Toward a Unified Theory of Music Esthetics for the College Music Curriculum

Courses in music esthetics have been marginal to the college curriculum, possibly for two reasons: (1) The subject itself seems so amorphous that we are impatient in our search for key and all-embracing ideas that would fit into our standard course designs. (2) Esthetics embraces so many different disciplines that codification into a single or even a group of courses is difficult. However, in the light of some recent writings, we should review our attitude toward music esthetics with the view of making it a more integral part of our teaching.

During the 20th century, the study of music esthetics has proceeded along four major branches: history, philosophy, psychology, and theory. I will examine three major eclectic writings in the first three branches in an attempt to discover some converging ideas about the subject, as well as ways in which each branch remains distinctive. Much writing in music esthetics attempts to defend or develop a particular point of view exclusive of others. The studies under consideration, while arriving at theses to some extent, are concerned largely with reviewing the scholarly work done in their particular areas. These books are: Hans and Schulamith Kreider: A Psychology of the Arts (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1972); Edward Lippman: A History of Western Musical Aesthetics (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1992); Stephen Davies: Musical Meaning and Expression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1994).

The Kreitlers survey four main psychological theories: psychoanalysis, gestalt, behaviorism, and neobehaviorism. They report also on the principal psychological work done in each art discipline. The catch-all word for today's psychology -- cognitive -- is missing, for cognitive psychology as a name and methodology was in its infancy at the time this book was published. As we examine the Kreitlers' description of what they call the "art experience," which I relabel the "esthetic experience," we discover that much of what we now call cognitive psychology is accounted for. To illustrate the esthetic process the Kreitlers describe, I will use an esthetic experience I had while listening to a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier.

The process begins with a set, a disposition to listen attentively. I happened to be cleaning house, with the music in the background. When the Princess uttered that magnificent phrase marking the opening of the Trio in Act III, I stopped dusting and sat down to give the music my full attention. I don't mean to imply that the esthetic experience always demands full attention. I have short-lived esthetic experiences regularly when listening to music while doing activities that don't require my major concentration, but I wanted to make this experience full-blown.

Next comes a physiological/psychological description of the immediate phenomenon: tension followed by relief, accompanied by and resulting in an immediate sense of pleasure. I wasn't aware of any particular tension/release, in the manner of having my expectations thwarted. Since I'd heard the Trio before, I sense where it's going; rather, I was in a state of suspense waiting for what I knew was going to happen. In the course of that Trio a mighty climax occurs that one has to be tone-deaf not to recognize; after it is reached, the voices dwindle off, but the orchestra continues, quietly enfolding me in relief-or resolution.

If the orchestra is enfolding me, I'm obviously talking about feeling into (empathy, kinesthesia). I'm moving, gliding upward with that soaring Strauss theme, airborne to the degree of those boys cycling in the sky over John Williams's Wagnerian orchestra in the movie ET. The trio of voices is sometimes chattering away, sometimes joining the orchestra in a glorious display of bel canto that reminds me how very human this experience is, for they are having it with me! At the same time, I am quite aware that they are not with me. I'm objectively observing the situation afar (psychical distance). The entire scene is being played out in miniature before me. Who are those characters down there on the stage of my imagination? All this has an unreality about it. But don't let it stop! Logically, the two theories are quite different: feeling-into was expounded by the German Theodore Lipps in the 1890s, and psychical distance by the Englishman Edward Bullough in 1913. For me, these two conditions are the heart of the esthetic experience -- ideas suffused with feeling. Of course they belong together.

The remaining components in the Kreitlers' study are largely cognitive: (1) activation of ungratified wishes and their fulfillment; (2) responses such as multileveledness, abstractness, and symbolization; and (3) awareness of musical features and performance behaviors. The first smacks of Freudian or Jungian psychology, the part of my esthetic experience that comes from my unconscious, that which I have forgotten, or that which comes from my ancestral roots, that belongs to me only. Wish fulfillment might be the cognitivization of feeling-into. The remaining categories share a conscious intellectuality related to physical distance. They echo numerous philosophic and music analytic theories of the past 100 years. Much of this part of the esthetic experience I share with the whole world: the many levels of appreciation I can apply to the opera, my ability to grasp it as a purely musical experience or as a symbol of something else, the story of the opera, its composer, how the music is put together, the history of its many performances, its place in opera itself, in classical music, in the culture of pre-World War I Europe. In these cognitive components I discover myself as an individual and social being.

Lippman's History of Western Musical Aesthetics, which includes substantial summaries of over 150 writers from the Renaissance forward, is not just an anthology. It is a coherent, carefully composed history of music esthetics, much as K Marie Stolba's and Grout-Palisca's substantial general histories of music. Approximately 9/10 of Lippman's book is devoted to topics occurring from the 18th century forward. Here we find concepts that have dominated philosophical esthetics: imitation, expression, emotion, realism, formalism, idealism, theories of meaning, phenomenology, and sociology.

Let's dip into the material on the last two centuries to see how Lippman handles the subject. Romantic esthetics "is generally infused with emotion," on the one hand, from the literary tradition of Wackenroder, Tieck, Herder, and Hoffman early in the century and, on the other hand, the philosophical writings of the German Idealists stemming from Kant -- Schelling, Schopenhauer, Solger, Hegel, Oersted, Vischer, Stade, and Engel -- which span the century. The "veiled and suggestive feelings . . . nostalgic and unfulfilled" of the 1820s and ' 30s gave way to an "emotional realism" of the '40s through the '60s, with emphasis on vocal music, opera, and program music as prime media. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wagner were leading writers, but Spencer, Darwin, Gurney, Stumpf, Newman, and Hausegger gave emotive theories an increasingly scientific cast. The 19th century witnessed a reaction to music as feeling or emotion in the writings of the Formalists, likewise springing from Kant. Formalists such as Herbart, Hanslick, Lazarus, Helmholtz, Zimmerman, Siebeck, Fechner, Hostinski, and Gurney carefully worked out theories of form and autonomy on which much 20th-century music theory rests.

For the 20th century, Lippman gives much attention to European as well as Anglo-American philosophies. For example, the theories of meaning are divided into four: hermeneutics, symbolism, semiotics, and understanding. Symbolism is largely American and is represented by the theories of Langer, Goodman, and Beardsley, whose work is based on that of the European Ernst Cassirer. The work of Englishman Roger Scruton is included under "Understanding." Hermeneutics and semiotics are entirely European.

"Concepts of Objectivity" refer to the music-analytical theories that have dominated the 20th century. Under "Inherent Musical Law" are Schenker, Helm, and Kurth, dealing with older, established styles. Under a subunit entitled "Objectivity" are Busoni, Besseler, Doflein, Adorno, Krenek, and Schloezer, all dealing with methods of composition during the first part of the 20th century. Under "Order and Organization" are Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Lalo, Hartmann, and Cage. Missing is a large amount of recent theoretical work, increasingly esthetic in nature, with which my colleague Steven Bruns has acquainted me.

The phenomenalists are largely European, except for Thomas Clifton and David Green's work on Mahler.

The concluding chapter, "Sociology of Music," concerns some of the large social issues of the 20th century. The writings of Max Weber, music sociology's founding father, and Theodor Adomo, its prime theoretician, are given ample attention. Lippman lends an understanding ear to Zofia Lissa, the Communist theorist of the Stalinist era, and Marxist George Lukaes, who revived the theory of imitation and made music a mimesis of feeling. Missing are references to recent developments in gender and contextual studies.

If history attempts to be all-embracing in its coverage of the various areas of music esthetics, recent Anglo-American philosophy has been just the opposite, offering intense scrutiny of a very few esthetic topics. Analytical philosophy in the English-speaking world saw its beginning in the work of Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, during the first half of the century. In esthetics, the recent bent is not to create new systems or philosophies of art but to revive and refine older ideas. Thus, New Zealander Stephen Davies takes on what historian Edward Lippman refers to as "the tired topic of expression" and breathes new life into it, with the help of many fellow-philosophers, principally of the Anglo-American school.

Davies's Musical Meaning and Expression appears to be about two topics but is really about only one, for the expressive appearances we find in music give it its meaning. John Dewey, in his influential book Art as Experience (1934), marveled that music could retain "the primitive power of sound" and, at the same time, "transform [its] material into [a sophisticated] art that is most remote" from nature. Likewise, Davies finds, in Chapter 1, that music draws primarily on natural meaning (thunder means rain) rather than arbitrary or symbolic meaning, and presents, not emotions, but "emotional characteristics in appearance" (slow tempo and descending line suggest sadness). This natural meaning is filtered through a very complex cultural prism "so that the expressiveness of a work might be apparent only to someone familiar with the . . . relevant styles." Moreover, Davies maintains that sophisticated amateurs have musical understanding, which they can describe in everyday terms, equal to that of musicologists with their highly technical descriptions!

Davies has wrested his theory from nearly all of the 20th-century AngloAmerican philosophical writing about music, citing (and often giving precis for) over 500 books and articles. He systematically glosses and challenges many esthetic theories-among them, music-as language theorists Deryck Cooke and Leonard Meyer (Chap. 1), the pictorial depiction concepts of music (Chap. 2), and the symbolists Susanne Langer and Nelson Goodman (Chap. 3). In the later chapters, Davies arrives at ideas, which I have described above, sympathetic to but distinctive from those of Malcolm Budd, Peter Kivy, Roger Scruton, and Jerrold Levinson.

At this point, my cursory exposition of these three books is concluded. The differences among them may seem greater at first than their points of convergence, but the three are riding in tandem and drawing the various strands of esthetics closer together than ever before. Psychology has and will continue to focus on mental processes. History surveys the vast panorama of music making, gathering empirical facts into conclusions. Philosophy carefully examines the propositions of psychology, history, and theory. Gone are the days when one can creditably boast of being exclusively a Langerite, or an Expressionist, or an advocate of some other esthetic sect. The current thinking in esthetics is cumulative and integrative.

Music esthetics is now sufficiently codified so that we should think seriously about its role in music education. As we move into the 21st century, now appears to be the time to "estheticize" our curriculum. Allow me to become an Idealist and suggest a four-part proposal:

(1) We are in a position to offer a graduate major in music esthetics. Each of the books I have discussed, or other such studies that are bound to come along, can serve as a text for a one semester graduate course in the psychology, history, and philosophy of music esthetics, respectively. I hope that my theorist colleagues will have suggestions for theory-esthetics.

(2) Information from books like these must be condensed and explicated into a text suitable for a one-semester core undergraduate music esthetics course. By "explicated," I mean, for example, that the nine 19th-century formalists Lippman reviews could be reduced to four -- Herbart, Hanslick, Helmholtz, and Gurney -- or even one: Hanslick.

(3) The curriculum must be further estheticized by special training for all faculty. CMS has summer institutes for world musics, gender studies, and technology. Why not esthetics? As all faculty gain nominal acquaintance with esthetic principles, they can infuse their teaching with these ideas-in performance, history, theory, and music education.

(4) In this age of accountability, standards and goals in music esthetics should be established. Teachers should be able to demonstrate how they are using esthetics in their fields, and students should be able to show how esthetics plays an important role in their entire musical training. After all, what is more important to our musical education than paying some attention to the one discipline -- music esthetics -- that is dedicated to showing the significance of music for each of us individually and for our culture in general? We teach course content-we should always strive to teach the beauty of music by means of our specialties.

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Last modified on Thursday, 02/05/2013

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