Explaining Music: essays and explorations by Leonard B. Meyer

University of California Press,


This book aims to analyse specific aspects of particular works, mainly by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. They always seem to be lending themselves to that purpose. The interest that accrues has been variously assessed. Professor Meyer’s taxing work rates it very highly. He certainly brings impressive assets to bear; a passion for music and a first-rate brain. Like-minded readers will sense a dazzling spark between those two terminals. Others will just gape at the gap.

     Both reactions are understandable; this is a real intellectual treat for the cerebrotonic but no picnic for the pyknic.

     Chapter I is an introductory essay on the critical analysis of music; II relates this to performance; III-IV discuss conformant relationships and hierarchical structures; V-VII explore the structural relationships of tonal melody; VIII offers a valedic­tory analysis of Les adieux op.81a – or rather of its first 21 bars. Even that takes 20 pages and over 20 graphs, diagrams, Schenkergrams and so on. The word-music ratio is signally high throughout. For example, 3000 words and 20 visual aids were earlier deployed on eight bars of Mozart.

     From so closely-woven a texture it is tricky to unpick separate strands for comment or summary. But here are two quite typical samples: (a) serves for the occasional relaxed generalization and (b) for the more austere main purpose of critical analysis.


   (a) A semicadence might be defined as one in which a mobile, goal-directed harmonic process is temporarily stabilized by decisive rhythmic closure. In other words, a semicadence is a case of parametric noncongruence which has become archetypal in the stylistic syntax of tonal music.

   (b) Though it is an emphatic downbeat, the D in measure 12 is very mobile, for a number of reasons. Rhythmically, the motion from measure 11 to 12 is end-accented on the lowest level - as the motion from measure 6 to 7 was not. But on the next level (2), the iambic group, taken as a whole, is weak: a high-level afterbeat. To a considerable extent this is because the accent is harmonized by an unstable second-inversion dominant-seventh chord. Finally, though the melodic-rhythmic organization of the upper voices is subtly, but significantly changed, the bass line moves as before; and, since its motion is quite uniform (graph 5), continuation is implied – and occurs.


Such commentary is copiously interlarded with explanatory definition, cross-reference to previous books and textual illustration (with examples which are neither strikingly clear nor invariably accurate).

     The same author’s Music, the Arts and Ideas (1967) seemed to me (MT July 1968, p.631) impressive but ominously highflown, attaining an atmosphere as at (a) above. This is now, by a sudden change of direction, brought back to earth by the ballast of (b), the bulk of the book. The difference lies in the transition from style analysis to critical analysis. The mind that leapt effortlessly from style to style sometimes seems to stumble from bar to bar. Not that the analyses themselves are necessarily mis­conceived. But they look unnecessarily preconceived; and they are also in my view essentially and un­helpfully descriptive rather than analytical.

     Such solid resistance no doubt demands some concrete foundation. So take for example Chapter II, which bears the gravamen of the exposition. This concerns the phrase structure of k331. Professor Meyer’s analysis (much too detailed even to sum­marize) unsurprisingly confirms that “Mozart's phrasing” (ex.1) is correct. This makes musical sense


(good for Mozart!); it has “subtle cool”; it renders the structure exceptionally clear. Not so the “Peters edition phrasing” (ex.2). That’s not just wrong; it's definitely wrong, and downright wrong. Further­more, it fails to make musical sense, is aberrant, seems at odds with the basic simplicity of the tune, lacks refinement and nuance, results in awkward asymmetrical phrase-structure, misconstrues and distorts the musical meaning, obscures the bar-form, loses the feeling of a delicate ambiguity of rhythm, and does a number of other things too complex and distressing to chronicle.

     Thus spake Meyer. Exeunt the Peters editors, Köhler and Ruthardt, bitterly regretting their slurs on Mozart. Enter another villain of the same piece - Max Reger. He had the nerve – can you credit it ? – to phrase similarly to ex.2 in his orchestral variations on that theme. He was, it is sportingly conceded, an excellent musician. So how is this further aberration to be explained? Professor Meyer wondered (not for long, one feels) whether the analysis might be mistaken. But then came “one of those happy ‘inspirations’ for which one thanks the Goddess Fortuna”. Riemann had a theory that all music was essentially anacrusic. You wonder what that has to do with it? Why, everything; for in 1890 Reger was Riemann's pupil. How about that! Perhaps the Peters edition itself was modelled on the aberrant Reger – “a thought which suggested the desirability of using primary sources”.

     My word, yes. And verifying references isn’t such a bad plan either. Of course that old Peters edition is no longer current; but of course its editors too were excellent musicians. I expect that Ruthardt’s conception preceded Reger’s; his birth certainly did, by a quarter of a century. And is it really plausible that Reger’s phrasing (c1914) was determined by what he might have remembered about what he might have heard Riemann say about some crackpot theory 20 years before? Of course one ought also to examine the Mozart sources. What is the evidence for calling ex.I  “Mozart's phrasing”? There is no known autograph. Rudorff, collating sources including the Artaria first edition, took a different line in the Gesamtausgabe (a line also taken by the present Peters, Vienna Urtext and new Associa­ted Board editions). Further, there are positive arguments against ex.l. Mozart is said to have derived his melody from a favourite folksong­ which he is unlikely to have sung or phrased as “Freu dich mein/ Herz”. Again, the tune has obvious analogues, e.g. in k9, 376 and 423, which could not very well be phrased at the half-bar or equivalent. Nor could some of the variations of k331 itself. This much is clear just from a glance at Aubyn Raymar’s Associated Board Edition, while a brief conspectus of other editors suggests that like Reger they are about 99% aberrant. A rule of which exceptions are the main feature seems overripe for reconsideration. One might then explain discrepan­cies on the ground that any phrasing is only a guide, and one which may itself need interpretation. Indeed, one might do anything except what Pro­fessor Meyer manifestly has done, namely to fall in love at first sight with his own analysis (right or wrong) and allow it to run away with him. Readers may well suspect that the whole affair is a romance.

     Ironically, the author is quick to detect the same amiable weakness in the analyses of Rudolph Réti. But some of this book reads almost like a parody of Réti's rather endearing trick of pulling the predicted rabbit from the analytical hat. Discussing the development of op.81a, Leonard Meyer concludes that “What seems to be called for is a cadence involving the A flat to G chord progression which can be unequivocally interpreted in the tonic, E flat major, and ideally one which moves through a I 6-4-4 chord progression. And this is precisely what occurs at the crucial cadence of the coda”. My own conclusion is that this amazing insight is really hindsight, in the light of which description looks like analysis.

    The author however feels that these are two quite different things; that the latter is vastly superior; that this is what he is offering; and that it is both instruc­tive and entertaining. I have three reasons for dubiety. First: if (as has been ably argued) music or any art exists only in so far as it is apparent, then description and analysis are on much the same level (i.e. on the perceptible surface), and of the two, analysis is the less likely to be complete and definitive. [note 1: cf. F.Sparshott: The Concept of Criticism (London, 1967), 108ff] Second: if a distinction may nevertheless be made, description is surely apt for the capricious and unique, analysis for the stable and formular, but musical works, as this book shows, fall into the former category. Third: much of the text is, on any analysis, just description. Example (b) above, and the op.81a excerpt just quoted, are typical ingredients each of which seems to me strongly descriptive in flavour; while the following lines, paralleled on many a page, look very like what Professor Meyer calls “blatant description” when he finds it elsewhere:


Instead of skipping down to A, paralleling the skip from D to B flat in measure 2, the C is repeated and then skips across the barline to F, after which the descending conjunct motion leads towards the tonic.


I find such phrasing rather odder than Reger’s. After all, he was only an excellent musician, which so far from affording any protection against aberration is practically a guarantee of it. Leonard Meyer’s own position is surely far more secure. He rivals Susanne Langer for the intellectual dominance of musical aesthetics in this century; no less. He is furthermore the acknowledged master of style criticism interpreted from the point of view of information theory. I can only guess (pertinently or impertinently, or both) that this model is currently in for repair. Why else would he have left those wide and otherwise unexplored fields, where he had no superior, for the comparatively constricted and crowded territory of “critical analysis”? There, like an admittedly impressive and stately passacaglia, he keeps on going over the same ground; one on which moreover – as with that other monarch of the empyrean, Baudelaire’s albatross – “ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher”


The Musical Times, Feb. 1974 (pp.133-135) © the estate of eric sams