Representation in Western Music

Reviewed by Ryan Ebright


Published by Cambridge University Press, 2013   |   334 pages

How does music function as a representational art? Or, to reframe the question, how do musical sounds convey meaning? These questions lie at the heart of Representation in Western Music, a wide-ranging collection of essays that explores how attention to various conceptions of representation in music may shed new light on our understandings of nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century Anglo-European and American music.

Within the visual arts and literature, the idea of representation can seem relatively straightforward—a painting of a haystack reflects an actual haystack; the word “haystack” serves as an equally clear signifier. With music, the case is less clear-cut. Certainly music is capable of imitating natural sounds such as birdsong. But can it move beyond simple mimesis and represent more abstract concepts such as identity, narrative, politics, place, or emotion? For Aristotle, at least, music represented character qualities such as courage or anger. In the nineteenth century, various interpretations of music’s representational capacities proliferated in the writings of philosophers such as Kant (who argued that instrumental music was non-representational and thus purely beautiful, but at the same time ultimately trivial), Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche (both of whom argued that music, being a formal transcription of Will—for both the bedrock metaphysical aspect of the world—was thus the supreme art form). Outside of philosophy, music critic Eduard Hanslick fanned the flames of the debate over musical representation in his polemical 1854 book on the aesthetics of music, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen. Drawing on Kant’s appeal to formalism (if not his value judgment of music), Hanslick believed that music’s expressive power stemmed solely from its form—rather than any extra-musical associations—and thus advocated what came to be known as absolute music, autonomous from any representation whatsoever. Of late, however, scholars have converged on agreement that music—in the act of composing it, performing it, or even listening to it—can hold meaning, and thus function representationally. Just how and what music might represent or be represented by are questions still ripe for investigation.

Representation in Western Music approaches these questions primarily through local readings of specific works and historical contexts. Edited by Joshua S. Walden, the volume contains 14 chapters grouped loosely by theme. Given that representation cuts across genres, mediums, and disciplines, the organization of the book is, to some degree, a matter of editorial discretion. Part I, “Representation and the interpretation of musical meaning,” is topically diffuse, with five essays ranging from the expectations and meanings embedded in nineteenth-century instrumental genre conventions, to the musicological challenges posed by the participatory culture of Internet fan-created music videos, which function as listener (re-)interpretations. The role of listeners in constructing meaning takes center stage again in Marina Frolova-Walker’s essay on “phantom programmes” in Soviet-era instrumental music. In a fascinating instance of representation via reception, Frolova-Walker demonstrates how textless (non-programmatic) music—which lacks clearly defined narratives, emotions, or values—accrued state-sanctioned interpretations through the attributions of Soviet music critics, rather than the intentions of composers or performers. Under the aesthetic of Socialist Realism, instrumental music came to be heard representationally, expressive of the triumph of collective farming, for instance, or the Soviet experience of World War II.

The interactions between visual and aural modes of representation link the three essays of the book’s second part, “Sound and visual representations: music, painting, and dance.” Whereas its first essay examines how nineteenth-century paintings, poems, and music itself represented the latter medium through its effects on listeners, the section’s second essay reverses focus, discussing how music depicts specific individuals in musical portraiture by twentieth-century composers. Related in topic, this section’s final essay, by Davinia Caddy, explores how Parisian dancers and choreographers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries envisioned and embodied / represented music via dance.

Part III, “Musical representations in opera and cinema,” delves into questions of meaning and authorial intention through essays on operas by Richard Wagner and Paul Hindemith. The topical exception is Giorgio Biancorosso’s essay “Memory and the leitmotif in cinema,” which draws on the theoretical work of philosopher Saul Kripke to offer new insights into how leitmotivs—short, recurring musical phrases within an opera or film that are used to denote particular people, places, things, or ideas—might function representationally on a cognitive level. Part IV, “Music, representation, and the concepts of east and west,” broadens the scope of the book, with two essays that consider how “non-Western” cultures have been—and continue to be—represented (indeed, at times exoticized) in and through musical practices.

In the most compelling chapters of Representation in Western Music, new understandings emerge concerning not only how music can represent or be represented, but also concerning representation itself. Lawrence Dreyfus, for instance, in his study of homoerotic friendship in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, argues that metaphor and allusion offer more suitable concepts than explicitly mimetic forms of representation when examining how music divulges meanings. Whereas most of the collection’s essays address representation by examining either the composers or audiences of music, Walter Frisch’s is one of the few that considers, however briefly, the role of performers in the creation and communication of meaning. In particular, Frisch examines how specific performances of Harold Arlen’s songs by Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand effect the representation of the songwriter’s identity in the music itself.

Given the broad scope of this collection, the paucity of essays that address issues of cognition and perception is surprising, as is the lack of chapters that address musicology’s changing relation to representation in the past half-century. While taking steps toward correcting these omissions, Richard Taruskin’s engaging afterword highlights these gaps, and, given its breadth, his essay might function equally well as an alternative introduction to the collection. Taruskin provides an effective, if necessarily cursory, account of the key musicological developments and debates over representation in the late twentieth century, referencing seminal work by Peter Kivy (in particular his Sound and Semblance: Reflections on Musical Representation, 1984), Leonard B. Meyer, Kofi Agawu, and Wye Allanbrook. Taruskin also points to new philosophical work on musical representation by Charles O. Nussbaum (The Musical Representation: Meaning, Ontology, and Emotion, 2007), who builds on the common metaphor of music as motion by proposing that music creates a kind of inner space or terrain through which our listening minds move.

Although its focus is music, Representation in Western Music has much to offer readers outside of strict musicology. While investigating a wide number of ways in which music interacts with other media—film, dance, painting, theater, poetry, etc.—it also sheds lights on the complex interrelationships between music, culture, and individuals, showing how music can respond to and reflect diverse historical milieus. For readers within the field of musicology, this collection demonstrates that representation remains a fundamental aspect of the medium, one that—when construed broadly—continually proves generative of new senses in which music functions and means.

Ryan Ebright holds a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research centers on music for the voice, with a particular emphasis on contemporary American opera and nineteenth-century German art song.

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