Freud's Theory of Art

(Review of An anatomy of musical criticism by Alan Walker, Barrie & Rockliff, London 1966)

The Musical TimesJuly 1967 (pp. 612-614)


[Title by the CSES. The Review's original heading was Criticism anatomized. The Review has been inserted in the Essays section due to its exceptional theoretical importance. See also the Eric Sams/Alan Walker correspondence]


    The first part of this book expounds, the second exemplifies, and the third explores, the proposition that all great music unfolds according to timeless creative principles. These are, as it were, the inward and spiritual sign of an outward and audible grace: they characterize the masterpiece. Music is “autonomous” and its principles are “unconscious”; that is, they are conceived, received, and perceived unconsciously (by composer, listener, and critic). But they are part of a musical communication, so only the critic who “gets the message” can be right; his sole conscious function is then to explain how the creative principles work. This musical unconscious can be equated with the Freudian unconscious, and music assimilated to Freud’s sketch of a theory of art; thus pleasure in music involves the release of libido; and so on.

    There is enlightenment or stimulus to be had from every page of this absorbing book. But the source of its illumination is music, on which it seems brilliantly right; on aesthetics it often seems brilliantly wrong. True, the latter theories follow the former as night follows day, but sometime, with similar results, such as obscurity. Perhaps this is because they are based on a belief (p. 107), whereas the foundations of music are knowledge and experience. In such factual premises Dr Walker is more at home. However, he has ventured out “to point towards a direction in which a theory of criticism might more fully be unfolded” (p. 105). In this particular direction he has already, in his Study in musical analysis (1962), gone further than anyone else (as an explorer no doubt should). But the present essay, modest in compass, seems to cover much the same ground; and of the points still unexplored, some are cardinal. There can he few better equipped to undertake the further larger-scale expeditions we are promised (p. 105); but I hope that these can pursue new lines of thought which may lead to alternative conclusions.

    Even explorers can go too far; and perhaps Freud is not the best guide to art. At least by the time the “libidinal release” is equated with “catharsis” (p. 96) readers may be forgiven for not knowing whether they are coming or going. A randy introvert manipulating his daydreams so as to induce a release of libido will not be everyone's idea of the genesis of (say) the B minor mass. Freud’s yardstick might have been more happily applied to the Merry Widow – a natural enough thought for him in the Vienna of the first world war. Perhaps his theory is just wish-fulfilment fantasy? Musicians may well wonder what Freud can have been dreaming of. No doubt their free association with “analysis” nowadays might be either “musical” or “psycho”, but it seems rash to invite them to identify the two. Their analytical problem about great music is generally in a what terms they could come to couch it, rather than on what couch they could come to terms with it.

     For all that, Freud’s conjecture might well be essentially true and important. He is certainly a towering influence on all modern thinking about art, as about all aspects of mind and life. Still, we are entitled to be told why a psychoanalyst’s view of music should he taken any more seriously than a musician’s view of psychoanalysis. In a book addressed to musicians, the case might not just be assumed, but argued; and also defended against some well-known criticism, eg that the relevant Freudian theory is vulnerable [1] and that in any case artistic creation is real work in a real world, not just a daydream. [2]

     Back on the firmer ground of musical experience, there are occasional jolts from Dr Walker’s own polemical style. He need only begin a sentence with “An act of criticism is not an act of intelligence…” for us to wonder what paper he has been studying. This turns out to be litmus paper, a two-tone image for the highest achievement of which critics are capable.They “take a dip into music and we see what colour they turn” (p. 106). Blue, perhaps, if (in one composer’s icily contemptuous phrase) they are “just dipping their toes into the sea of music”. Or they may turn red, or display some other acid re­action, on reading Dr Walker. In the apparatus criticus are many retorts. But distil the basic idea into neutral language and there could be no re­action. Of course a critic must respond before he can correspond.




    This touches on another point which Dr Walker treats as central, but which seems extraneous (though perhaps both views are justified, as of the middle of a doughnut): if critic A loves a work, and critic B can’t stand it, then only A can be right about it, because only he has received a communication from it. This is well enough (with obvious reserva­tions) to the extent that music itself, as well as the critic, has a communicatory function. This assump­tion duly appears, as early as p. 4. It is then advanced (p. 9) as an important hypothesis, for the novel reason that the overwhelming objections to it don’t overwhelm it entirely. It is assumed again on p. 45, where it is the actual question at issue; and again on pp. 82 and 83. At last, on p. 92, we are sportingly told that it is after all only an assumption, made in order to make sense of the confrontation of critics just described. In other words, the problem suggests the assumption which solves the problem and so on; the argument is dazzling but circular, like a Catherine wheel, and (as critics have discovered) the more you nail it the more effective and revolutionary it looks. No doubt it could be made much more secure and lasting if it were argued, not just assumed; and again one would expect the well-known contrary theories of art-as-expression [3] to be examined and weighed in any further work.

     Another disturbing assumption is that great music is composed in (indeed, by) the Freudian uncon­scious. No doubt composers’ procedures are often below the threshold of consciousness. But then, so are everyone’s. We all sympathize with the little girl who, when rebuked for not thinking before she spoke, rejoined indignantly “But how can I tell what I think until I hear what I say?”. In the everyday play of creative intelligence, at chess or mathematics or even crosswords, the mind perceives without the need for analysis (in any sense) what would otherwise be accessible only to analysis. Ordinary speech places such insights or intuitions high in the conscious mind, in an everyday imagery of brightness, or being switched on; “something clicked”, “sudden light”, I saw it in a flash”.

     Here, surely, is the realm of creation, as of discovery? Dr Walker will have none of it. “The unconscious is the womb of all musical creation: all masterpieces are born there.” There’s nothing like being born in a womb for confusing the issue; and the illustration of this perplexing circumstance, mainly by popular musical anecdote, is at a much less demanding intellectual level than the rest of the book. Tartini allegedly heard some music in a dream, but couldn’t remember it; and then woke up and wrote some quite different, much inferior, music. This shows “the organizing power of the musical unconscious”.

     Previously, Tchaikovsky and Brahms were said to have used thematic unity unconsciously (pp. 36-45); but the former is also supposed to have known about the principle invoked, and mentioned it in a letter (p. 41), while the latter is described as “the first great composer to unite his contrasts in public” and as “openly proclaiming his themes’ pedigree” (p. 36).

     Here for the third time one feels that the question might, at any rate in the context of any more ex­tended work, be discussed in more detail, with its terms defined. Composers’ testimony differs widely; one could compile an equally compelling counter­part to Dr Walker’s musical underworld to demon­strate the musical empyrean. Indeed, one of his own sources already has the agnostic Brahms in a trance and receiving messages from God; and certainly divine inspiration is every whit as probable and as rational as the alternative route proposed. It would take a truly heroic theorist to explain to Haydn that what he really meant was “Es kommt von unten”. Either way, what of the well-known and damaging criticisms of art-theories based on the unconscious, eg that, true or false, they are wholly irrelevant to aesthetics [4] and to criticism? [5] A final smaller, but similar, point; “autonomous” is a word one would hesitate to apply to composers, let alone compositions; it is not easy to see how an act (least of all an unconscious one) can rationally be said to be self-determining. In most musical acts, a percentage will he owing to the agent. Again, the contrary view, eg that music is in fact much less autonomous than other arts [6] is worth serious consideration.

     This brings us back to the book’s core of sub­stantial achievement. its enunciation of creative principles. The obvious sample for testing is the controversial: “all the contrasts in a masterpiece are foreground projections of a single background idea”.

     The thought is not new. As early as 1906 Heinrich Schenker, [7] as his English editor has shown, almost had a presentiment of something quite like it; and a later book actually achieves the terms Vordergrund and Hintergrund, not to mention the equally strikingMittelgrund. However, this analogy with pictorial perspective implies that musical backgrounds are obvious to the ear; whereas what Schenker dis­covered is very far from obvious. Rudolph Réti [8] speaks, more coherently, of “homogeneity in the inner essence” and “variety in the outward appear­ance”. Hans Keller [9] contrasts “latent content” with “manifest music”' (cf  Freud’s theory of dreams), Dr Walker’s own earlier book uses his predecessors’ vocabulary to make much the same points (some­times with the same examples) as in his present volume.

    It seems to me that all four are outstanding musicians and deserve serious attention. The wisdom of Mrs Langer is salutary and relevant here:


The chances that the key ideas of any pro­fessional scholar’s work are pure nonsense is small; much greater is the chance that a devastat­ing refutation is based on a superficial reading or even a distorted one, subconsciously twisted by the desire to refute. [10]


    We know that “unity-in-variety” has a unifying force all its own; it is the one idea about which different aestheticians speak with one voice. The unity is often imagined as latent; what else, if it is present but not manifest? Theories of background unity in the poetic masterpiece are perfectly well attested and respectable, indeed admired. [11] Reality itself, or our understanding of it, is grounded in this principle; art, life, time, matter, feeling, personality, lose (there are, no doubt, Freudian reasons for thinking of sex as an underlying unity). The principle holds good for every mortal thing, and perhaps immortal too, since our very ideas of universe and deity seem to grow, root and stem, from unity and diversity.

     In reality itself the unifying principle is latent. and a mystery. Great music, we can all agree, re­flects reality (otherwise it would not be the vocation of serious musicians, but the business of some other group – eg Freud and the dreamers). It seems to follow that the nature of music, in this respect, is just as Dr Walker says. There is little sense in asking why in the world it should be so; while it is in the world, it must be so. In that case the questions to ask about the principle under discussion are: (a) does the latent unity of a masterpiece take the form which Dr Walker proposes (viz a conceptual basis of three or four notes which the manifest music contrasts and diversifies)? (bif so, are his proposed solutions the right ones in a particular case? and (c) in general, does it all matter?

     My own “yes” to all three is, in a sense which readers will be quick to perceive, unqualified. How­ever, in another sense provisos are required. On (a), such unity is, on Dr Walker’s own showing, especi­ally relevant to cyclic form and the 19th century; and nothing in the evidence excludes the possibility of some other kind, in any music. On (b), unifying devices are not necessarily unconscious; far froth it. In Schumann for example. on the clearest evidence of precept and practice, it is just the way in which he believed music should be written, and did in fact write it. Well over a century ago he could write of a Mendelssohn symphony that its excellence was “grounded on the inner coherence of its four movements; the very contours of the melody of the main themes of each movement are interrelated; this much can he discovered at a first casual comparison”. [12] Indeed the history of 19th-century music, in one important respect, is the emergence of these devices into consciousness (and beyond, some might say): Brahms and many others heard them in Schumann, just as Schoenberg and many others heard them in Brahms, with far-reaching consequences. Of course one can discover unities hidden inside music – if one knows the music inside-out.

     As for (c), for all those to whom it matters at all it will matter a very great deal. I expect they will remain a minority. Professional musicians rarely have time to think about music. Yet it is, after all, their life-work; “et  vraiment, quaint la mort viendraque rest-it-il?”. In every business principles should attract interest: and if Dr Walker’s are right he has declared a bonus. Because of work like his, music is even richer; the restricting notion that it is “just sound” is just unsound.

     I think that not only the creative principle we have hem discussing, but most of the others in his Part II can be related to a wider conceptual philosophy. Indeed they seem conformable at most points with that most brilliant and beautiful of all theories of music, that of Susanne Langer. [13] This already represents a substantial achievement. It could perhaps be even greater, as I have tried to suggest, for what (in a book already prodigal of hypotheses) is surely a small price: just one more modest assumption, namely that the principles as defined are not necessarily eternal or inviolable.

     As a barber once observed to a philosopher, who had asked if his recommended tonic offered a permanent cure for falling hair – “Ask yourself,  sir – is anything really permanent?”




[1] Eysenck, H. J.: Uses and abuses of psychology (1953), p. 221 ff; Sense and nonsense in psychology (1957), p. 142 ff

[2] Wellek, R. and Warren, A.; Theory of Literature (1949), p. 71

[3] Croce, B: Aesthetic (1901), and Collingwood, R. G.: The principles of art (1938)

[4] Collingwood, op cit pp. 126-8

[5] Langer, S.: Philosophy in a new key (1942), p. 177

[6] Abraham, G.: A hundred years of music(1938), pp. 1-2

[7] Harmonielehre (1906, trans. 1954)

[8] The thematic process in music (1951)

[9] in A Mozart Companion, ed. Landon & Mitchell (1956)

[10] Philosophical sketches (1962), vi

[11] see Spurgeon, C: Shakespeare’s imagery (1935)

[12] Gesammelte Schriften (1854), III, 146

[13] op cit