The Composer's Voice by Edward T. Cone

University of California Press


Even the staunchest enthusiasts for musical aesthetics blench and quail at the professorial lecture-book. The complacent tone; the endless repetition; the absence of argument or evidence, or any kind of intellectual rigour (except perhaps mortis) - how well we know them, and their University Presses. But the latter can sometimes be as well endowed intellectually as they must be financially; for example the 1971 Ernst Bloch lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley was Leonard Meyer. This visiting professorship was established in 1962 “in order to bring distinguished figures in music to the Berkeley campus from time to time”, which is of course an excellent aim (though the resident staff may feel that it could have been better expressed). So we open the latest (1972) volume of lectures with high hopes.

   But these are instantly and comprehensively dashed. The blurb explains the thesis as clearly as possible, namely not very. In brief, music is a symbolic utterance of the composer's persona (i.e. “a musical projection of his consciousness that experiences and communicates the events of the composition”). This includes the role of the performer, whose function however simultaneously remains autonomous. This dramatistic view, derived from literary criticism, is assumed to apply (and is duly applied, in 175 pages) to song, opera, programme music and absolute music, as well as to performing and listening generally. To exemplify: in its appli­cation to song the theory envisages three personas­ the vocal (or the protagonist), the instrumental (or virtual) and the complete musical (or an implicit, or the composer's).

   One thing at least is clear; the qualifications needed for such a task include analytical acumen and philosophical discipline. But even the preface falls headlong into the trap of thanking others for their helpful comments but blaming oneself for any errors. The errors are not known - or they would have been corrected-so their provenance cannot be known either. Gamma minus for logic. Worse still, Professor Cone had to be convinced by a Princeton colleague that books about “what it means to say that music is a form of utterance” have something to do with philosophy. There's a literary precedent for this too; M Jourdain reacted similarly to analogous advice from the Maître de Philosophie.

   By now we know what to expect. Professors of music may well have been talking prose all their lives; but what about writing it well? This text is said to have been revised. But I found it unen­durably repetitious and trite, even by the undemand­ing standards of the spoken lecture. On p.160 for example the word “utterance” occurs 17 times; utterance à outrance. This is instantly followed by “means” or “meaning” 15 times in as many lines. Here is the bridge passage between these two deafeningly ostinato themes.


[Instrumental music is] “a form of purely symbolic utterance, an utterance by analogy with song. Has musical utterance any meaning? The answer naturally depends on what one means by Il meaning", and what one means by the question. For example it can be contended that no piece of music has a meaning because no work of art has a meaning- a meaning, of which one can say, "This is the meaning of the work of art." For, although a work of art may have meaning, or meanings…”


…and so on, in the same strain. Sometimes the strain is relieved, by repeating the same theme in different words, up to three or four times (as for example in the definition of poet-composer on p.41). And, to be fair, “utterance” and “meaning” are not the only words to be repeated. There are several others, such as “persona(s)”. “Such personas as those developed by Schubert might be called poetic-­vocal personas, or more conveniently, vocal per­sonas, to distinguish them from the purely poetic personas.” By the 200th time, they are decidedly non grata. But so they were in the beginning. Already on p.17 we find Professor Cone, with truly awe-inspiring complacency, composing these notional personas into a triad and calmly claiming consonance with “Christian dogma”. “The complete musical persona, like the Father, ‘begets’ in the vocal persona a Son that embodies its Word.” A handful of derivative personal notions compared to Almighty God - whatever one's own persuasion, that surely passes all belief. At least it's then no surprise to find similar theories gratuitously attri­buted to Beethoven (p.98) or preferred to Schubert's (pp.8, 15f) or even inflated into “principles” which first Strauss (p.85) and then Wagner (p.123) are criticized for failing to observe.

   All this might be forgivable if the main thesis were in any way novel, or stimulating, or helpful. But it just isn't. There's no need to argue those points; Professor Cone himself has already made them. As he repeatedly emphasizes, the basic idea of per­sona is borrowed from literary criticism. It looks to me like a loan without either interest or security.


Not even its relevance to literature is seriously examined, let alone its relevance to music. Indeed, the 1972 Ernst Bloch Professor seems just as unim­pressed by his thesis as I am. On p.158 he freely concedes that he has proved nothing, and that his book has never really come to grips with the basic question of what music means or expresses. That­ seems very fair comment; but it would have been fairer still on p.1. It really is no defence to say (p.159) that the task has been “to consider what it means to say that music is a form of utterance”. For if music is a non-utterance, then that topic is an utter nonsense; and we are nowhere given the faintest reason for taking any different view. And in any event the mere consideration of what it means to say what one is in fact saying seems a sadly unrewarding way of spending 175 pages, let alone £5.60.

   All this is a very great pity; because we can see from the occasional peripheral reference that Professor Cone is a profound and perceptive musician, who would be a conspicuous adornment to any campus-in his own field.


The Musical Times, Jan. 1975 (p. 43-44) © the estate of eric sams