Music, the arts and ideas by Leonard B. Meyer

University of Chicago Press


Leonard B. Meyer is renowned for his classic Emotion and meaning in music (1956). He was then a pro­fessor of music at Chicago, and is now Chairman of that department. His present thesis, that there is in the arts a delightful diversity of different styles and techniques, recalls that gay maxim in the Little Red Book of Mao Tse Tung about “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend”. I hope this present volume won't turn out to be the little-read book of Chairman Meyer, though style and content alike may sometimes seem more than a little mandarin.

   Part I, “As It Has Been”, reprints five earlier essays anticipating the new thesis. Part II, “As It Is and Perhaps Will Be”, argues it with compelling bril­liance and vigour. Part III is “Formalism in Music - not “World Without End” as you might have expected. But either would do; not only does 'con­siderable evidence indicate that formalism will be the dominant aesthetic ideology in the coming stasis' but that stasis itself is presented as an enduring steady-state.

   According to Professor Meyer, this has happened (if “happened” is not too strong a word) because the forces making for change in society are on the wane; belief in God, religion, “mind”, Progress, purpose, individualism, self-expression. At the same time the prevailing spirit of our culture may well be characterized by “a tendency to diversity, a tolerance for pluralism, and a taste for incongruity”. The Zeit­geist seems to have turned Poltergeist. But in this absence of pattern a pattern can nevertheless be dis­cerned. Between the foaming seas of pop (or trad) and the rolling clouds of transcendentalism stand the delectable mountains of formalism with their great peaks of skill and elegance. The picture is vested with authority, even grandeur, by the intellectual depth and perspective of its composition.

   Otherwise one might have objected that this vision of the middle distance is just lending enchant­ment to the view of the middle class; skill and elegance are merely the values of the fencing master and the dancing master, suitable mainly for the divertissementof the bourgeois gentilhomme. Similarly one might find a variety of objections to the basic thesis of steady-state diversity, were it advanced by anyone else; for example, it might. just reflect an inability to distinguish the durable from the transient. Or one might counter that the thesis, though true, is unremarkable. Perhaps the variety is in name only; think of words other than “music” for certain contemporary developments, and the problem disappears. Or perhaps the variety is all too real, but just a reflection of actual social dis­harmony. This would lead on to the total Tolstoyan rebuttal that, since the whole subject matter of the book is a blank impenetrable mystery to nearly all one half of the world and alt the other half, it is hardly relevant to art properly so called.

   These may be some of the objections that Professor Meyer anticipates and indeed invites in his preface. If so, I do not think that he need worry unduly. To give up the search for explanations in art, on whatever pretext, is merely philistine. Of course there must be books of this kind; of course its author is right in his conviction that “the issues broached and problems posed are important, exciting and fun” (though not necessarily in that order). His work may be for a limited company; but those few who share his declared interest will profit handsomely. I doubt if many finer minds than his have devoted themselves to aesthetics in this century. His applications of information theory and of the principle of hierarchic discontinuity (to cite only two examples among many in this one book) are of lasting significance to philosophers of music.

   What of the laity? Well, there is at least as much pleasure to be had from brilliant play with ideas as with a football (a reflection perhaps prompted by the recurrence of such phrases as “goal-oriented activity” followed by “goal-directed motion”). However, there are penalties. For most of the crowd, Professor Meyer's speed and verve will outrun not just the ball but the stadium. He is so far ahead of his time that he is already the art-historian of the future. Perhaps it is, after all, just a little premature of him to dismiss God and Progress from the universe. Surely not all theists and progressives are yet outlaws in present-day Chicago? There may at this moment be a great wind of change taking a huge deep breath somewhere. But no doubt-for better or worse-it will never transpire; Western aesthetic history will eventually catch up with Professor Meyer's thesis, and truly achieve a fluctuating steady-state of delightful diversity. Meanwhile by studying these 300 trenchant and clearly reasoned pages we shall be ready to “comprehend the multiplicity of 20th-century thought and culture” as soon as we too become aware of it.


The Musical Times, July 1968 (p. 631) © the estate of eric sams