By Jeremiah Lawson
As a written practice, Western music goes back at least a thousand years. Over the centuries music has been made in the service of churches and courts, and from roughly the eighth through the thirteenth centuries was very often vocal music. Soloists and choirs sang the praises of God and rulers, in the service of altar or throne. Instrumental music has always been with us but instrumental music didn’t begin to develop as a written tradition in the West until somewhere between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for practical historical purposes. By the time of the Renaissance and Reformation vocal music had reached such a perfected state in Western Europe it was known as a perfected art (ars perfecta, Palestrina being the best known exponent of this style). It was thought by many there was nothing to be added to the perfected art of music in the West as it evolved within Christendom.
Yet the perfected art gave way in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to a revolutionary series of changes. The Reformers viewed ars perfecta as one of many signs of a corrupt and corrupting Church, a holdover from the system of indulgences that needed to be reformed or rejected. Instruments became easier to mass produce and new tuning systems ensured new and expanded possibilities for performance. New genres of vocal performance emerged such as opera and oratorio along with new ways to pack more words with more dynamic expression than was possible in the older Renaissance norms. New conceptions for organizing sound allowed for new forms of dissonance in music which sound subtle to us but which were revolutionary in their day, particularly when Claudio Monteverdi began writing music that ushered in what is known as the early Baroque period.
All these changes cumulatively led to a revolution in the way music was composed. Western music began to move from being conceived and performed within the tradition of vocal music to instrumental music, particularly ensemble music. Music in the literate tradition also began to move slowly and steadily beyond elite circles to into the realm of the emerging merchant and middle classes.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries major and minor keys as we can recognize them today began to emerge; music began to be written and played in this new way of thinking in and organizing musical sound. As choral music had evolved in medieval Christendom toward perfected heights, instrumental music in Western Europe became more complex, more ambitious and more expressive.
Unchained from being in the service of cardinals or kings, music became a literate and literary art available to more people. Music was regarded as the highest and noblest art in the 19th century for being able to express directly the feelings of the composer. That this assumed directness of expression depended on a long list of conventions was easy to overlook so long as no one was breaking the most important conventions about how instruments were to be played and what was played on them. The late 19th century European art music tradition had reached a new ars perfecta for the age of instrumental music.
Then by the end of the First World War a moment of crisis arrived. The crisis was the perfection attained in European art music. It seemed that from the perfection of Mozart and Beethoven up through to the operas of Wagner and the symphonies of Mahler or Brahms there was nowhere new to go and nothing new to say in the late Romantic idiom. All of the good options seemed to be “used up” and composers began to look for ways to come up with something new that would keep Western music moving “forward”.
Where the centuries between the end of the Renaissance and the emergence of high Baroque music such as the music of J. S. Bach were full of experimentation, style changes and the invention of forms, the old perfected art was retained. In the 20th century composers and musicians who felt the weight of centuries of the already done in the Western tradition sought to shake off the past. That was by the end of the First World War. In the quest to find a new kind of music that wasn’t beholden to the clichés of Romantic sentimentality composers like Arnold Schoenberg sought to open up possibilities they considered latent within the twelve-tones of the equal-tempered scale used in Western music since the 19th century. .
By the end of the Second World War many important figures in the arts in Europe began to believe that the Western European arts legacy, having failed to prevent the Holocaust from happening, should be considered implicated by it. Whatever the future of Western music had in store, it had to be liberated from the monster siblings of medieval Christendom and the European legacy of colonialism and nationalism. That meant that, as Pierre Boulez used to put it, the opera houses had better be blown up and Europe had to start over as if from scratch.
Not everyone agrees that that has been the case. Not everyone agrees that the sounds our voices and instruments can make in the Western traditions and the traditional forms invented over the last few centuries have been “used up”.
But merely not being against something is not the same as having a good reason for it, just as having a good reason for something doesn’t mean people will agree the reason is a good one. What made the 20th century different from earlier eras of change was that there were educational regimes and newly formed canons of music at stake. In the 16th through 18th century era of European music there were many styles and forms, all having their time and place. Art served religion. In the 19th century European thinkers began to propose that art would replace religion or fulfill its purpose and, so doing, began to establish an artistic canon. What those men who made or standardized the canon of art didn’t anticipate was that, like the religious canons of old, their own canon of art-as-religion might come into question and come under fire.
From around the time of World War I onward, challenges to the relevance and legitimacy of the 19th century artistic canons have emerged. Owing to the often totalitarian spirit of the times, people were admonished to accept or reject the art canons that were developed in the 19th century European period. This body of work has been alternately presented as the accumulation of the best and greatest thoughts of humanity with timeless and universal values and as the work of dead white guys who lived in European colonial and imperial contexts whose works preclude the possibility of any newer works being seriously considered in the educational cultures of the West that formulated these canons. For people who are not already immersed in the debates around the Western canon this conflict is literally academic.
A thousand years of Western musical art would be too much to defend or discuss in a rather slim book. What is disappointing about Roger Scruton’s Music as an Art, is that a book that might seem at first glance to be about Western art music as a whole ultimately proves to be mainly a defense of instrumental music from the 1740s through the 1940s. Scruton is mounting a defense of the canon of Western art music that was formulated and developed within what is often called “the long 19th century” in European arts and letters. The Future Symphony Institute for which Roger Scruton is a fellow is committed to continuing Western art music but that’s the rub, the symphonic tradition is a couple of centuries old in the history of Western art music that has traditions going back as far as a thousand years.
A Romantic Manifesto for the 21st Century: Highbrow for Highbrow’s Sake
Scruton’s book is not advocating the value of the whole pie, just a defense of one slice from it. The slice he seems most committed to is the 19th century instrumental tradition that was the culmination of centuries of development. He is also committed to the idea that art can do for religion what religion can no longer reasonably do, which means he replicates the problem created by art-as-religion that developed during the Romantic era.
During the 19th century European modernists wrestled with the question of what would replace or supplant the legacy of Christendom and for many of those artists, writers, musicians and philosophers the answer could be the nation state or art. Rather than have art serve throne and altar, art itself could somehow be the altar and the throne of the monarch could be replaced by the body politic. Categories of the sacred and profane in religious thought mutated during this period into ideas of high art and low art. There was no room for any intermediate or mediating states in a chain of being.
Unlike the musical revolutions that happened in Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, in the 20th century, thanks to the emergence of explicitly totalitarian and technocratic ideologies, everything had to stay or everything had to go.
Scruton is a writer who is making a case that the perfection of the 19th century symphony is not exhausted and that we can and must preserve the art music of the Western European tradition.
The problem is maybe the perfected art of the European symphony has given way to an explosion of contrasting styles and ways of making music, just as the perfected choral art of Renaissance Europe gave way to the styles of early Baroque masters like Claudio Monteverdi developing new styles. Perhaps like the old polyphonic mass of Renaissance choral music, the late Romantic symphony isn’t dying but its day in the sun is over.
If that is the moment the West has reached then the idea that the future of classical music is the symphony may be mistaken. The beauty of that musical tradition may need to be translated and transformed. To that end, the Future Symphony Institute could have a great deal of valuable work to do. But this may all depend on whether or not the impulses that drive the institute can get past the deadlock of radical vs. reactionary that came to dominate Western modernism since the French Revolution.
Music as an Art continues Roger Scruton’s writings on music as developed in his earlier books The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Understanding Music (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). To the extent that this new book includes chapters discussing Wagner and Nietzsche and opera the book can also be seen as taking up themes Scruton discussed in his book The Ring of Truth: The wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of Nibelung (The Overlook Press, 2016)
The most significant part of the book is its first part, six chapters devoted to questions often borne in the titles such as “When is a Tune?”; “Music and Cognitive Science”; “Music and the Moral Life”; “Music and the Transcendental”; “Tonality”; and “German Idealism and the Philosophy of Music”.
The first chapter considers how “tunes”, holistic melodic lines memorable in themselves such as can be found in folk music and hymnody, have waned from art music and contemporary popular music alike, though tunes can be found in the older American songbook and in church hymnody still. Yet the absence of a “tune” doesn’t indicate an absent of melody. Scruton proposes that melody still exists but the melodies we hear in music now are repeating phrases or “scraps” of melody, in popular music, or longer melodies too nebulous to define, in contemporary classical music. Scruton makes it sound as though the only place to find tunes in Anglo-American music is in places like the American songbook, the classics of early jazz and Tin Pan Alley. That’s great if you love that music but it bodes poorly for our own era.
The chapter “Music and Cognitive Science” is less about music and cognitive science than it is about music and linguistics. While work by Christopher Longuet-Higgins or the theory presented by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff in A Generative Theory of Tonal Music may have attempted to account for a linguistic basis from which to appreciate or understand what can be known as a “tonal grammar”, this research may not always be about music and cognition. Scruton goes over a number of theories that music and particularly tonal music is based on a grammar or syntax that can be mapped out spatially in two or three-dimensional terms, but seems persuaded that his own description as a “one-dimensional space” in which “tone” may correspond in some sense with actual sound but is not strictly equivalent to it is sufficient to explain music.
Asking for One-Dimensional Music in a Three-Dimensional Era
Roger Scruton’s insistence that we need only think of music in what he calls one-dimensional terms highlights one of the central problems of his work. Over the last century Western composers and musicians have wielded recording technology to think and make and experience music in what we have to call three-dimensional terms.
The trouble is that at least as far back as Theodore Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, writers on music have noted that there is more than one way to hear and conceive of music. One of Adorno’s most salient points was to assert that in Western music there were two different modes of listening and music cognition, a “dynamic-expressive” mode derived from singing and a “rhythmical-spatial” mode derived from dance (Philosophy of New Music, pages 144-145). Adorno claimed that in previous eras of Western art music these two modes were joined or overlapped in works from the Western tradition but that in the 20th century, in the wake of industrialization and the rise of capitalism, these two modes of listening had completely separated from each other and, so separated “have become untruth.”
The dynamic-expressive way of hearing and writing is best exemplified in a traditional sonata form. One melody is presented in one key, there is a transition, another melody is presented in another key and this is the exposition. There is then a development section in which the melodies of the exposition are transformed and are, as the name has it, developed. The implicit possibilities of the melodies that were not presented in the first part of a sonata are revealed in this part of the music. The third part of the sonata form is the recapitulation, in which all of the melodies are presented, generally in the key of the first theme. This was the kind of music best known in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This is the music of “argument”.
But in 1913 there was another kind of music, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This infamous ballet presented an ancient pagan Russia in which the god Yarilo was venerated and offered a human sacrifice by way of a chosen sacrificial victim who danced herself to death to ensure a good future harvest. This was set to music full of relentless bludgeoning dance movements, full of static and often dissonant harmonies, in which melodic ideas were juxtaposed but never developed the way they would be in a traditional symphony. Stravinsky’s musical revolution in Rite of Spring is the best example of a new kind of music that Adorno described as “rhythmical-spatial”, dance music in which thematic development is cast aside in favor of the dance and what popular musicians would identify as a “groove”. Adorno regarded this new groove-centric music as dehumanizing, anti-humanist, totalitarian and fascist in its means and ends.
Adorno was insistent that music had to have both an “argument” and a “groove” in order to be truly great music. He also insisted that music from the 18th and 19th centuries achieved this balance of ideals. Music that didn’t have both an “argument” and a “groove” was “false”. Yet Adorno insisted that the tonal traditions of music from the previous centuries was “used up” and had become false. Music that was in recognizable tonal patterns would simply be the servant of monopolistic capitalism and totalitarian regimes, therefore any art that was going to be “true” had to defy commodification. Adorno believed that the early atonality of Arnold Schoenberg and, later, the post-tonal soundscapes of Edgar Varese, successfully resisted bourgeois commodification of art. History has shown that Adorno’s anticipation of what the next best step for Western music had to be has not caught on over the last hundred years.
Scruton has written that Adorno that he made it possible for Marxists to hate popular culture on behalf of the working class and have a theory to defend their own elitism. This would seem a lot funnier if Scruton himself didn’t come off as being as much an elitist as Theodore Adorno was. Within Marxist circles Adorno was put down as hiding in an ivory tower and pining for a proletarian revolution that would never actually need a proletariat. Scruton has his arguments against Adorno, but the trouble is that in the 21st century Adorno’s chauvinism, elitism, sexism and racism have all come under substantial fire from within the domain of what conservative too sloppily call “cultural Marxism”.
Scruton rejects Adorno’s Marxism … yet basically accepts Adorno’s polemic against pop culture while also accepting Igor Stravinsky’s place in the classical music canon. Adorno regarded Stravinsky’s music as inhumane, inhuman and dangerous, even fascist (Stravinsky was, in fact, an admirer of Mussolini earlier in his life); Adorno rejected popular music as equally conformist and conforming in its means and ends. Adorno was consistent to a fault but he was, at least, consistent. With Roger Scruton it can seem as though once something is vetted as sufficiently highbrow, Roger Scruton accepts it as highbrow.
His Marxist commitments withstanding, Adorno nevertheless recognized that Western music had a new paradigm for listening and composing in the Western tradition. Adorno called the split between his two modes of listening “untruth”. He didn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation for how the two forms of music cognition could be reunited. So we live in an era of hermetic classical music, relentless dance music, and popular songs. Partisans who want to argue the point advocate for the high or low art, not about whether or not what Adorno saw as the fatal breach in two modes of musical listening and creating could be repaired. Roger Scruton is aware that the chasm between high and low musical arts exists but he has nothing to add on the subject of whether the chasm can or should be bridged.
He has, however, noted composers who mastered the new post-tonal language and then turned back from it. Scruton has mentioned the American composer George Rochberg as a composer who was committed to atonal music . After his son died of cancer, Rochberg had a crisis of faith not only in serialism and atonality, but in the assumption that music had to be written in a single, unified style. Rochberg began writing music that made a point of juxtaposing the violently atonal with a nostalgic, lyric style of tonality harkening back to Beethoven. On the path toward his break with serialism Rochberg grappled with the two kinds of listening that Adorno said characterized our new century.
George Rochberg used the terms “timespace” and “spacetime” to describe the conceptual shift between traditional Western music and the newer music in The Aesthetics of Survival. What these terms mean can be compared to riding in a boat along a river, with a clear and known goal in mind (“timespace”, traditional Western music) and riding in a boat exploring a wide open lake without having a particular goal (“spacetime”, contemporary sonic art of the Edgar Varese variety). In the “timespace” music you listen with the end in sight. In the “spacetime” music you listen in the moment as though you were appreciating and exploring a sonic landscape.
This new three-dimensional approach to hearing and imagining sound has been possible thanks to the machines we use to write, record and listen to music. As technology opened up more sophisticated ways of making recorded music, creators of popular music reveled in creating three-dimensional listening experiences that you can listen to on headphones, which can scarcely be accounted for by the Western literate music tradition Scruton defends. He wants to defend his ideal music on the basis of a one-dimensional conception of sound in an era where we can create music with three-dimensional effects in mind.
Why does this matter? In “On the Run” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, a sound can sound as though it is sweeping across a three-dimensional field of aural “vision”, moving from left to right, right to left, or swirling around the listener who is listening to the album on headphones. This kind of music is a great example of being organized on the basis of what Rochberg called a “spacetime” principle. We have long since had language to describe this kind of music experience in the term “surround sound”.
Scruton has found Rochberg’s rejection of twelve-tone composition in favor of a return to tonal music but never quotes him. Rochberg has given us a body of writing that grapples with the new ways of listening and writing Adorno diagnosed, but Scruton has no use for him. Instead, Scruton’s writing on music seems to do a good job of building on foundations he has already established through his own work, without showing nearly as much interest in engaging with the ideas of others. Ironically, this makes Scruton remarkably like his nemesis, Theodore Adorno.
It is in chapter four, “Music and the Transcendental” in which Scruton stakes out a commitment to Romantic ideals. Scruton states on page 73 of Music as an Art that “The Romantics had the question of God. And music was part of the answer.” On page 84 Scruton proposes that by “transcendental” we should not think of the experiential content of music as transcendental in the sense that it could refer to anything “actually” transcendental or supernatural, but as a potent distillation of our own emotions in art. The transcendental in music is a human emotion that can be realized more perfectly and completely in art than it could ever be in our normal, mortal lives. Scruton writes “… it presents us with the empirical, the here and now, by showing it in its purified and completed form. And maybe that is the best we can ask for.”
But how long can you run with that before the formulas used for achieving that sublime feeling wear thin? This was precisely the crisis European composers in the early 20th century thought music in the West had come to at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, acutely so in Germanic contexts. This led to a crisis that was regarded as a crisis of the legitimacy of tonality, which is the subject of chapter 5 in Scruton’s book. Scruton sets up a range of arguments against positions he attributes chiefly to the composer Arnold Schoenberg and the philosopher Theodore Adorno, proposing that there is nothing about Western tonality from the classical tradition that is arbitrary or unnatural. The trouble is that this has been disputed at several levels. Leonard B. Meyer claimed in Music, the Arts, and Ideas that, “The fact that something is conventional and learned, however, does not mean that it is arbitrary, any more than showing that it is `natural’ is to assert that it is necessary.” (Music, the Arts and Ideas, page 288)
Paul Hindemith’s attempt to argue that tonality derived from the overtone series in The Craft of Musical Composition was not a particularly compelling case, even for a Hindemith admirer such as myself. The crowning irony of attempts to defend traditional tonal systems by appeal to the overtone series was noted by the avant garde composer Iannis Xenakis in Formalized Music (1992, Pendragon Press), who pointed out that in an attempt to defend the role of intuition in composing music and relying on traditional tonal systems theoreticians attempting to defend the tonal musical traditions were invoking mathematics. For ancient Greeks, or for Augustine, such a move wouldn’t be unheard of, but for people attempting to defend a Romantic conception of music the irony was too amusing for Xenakis to not mention. Xenakis argued that the innovations of 20th century music proved that music and its variously assumed “rules” were conventions and were thus modifiable. Scruton has attempted to argue otherwise but has, so far, failed to come up with a convincing set of reasons as to why.
Still another irony with regard to Scruton’s failure to lock down a defense of traditional tonality is that it could be argued that American microtonal composers already did much to accomplish this task half a century ago. A more nuanced and persuasive defense of the overtone series as something that can inform but does not constrain ways of thinking about pitch organization was written in 1962-1964 by Ben Johnston, “Scalar Order as a Compositional Resource”.
Invoking the work of S. S. Stevens, Johnston noted Stevens’ presentation of nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio scales of measurement, proposing that traditional diatonic scales are ratio scales while the chromatic 12-tone scale is an interval scale, equal subdivisions of the octave. Scruton has attempted to argue that the diatonic major and minor scales derive from ratios inherent in the overtone series and Johnston doesn’t disagree, exactly. But Johnston’s point was to argue that the introduction of equal tempered tuning meant that Western music was not, in fact, basing tuning systems and all subsequently composed music on the overtone series but on a compromise, namely equal temperament. Johnston argued that by rejecting tonality Schoenberg and those students of his who fomented total serialism merely created a stop-gap solution to the problem of how late Romantic music seemed to have devolved into a stockpile of clichés and kitsch.
Johnston argued that what was needed was not a proliferation of serialist music but a recovery of the ideal of just intonation, which he believed undergirded earlier conceptions of tuning and musical performance prior to the advent of equal temperament, following in the example of his mentor Harry Partsch. Johnston’s proposal that the “crisis” of the “exhaustion” of tonality in Western music emerged within roughly a century after the standardization of equal temperament as a tuning system hasn’t factored in any of Scruton’s defenses of tonality. Perhaps it should.
Alternatively, Scruton’s polemics against the legacy of Pierre Boulez as an advocate of serialism doesn’t seem to add much more than Adorno’s own acid assessment of the devolution of twelve-tone music into total serialism in essays Adorno wrote in the 1960s. Even though Adorno regarded traditional Western tonality as “used up” and “untruth” he did not end up endorsing total serialism himself. That Scruton continuously conflates twelve-tone technique with serialism is a sloppy conflation of terms for anyone who has compared the works of Schoenberg and Berg to works by Milton Babbitt or Elliot Carter.
For that matter, experiments in quarter-tone music managed to emerge in Eastern Europe and the United States before Schoenberg formalized what is now known as twelve-tone technique. Scruton’s arguments against particular changes in German/Austrian music at the dawn of the 20th century don’t seem to account for the wider musical world.
Perhaps it’s fitting that in chapter 6, on the German idealists and their legacy of writing about music, Scruton explains what he finds unconvincing and effective in the legacy of thinkers ranging from Leibniz through Schopenhauer. Many of the debates about music, especially what is conventionally known as classical music and popular music, may be informed at a variety of levels by ideas articulated by the German idealists and their followers. Scruton makes something of a case that in the era of the German idealists there was a “listening culture” and that listening to music in the 19th century was something like participating in a religious ritual. A way to describe this view toward might be to say that with the demise and rejection of the legacies of feudal Christendom European thinkers began to view art in the emerging bourgeois and revolutionary era in sacramental terms. As the composer Richard Wagner famously put it in “Religion and Art”:
One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention. But Religion has sunk into an artificial life, when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divinely True in her beneath an ever growing heap of incredibilities commended to belief. Feeling this, she has always sought the aid of Art ; who on her side has remained incapable of higher evolution so long as she must present that alleged reality of the symbol to the senses of the worshipper in form of fetishes and idols,— whereas she could only, fulfil her true vocation when, by an ideal presentment of the allegoric figure, she led to apprehension of its inner kernel, the truth ineffably divine. To see our way clear in this, we should have most carefully to test the origin of religions. These we must certainly deem the more divine, the simpler proves to be their inmost kernel. …
Scruton proposes that Wagner saw the religious impulse as empty when bound to implausible dogmas, but that it is all the same ineradicable from humanity. Scruton has written that Wagner’s Ring cycle proposes to tell the story about our stories. On page 199 of Music as an Art Scruton says that Wagner’s later operas were increasingly conceived in “Eucharistic” terms, as a kind of ritual that would allow the audience to be participants in a narrative of tragic redemption. On page 209 Scruton asks whether Wagner’s conception of art as “the art work of the future” “that will replace religion not by refuting it but by doing its work, and doing it better?” This question Scruton asks in a chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s polemics against Wagner, and Scruton closes that chapter with a question of whether the famous philosopher would consider Wagner’s music and its emotional content more fake and insubstantial than music by Lady Gaga, Meshuggah or electronic dance music.
That reads like a great zinger to someone who is already convinced traditional highbrow arts are somehow “better” than alternatives. Yet Scruton’s case, more or less taken up from Wagner and other German writers, that art can serve some kind of religious/sacramental role doesn’t manage to stipulate what “brow” of art ought to be able to accomplish this better-than-religion task.
If all we have to go on from Wagner’s “art work of the future” (a vision of a full integration of all artistic media in a sweeping grand narrative that spans the story of humanity from the dawn of the universe to the potential end of all things) we can see that Wagnerian ideal realized in the Marvel movies that culminated in Infinity War; in the continual production of Star Wars films; in the half-century long Star Trek franchise; or even Michael Bay’s Transformers films. What separates Wotan’s spear and the Ring of the Nibelung from the Cybertronian Allspark, or the One Ring or the Infinity Gauntlet? Is the difference simply that Wagner could quote Schopenhauer and Feuerbach whereas pop culture franchises invoke second-hand Jungianism by way of Joseph Campbell? If art can do what religion once did and do it better what, exactly, is the reason that art has to be something performed at Bayreuth and not something observed at the San Diego Comic-con? You can see some form of Loki at either event, right? For all of Scruton’s learning and at times interesting argument, he hasn’t managed to come up with an answer for that question.