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The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays by Raymond Monelle

Review by: Michael Spitzer


Music & Letters, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Aug., 2002), pp. 506-509
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Amsterdam in 1996), and composer of a succession of agonizingly painful, brutalist scores,


often with religious titles, she has become a
living legend.
This book, by one of her pupils, amplifies the
legend without throwing much light on it or
seeking in any way to interpret, explain, or
critically engage with it. Olga Gladkova is content to act as a spokesperson for her teacher's
views, most of which are in any case well known
to those who have followed the few publications
devoted to her. The author shows no wish to
examine the music historically or stylistically,
resting content with superficial descriptions and
quotations from enthusiastic critics. Nor does
she examine what might underpin the
composer's statements. Most of the latter are
concerned with warding off lazy critical cliches.
Ustvolskaya wants no truck with notions that
her music is religious (though she says that she
needs to be in a state of grace when she composes) or that it is Russian (though Gladkova
traces its essential qualities to Musorgsky and
Tchaikovsky), nor that any of her works should
be described as 'chamber music' (though why
she regards that as some kind of put-down
remains unexplained). She abhors the fashion
for religious music in post-glasnost Russia and,
in Gladkova's words, has nothing to do with
those who turned so easily from Lenin cantatas
to counterfeit sacred works (p. xi).
She has little but bad to say about
Shostakovich's music and his personality. In
reality there is a clear and powerful influence
from Shostakovich on Ustvolskaya; but Gladkova is happy to parrot her teacher's rejection of
this fact. One of the very few published interviews with Ustvolskaya-about the nearest to a
primary source we are likely to get-does not
appear in Gladkova's bibliography (Sof'ya
Khentova, V mireShostakovicha(Moscow: Kompozitor, 1996), 171-5) which is instead padded
out with programme notes, CD booklets, and
dictionary articles.
At best, then, this is a useful compendium to
which to turn for an authorized view of the life
and works. It is clearly written, each of its nine
chapters outlining an aspect of both biography
and music. And there are snippets of information that I do not recall from other sources, such
as Ustvolskaya's total lack of interest in Prokofiev, and the machinations against her in the
Composers' Union. Not all of the passing comments should be read uncritically, however.
When Ustvolskaya reports Shostakovich asking
her whether to call his seventh symphony the
'Lenin' or the 'Leninsky', Gladkova assumes
that this is the symphony that was to become

the 'Leningrad' (p. 21); but if Ustvolskaya is


correct in remembering that the encounter took
place before the war, it must refer to the Lenin
Symphony that Shostakovich had announced
far and wide before eventually abandoning it.
The translation reads well, and spot checks
against the original Russian (St Petersburg:
MuzYka, 1999) suggest that it is accurate. One
interesting short paragraph now appears in
Ustvolskaya's preface to the book that was not
in the Russian edition: 'I do not believe in those
who write a hundred, two hundred, three hundred works. Including Dmitry Dmitryevich
Shostakovich. In such a sea of works you can't
write anything new. In each of these works!
That's dishonest! There are many examples of
this in history.'
DAVID FANNING

The Senseof Music. SemioticEssays. By Raymond


Monelle. pp. xvi + 248. (Princeton University
Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2000. ?40/
?26.95. ISBN 0-691-05715-X/05716-8.)
Raymond Monelle's first book, Linguisticsand
Semiotics in Music (1992), is an indispensable
field guide to other people's work in the subject.
His superb second book articulates a personal
view, with a distinctive voice that has become
familiar on the European and North American
conference scene. Although the nine essays that
make up The Senseof Music disclaim the unity of
any overarching theory, they certainly add up to
a coherent position, which carries music semiotics' 'semantic turn' (Lidov, Tarasti, Hatten) to
a new stage. Robert Hatten's structuralist virtuosity in his MusicalMeaningin Beethovennodded
at, but did not reckon with, the parallel universe
of postmodern theory represented by Lawrence
Kramer's writings. Monelle attempts to accommodate the technical and scholastic slant of
'hard' semiotics (epitomized by the difficult
work of Peirce) to the more libertarian programmes of the 'new musicology'. A tall order,
to put it mildly. But Monelle's secret weapon, in
addition to his semiotic expertise, is that, unlike
many of 'new musicology's' practitioners, he
knows the music (and music theory) inside
out. There is a 'bottom-up' sense in The Sense
of Music of a scholar using complex theory in
order to validate musical or historical intuitions,
in marked contrast to the sort of semiotic
approaches which map from the theory down
to the score, in the hope that something musically interesting will turn up (what turns up, of
course, is usually trivial or impoverished). How
ironic, then-and I know that the author would

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take this as a compliment-that Monelle's musical voice evokes nothing so much as vintage
Tovey. In the course of his analysis of
Schumann's Second Symphony, Monelle tells
us, with some pride, that he is using Tovey's
personal score (Tovey also taught at Edinburgh). Monelle's peppery, combative, debunking tone is delightfully Toveyan. Toveyan also is
his distaste (apresrather than avant la lettre)for
formal music analysis. A 'score-analysis' of
Mahler's Fourth Symphony would be 'utterly
brainless' (p. 153), by which I think he means
the sort of naively formalist analysis criticallyinformed brains have stopped doing anyway.
The other side of the target, as it were, is the
old syntacticmode of what Nattiez termed 'music
semiotics', yet which actually amounted to little
more than mechanical feature-counting ('taxonomic-empiricist', in Agawu's (1991) terse formulation). It is good that Nattiez gets hardly a
mention in The Sense of Music. Obviously, Monelle knows his Schenker; and I imagine he
excluded elaborate analytical machinery from
his book because it is more practical to hang
semiotic readings on to 'basic-level' musical
observations (Scruton makes the same gambit
in his Aestheticsof Music). In other words, a
musical 'sign' tends to be a foreground event.
The dense opening chapter (or 'essay') lays
out Monelle's central thesis that music has
'inherent signification' irrespective of 'sender'
or 'receiver'. That Monelle situates musical
meaning at a 'neutral level', in between poiesis
and aesthesis, may surprise readers, in view of
Nattiez's rejection of semantics. But Monelle
has grasped that Molino's notion of the
neutral level, the putative inspiration behind
Nattiez's tripartition model, is perfectly compatible with Hjelmslevian structural semantics
(i.e., Hjelmslev's insight that semantics has a
structure too). Monelle's conception of musical
signs as distinct entities brings him close to the
nominalism of Nelson Goodman, except that he
includes a sense of musical reference, albeit to a
fictional (the musical 'work' as a fictional world)
or cultural (Eco's 'cultural units') realm. Centring musical meaning on the sign, rather than
on, say, Kramer's 'cultural work', enables a
much more nuanced and sober reading of
signification than can be dreamt of by hermeneutics. The glory of this new brand of semiotics
is typology, as is already recognized in its more
mainstream guise of topic theory, which is the
topic of the next two chapters.
What can Monelle possibly add, one may
ask, to Ratner, Agawu, and Sisman? Well, to
put it bluntly, Monelle puts a bomb under topic
theory, leaving a Ratner-shaped crater. We have

been led to believe that the justification of topics


was their firm historical anchoring in theoretical
texts (Mattheson, Kimberger, Koch, et al.). His
wry deference to 'the American master' and his
'masterpiece ClassicMusic' (p. 14) notwithstanding, Monelle exposes Ratner's argument as little
more than a swindle, but only so as to place topics
on a firmly theoretical,ratherthan historical,foundation. Astonishingly, Monelle achieves this theoretical objective through painstaking historical
labour-by
out-historicizing the historians.
Monelle's complaint against Ratner bears quoting at length:
In many cases the extraordinarilyrich accounts of contemporarywritershave been abridged almost to nothing.
In other cases, the translations presented are heavily
tendentious or even wrong; passages are omitted, either
because they fail to support the argument or for no
apparent reason. Some of the most important topics
find no support at all, though sources are given which
lead nowhere. Even odder, texts which strongly support
certain aspects of the theory are ignored (p. 24).

The topical universe as circumscribed by


Ratner and Agawu is widened by Monelle to
include Baroque Figuren on the one side and
Wagnerian leitmotivs on the other (hence the
'desire' motif from Tristanis a Baroque pianto),
and he argues his point by rehabilitating unfashionable theorists such as Albert Schweitzer
(on Bach). Apart from recuperating a host of
unfamiliar topics, Monelle makes a case for
considering them as holistic cultural systems
('a large semantic world', p. 79), instead of dry
labels. His test case is a study of 'the noble
horse', a mostly Romantic topic famous from
the galloping figures of Erlkonigand 'The Ride
of the Valkyries'. This elicits from Monelle a
tour-de-force of historical bricolage, encompassing Isidore of Seville, Tieck, Prevot and
Ribemont's study of the horse in the Middle
Ages, and a picture of the Earl of Cardigan's
horse en Galop Volant(i.e. with all four feet off
the ground). Since the latter was not physically
possible, this confirms Monelle's thesis that
topics are intrinsically artificial-marks of convention, rather than historical record. By the
same (cultural) token, metrical patterns such as
the siciliana were never danced and were purely
evocative (although Monelle, who elsewhere
cites Hermann Jung's book on the pastoral
(1980), will know that the siciliana originated
in the gigue, which was danced); furthermore,
the 'singing style', which wasn't really vocal,
was closer to the salon than to the theatre
(p. 33). How does this differ from Dahlhaus's
theory of genre as progressive abstraction from
social function, or indeed Kallberg's semiotic
critique of Dahlhaus ('The Rhetoric of Genre'),

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which reads dance-patterns as a kind of 'interpretational contract' between composer and


listener? The difference is Peirce: Monelle connects the 'constructedness' of topics with the
semiotic categories of icon, index, and symbol.
Thus, although a topic is 'essentially a symbol,
its iconic or indexical features governed by
convention and thus by rule' (p. 17), Monelle
draws subtle distinctions between degrees of
transparency (or isomorphism) and mediation.
The pianto, for example, is an iconic imitation of
someone in tears, and an indexical imitation of
the emotion which is connected with crying'iconic with regard to its object; indexical with
regard to its ultimate signification' (ibid.). The
particular theme of indexicality, which stresses
the intermediate steps of signification, opens up
a path to postmodern concerns such as 'allegory', as in Monelle's (Paul) de Mannian broadside against Romantic ideologies of symbolism,
organicism, and immediacy. All this comes in
chapters 4-9, essays which follow on nicely
from Monelle's semiotic premiss.
These are all wide-ranging and intricately
plotted, and continue more or less chronologically through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (with a swerve back to Bach in ch. 8).
Monelle proposes a bold historical narrative
which comports oddly with the caveats about
overarching theories which book-end The Sense
of Music. In Monelle's own summary, 'There is a
fairly simple serial pattern in this story, progressing through the establishment of binary
temporality, its takeover for the purpose of
subjective evocation, the dissolution of subjectivity, and the subsequent radical critique of the
whole musical economy' (p. 230). The first stage
of this narrative unfolds in chapter 4, entitled
'The Temporal Image', which argues provocatively that temporality can be a subject as well as
a vehicle for music. Monelle thus sees Classical
sonata form as a 'dialogue of two distinct
temporalities', lyric and progressive, couching
his argument with detailed readings of Riepel
and A. B. Marx. Marx's Gang (athematic
passage-work) epitomizes 'progressive time',
and by relating Gang to Riepel's Italianate
passaggio Monelle is able to demonstrate a
historical continuum: 'The development of progressive time out of lyric time' (p. 99). Cunning,
but unconvincing, since Monelle disregards the
epistemic shift between Riepel and Marx from
metrical to dynamic views of form, in which the
two varieties of Gang (if it really is related to
passaggio) are quite different. He then confusingly conflates two entirely distinct 'dialogues'
in the Classical exposition: between thematic
and transitional areas in general, and the more

commonplace notion of first-group/secondgroup opposition. There are some stimulating


observations on the phenomenology of lyric
experience. But it is curious that, given his
postmodern leanings, Monelle has chosen to
draw on the somewhat dated Evans-Pritchard,
Poulet, and Francastel rather than on the more
obvious writings on temporality by Fredric
Jameson or David Harvey (the latter's The
Conditionof Postmodernity,
Part III: 'The Experience of Space and Time').
The lyric/progressive opposition is fleshed
out in chapter 5 into the interplay in the
symphonies of Schumann, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky between 'genre' and 'structure'; in other
words, the conflicting obligations to formal
process and lyrical 'evocation'. Persuasive use
is made here of narratological theories by
Todorov, Gillian Beer (on Thomas Hardy),
and Graham Daldry (on Dickens). Showing
how symphonic structures such as Schumann's
Second repeatedly collapse into intermezzo-like
fragments gives Monelle his entry into deconstruction, a seam he opens up in two chapters (6
and 7) devoted to Mahler. Here, he applies
postmodern critiques of subjectivity and textuality in some beautiful readings of the early
symphonies. The musical insights come thick
and fast, as in his remark that the cuckoo in the
First Symphony 'sings, absurdly, the interval of
a fourth instead of a third' (p. 178), or in his
detailed exposition of the ironic glissando markings in the Andante moderato of the Second.
I liked also his sensitive analysis of Bach's
'allegory of listening' in chapter 8 ('Allegory
and Deconstruction'), although I would quibble
that the 'symbolic' or 'metaphorical' process
that allegory is supposed to deconstruct is
caricatured, simplified, and unhistorical (as
Todorov showed in his Theoriesof the Symbol).
This brings me to my main reservation about
any 'semiotic' theory, Monelle's included,
which tries to engage with either post-structuralism or new historicism, namely, the implicit
assumption that one's personal critical vantagepoint can levitate above issues of historical
grounding and theoretical contingency. Many
of the deconstructive energies supposedly the
preserve of postmodernism can actually be
traced back to post-Kantian aesthetics, as the
extensive writings of Andrew Bowie have taught
us. Lessing and Novalis devised their own
theories of the sign, so why are we justified in
projecting Peirce back on to the Enlightenment?
It is a simple trick to demonstrate that the
Peircean/Saussurian assumptions underpinning Monelle's deconstruction of Bach's A flat
fugue BWV 886 can themselves be 'decon-

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structed', by questioning the principles of


binary polarity (why not asymmetrical 'markedness', or radially-distributed schemas?) and
signifier/signified arbitrariness (why not 'motivation' or 'embodiedness'?). But that is unfair,
since Monelle's analysis is elegant and illuminating on its own terms. The problem, though,
is that these terms are not reflected upon in the
post-structuralist ethos the book espouses.
Another problem-again, one that besets the
field in general-is that semiotics and aesthetics pull in opposite directions: semiotics
towards determinate signification, aesthetics
towards the critique, negation, and overcoming
of music's 'language character' (Adorno's
phrase) in order to point towards a musical
experience that is expressly irreducible to any
theory, 'semiotic' or otherwise.
It is hard to see how Monelle's defence of the
uniqueness of musical meaning ('the semantics
of music is not verbal', p. 9; 'musical codes are
proper to music', p. 19) at the beginning of The
Senseof Music can be reconciled with the urge, at
the end, to dissolve the musical economy into
textuality in general a la Derrida, as if music
were just a special and supreme case of aesthetic
deferral or negativity ('Yet music is so profoundly deconstructive that it will shed oblique
and puzzling lights even on our political certainties', p. 232). In brief, is Monelle expounding
the sense of music,or the senseof music? I think
the latter, and advisedly so, since the task of
semioticians should be to explicate in detail
precisely what it is that musical immanence is
supposed to be negating anyway, a mediation
that even aestheticians such as Adorno blithely
take for granted: facts, facts, facts. Which brings
us back to music's conventionality, and the
importance of revealing it. In this respect,
Monelle's The Sense of Music is a wonderfully
rich and thought-provoking work-by far the
most erudite, humanistically rounded, and musically literate book on music semiotics I have
read. It is engagingly written (although the
politically correct female gendering of every
common-practice composer, theorist, and listener as a 'she' may surprise the historians),
and will be read with profit by anybody with
an interest in music, not just by 'semioticians'.
This very breadth and good common 'sense'
may be enough, who knows, even to put the
subject of music semiotics back on the AngloAmerican map.
MICHAELSPITZER

Music, Cultureand Society:A Reader.Ed. by Derek


B. Scott. pp. x + 238. (Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 2000, ?35/f?14.99. ISBN 0-19879011-2/-879012-0.)
With the proliferation of interest in the relationships between music and culture in the past
fifteen years or so, a collection of essential readings about the subject seems a desirable undertaking. Derek Scott's compilation is indeed
timely: it is long enough since the early throes
of what, for want of an alternative, is referred to
as 'new musicology', yet recent enough for the
excitement of this challenge to the previous
orthodoxy to be vividly remembered. Music,
Culture and Society presents thirty-six extracts
which, for Scott, are crucial for the perspectives
they have brought to bear on the new musicological debate; their common thread, he points
out in his preface, is that they offer an 'alternative of one kind or another to the musicological mainstream' and show evidence of the
'paradigmatic shift' that has taken place in
musicology. The extracts are grouped in five
sections: 'Music and Language', 'Music and
the Body', 'Music and Class', 'Music and Criticism', and 'Music Production and Consumption'; each presents a diversity of viewpoints
around the central subject which often bounce
off each other in intriguing ways.
I would expect that the title of the book, and
those of its five divisions, will whet the appetite
of many prospective readers, especially as few of
us are likely to have come across every extract
before. Such a collection can perhaps be imagined as a kind of musicological party: some old
friends (or perhaps enemies) are here, but there
are plenty of new faces to get to know. How
successful Scott's party is depends on one's
point of view: I find that many of the old friends
I expected to see are mysteriously absent, while
the newcomers are not always as interesting as I
might have hoped, resulting in a gathering that
in some ways is slightly disappointing. Of
course, any anthology will always reflect the
compiler's tastes, which may not match one's
own hypothetical choices: Scott's selection is
strong on popular music and on issues relating
to class, a bias which in many ways offers a
refreshing alternative. He points out in his preface that he encountered major problems
obtaining copyright permissions for some
authors, with either permission being withheld
or publishers' fees prohibitively high. This could
explain what to me seem obvious omissions,
such as Marcia J. Citron, Nicholas Cook,
Susan McClary, Ruth A. Solie, and Gary Tomlinson. Moreover, none of the readings engages

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