Man and the Musician by Victor Zuckerkandl

Princeton University Press/American University Publishers


Victor Zuckerkandl (1896-1965) had his Sound and Symbol launched in the enterprising Bollingen Series from Princeton University Press nearly 20 years ago. lt seems to have foundered with scarcely a trace. There have been occasional citings, e.g. in the Mind (vol.i) of Mrs Langer; but elsewhere, “öd' und leer das Meer”. This so-called second volume is bound for the same fate, 1 fear. Its burden is so heavy and insecure, its construction so very far from watertight. lt was on the drawing-board as early as 1948. But development was slow; and it was (designedly?) left unpublished by its author save for a few themes and passages he incorporated into his lectures. De mortuis nil nisi bunkum, of course; but I think he was right. I found this book immensely musical, deeply meditated and well researched; the result, in a word, of a lifetime's devotion. But I also found it repetitious, confused, complacent and tedious; the result, in about 150,000 words, of a lifetime's devotions - on which the reader is often made to feel that he had intruded. Zuckerkandl is here beheld burning at the shrine of music with an intense but limited radiance for an intense but limited audience.

   The first fatal flaw is the massive disproportion between form and content. In 370 pages I can discern many echoes of previous work, but nothing novel save the notion that “the tone expresses ... the interpenetration of subject and object”. Or, to put it another way, “the meaning of song ... lies in the transmutation of the twofold confrontation between person and person and between person and thing into a twofold togetherness: the I-not-he and I-not-it become the I-and-he and the I-and-it”. Get it?-not I. But this is the typical tone and tenor of these incantations. Their keynote is that Musicality (Chapters 1-8) is innate in homo sapiens, whose Musical Ear (9-13) is then examined and whose Musical Thought (14-19) is analysed. The examin­ation relies largely on second opinions, from such varied specialists as Helmholtz, Schenker, and the Gestalt school. “Analysis” means restating in notes, words or diagrams (again on Schenkerian lines, with some help from Nottebohm) the works or sketches of composers from Bach to Bruckner. Man the Musician apparently flourished for a century or so around the Rhine and Danube. No doubt the Tigris and Euphrates also ran; but nowhere near this source. Peking man never gets the tiniest look-in. For “mankind” read “my kind”, throughout.

   We finally begin to wonder whether homo sapiens is not just another alias for Heinrich Schenker. Each of those two questions inter alia is begged separately. “Man began to sing and to speak at the same moment” (p.70). That must have sounded rather bizarre at the time; and to me it still does. C. M. Bowra, who actually thought about this problem, reasoned that “speech was logically prior”. Child­-study might be relevant; do anxious mothers ask clinics why baby is so slow in singing? But never mind reasoning and evidence. Speech and song must be coeval; music must be innate. Man the Musician has spoken; his theory requires it. Besides, “there is no real argument against the assumption” (p.11); and, furthermore, “there is no real evidence against the hypothesis” (p.70); so what could be clearer?         

   A similar approach justifies constant recourse to the Schenkerian method, a great many examples of which are worked throughout the book. The results are, it is freely conceded, unprovable and un­verifiable. But they are also, it is freely asserted, vital and valid-for example in demonstrating the truth of our previously held opinions. But surely a critic ought to be testing and appraising his own opinions, not just praising and attesting them? And how in any event can the unproven prove anything? Through such gaping holes in the arguments, in­consistencies come flooding in. Musical thinking differs in kind from logical thinking (p.337). But musical thinking also includes logical thinking (p.352). Conclusion: exclusion does not preclude inclusion.

   Examples not only could be multiplied but are, remorselessly. The theme itself is composed almost entirely of variations. “Man is musical” is restated in some 20 different ways in the first chapter alone. This self-induced trance is interrupted now and then by a rousing fanfare on the author's own trumpet. “This dimension of humanity has largely been in shadow over the course of Western thought. It is time to bring it into the light.” Zuckerkandl begins by putting ideas into the mouth of the condemned Socrates; as a dress rehearsal for the hemlock, sceptics may think, and indeed so far as I can see the Phaedo says nothing of the kind. Socrates is repeatedly con­gratulated on his insight, and foresight. But there is no award at all, not even an honourable mention, for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to whom the idea of Man the Musician actually and notoriously belongs (cf Essai sur l'origine des langues, c1750). As Mrs Langer (op cit) remarked of Sound and Symbol, Zuckerkandl appears to be so convinced of the folly of “the philosophers” that he simply will not read them. Those he does try are sent down with sharp sentences (e.g. “The truth is that Hegel does not view music as it really is”). He sees clearly enough that philosophers are no musicians (a curious and unexplained exception to his own universal rule); but the converse seems never to have occurred to him.

   Undaunted, he adumbrates his own philosophy which (stated or assumed) is in every sense the burden of his book. The secret of music is that the tones have a meaningful life of their own. This is a very fortunate thing for musical commentators, because it makes their every utterance brimful of interest and significance. Every melody tells its own pulsating life story; every music example attests the will of the tones. We might have expected their will to be dumb. To some minds however their mystic meaning can become myster­iously manifest. Thus the tone not only “inquires into its own nature, seeking and finding an answer” but passes the answer on. As with the listener, so with the composer. His function is to “seek guidance from the tones”; consulting the auricle, as it were.

   Believers will no doubt find wisdom, maturity, dignity and even beauty in these ideas and these pages. The best of luck to them, and to the evident Princeton persuasion that this is a good book. Dissenters however will have a strong sensation of having been sent to hear sermons from mystical Germans who preach from ten to four-one of the cruellest torments devised by music's leading sadist. Beyond dispute is the fact that these tones and accents are wearily familiar to all students of comparative aesthetics. They are the effect produced by German thought in the English language on the American campus. Given the original tongue, this taste is of rather small beer, which is often quite fiat. But when it is given its head by translation (as in this effective version by Norbert Guterman) a thirst for enlightenment can make it seem sparkling and even intoxicating. The labels usually make inflated claims for the product. The Commonwealth of Art and Greatness in Music are just as typical as Man the Musician. Whatever one thinks of Curt Sachs and Alfred Einstein in this vein, no one will deny that Victor Zuckerkandl is an aptly successful blend of sweetness and light. But if you want sharpness or weight, whether of diction or of perception, I'd try elsewhere. Between homo musicus and homo Musikus there is a great gulf fixed; and it can't be blamed for being a yawning one.


The Musical Times, June 1974 (pp. 477-478) © the estate of eric sams