic persona controversial, but then makes a good case for the presence of Mozart's own voice throughout The Magic Flute. And if we are to seek a "message" in any opera beyond that of pure entertainment, we must indeed come to terms with the composer's persona.

I question Webster's desire to extend the concept of "agent" to include such phenomena as motifs and keys. I must admit that at one point I myself thought of doing that, but I decided that it would be a confusion of categories. I conceived agents as being like characters—musical "consciousnesses" that were represented by instrumental lines, as true characters were represented by vocal lines. Thus I distinguished between the idée fixe of the Fantastic Symphony and the agents that state it; likewise between Harold as a theme—his idée fixe—and Harold as an agent—the viola. I wrote: "The viola, like any other agent, can entertain many ideas, of which the Harold theme is one. The theme, like any other musical motif, can be repeated by one instrument after another, . . . as if expressing the same idea occurring to each of several agents in turn." (The Composer's Voice, 92) Thus I refer to motifs, themes, keys, etc., as ideas—which of course can recur as powerful unifying forces: "Every musical gesture conveys an idea or image in the minds of the agent making the gesture and of the musical persona." (p. 92) That is equally true of purely dramatic and verbal gestures. The verbal phrase "Ich fühl es," which, like certain musical phrases, is common to both Tamino's and Pamina's arias, could be considered as a motif; but it is an idea in the minds of the characters, not an agent on its own. In the Ring, the Sword is a dramatic motif—an object, a symbol, and an idea in the minds of many characters; its musical motif is equally an idea.

Webster's reference to the recurrence of the bassoon in The Magic Flute raises an interesting point. In my own terminology, I should have to call the bassoon a "temporary agent"—an instrument that on two separate and similar occasions plays an important role. But from a broader point of view, "bassoonishness" might be an idea, a recurring motif, like a key of a theme. So agents and their ideas may not be as completely separable as I thought. As Maus has put it, "In everyday contexts, there is a sharp distinction between agent and action. . . . But in musical thought, agents and actions sometimes collapse into one another."7 I prefer to read the collapse in one direction: instrumental agent into idea. Webster seems to prefer the opposite: motivic idea into agent.


Alicyn Warren's discussion of the role of "realistic" music in opera is illuminating, but her definition of "realistic" music is firmer than mine now is. "The World of Opera" not only attempts to blur the borderline between "realistic" and "operatic" song, but also points out the occasional difficulty of distinguishing between "realistic" and "unrealistic" instrumental music: "One might suppose that, unlike song, instrumental music admits of little ambiguity: it is either realistic or it is not. However, that is by no means always the case." (pp. 135-36) Programmatic sounds, such as storms, may serve both expressive and realistic purposes. More interesting are those cases in which apparently realistic sounds in the orchestra are actually imagined, or possibly imagined, by characters on the stage. One thinks of the sounds of the hunt that Brangäne insists she can still discern as they recede into the distance, or of Gutrune's pathetic attempts to deceive herself into hearing Siegfried's horn. The latter example is especially interesting. To an imagined horn-call—from the orchestra pit—and to the realistic wedding-summons—from the wings—Gutrune reacts in exactly the same way: "Was das sein Horn? Nein!"

In movies, too, one is sometimes unsure whether the background music is for our ears alone or whether it is a representation of what certain characters hear, or think they hear. The eerie music that accompanies characters depicted as losing their grip on reality: does it reflect the hallucinatory sounds that they are imagining, or is it purely atmospheric, for the benefit of the audience?

Such cases are comparatively rare. The position set forth in "The World of Opera" suggests a crucial distinction between the characters of opera and those of cinema. Operatic characters, the essay insists, are always "hearing" music because they are always thinking music; and the music they auralize includes some, at least, of the orchestral accompaniment. Characters in (non-operatic) movies normally hear realistic sounds only; the background music belongs to what I call the camera's persona and is unheard by the characters.

Warren's point about the unifying power of realistic music ("source music") is well taken; but unrealistic background music is equally potent in this respect. Since change of scene is often signaled by a corresponding musical change, musical continuity often provides a clue that a given cut does not announce a change of scene. Such evidence is especially important today, when movies are often bewilderingly kaleidoscopic.

On the other hand, certain kinds of instrumentation can mislead the audience. We hear, for example, a solo piano and assume that it is realistic. But we search in vain for a piano in the scene, belatedly realizing that we are misinterpreting what is really background music. For this reason such music ought not to be soloistic—at least never when we might reasonably search for a soloist. That is one rationale for the good old Hollywood orchestra, and it is a valid one. Even a chamber group, unless carefully deployed, can lead us astray.

No doubt we could be equally misled in opera, although I cannot think of a relevant example. On the other hand, such misdirection can be craftily planned to good effect. We naturally take the string ensemble that opens Strauss's Capriccio to be an overture or prelude, but when the curtain rises we discover that what we have been hearing is "actual" chamber music! The current practice of translating opera into film will, if it continues, probably offer other occasions for ambiguity of this kind—or for confusion.

1The Composer's Voice, 106-07.

2See Fred Everett Maus, "Music as Drama," Music Theory Spectrum 10 (1988): 70.

3The in question, which is not found in many older editions, appears exactly halfway through the final measure of the Adagio. The resulting E7 chord can be heard as V7 of the plagal iv chord of the preceding measure, but also—enharmonically reinterpreted—as a German 6th chord in major, the key of the upcoming Presto. -Ed.

4Edward T. Cone, "Music and Form," in What is Music? ed. Philip Alperson (New York, 1987), 140.

5Edward T. Cone, "On Derivation: Syntax and Rhetoric," Music Analysis 6 (1987): 250-51.

6Edward T. Cone, Music: A View from Delft, ed. Robert Morgan (Chicago, 1989), 125-38.

7"Music as Drama" (see note 2 above), 70.

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