Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The concept of a musical work

An anonymous comment from my post on open forms a while back referenced Goehr for further thought about the specificity of scores and musical works. More recently, Greg Sandow got more specific, recommending Lydia Goehr's book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works in his series of posts about classical and pop reviews. Talking about musical works seems such an ingrained part of our vocabulary, but it is refreshing and a bit bracing to read a discussion of what the phrase really means. I've always thought about musical works in the same category as Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase about pornography — I know it when I see it.  Naturally a precise definition is very slippery to grasp, and Goehr's  book is an excellent articulation of all of the subtleties and tensions inherent in the concept or definition of a musical work.

Since Goehr is primarily a philosopher (although she's also the daughter of British composer Alexander Goehr, so she has sufficient musical background for the topic), she discusses in some detail the definitional aspects of a musical work. Her central claim is that a musical work isn't an object that can have a fixed definition, but a concept with both original and derivative uses, all of which are continuously emerging. The work concept functions as an ideal, something that lives out there as a limit but is rarely if ever attained in practice.

The biggest virtue of Goehr's philosophical treatise is that it places the work concept into a historical setting, starting from a time when the concept was not in place and showing the reasons why composers and musicians began to use it. It really comes as no surprise to find that the work concept emerged around 1800 as part of the romantic movement, and was part of an effort on the part of musicians to gain more economic autonomy for themselves. Bach, and to some extent even Mozart and Haydn, were employees, producing functional music on demand (for example, Bach's cantatas were all written for specific Sunday services). There was little consideration that a work had any particular structural or artistic integrity as a whole, so Bach was able to reuse any and all of his material as the occasion demanded, as well as borrow anything that might be useful from other composers (which is why there are so many works of uncertain authorship, in addition to pieces on acknowledged themes from other composers).  Like so much else in the classical music world, Beethoven is the signpost for the changes, a convergence of theoretical and practical concerns around 1800 that set the eternal image of the creative genius who passes on his work, which will survive intact despite the vagaries of specific performances.

But, like so much else in the classical music world, at Beethoven we are stuck. Goehr spends some time discussing recent challenges to the work concept, both from inside and outside the classical music establishment. Cage and Stockhausen are mentioned, briefly, in their roles as theoreticians. But nobody has found a different way to talk about music, so we get the work concept when we discuss improv, pop, and world artists, despite vast differences in historical and cultural background. The romantic ideals have taken over the concert stage, so we get the incongruous spectacle of African drummers recreating indigenous dances for motionless listeners in a darkened auditorium. The issues of artistic autonomy and legitimacy that drove the romantic ideology in 1800 are still with us today. It was sobering to consider that musicians two centuries ago had to persuade the civil powers of their worth, even as music sought to free itself from the spectre of usefulness.


Anonymous said...

glad my comment lead you to that book - it's pretty much dynamite.

re: your statement: "But nobody has found a different way to talk about music, so we get the work concept when we discuss improv, pop, and world artists, despite vast differences in historical and cultural background." - give me a little bit, i'm working on it...seriously.... ;-)

Caleb Deupree said...

Hello again,

Glad to hear about your project. I trust I will recognize it when it comes along.

BTW, is the Cook that you mentioned in your previous comment Nicholas Cook, author of Music, Imagination and Culture?

Anonymous said...