‘Sonate que me veux-tu?’ : Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the problem of instrumental music

Purely instrumental music received something of a bad press in the eighteenth century. Somewhere near its beginning, the French natural scientist Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle is reported to have made the quip «Sonate, que me veux-tu?». The phrase was cited many times throughout the century, generally in ways that echo what we may suppose to have been the gentle but powerful irony of the original . The exact nature of Fontenelle’s intention is less important than the fact that the phrase certainly seems to have captured something of the eighteenth century’s widespread and variously expressed confusion or mistrust about the idea of music without words and the question of what, if anything, such music could or did signify.

The reasons both for the general lack of an account of the significance of ‘pure’ music, and for the fact that this lack was considered to be a problem – it is this second element which is particular to the eighteenth century – are relatively well known, and relate to what is a parallel problem concerning changes in the understanding of ‘the passions’ or emotions, those things, in other words, which music was at this point widely understood to have as its content . To express the matter somewhat crudely, the advent of a philosophical materialism about the passions, which previously had been governed by a Cartesian gamut-style arrangement, had the effect of either causing emotions to be discussed in terms of relatively straight-forward animal-like functions, or, alternatively, of giving them more psychologically intricate, less determinate and, even, more literary identities. This meant, broadly speaking, that what had previously been the standard tool for co-ordinating the relations between musical styles and figures with the emotions – the blunt instruments of the Affektenlehre – could no longer be of much use. Nor did the seventeenth century’s other standard music-theoretical model, the theory of music as rhetoric (in its various conceptions), offer much guidance, perhaps most obviously for the reason that it had never been designed to offer a theory of music’s content, but simply one of its organisation. Yet, even with the partial eclipse of these models around the beginning of the eighteenth century, no genuine alternative conception of instrumental music and its function seemed to arise in their place, such as might have been provided for example by a generalised return to Pythagorean and scholastic metaphysics about music. Instead of any such unified alternative being developed, an increasing consensus grew that music was best understood as one of the imitative arts; what this consensus lacked, however, was a corresponding consensus surrounding the question of how this imitation worked precisely. What remained of the seventeenth century’s legacy, then, was, on the one hand, a general agreement about the strong connection between music and linguistic meaning and organisation (and a corresponding wealth of linguistic terminology for musical use) and, on the other hand, a concentration of emphasis and interest on the question of music’s emotive power; an interest which steadily increased during the century’s course...

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