Symphonies for life

Review of Roger Scruton's Understanding Music, TLS

Although music has always stood comparison with the other arts, its oddness is something we rediscover each time we try to describe it. When we speak of interpreting works of art, for example, we refer to the practice of deciphering their single or several meanings. But to interpret music, in the classical tradition at least, has come to refer simply to playing it; that is to executing a set of more or less clear instructions left by the composer. Similarly, in eighteenth-century France, when the concept of mimesis harboured the images of excellence in all the arts, and no one troubled to discuss the arts without discussing their success in imitating “la belle nature”, the sole entry on musical imitation listed in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie discussed only the purely technical matter of one part imitating another in polyphonic music. None among the numerous such pitfalls is more hazardous than the idea of musical understanding. Ordinarily, when understanding something, such as a sentence, we are grasping its meaning. But while most people are clear that the phrase “to understand music” is not itself without meaning, agreement on what is understood in the musical case is less forthcoming. We might not hesitate to criticize an otherwise note-perfect performance for “lacking understanding”, but it might take us longer to specify what it was the player had failed to understand.

The elusive question of musical understanding lies both at the centre and in the margins of Roger Scruton’s latest book. It is central in the sense that a key chapter addresses the subject directly, and that much of the rest of the book reflects on various normative issues that follow from the concept of musical understanding (such as which kinds of music lend themselves best to being listened to in this way). It remains marginal, on the other hand, in that no substantial theory of musical understanding is in fact advanced, though this is largely on account of the volume being a collection of somewhat disparate philosophical and critical essays. None the less, there is a tantalizing sketch of such a theory, and in this respect, the present volume constitutes a genuine advance on the earlier, and very influential, Aesthetics of Music (1997). In addition, it permits the reader to grasp the relation between Scruton’s thoughtful aesthetic conservatism and the more general social and political conservatism which many of his critics idly suppose derives from a reactionary and unashamedly bucolic nostalgia.

In approaching the question of musical understanding, Scruton takes his cue from Wittgenstein. This might seem an odd place to begin, given that Wittgenstein is more famous for emptying things of meaning than for filling them with it, and a large proportion of his sadly fleeting references to music are concerned with showing how our use of language is often more meaningless – or perhaps “musical” – than we would suppose. The demonstration is never reversed, however: music, for Wittgenstein, should never be thought of as a vehicle for something else. This is not to say that we do not find music meaningful as a practice – and it is this more embodied sense of meaning that Scruton pursues.

It is Wittgenstein’s analogy between musical and facial expression that Scruton eventually uses to sketch an account of the way music demands imaginative engagement. Just as facial expressions do not communicate something that can be understood so much as enjoin us to imagine what it feels like when we ourselves make such an expression, so too, according to Scruton, does some elemental aspect of musical experience enjoin us to engage our imagining in similar fashion. In this way, and because the experience of music is not, at least not typically, heard as a single expression, the imagination is forced to grapple with the musical shapes and forms as they unfold over time, following its movement as it echoes in, or is anticipated by, the movements of our body and rational imagination.

It is in this aspect of “enjoinment” – of the way we join with the music – that is the key to Scruton’s conception not only of musical understanding but also of its wider cultural and social value. Just as a grimace demands that we imagine the complex of unpleasant feelings and thoughts behind that particular belligerent facial expression, and so too music may require us to identify with a world of sensibilities which happens to sit ill with us. We may refuse to acquiesce, but, as Scruton puts it, in connection with the hit song “Angel of Music” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, we may also be “seduced”. In which case, “we become the music, while the music lasts. Into our own first-person perspective there creeps a phoney state of mind that sits uncomfortably with our sense of who we are. It is surely one of the roles of taste or aesthetic judgment to discriminate between the expression with which we might identify, and the expression that invites us to sympathize with a state of mind that in our better moments we seek to shun”.

This is why the cultural aspect of music is so important for Scruton. For while sentimental, phoney music does not communicate shallowness and falsehoods in a conceptual sense, it does communicate such things in the more literal sense of shaping a community of listeners who share the phoney sensibilities of which it is an expression. The point is a blunt one: without good music, culture and society simply degrade.

But what is good music, according to Scruton? As with the concept of musical understanding, this is something that must be teased out of the volume as a whole. A clue may be found in the essay on Janácek and Schoenberg, however, where Scruton refers to the common sensation in art that something “could not have been otherwise”; to a sense of necessity central to the experience of all art according to which we judge the rightness of a gesture, an expression or an entire work down from its overall shape to its tiniest detail. In terms of the argument of the chapter itself, it is held that this sense is much greater with the relatively free music of Janácek than it is with the strict and methodical serial compositions of Schoenberg. This is because, Scruton argues, the sense of necessity that attaches to our perception of the rightness of Janácek’s music comes solely through what we can hear, whereas with Schoenberg it comes by understanding things that cannot, in actual fact, really be heard.

As a representation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, one might argue, this is as wilfully misleading as it gets – notwithstanding its being spot-on as a condemnation of some of the uses to which Schoenberg’s method has been put. But as a general principle, Scruton’s idea that good music must be both worthy and capable of being listened to with understanding is hard to fault. That is to say, music can be held to be good not only if we can join with it in the sense outlined above, but if we can also judge it to be worth joining with, a rational aesthetic judgment that draws in considerations of everything – from character, sincerity, to clarity of line and subtlety of argument – that may reasonably be heard in the music.

In philosophical terms, Understanding Music represents as profound and thoughtful a musical picture as one is likely to find in the newly abundant literature on the subject. In some cases, such as the chapter on “Movement”, one feels that much more could have been said had the publisher asked for some new material rather than simply hoovering up articles and essays from publications ranging from the scholarly British Journal of Aesthetics to Prospect magazine. The most rewarding chapters in fact are the critical essays, in which the philosophical dimension ties itself to elucidating, for example, the meaning of the use of “colour” in Szymanowski, or the sacred utterance at the heart of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Here – even for those of us with more apparently progressive musical tastes than those professed by Scruton – there is so much to agree with that one’s nascent frustrations at the absence of a more complete book grow exponentially. But extended philosophical exposition has its dangers, too, and in enjoining his reader to piece together for themselves such a humane and insightful conception of musical understanding, perhaps this lack of systematic presentation should be considered a virtue.

Roger Scruton
Philosophy and interpretation
244pp. Continuum. £18.99 (US $29.95).
978 14 84706 506 3

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