The musical symbol by Gordon Epperson

Iowa State University Press


This is a book for kindhearted musical aestheticians and critics, if any. On one analysis, its thesis is derivative, its prose vague and prolix, and its planning inadequate (a view to which its shaky index is a steady pointer). On another, its contribution is original and valuable, the thought often significant and sometimes profound.

   How can this be? The author sportingly tells us himself (p.xiii). ”Practising musicians are ordinarily too absorbed in their musical work to write or speak of it in a systematic inclusive way”. Readers won't need to be told that Professor Epperson is a prac­tising musician. Not that the style is notably euphonious (“… a desiccation of theoretical specu­lation accompanied by a growing preoccupation…” hits it off rather neatly). But he treats his subjects like fugue subjects, with repetitions, allu­sions, and episodes-like musical development, not verbal exposition. Hear for example the first theme. anticipated in the slow , introduction, p.xiv: “This book develops the concept of music as a nonverbal symbolism”. On the next page: “Musical meaning is nonverbal”. Then the book begins, with a flourish: “That music is a nonverbal art would appear to be self-evident”. Two pages later, in italics: Musical meaning is nonverbal. Got it? ,

   But much more of the book is enigmatic allusion to an unstated theme. For Professor Epperson, “even a pointing towards avenues of investigation ... is an ambitious project, subject to many dan­gers”. However, he braves them; and page 18 finds him fearlessly pointing up an avenue, having given “strong indications of the direction of my thought”. It went thataway.

   Its pursuit is a slow one. Everything is said at least twice, never using one word where ten will do; and of these any three are likely to be “modality”, “virtual” and “symbol”. En route we admire the view of almost everyone else; over 100 immortal sages for nearly 300 mortal pages. From the thought of Confucius to the thought of Sessions we summon up remembrance of things past. This critical anthology turns out to be “evidence” (sic: p.231) for a theory still unformulated. Thus an idea first voiced by Aristotle is “of great importance in presaging later concepts ... and, in particular, in anticipation of my own thesis”. Thank you, Aristotle.

   Towards the end we reach a definition of what the book is about. “The musical symbol is an intelligible structure of sound, apprehended through actual hearing in its own modality of virtual time and motion” (p.292), This breakthrough is then said to “serve as the point of departure for my particular theory of music”. A late starter.

   Earlier the author explained “I have thus far in scattered references given most of the constituents of Susanne Langer's theory of art” (p.242). This seems fair comment on the sources; and also on the methods of exposition. The several references to her famous “Music is a tonal analogue of emotive life” include three different attempts at quoting it. Despite all this, the original contribution when it arrives (in the last chapter) turns out to have been worth waiting for. If music is an analogue, then it must function as a symbol or abstraction. In that case, reasons Professor Epperson - if I understand and summarize his argument aright - the more abstract the better (music). Musique concrète would presumably be a contradiction in terms. Four levels of abstraction are postulated. In the lowest (worst) “there is an emphasis on sound textures” and “musical idea is weak” - eg much of Cage, some of Stockhausen. Conversely in the highest (best) “there is a dominance of idea” and “the medium in some works may be changed without serious loss” eg The art of fugue.

   Of course, not everyone will see any merit in this kind of order, still less any order of merit. But it seems to me that as a principle of classification deriving from and complementary to the theory of Mrs Langer the idea is well worth serious considera­tion by aestheticians and critics.

   With all respect, though, it doesn't add up to anything like 100,000 words. This is a great pity; for under the surface of the words, between the lines, we are sympathetically aware of the sensitive and dedicated musician with a deep intuitive understanding of his art. But I fear that the professor is the prisoner of his own profundity. His very affinity with the hidden inward nature of music is a disqualification. Music may be nonverbal; books aren’t.   


The Musical Times, June 1968 © the estate of eric sams