Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony

Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony

by Melanie Lowe
Classical music permeates modern life whether in the grocery store, on public radio, on hold on the telephone, or in traditional orchestral settings. In her provocative and groundbreaking study, Melanie Lowe explores why the public instrumental music of late-18th-century Europe has remained accessible, entertaining, and distinctly pleasurable to such a variety of


Classical music permeates modern life whether in the grocery store, on public radio, on hold on the telephone, or in traditional orchestral settings. In her provocative and groundbreaking study, Melanie Lowe explores why the public instrumental music of late-18th-century Europe has remained accessible, entertaining, and distinctly pleasurable to such a variety of listeners for nearly 250 years.

Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony is the first work of its kind to examine how concert-going listeners of the late 18th century might have responded to this "new" repertoire, and in what ways it was intelligible to audiences from different eras, cultures, and social settings. More broadly, she also considers the effect of western European art music on today's listeners and its meaning in contemporary American culture.

Editorial Reviews

Choice Magazine
The book offers a reasoned answer to the question of musical meaning. Summing Up: Recommended.


"... Combining close analysis of a group of Haydn's late symphonies with occasional reference to those of Mozart and imagining Haydn's contemporaries hearing the symphonies for the first (probably only) time, Lowe shows how the gestures, structure, thematic choices, and instrumentation of Haydn's work could lead to signification in the minds of his listeners.... The book offers a reasoned answer to the question of musical meaning. Not everyone will accept Lowe's conclusions, but no one can claim she does not present them clearly and forcefully.... Recommended." —Choice

Eighteenth-Century Studies

"The ingenious execution of the book offers deep insights into the musical vocabulary of the late eighteenth century... [A] stimulating study." —Eighteenth-Century Studies

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Musical Meaning and Interpretation
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Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony

By Melanie Lowe

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2007 Melanie Lowe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34827-2


On Meanings of Musical Meaning

That music might, could, or should mean something is the perennial concern of Western musical thought. Since Antiquity investigations into the existence and nature of musical meaning have been tethered to questions of musical mimesis — whether insisting that imitation of natural phenomena is an essential requirement, as was the dominant aesthetic position from Antiquity through the Enlightenment, or categorically denying music's capacity to imitate, represent, or express anything, a tenet of late-nineteenth-century aesthetics and twentieth-century formalism and modernism. The historical insistence on music's reference to something outside of itself, combined with the later denial of its capacity for any such reference, gave rise to the now commonplace dichotomy of musical and extra-musical meaning, a division that has been entangled with various notions of absoluteness in music since the turn of the nineteenth century. Because the instrumental music of the late eighteenth century is so often anachronistically championed as "absolute music," it is with this slippery philosophical construct that we must begin.

The Construct of Absolute Music

For the last century and a half, historians, theorists, philosophers, and critics have interpreted the instrumental music of the Classical style as absolute music — an ideal of musical purity fashioned by the Romantics that, following decades of increasing abstraction, became a cornerstone of twentieth-century music theory and aesthetics. As it is commonly understood today, a piece of absolute music is completely autonomous, understandable only in terms of objectifiable, abstract features. The near monopoly of strategies in our analytical toolbox that scrutinize an actual or presumed manifestation of this abstraction, from formal to motivic to structural-tonal voice-leading analysis, bears witness to the extent to which music has been rendered an absolute text awaiting the revelation of its structural secrets. To be sure, we remain indebted to these sorts of analytical strategies, for they reveal fascinating aspects of construction, but too often they leave unengaged questions of signification and meaning. By design, they concern themselves with only the realm of the "purely" musical, thereby tacitly sustaining a theoretical and philosophical separation between that which is musical and that which is extra-musical.

But in the musical thought of the early Romantics, those critics with whom the notion of absoluteness in music originated, a ready division between musical and extra-musical meaning was not nearly so secure. For Wackenroder, Tieck, Hoffmann, and other early Romantic critics, the very writers who found the music of Haydn, Mozart, and (early) Beethoven a "new" and "romantic" art, the aesthetics of late-eighteenth-century instrumental music was nothing short of metaphysics. Embracing German idealism, they celebrated the symphony in particular as the art best suitable for expressing the spiritual, the ideal, the infinite, and the absolute. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, however, when Wagner's term "absolute music" ironically became associated with Eduard Hanslick's argument against that composer's Gesamtkunstwerk, the notion of ideal purity removed from instrumental music all external reference, representation, and generation, even of such an abstract concept as infinity. Through a philosophical slight of hand, the expression of the spiritual and the ideal, hitherto an extra-musical obligation, became a purely musical matter, an essence capturable only in the "abstract interiority of pure sound." As Lydia Goehr explains, "the distinction between the musical and the extra-musical was allowed to function on a worldly but not on a transcendent level ... [enabling] one to accept a double-sided view of musical meaning, that it be transcendent, embodied spirituality and purely musical at the same time. ... The new romantic aesthetic allowed music to mean its purely musical self at the same time that it meant everything else" (1992, 156–57). Within the Romantic struggle to reconcile an idealist aesthetic with formalist tendencies, "meaning" itself, then, embraced at least two different meanings — one representational, the other (self Referential — just at the point instrumental music was allowed to be "meaningful" at all.

But the impetus behind the metaphysical readings in early Romantic music criticism came from a change in contemporary philosophy, not a paradigm shift in contemporary music (Bonds 1997, 389). Because their interpretations seem to fit the music of Beethoven's late style far better than the music contemporary to their writings, it is commonly asserted that Wackenroder, Tieck, Hoffmann, et al. were prophetic, describing a music yet to be written. But despite our sense of incongruity between the music of the Classical style and early Romantic criticism, as well as the common (mis)attribution of the notion of musical autonomy to early Romantic thought, the instrumental music of the late eighteenth century was compelling to the early Romantics precisely because of its affinity with the extra-musical. Indeed, we must not overlook the link the early Romantics maintained to the aesthetics of mimesis. The idealist underpinnings of their aesthetics may have altered the notion somewhat — what was represented was not the real but the ideal, not physicality but spirit. But the expectation that music should mean something beyond itself remained central. Extra-musical meaning was essential to the early Romantic notion of the absolute in music, a concept constructed while the instrumental music of Haydn and Mozart enjoyed immense popularity.

Although the early Romantics introduced absoluteness to musical discourse, the construct of absolute music itself — essentially the wholesale excision of extra-musical meaning from instrumental music — began to emerge only with the mid-nineteenth-century polarization of musical thought and the consequent dichotomy of program music and nonnarrative instrumental music. But even with such a seemingly obvious statement of formalism as Hanslick's (in)famous line — "sounding forms in motion are the only and exclusive content and object of music" — we must be careful not to jump to an immediate establishment and defense of absolute music as absolutely and exclusively musical. Despite Hanslick's uncompromising arguments for music as a nonrepresentational art, the many echoes of the Hegelian notion of art as the materialization of the idea in the first volume of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen suggest, at least in his early thought, an idealist conception of musical form: form is spirit; spirit is form. In other words, since at this point we cannot limit Hanslick's sense of the word "form" (Formen) to mere musical structure, the "purely" musical cannot be the "only and exclusive content and object of music," at least not until well into the second half of the nineteenth century and the publication of the later editions of Hanslick's treatise, which are "purged ... of all overt references to idealism" (Bonds 1997, 419). But perhaps it is ultimately not until such later metalinguistic theories of musical content as Schenker's Ursatz, Schoenberg's developing variation, and Reti's thematicism that instrumental music was construed as "pure" — a wholly objective and self-contained art.

The construct of absolute music seems firmly in place only when conceived in terms of what the music lacks. Absolute music contains no object, reference, representation, content, expression, or idea external to music itself. At this point (in an admittedly simplified historical narrative) hermeneutic interpretation becomes divorced from theoretical explication in the dominant discourses of musical thought. Even such listener-oriented landmarks in postwar tonal theory as Leonard Meyer's expectation-based theories (1956, 1973), developed further by Eugene Narmour as the implication-realization model (1977), and Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff's linguistics-based generative theory (1983) search for rules of musical structure, not mechanisms of meaning — musical or otherwise. What began around the turn of the nineteenth century as an expressive ideal of musical purity — an ideal that celebrated the imprecision, not the absence, of meaning in instrumental music — now embraces nearly the opposite: autonomous music liberated from any and all expressive expectation, representational capacity, and subjective content. Freed of extra-musical baggage, the "absolute music" of the Classical style in particular can be assured objectivity by its structural clarity. Its meaning resides only in its lack of meaning beyond the musical.

To be sure, several musicologists have recently revisited the philosophical construct of absolute music, often dispelling this anachronistic concept from the music of the late eighteenth century. Carl Dahlhaus's seminal essay The Idea of Absolute Music ([1978] 1989) sets the conception of the autonomous artwork in opposition to eighteenth-century bourgeois thought and moral philosophy. Bonds distinguishes between idealism as an aesthetic principle as it emerged in the writings of the early Romantics around the turn of the nineteenth century and later concepts of absolute music (1997, 420). Daniel Chua's quixotic contextualization of absolute music within an astounding range of intellectual discourses begins with the claim that absolute music was "a discovery unveiled by the German Romantics, as if [it] had always been there, eternal and absolute" (1993, 3). James Webster reveals that much of Haydn's instrumental music incorporates extra-musical associations and explains that Haydn "never intended to compose 'absolute music' in the nineteenth-century sense" (1991a, 335). Roger Scruton, noting that the absolute ideal existed long before "the jargon of its name," asserts that paradoxically "the rise of instrumental music and the development of Classical forms saw the temporary disappearance of the absolute ideal" (1980, 1: 27). And Leo Treitler keeps us honest, reminding readers that the construct of absolute music does not necessarily lead to formalism and nothing else (1989, 212–13).

But despite our acknowledgment of the "absolute problem" (among others), a concerted recent effort to avoid the pitfalls of positivism, and a compelling argument that for much nineteenth-century German music "the absoluteness of absolute music ... is the very condition of its meaning" (Hoeckner 2002, 4), we have yet to formulate — whether as musicologists, philosophers, or theorists — a conditional notion of meaning in eighteenth-century instrumental music that reconciles the purely musical ideal of nearly two centuries of reception with the extra-musical reality of this music's inception. V. Kofi Agawu's Playing with Signs (1991), a semiotic interpretation of Classic music, makes a fine attempt at delineating a theory that encompasses both expressive meaning and structural coherence. But in the end, his imaginative synthesis notwithstanding, the specificity of his "extroversive semiosis" and the generality of his "introversive semiosis" remain quite far apart. Robert Hatten's Musical Meaning in Beethoven (1994) perhaps comes the closest to integrating the two, but, while he makes good on his promise of a semiotic model that embraces both expressive and formal meanings, I would argue that we need to explore still further the range of mechanisms for their interaction. In general, our endeavors to exorcise from this music its absolute possession too often admit extra-musical associations only to revert to the more comfortable "absolute" discourse of abstract musical analysis, or remain within the realm of philosophy and criticism, never fully engaging the sounding experience. Questions of musical meaning endure.

The Constructs of Musical and Extra-Musical Meaning

Perhaps, though, the greatest obstacle to new considerations of musical meaning in Classical instrumental music is our easy acceptance of the long-established but deeply flawed musical/extra-musical opposition itself. The obstacle lies not so much in the rigidity of our distinction between the categories of the binary structure, which Lawrence Kramer, for one, questions by "show[ing] 'internal' and 'external' meanings intertwining closely and widely" (1995, 67). Rather, the problem resides largely within the delineations of the categories themselves. Goehr has suggested a tacit distinction between the extra-musical and the nonmusical in Romantic musical discourse, a distinction provided by the ambiguity of the term ausser in das Aussermusikalische. In the nineteenth century, this ambiguity accommodated the budding formalist need for music to "engage with and within the world purely musically" but still retain its "broader human and expressive significance" (1998, 6-18). But for the instrumental repertory of the Viennese Classical tradition and the aesthetics of music in the eighteenth century, the initial category of the musical/extra-musical dichotomy is the more problematic one.

Implicit in the category of the musical is the absolutist notion of the "purely musical," the objectivist stance of high modernism captured perfectly in Stravinsky's polemic about his Octet: "My Octuor ... is a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves" (White [1924] 1966, 575). Any meaning intended or ascribed to the work would be the purely musical meaning of the music itself. Resonance with the later philosophical construct and theoretical assumptions of absolute music could hardly be louder. But the construction of the category of the musical, particularly when set in opposition to the extra-musical, implies the notion of the intra-musical: the purely musical meaning of the musical elements — "sufficient in themselves" — within an individual work. As Stravinsky puts it, "the play of the musical elements is the thing" (577). The construction of the intra-musical is thus dependent on a conception of the musical work as an independent and objectified entity.

This construction of the "work-concept," however, is itself dependent on what Goehr has termed the "separability principle": the belief, fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century, that works of art are separated completely from the everyday world, are self-sufficient, and "bear no external resemblance to anything else" (1992, 171). But, the historical currency of such aesthetic constructs notwithstanding, a musical work does not exist in isolation. Its very nature (or definition) as music presupposes an affinity with other musical works. We cannot recognize a musical element as such without some a priori understanding of what a musical element is, an understanding that comes only from our individual musical experiences. In other words, the listening subject is the essential ingredient in the delineation of the musical element. A "purely" intra-musical meaning for a given work, even one whose "objective elements are sufficient in themselves," is inescapably formed in relation to musical elements outside of that work, a reality that relegates the intra-musical to a philosophical abstraction quite divorced from the nature and reality of our musical experiences.

Musical meanings, then, even when construed as "purely" musical and designed to exist only within a specific work, are nevertheless in a continuous dialogue with the meanings of other musical entities, whether the composer or analyst wants them to be or not. The inevitable intertextuality of music and its meanings, particularly when used to refer to the meaningful content in and of an individual composition, effectively nullifies the category of the musical. As a result, the category of the extra-musical vanishes as well, for its definition is wholly dependent on the boundaries of the musical. No set of "purely" musical meanings remain for which extra-musical meanings can constitute a complementary set.


Excerpted from Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony by Melanie Lowe. Copyright © 2007 Melanie Lowe. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Melanie Lowe is Assistant Professor of Musicology in the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University.

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