Raymond MONELLE: "Musical uniqueness as a function of the text" (12/17)


The musical author may be of either type. We imagine most commonly that she is a case of the second type, a personality implied by the text and identified with the physical composer; this appears to be the assumption of the paragraph on Schubert. Composers sometimes endorse this view, speaking not in terms of aptness of utterance or persuasiveness of rhetoric but of "sincerity", as though the musical work were a cri du coeur. Thus Tchaikovsky described the Sixth Symphony as "my best and most sincere work" (in a letter to his nephew Bob Davidov, quoted by David Brown: 1991, 443; Tchaikovsky's emphasis). Of course, there are technical quirks which serve as marks of a particular composerˇs style; Rakhmaninov's Neapolitan colouring of cadences, Janacek's tiny phrases, are easily analyzed out of their music. But like evocative verisimilitude, composerly personality does not appear to be a technical matter. It is not even a semantic matter, in the ordinary sense; we are moved by Beethoven's earnest nobility, not because it is noble but because it is Beethoven's. That is to say, personality is chiefly honoured for its uniqueness, which is indefinable. It is a matter of intuitive knowing, not an analyzable semiotic process. It has, apparently, no signs and no codes. It is entirely a matter of ratio difficilis.
But the "author's 'I"' is also to be found in music, as Cone so ably shows. An intimate personal appeal, taking us by the arm and looking firmly into our eyes, convincing us of earnest sincerity: this is the very essence of uniqueness, the perfect image of a contingent human meeting within the warm physicalities of life. And as Cone says, this is often associated with the use of a human voice.
As an example, let us turn to a composer who is in every way problematic with regard to the first kind of authoriality, the unified voice inferred from a certain consistency of style. Gustav Mahler is sometimes accused of "stylelessness" (Stillosigkeit), a jibe which Adorno turns in his favour, arguing that this very lack of a personal style was Mahler's style. Mahler offers us folksy self-satisfaction, Biedermeyer cosiness, grand Straussian rhetoric, crude realism, dark Nietzschean shadowings, in music that is effete, popular, earnest, lighthearted, highly sophisticated, childish, not only in succession but frequently all at once. Yet paradoxically, this composer who had so many voices is denied any voice at all, because his music's subjectivity cannot be unified.
It is well known that Mahler's instrumental works sometimes make use of the human voice. The Second Symphony, notoriously, gave him great trouble in the completion; he had assembled the first three movements from previously-composed material, but could not decide on a finale. An experience of hearing Klopstock's Resurrection Ode at Bulow's funeral in 1894 made him decide to compose his finale as a choral setting of these words, somewhat rewritten by himself (my account of the composition of the symphony is much simplified, and is open to debate; the full story appears in Mitchell: 1975, 161-187). Now, the transition from movement three, an orchestral fantasy on Mahler's own setting of the Wunderhorn song "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt", to the portentous finale was too abrupt. So finally, Mahler inserted an earlier song, "Urlicht", also based on a Wunderhorn poem, before the finale.

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 4 : Page 12 / 17

© 1997 by AS/SA

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