Lectures on the History and Art of Music, 1946-63

Da Capo


The Bostonian Louis C. Elson (1848-1920) wrote and talked on music; in 1945 his widow bequeathed a fund for commemorative lectures; this volume fields a selected eleven. Such pearls are not without price, and some seem over-cultured. Thus in “Some Socio­logical Aspects of Music” Jaap Kunst says that the gamelan Kodok ngorek may be played during a wayang wong performance -without telling us what that means, or even how many wongs make a rite. Indeed, he often seems as bewildered as his readers, eg “for some inscrutable reason ... the central-hole flute is played only by women”. A real teaser, that.

   Sir Jack Westrup in “Music, its Past and its Present” (no less) contends that music is for plea­sure. Argued about poetry by Coleridge in 1817, this was a rare device; asserted about music now, it suggests a cheap label. No doubt the talk was an agreeably urbane causerie. But it's the wrong type for print, which is almost as unkind to it as it is to “historians”, “theorists”, “analysts” and the like. Anthony van Hoboken's “Discrepancies in Haydn Biographies” is also about how mistaken everyone else is. But at least it has some fact and some argument (though the latter is not always very com­pelling) and so has value for the general reader as well as the Haydn student.

   In “The Commonwealth of Art” Professor Curt Sachs projects one of his vast vistavisions of Art Through the Ages. He reviews whole eras as lesser men review concerts, approving some (eg the 18th Egyptian dynasty), reproving others. As they come flocking to his call he tags them either “cold” (pro­ducing unemotional art) or “hot”. Again, all this may have sounded well as "spoken rhetoric", but in cold print it looks very like hot air. In complete contrast there is an actual ear-witness account of some real music at a given-time; Egon Wellesz on “The Origins of Schoenberg's twelve-tone System” is well-informed and well-presented, a model discourse of its kind.

   The remaining six pieces interlock in the same puzzle, namely-what does music mean? Professor Haydon’s ”On the Meaning of Music” also upholds the hedonistic view that musical values “have to do with the pleasurable aspects of the experience as such”. For him music mirrors emotive life; it “sounds the way that emotions feel”. This was a throwaway line in 1947; by 1950 it had been pro­moted to the knockout punchline which finishes off Professor Pratt's fine bout of psychological analysis, “Music as the Language of Emotion”. In most of these lectures, covering nearly 20 years, emotion is indeed the prime mover, with pleasure at the helm. Music is mainly conceived as a child of Mrs Skewton and Pooh Bear; all heart and little brain.

   If a composer plans his work according to a mathematical formula, that is of no interest to the listener, says Sir Jack Westrup. If Bach's music is good, it can't be because of references to extrinsic meanings, says Professor Haydon. The meaning of words originates in the intellect, that of music in the imagination; the two are therefore quite different, argues Professor Davison in his interesting “Words and Music”. Mare Pincherle on “Musical Creation” is clearly unimpressed by the new music which he describes as relying on intelligence and even pure hazard. All these judgments suggest that brains haven't a chance; the dice are loaded against the aleatory.

   However, in everyday experience the heart and the head live in harmony. In ordinary parlance we say “it means so much to me”, packing emotion and sig­nificance into one portmanteau word. And this book contains two outstanding lectures which take that same view of music. Professor Geiringer speaks with love and insight about “Symbolism in the Music of Bach”. He shows how Bach's biblical work con­tains its own book of numbers; whether in notes, canonic entries or repetitions it sings us four for the gospel-makers, or ten for the commandments. This numerical and other symbolism is presented as an integral part of the creative process, and in no way alien to music's true meaning. In an equally illuminating address Professor Barzun dwells on the idea of art as a decipherable code, and of music as having ascertainable meaning. These theories combine, and convey, pleasure and significance.

   So here is a book which at least illustrates the three possible modes of discourse about music. We can say what we think are facts; this is called musicology. We can say what in fact we think; this is called criticism. Or we can wonder what it is all about; this is called aesthetics. Those who find such fare appetising will relish this book for its excellent provision of all three.   


The Musical Times, Apr. 1969 (p. 383) © the estate of eric sams