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Theory, Analysis, and Criticism Author(s): Robert P. Morgan Source: The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan.

, 1982), pp. 15-18 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: Accessed: 21/06/2010 15:41
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ROBERT P. MORGAN listing of theory, analysis, and criticism as three separate disciplines would probably seem odd to scholars working in the other arts. For them the three would be joined together under the encompassingheading of "criticism"; and those working within the field would be "critics," whether their concern were primarilytheoretical, analytical, or evaluative. The assumption, then, would be that the three areas are inseparable, that one cannot pursue one without of necessity pursuing the others. Why should it be different in music? The answer I suspect lies in the nature of musical material itself. The basic components of pitch and rhythmic relationships - intervallic distances, durational lengths, and so forth - are measurable, and thus they are in part quantifiable. They lend themselves to ordering within highly structured relational systems of an essentially abstract and "theoretical" nature - that is, within systems that to some extent can be (and, over the course of music history, to a remarkableextent have been) developed without reference to actual music. Moreover, these systems give rise to specialized technical vocabulariesthat are specifically invented for the description and categorization of the individual elements and internal relationships they encompass. This systematic aspect, along with the technical language it fosters, is both the joy and bane of music. On the one hand, it makes possible a degree of precision in certain types of musical discourse that could well be the envy of those working in the other arts. Whole sets of relationships, such as those among the triadic structures of functional tonal music or the set structures of post-tonal music, can be codified with impressive exactitude and called upon for the immediate and unequivocal characterization of a wide range of musical events. On the other hand, the highly specialized quality of technical musical language tends to isolate musical discourse from the larger community of shared intellectual commentary on the arts and on culture in general. Moreover, just because of its specificity, technical musical language suggests a degree of explanation that far exceeds its actual attainment. To describe something as a "Neapolitan," for example, or as a "set of four elements" comprising a chromatic scale segment, even when these terms are ordered within the larger set of relationships made possible by a





general theory, is a rather rudimentary designation. It leaves unanswered all questions of "meaning," at least those aspects of meaning (and they are arguably the most significant ones) that go beyond matters of purely internal relationships. For these and other reasons, music theory has developed largely in isolation from other musical disciplines, a point that no doubt accounts for the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of so much theoretical writing, as well as for the widespread lack of interest (and even trust) in theoretical matters shown by other musicians. Musical analysts are in this respect the exception, since their work has always rested heavily upon a general theoretical foundation of one sort or another. They view particular compositions largely as concrete realizations of relationships defined within some general theory. This has at least two important advantages. First, it supplies an efficient means for taking into account, and in part accounting for, the technical features of a composition. Any analysis that fails to do this will inevitably seem compromised. Music does, after all, deal with measurable relationships; the analysis that ignores these relationships will seem at best insufficiently specific and at worst simply misinformed. Second, it provides a means of linking the individual features of a single composition to principles assumed to be applicable to a large body of music for example, in the case of tonal theories, to the music of the common practice period. Technical analysis, then, is useful, even essential; and most of the best analytical work published in this country over the past quarter century has belonged exclusively to this category. One problem with such analysis, however, is just that it does lean on a general theory. Theories of music, tonal or otherwise, necessarily focus on the constant elements within a given repertory, for only these lend themselves to systematic categorization and generalization. Thus much recent analysis seems to be largely content with showing that yet another composition, no matter how individual and quirky it may appear on the surface, has at its base the same tried and true relationships (be they Schenkerian linear formations or Fortean set relationships) found in countless other works. The gain, of course, is that the piece is shown to "make sense," despite its peculiarities, according to the logic of a generalized and widely applicable musical grammar. The loss is that the peculiarities, which are presumably the most interesting thing about the composition, tend to be smoothed out in the analytical process. This is admittedly exaggerated. The idiosyncrasies of a particular surface linear motion are, for example, retained in the more foregroundlevels of a Schenkerian analysis; but the latter's final focus, and thus the primary force of its direction, is "in the last analysis" (in this case, literally) aimed at the revelation of conformities. The problem is that music, while containing quantifiable elements that lend themselves to generalization (and which, indeed, can be treated efficiently only through generalization), is created - like other arts - by human beings who differ in ways that are not quantifiable: in personality,



social and historical environment, inherited stylistic conventions, artistic aims, and in other ways too numerous to list. All of these differences are reflected in the music in some mysterious way; yet despite the mystery, or perhaps even because of it, the issues, both musical and extramusical, brought forth by these differences call for our most thoughtful consideration. In other words, if one thinks of a musical composition not just as an autonomous object, an isolated embodiment of an abstract musical language, but also as a record of human thought and reflection of human concerns, then the dimensions of analysis must broaden significantly. Yet most analysts, at least in the United States, seem uncomfortable when confronted with larger questions of intentionality, social and psychological context, or supramusical influence. The reason, I suspect, is that such matters are not measurable, and thus not subject to precise "explanation"; and analysts, like the theorists they rely upon (and they are of course often one and the same), have become accustomed to dealing with only those aspects of music that are. These other matters, however, are not beyond the purview of analysis, at least if it is understood more broadly. They may not be susceptible to measurement, but they are susceptible to interpretation and, thus one may hope, to illumination. In another field it would no doubt be unnecessary to make these points. But the curse of musical measurement, perhaps even more than its blessing, has left its mark, inhibiting our reactions and narrowing our perspective. We need to learn (relearn?) to be more responsive to the varied ramifications of music, to see the individual work as part of a vast and only partly penetrable network of connections and associations that encompasses other compositions, other musics, and other spheres of thought. This brings me to criticism, the last of my three disciplines. I am not referring, of course, to journalistic criticism. (It is symptomatic of what I have been saying about music that here, and only here, the word has been appropriated for such a limited body of discourse.) I use it rather in the wider and more generally accepted sense of informed commentary on the arts that encompasses description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Indeed, in criticism properly understood, these all depend upon one another and are, finally, inseparable. Every analysis, for example, implies an evaluation, just as every evaluation of worth is based upon analysis. We have been inclined to forget this in recent years, preferring to treat compositions as fixed entities capable of being pinned down precisely and objectively once and for all. But our understanding of musical compositions changes as we change. A good piece is open to endless interpretation and to investigation from any number of different viewpoints. There is no single critical truth, nor a final one. Of course, by the same token, our conception of the proper study of music is also subject to change, and there are in fact encouragingsigns that a coalition of theory, analysis, and criticism may be forming itself



within the various musical disciplines. Forceful arguments to this effect have been put forward recently by such prominent figures as Joseph Kerman, Leo Treitler, Edward T. Cone, and Leonard B. Meyer (who might all be said to be approaching a common ground from very different directions). Charles Rosen, who has emerged in recent years as one of our most perceptive and influential commentators on music, cannot be adequately characterized as a theorist/analyst, or for that matter as a historian. Indeed, within the larger field of musical studies I have the impression that historians, for instance, are becoming more interested in theory and analysis, just as theorists and analysts are becoming more interested in history. There seems to be more and more concern with issues that cut across fields, with questions that defy simple classification and categorization. To my mind this augurs well for the work of the coming years. University of Chicago