The Why of Music: dialogues in an unexplored region of appreciation by Donald N. Ferguson

University of Minnesota Press


Musicians argue under two heads - (a) music expresses emotion (Mozart) and (b) music cannot possibly express emotion (Stravinsky). Aesthetically speaking, one head is better than two; and Susanne Langer has knocked both together by her famous synthesis - music symbolizes knowledge of emotion. Her theory however requires a work of art to be a single indivisible symbol without small-scale expres­sive components (so those who analyse music can't really understand it - verb sap). Yet analysis and appreciation should be compatible; music's gravity must be related to its attraction. This calls for a unified field theory applicable both to the art-work in its totality and to its motivic components. Professor Ferguson's answer is the concept of “concern”. If he is right, a lot of small independent concerns combine in the whole great business of living as incorporated in music. He pursues this thesis down dale and up hill, or from Bach to Berg, through 300 years and pages, in the unusual form of imaginary conversations between the author and friends. There are chapters on eg the musical image, composition, performance, style, Bach, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven (3), song, the leading-motive, greatness in music.

     The argument is (briefly) that although musical and emotional tensions are analogous, music portrays neither the experience of emotion nor its object, but the concern - the emotional attitude-thus aroused. Thee Why of music lies in its reference to human experience. This image of experience is expressed in a musical phrase, and can also be expressed in a verbal phrase. For example, the first eight bars of Beethoven's C minor violin sonata can sensibly be described in such terms as a reaction to an offence, an appeal to the general conscience, and the like.

     If so, then notes of music and notes on music are both legal tender-a reassuring thought for those who utter the latter. Indeed, everyone will agree that this book forges a bond in one sense or another. But is it genuine? To judge this, we need a trial. The case for the prosecution looks strong. There is evidence of carelessness (Beethoven's “second sonata in F sharp minor”). The dialogue form seems archaic; its elaborate variations tend to obscure the theme; its antiphony invites antipathy. The imaginary interlocutor goes “Mmmmm” too often, and might on occasion be forgiven for going “Zzzzz”. The Minnesotan tradition of sturdy inde­pendence is taken too far. It would surely have been better for the Professor to consult the German faculty, or even the German dictionary, rather than get into the curious tangle on pp. 209-15 about the meaning of a Mörike poem. And it is sheer isola­tionism to relegate the whole vast literature of musical aesthetics to one solitary footnote (p.295). The main region of discourse, called “unexplored” in the book's subtitle, is about as unexplored as Coney Island. We are given not just the themes but the very tones of Mrs Langer-motor tensions, image of feeling, virtual image, and so on. The theory belongs to the 19th century in more ways than one. Music to which it does not clearly apply (Haydn) or to which it clearly does not apply (Cage) gets passed by or by-passed. Finally the main hypothesis of “concern” (for which incidentally the index shows no concern) is in no way verified or indeed verifiable; so to offer it as “a method of observation”, or a method of anything, seems unwarrantably optimistic.

     Now the defence. First, the oversights are trivial and the insights prodigious. The dialogue form is so archaic that it has become novel and effective again. It makes the exposition of this complex and difficult topic much more fluent and compelling than I have found it in Professor Ferguson's other writing. Further, the dialogue form is very apt for a work which is both academic and philosophical (as in Berkeley), and surveys its subject from all possible aspects (as in The Compleat Angler). Of course the thought of a lifetime needs room to grow and develop. Naturally it seems old-fashioned; wisdom always does. So does virtue, which is also here in plenty-piety For music, courtesy for others, zest for knowledge. Even the isolation is a kind of craggy honesty. Nothing is assumed; everything is argued. The theory may be confined to the classics; but so in practice are most listeners. It may seem remote; but wherever it alights, it illuminates. If the main conclusions of Mrs Langer are again reached, that is perhaps because they are right; and this re­discovery would then offer some measure of confirmation. If so, Professor Ferguson contributes a new discovery of his own. In giving the motive its due as an independent expressive entity, and in explaining the Why of music, he provides - for the first time in any intellectually respectable way - a basic technique and vocabulary for describing and criticizing musical works of art.

     But no doubt the motive remains obscure and the verdict not proven. Whatever music is or does, it is by definition indefinable. We can only agree with the author's view that “words are but feeble symbols of the living state of mind portrayed in music”. Many tracks lead into that cave, but none come out. You may prefer not lo enter. But Professor Ferguson is in this respect a born troglodyte. And he has made this cave not only warmly welcoming but also richly rewarding-not just Adullam's but Aladdin's. It's well worth a visit, I'd say, even at 75s.


The Musical Times, Sept. 1969 (p. 937) © the estate of eric sams