Aesthetics, Hermeneutics and the Performer

Aesthetics, Hermeneutics and the Performer

Notes for a lecture at Kings College London, September 1989

n.b. Only the names of quoted authors are given below.

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GREEK GODS= composers writing for each other (art of fugue / Webern) (desert Island scores not records).= no mixing with mortals.

HERMES= interpreter (= performer [those who carry out orders]). The GODS crave adulation from the mortals, so they find Hermes very necessary when the mortals are too unable to understand them (GODS understand GODS).

MORTALS= audience (needs to understand work of the gods (hence Hermes assists).

IMPROVISERS= a mixture or alternative: gods acting as Hermes, Hermes acting as Gods (audience the same for both!).

BAROK & BEFORE: few .solo performance’ piecs / few .closed performances-pop music ‘no final cadencs (just a Hoist drift-off) = No Hermes.

but POST BAROK: solo ‘performance pieces’ requires Hermes.

A musical performance, like a fine wine, is considered by the recipient long before it is received: from the savouring, or walking on to the platform [rather than the first sip or note].

The observable relationship between the harmonic series and mathematical proportion has, since Pythagaros, been one of music’s claims to inclusion within philosophical deliberations. Few composers, during that time, however, wrote with contemporary writings in this relationship in mind. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine… all had things to say on the use of music, and, as you may remember from your first degree, to its position in the scheme of things – beautiful, while remembering the continuing battle over mimesis. [“From Boethius to Mattheson” is, in addition, a course taken as part of London’s M.Mus. history of theory and analysis course.]

Aristotle tells us in Metaphysics 1.6.98?b that Plato, in his doctrine that things participate in the ideas, merely introduced a different word for something that Pythagoras had already taught: namely the idea that things are really imitations or mimesis. The context tells us what imitation means here.

This talk of imitation obviously derives from the fact that the universe itself, the vault of the heavens, and the tonal harmonies that we hear, can all be represented in a miraculous way by numerical ratios, especially those between even numbers. Aristotle, in contrast to Plato, taught that it is fulfillment, rather than striving, which constitutes mimesis. Mimesis reveals the miracle of order that we call the kosmos. In addition, this idea of mimesis, of imitation and recognition in imitation, seems broad enough to help us understand the phenomenon of modern art more effectively. [Gadamer] There was a critical awakening in the twelfth century, reflected for instance in the works of John of Salisbury; there was also a controversy between POETRIA NOVA and ancient poetry, involving such movements as verbalism, anti-traditionalism, and the school of Orleans. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a number of treatises appeared – written by authors such as Matthew of VendOme, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Eberhard of Bethune, and John of Garland – in which the theory of art was enriched by observations which, though hardly philosophical (only nowadays would they form part of a philosophical aesthetics), were the product of practical experience. For instance, Geoffrey of Vinsauf spoke about the hardness and resistance of the material, which only strenuous effort could render docile to form. This highlighted the element of struggle and dialogue with the raw material, which Scholastic theory seemed to ignore. New ideas came also from Aristotelian poetics, due to the works of Averroes, who discussed the nature of spectacle and of the imitative arts. The GAYA CIENCIA (art of poetry) provided the outlines of a theory of poetic inspiration, which was to make great headway in the period immediately following. Little by little the Scholastic theory of art, with its system, its definitions of a life of practice which was rational and subject to rules discovered by the intellect, gave way to fresh ideas: invention, feeling, and adherence to the prescriptions of nature. Even though the treatises on art still maintained that reason should control the hand of the impetuous, the artists themselves believed in the rules no longer.” [U.Eco.]

All art forms were tested according to current “laws of beauty”, music, as now, being sub-divided at least according to the class-structure of the audience, and the use to which the musical work was to be put. Post-dating Augustine, the writer whose ideas on this seem to be most pervasive was the 13th century Thomas Aquinas.

It is clear that Aquinas’ aesthetic theories expressed an aristocratic viewpoint. The distinction between servile and liberal arts typified an intellectualistic mentality, for which the highest good was knowledge and contemplation. It reflected the ideology of a feudal and aristocratic society, just as in Greece it had reflected an oligarchical society, in which manual work, usually for wages, inevitably seemed inferior. Social factors made this theory so tenacious that, even when its external presuppositions ceased to hold, it still remained, a stubborn prejudice, difficult to eliminate (as can be seen in the furious arguments during the Renaissance about the status of the sculptor). Perhaps the medieval writers remembered Quintilian: “the learned understand the nature of art, the unlearned its voluptuousness”. Artistic theory provided definitions of art in terms of what could be experienced by the learned, whereas artistic practice and pedagogy had to do with VOLUPTAS. Any distinction between fine art and craft was prevented by the distinction between liberal and servile arts; and yet, the servile arts were considered as fine arts whenever they were didactic, purveying truths of faith or of science through the pleasure of the beautiful.” [Eco]

Aquinas’s rejection of instrumental accompaniment to sacred music was firmly rooted in medieval culture. There was a close link in people’s minds between instrumental music and paganism; it might evoke the memory, for instance, of St. Jerome saying that a Christian girl should not even know what a flute is. Aquinas himself remarked that the church did not use Instruments such as the harp and the lyre “for fear of imitating the Jews”. Instruments, he goes on, should not be used for sacred music just because they produce an aesthetic pleasure so strong that the soul is diverted from its original intent, which is religious rather than aesthetic…. In the case of sacred music, however, aesthetic intentions are of no account. Its only function is to edify us by its effect upon our psychology. To the objection that when we are singing we understand the words less easily, Aquinas replies that the words are of secondary importance to the surge of religious feeling which arises in singers and listeners. “The same is true of the hearers, for even if they do not understand what is sung, they understand why it is sung, namely, for God’s honour, and this is enough to arouse their devotion.”

In the light of modern thought, the aesthetics found in Thomas Aquinas’ writing seems paradoxical. The aesthetic VISIO comes to birth as a culmination and completion of intellectual knowledge at its most complex level. Beauty, in Aquinas’s aesthetics, is not the fruit of psychological empathy, nor of the imaginative transfiguration or creation of an object. Instead, it sinks its roots deep into a complex knowledge of being. And so, intellectual travail becomes a necessary pathway to the knowledge of beauty.

According to Duns Scotus, of the following generation,

“Beauty is not some kind of absolute quality in the beautiful object. It is rather an aggregate [aggregatio] of all the properties of such objects – for example, magnitude, shape and colour, and the sum of all the connections among themselves and between themselves and the object.” [John Duns Scotus]

Here, the term AGGREGATIO might seem to refer us to the theory of proportion, except that Duns Scotus denies that beauty is an “absolute quality”, and denies therefore that it is a substantial FORM inhering in the object as a whole. The reason for this becomes clear if we remember the Scotist doctrine that there is a plurality of forms. The unity of a composite object/does not require a unity of FORM, but only the subordination of the forms of the parts, none of which is annulled, to an ultimate FORM. This is just the opposite of Aquinas: one thinks of Aquinas’s discussion of mixed bodies, where, in order to salvage something of the powers of the FORMS included in the composite, he had to engage in some tricky manoeuvering. This was because his system could not allow the forms of the parts to retain any autonomy, within the shadow as it were of the composite’s substantial FORM. [Eco]

The majority of the leading philosophers after Duns Scotus tended to take sides between his ideas and those of Aquinas regarding matters relating, if only by oblique reference, to musical form or musical performance. The social and religious divisions, with their concomitant musical preferences, continued along the same lines which Aquinas had delimited. The only changes during the next few centuries to occur in musical performance-aesthetics concerned the position of music relative to the other arts: this being of particular concern when a text was to be combined with music.

While in the 15th and 16th centuries rhetoric became an art-theory specifically directed towards the discussion of poetics, theoretical manuals on music also applied rhetoric’s terminology with a similar meaning. [Andrew McCredie] Hence Gafurius in 1480 already enunciated the subdivisions of the voice into ‘continua’ and ‘discreta’. [Gafurius:] This linking of rhetoric with music resulted, among other ways, in Johannes Lippius’ Synopsis Musicae Sacrae of 1612 where he seems convinced that a hidden or imaginary verbal text might underpin an instrumental piece, and that that text would have its own rhetorical form:

“Since the text must give essence to the harmonic cantilena, one must (if it is not in fact pronounced verbally – as in the case of instrumental and sometimes vocal music) have a text in the back of one’s mind, like a mental speech, no matter how varied and vague, as often happens in the so-called popular fantasies.” [see Benlto Rivera]

In 1728, Roger North was still propounding this idea with regard to English dances and the fantasy suite [The musicall grammarian].

Most of the writers on music during the early baroque era still concerned themselves with tuning-methods, modes, ambits, consonance and dissonance, and but a few venture into definitions of music past that of Descartes in 1618:

“The basis of music is sound: its aim is to please and to arouse various emotions in us. Melodies can be at the same time sad and enjoyable; nor is this so unique, for in the same way writers of elegies and tragedies please us most the more sorrow they awaken in us.” [Rene Descartes]

and even he has to keep his booklet interesting by including analogies based on food (in a passage later reworked by Mersenne):

“if we should constantly use fifths (the most pleasing and acceptable of all consonances to the ear) we should soon become bored… just as if we were to feed constantly on sugar and similar sweet delicacies, we should lose our appitite faster than if we ate bread alone, although nobody can deny that bread is less pleasing to the palate than sweets.” [Descartes]

[Descartes’ greatest influence, like that of Zarlino, was on Rameau.]

In the early baroque era, the listener had to be made absolutely aware of the meaning of the text – even to the detriment of the music itself. This change in outlook resulted for the most part from those late-renaissance theories which concerned the presumed music of ancient Greece. Even this change did not radically alter the nature of musical performance, only what was performed (and the stance taken by the performer); this in turn ratified the new role of the audience. If music before 1200 was, for the most part, made up for contemporary use, to be performed by the ‘composer’ and his colleagues, still the ‘composer’ as a separate animal had hardly evolved. Even by the time of Machault, the composer’s name as poet rather than as musician was what would be transmitted for future performances. Even on throughout the Renaissance, composers were writing for practical local performances, often in which they would participate by making some of the sounds (not just directing others).

By the end of the seventeenth century, trying to write about music-aesthetics was the past-time of many an educated amateur musician or seldom musical philosopher; many of whom commented on the text/music and beauty-to-the-ear problems. The overspill of this writing had its effect on the aestheticians chosen by LeHuray and Day for inclusion in the first half of their text-anthology Music and aesthetics in the 18th and early 19th centuries [Cambridge, 1981. [hardback edition]. The writers selected to represent this period seem enviously united in their opinions as to the nature and functions of music, although their ideas on the arts in general, and related concepts, such as beauty and genius, are more diverse. The belief that underlies their whole perception of music is that it should imitate nature: Du Bos claims that the musician, “imitates….all the music that nature herself uses to express the feelings and passions”, and Andre, twenty years later, explains, “Everyone knows that imitation forms the basis of these two kinds of beauty (painting and music)”. The widely read, and influential, Batteux states that imitation is not reality, “It has nothing to do with reality or truth. It is an illusion, and its perfection lies only in its resemblance to reality”, but still maintains that “the prime function of music must be the imitation of feelings or passions”.

Writers of the early eighteenth century in general see vocal music as the superior branch of the art, with instrumental music rated, overall, as a failure: Du Bos calls instrumental music “inarticulate”. Part of the reason for this was the continuing feeling that music (and the arts in general) should instruct and uplift, but by now it was not as clear how this might be done without words. Batteux totally dismisses the symphony: “Music has only a half life, only a part of its being in the symphony. How much more then can it accomplish in song, where it becomes a picture of the human heart.” And whilst Gluck was being affected by Rousseau, and the relationship between music and feeling was affecting the relationship between his music and the words, Mozart was striving to separate the music from the text and to link it to the overall dramatic action.

Clearly, composers paid little attention to the aesthetics of the quoted writers: melody was, of course, important, but was most dominant in the popular forms, which would have lacked the moral value demanded by the writers; dissonance was accepted and exploited [Avison’s “discords are necessary to relieve the ear”]; but imitation of nature, on the simplistic level suggested, did not exist. Individually, the writers make some interesting points; e.g. DuBos who suggests that instrumental music is best used when words cannot be used: in war, or during religious services. He feels also that harmonic and ornamental devices must be used “solely to create and embellish the musical imitation”, and was writing when two books of Couperin’s Ordres had already been published, with their profuse and elaborate ornamentation designed for its wit and frivolity.

It is perhaps unfair to condemn these writers as insensitive and illogical: in general their essays are concerned with devising a broad set of principles by which to judge all the arts. They consider the meaning of beauty and genius, which are problems of great relevance to the approaching romantic movement. In many ways their questions suggest Keats’ anguish in his search for beauty and truth, yet their arguments are too impersonal, and too eager to classify all things under one universal system to be convincing. Batteux tells us:

“If it sometimes happens that the musician or dancer is involved in the actual passion that he is expressing, this is entirely accidental, and it has nothing to do with the purpose of the art”,

Their stubborn refusal to give subjective evaluations of music is proved to be unjustified by the difficulty with which their statements can be supported by contemporary music.

While Aquinas rejected instrumental accompaniment to sacred music, and for him it was enough for an audience to understand why a religious text is sung, for 18th century Kant:

“Music has a certain lack of urbanity about it. For owing chiefly to the character of its instruments, it scatters its influence aboard to an uncalled-for extent throughout the neighborhood, and thus becomes obtrusive and deprives others, outside the musical circle, of their freedom… Those who have recommended the singing of hymns at family prayers have forgotten the amount of annoyance which they give to the general public by such noisy (and, as a rule, for that very reason, Pharisaical) worship, for they compel their neighbours either to join in the singing or else abandon their meditations.” [Kant]

Present-day audiences are becoming aware of pre-Kant music-aesthetics, many of which were penned not by practicing musicians. For the performer of the day, he would merely “carry out” the instructions of the written text: [performer =one who obeys an order]…. Today’s performer of pre-Kantian music must be aware of these writings, but must look to non-philosophical sources for assistance, bearing in mind such often conflicting problems as stylistic ornamentation and phrasing while performing music written for ‘any instrument of this particular range’, in an acoustic and situation normally at immense variance to that conceived by the composer.

18th century authors, such as Addison and Gottsched, were in the habit of describing music as a pleasant entertainment which, when contrasted with literature, was but a morally and aesthetically inferior art which must be made to serve better causes. From the Romantic writers of the next generations, however, the relationship between music and language had reversed: now it was to music that all the arts aspired [just have a speed-read of Schopenhauer, Pater, and later even Nietzche, Gaugin and Mallarme]. One reason for this was the gradual growth of instrumental music, culminating in the production of the very sonatas, symphonies and chamber music which had earlier been rejected as the facile pleasure-givers of non-verbally associated works. For the first time in western aesthetics, an art form that had subordinated didactic messages and representations of specific contents to pure forms was acclaimed as profound art. Although instrumental pieces often continued to be interpreted as representations (e.g. of moonlight or pastoral scenes), a new understanding of the arts emerged, and the struggle to legitimize instrumental music became the first, decisive battle about non-representational art; Welleck [Rene Weliek:] comments on the analogy between music aesthetics and literary theory, where he notes the existence of a “deep gulf between theory and practice throughout the history of literature”. Similarly, Dahlhaus [] asserts that music aesthetics is shaped more by the philosophical and literary traditions that provide its categories than by music itself, which is its subject matter. History amply proves that theories of the arts often precede (or at least co-determine) practice; theories may adjust to an existing practice. The history of music aesthetics suggests that theory and practice in the arts tend to leapfrog, so that the creative work occasionally shapes the theory, whereas at other times theoretical reflection inspires creativity.[John Neubauer]

And so we arrive at KANT

“The beautiful is that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally… A judgement of taste which is uninfluenced by charm or emotion, and whose determining ground therefore is simply finality of form, is a pure judgement of taste.” [Kant]  “The requisites for fine art are understanding, soul and taste… Beauty may in general be termed the expressive of aesthetic ideas. There are only three kinds of fine art: the art of speech, formative art (i.e. expression of ideas in sensuous intuition, and thus not the representation of imagination excited by words), and the art of the play of sensations (concerned with the proportion of different degrees of tension). Where fine arts are not, either proximately or remotely, brought into combination with moral ideas, which alone are attended with a self-sufficient delight, mere enjoyment (which leaves nothing behind it in the idea, and renders the soul dull) is the fate that ultimately awaits them. Music ‘advances from sensations to indefinite ideas: formative art from definite ideas to sensations: the latter gives a lasting impression, the former one that is only fleeting.” [Kant]

But throughout Book I of the Critique of Judgement (of which the first part is the Critique of aesthetic Judgement), Kant attacks music for its conceptual poverty and its lack of immediacy in portraying ideas. Music is consequently given the lowest rank of the arts – with poetry being placed first. It is clear that Beethoven was acquainted with Kant’s works – to an intimate degree in some cases [hence Beethoven’s letter of October 18, 1802 to Breitkopf which claims that “I (Beethoven) only hear what other people say when I have ideas, for I never know it myself” – surely a direct attempt at emulating Kant’s description of genius in the critique which includes “when an author owes his product to his genius, he does not himself know how the ideas for it have entered his head.” [Kant]. With this, the cult of the genius – or rather the personalizing of the Greek pantheon – was under way. Just as the Greek gods had been ‘above’ mere mortals, so now the genius poet/writer/composer could gradually disassociate himself from mere performance matters and concentrate upon ‘pure composition’ which would require some degree of interpretation by the performer.

Literary testimony, whether in the form of speculation on the nature and significance of the situation, or of creative response to the newly-uncovered challenge of that situation, points to a culmination, not in literature, but in music. By virtue of its non-conceptual, non-representational nature, music will, in any period in which new general attitudes force their attentions on intellectuals and artists, be the last of the arts to be affected by these new attitudes, and the last to produce works which convey its fullest response to the new concerns. Thus whereas the movement of German literary Romanticism can be traced back into the last decades of the eighteenth century, it is not until the second half of the following century that the figure emerges in whom the ideals, not just of nineteenth-century German Romanticism as a movement and as an aesthetico-philosophical force came to their most exuberant fruition. [Ronald Taylor]

Within this historical aesthetic doctrine rose the cult of the composer-genius, somewhat removed from the peregrinating virtuosi who, in using an advanced playing technique rather than Aquinian complex knowledge of being (an idea now taken up in Heidegger’s Dasein “Being-there”) as their foremost ability, attempted to corrupt the nature of music into a performer’s circus-act.

In Philosophy in a New Key, Suzanne Langer gets to the same historical position via a different route. She cites firstly Charles Avison (1775) An Essay in Musical Expression who wrote of ‘pleasing sorrow’ and ‘grateful terror’ – the sorrows and terrors are not our own but are sympathetically felt by us. Rousseau, Marpurg, Mattheson and C.P.E.Bach were in the age of composers who performed, she asserts, therefore music was explained as an expression of the musicians feelings. The problem was complicated by the growing distinction between composers and performers. The composer is the original subject of the emotions, the performer the mouthpiece. [See philosophers: Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Croce; critics: Marpurg, Hausegger and Riemann; musicians: Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt.] Expression theory is the most popular doctrine of the significance and function of music. The paradox is that “sheer self expression requires no form”. Hanslick, having noted that “If we contrast [the other] arts with music, we recognize that music nowhere finds a prototype, a material for its productions. For music, there is no such thing as the beautiful in nature” [Hanslick], attempts to blast the growing romantic conception of ‘a language of music’. He declared that music conveys no meanings whatever, the content of music is nothing but synomic sound patterns and “the theme of a musical composition is its proper content”.

Suzanne Langer then looks at music from a purely logical standpoint as a possible symbolic form of some sort. Therefore it has to have formal characteristics analogous to whatever it purported to symbolize. Wolfgand Kohler held that musical ‘dynamics’ describe forms of mental life; crescendo, diminuendo, accelerando, ritardando express inner life. Jean D’Undine treats music as a kind of gesture – a tonal projection of forms of feeling, more directly reflected in the mimic ‘dance’ of the orchestral conductor – L’art et le geste (1910). Internal rhythm is the essence of life – these rhythms are the prototypes of musical structures. J.K.von Hoeslin likens dance, plastic art and feeling to music. The fundamental relationships in music are “tensions and resolutions” and the patterns generated by these functions are the patterns exemplified in all art, and in all emotive responses. Fohler Kofflen assumes that music exhibits patterns of excitation occurring in the nervous tissues, which are the physical sources of emotion. Therefore there are certain aspect of the so-called ‘inner life’ (physical or mental) which have formal properties similar to those of music. Thus the first requirement for a connotative relationship between music and subjective experience is satisfied. [A.Coddington on Susan Langer’s Philosophy in a new key.]

But Langer also asserts that “if music has any significance it is semantic, not symptomatic.” The principal opposition to her claim is based on the general philosophies of such people as Carnap and Russell. For Langer must argue directly against the claim that music cannot be semantic, and thus cannot have a semantic significance; instead music’s significance can only be symptomatic. For music is not technically a language, and thus cannot assert anything. It is argued that music cannot have a symbolic function as it cannot represent, and cannot therefore convey anything to another person.’ All it represents are symptoms of that part of life – subjectivity, and emotion – that cannot be “projected” in language. Her aim, instead of disproving this ‘logic’ is simply to argue that language is not the only means of semantic expression, by offering music as a genuine bearer of symbolic import. [R.Watkins on Susan Langer’s Philosophy in a new key.]

An about-face in musical aesthetics can be seen in the writings of John Cage, especially in the book Silence. A characteristic feature of Cage’s aesthetics is his total negation of the traditional functions of music associated with its creation, reception and performance, and his radical rejection of a work being conceived as an “opus perfectum et absolutum”. He negates the expressive, heteronomic function in the process of musical communication. This is his reason for returning to the actual substance of sound, which – freed from traditional meanings and functions – becomes the central object of experimentation and creative inquiry. Cage has thereby erased the great romantic and neo-romantic tradition which attributed to music an extremely rich variety of meanings ranging from the world of emotions and feelings, through archetypical-mythical symbolism, right up to the transcendental domain of the absolute. All these contents and meanings have been completely obliterated, being replaced by elementary musical phenomena: the flow of time, sound and silence. This is reflected in the Cagean definition of the basic elements of music: form as pure sound continuum; material as the dualistic opposition of sound and silence; composition as the integration of these elements.

Cage’s aesthetic position entails a departure from the stereotype of a work being conceived as a closed form determined within the scope of all its elements. He contrasts this model with an open form with a significant degree of indeterminacy. The operation of chance gives a new ontological status to a musical work through the a priori establishment of its partial or complete indefiniteness. This novel solution presupposes not only an unlimited number of performances of a work, but also – and this is more important – its essential openness. The conviction as to the indeterminacy of a musical work arises from the composer’s attitude to the world. Cage has expressed a belief in the lack of cause-and-effect relations between phenomena, in their mutual independence. Such archetypes of oriental consciousness as Zen-Buddhism have considerably influenced his views. Composition for Cage is not so much elusive creation ex nihilo, but rather the manifestation of existence, of the artist’s way of being in the world; it is not the creation of beings of a specific nature, but an expression of the relations existing between the composer and the world at large. 1 One could even view this as a composer’s unconscious attempt at switching the role of distant composer from genius back to Greek God. [see Zbigniew Skowron]

To return to one of the great stumbling-blocks of the historic musico-aesthetics, this time with a more focussed attention to performance, we come firstly to Mimesis.

“To me, at least, wrote Gombrich, the cook says not ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ as he calls to the English in the morning, nor ‘cocorico’ as he says in French, but still ‘kikeriki’ as he says in German. Or… it is not precisely ‘kikeriki’ he says; he still speaks cockish and not Viennese. My percept of the call is distinctly coloured by habitual interpretation. How much it is coloured would be the problem between nature and convention; to answer that truthfully we would have to be able to compare the sound it really makes with the sound we hear. Put it this way: the difficulty… of the problem becomes apparent – there is no reality without interpretation. [Gombrich]

Modern writers and artists may frequently have understood themselves as in revolt against previous forms of art, but their revolt has often had as its target only the aesthetic definition of art developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Once the philosopher is able to show that the aesthetic definition of art is only a limited and distorted conception of art, then the self-understanding of the contemporary artist as someone in revolt against the tradition is itself open to challenge. It is only by way of the past that we have access to the present, and yet it is in the present and by way of what is most new and unforeseeable in it that we discover the resources of the past. [Robert Bernasoni]

Gadamer believed that if we really want to think about the experience of art, we must think along the following lines: the work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there. We could say that the work of art signifies an increase in being. This is what distinguishes it from all man’s productive achievements in the realm of technology and manufacture where the various appliances and devices of our socio-economic life have been developed. For it is obviously a characteristic of such things that each one we produce merely serves as a means or a tool. But the work of art is irreplaceable. This remains true even now in the age of reproduction where we can encounter the greatest works of art in reproductions of exceptionally fine quality – but in the form of reproduction rather than representation. The unique event that characterizes the work of art is not present in the reproduction as such (even if it is a question of a particular interpretation as a unique event, itself a reproduction). If I find a better reproduction, I shall replace the earlier-possessed one. What is this additional something still present in the work of art that distinguishes it from an article that can be indefinitely reproduced at will? Antiquity gave the answer – and it is to be understood in its original meaning: in every work of art we encounter something like mimesis or imitatio. Naturally mimesis here has nothing to do with the mere imitation of something that is already familiar to us. Rather, it implies that something is represented in such a way that it is actually present in sensuous abundance. In its original Greek sense, the mimesis is derived from the star-dance of the heavens [see Hermann Koller], where the stars represent the pure mathematical regularities and proportions that constitute the heavenly order. In this unique sense, the tradition is justified in saying that “art is always mimesis”, i.e. it represents something. The symbolic representation accomplished in art does not have to depend on what is already given; on the contrary, it is characteristic of art that what is represented, whether it is rich or poor in connotations or has none whatsoever, calls us to dwell upon it and give our assent in an act of recognition. We shall have to acknowledge that learning to listen means rising above the universal levelling process in which we cease to notice anything – a process encouraged by a civilization that dispenses increasingly powerful stimuli.

So, what appears as realism in art is not a matter of direct Imitation of the way the world is but rather refers to the use of certain conventions. Our understanding is always interpretive and retrospective, it is rooted in both the greater breadth of our experience in comparison to the events we study and the narrowness of our perspective in comparison to future points of view. Although art represents an aspect of the world or reality, this aspect is not one that is apparent outside the representation: works of art are not reproductions of a reality that can be identified independently of the work of art and used to judge the adequacy of its representation; rather, the features of the objects that works of art represent – their lack of substance or whatever – are illuminated only by means of the representation itself. Hence the representation does not provide a mirror of reality that exactly reflects it – rather that artistic representation shows the ‘truth of reality’: “Reality is defined as what is untransformed and art as the raising up of this reality into its truth.” By ‘truth’ here, Gadamer means that as aspect of human experience has been separated out from others, given an emphasis of its own and thus illuminated for all; and in this way, he is taking Heidegger’s account of truth as aletheia (disclosure) – it marks an uncovering of some aspect of the world, our lives, a text, etc., that was previously occluded.

Natural beauty

One must not omit the concept of ‘natural beauty’, however. Hegel rightly grasped that natural beauty is a reflection of artistic beauty, so that we learn how to perceive beauty in nature under the guidance of the artist’s works. In the more modern arts, we must experience natural beauty almost as a corrective against the claims of a perception educated by that art. Natural beauty reminds us that what we acknowledge in a work of art is not at all that in which the language of art speaks. It is precisely the indeterminacy of reference, described by Adorno, that addresses us in modern art and that compels us to be fully conscious of the significance of the exemplary meaning of what we are addressing (an “indeterminate reference” becomes a “symbol”), [*]

Sentimentality and historical positioning of performance

A work of art may be sentimental, a performer’s interpretation of a work of art may sentimentalize it, and a listener may react in a sentimental way to a work or the performance of a work which does not deserve that reaction. The first two hardly need exemplifying; the last needs consideration: sentimentality in the arts does seem to be bound up with the idea that the purpose of art music be to give pleasure to its audience; the corollary is that the audience is entitled to hunt the work for features which it enjoys at the expense, perhaps, of a balanced view of the work. Perhaps it is a misconception which we lay ultimately at the door of Utilitarianism; certainly it is an accusation we make against art of the fairly recent past. [See Tanner: PAS] To refuse to listen to a Palestrina CD on the grounds that it could not properly be enjoyed outside of a great church; to accept only a large room rather than a concert hall for chamber music: suppose that some such conditions are universal, their form varying from art to art… it will then be argued that the normal and accepted response of a “qualified critic” is in fact deviant because the pleasure obtained from the work of art arrived via a route which is more or less circuitous. This also approximates to this third category where the pleasure, though certainly caused by the work of art, is amplified by the standing conditions. None of these people is attending to the work of art in its pristine purity: for all of them it is coloured by fortuity. [R.A.Sharpe]

Mimesis to expression

The concept of imitation still seems inadequate for the modern age. If we look back at the historical developments of aesthetic thought, we notice that the concept of imitation was successfully challenged and eventually defeated in the eighteenth century by a quite new concept, that of expression. It is no accident that this development can be traced particularly well in the realm of musical aesthetics since music is the art which the concept of imitation proved least illuminating and its application most limited. So it was that the concept of expression grew out of the musical aesthetics of the eighteenth century, until it came finally to dominate aesthetic judgement as a matter of course during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, [see Enrico Fubini] Thus it has become generally accepted that sincerity and intensity of expression secure the communicative content of a work of art, even if we are then unable to answer the decisive question about the nature of kitsch (which certainly represents an intense form of expression, and its total lack of genuine artistic value does not disprove the subjective feeling and genuine sincerity on the part of either the consumer or producer) [*].

Expression v evocation

To say that a piece of music expresses melancholy is not to say that it evokes (or arouses) melancholy, [Scruton] unless, perhaps the audience is made aware of the performer’s facial expression (the woodpecker-effect at moments where the piano-player’s teacher demonstrated a ‘poignant’ moment; the loudly-sniffing cello-player during a quiet and structurally important passage). To understand an utterance in the ‘language’ of music is simply to understand the references that are made by the individual utterance, in accordance with the conventions and practices of music. There is no need to refer to what the music says. in order to explain how we understand it. We cannot speak of a musical utterance as ‘equivalent’ to a piece of prose; the notion of equivalence is itself tied to linguistic utterances, and marks a relation between sentences alone. Understanding a musical utterance must be considered as a purely musical ability, much as understanding a sentence is purely linguistic.

Musical expression

The term “expression” is applied to those elements of a musical performance that depend on personal response and which vary between different interpretations. “Put in the expression” i.e. to play a piece with a certain articulation, tempo and phrasing. Expression, where it exists, is integral to the aesthetic character of a piece of music, and must not be confused with any accidental relation to the listener. When it is said of a piece of music that it has expression, it seems natural to ask: what does it express? There is thus a presumption that expression in music is transitive… The piano teacher, or the critic, however, seems to be talking of expression in some intransitive sense, that is, in a sense which forbids the performer’s question: ‘what am I expected to express?’… [a face may bear an expression of anguish or simply the particular expression of its features.]

Surely Hegel would argue that art is expressive in that its character is an embodiment of mind; i.e. can only be understood as the product of human essence (& its significance) – i.e. all expression is understood that way, as “a sign of mental possibilities”. Croce would have maintained that even if art does express feeling, the feeling expressed can be defined only through the expression; i.e. “feeling” and “expression” are inseparable and cannot be contingently related via any theory, since

  1. a) Art is not a means to an end and
  2. b) art is not governed by rules to achieve that end, and
  3. c) art is essentially expression: “expression cannot be construed as the giving of form to separately identifiable feelings or ideas” and the feeling must ‘reside in’ the form (or it would contradict the notion that art is not a means to an end).

Publicly accessibility

Although a critical interpretation is something that is added to a work of art, it is added in the way that props, casting and direction are added to a play: in order to catch a ‘spirit’ which the work already conveys. The good production becomes part of the play, in the way that the illuminating criticism becomes part of what is read… A production can be consistent or inconsistent with the work, and this implies that there is something in the work – the meaning – with which it can enter into conflict. [Scruton]

Experience is primarily “an experience of negation” [Gadamer], a discovery that one’s beliefs are inadequate to the subject-matter at issue and hence that one must modify one’s point of view. [Warnke]

Interpreter as audience-aid

Leonardo da Vinci, in Notebooks (OUP): “He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.” The performer, if he is honest with himself, knows that his audience is made up of those who ‘cannot go to the water-jar’: those who are free to choose, will prefer the original; those who are not able will ‘make do’ with the interpretation. This is hard for the performer to admit, for it implies that the performer’s interpretation is always second-best, but second-best does not necessarily imply second-rate – interpretation need not be a poor substitute for the original. [Alan Duff]


The mid-eighteenth century saw such monumental changes to the composer’s role, reform opera, the waning of patronage, etc., that it was quite reasonable for writers and philosophers to contemplate the nature of interpretation. With the Greek god composers now no longer readily available for rehearsal, music being scattered aboard in published form, and composers (of art-music at least) no longer just  being performers, works began to be written for specific instruments, but not with specific markings for all to understand readily. Hence the need for a Hermes-like messenger who would interpret those passages not immediately intelligible to the performer (whose duty in turn it then was to play what they now understood).

One of the first writers of hermeneutics since ancient Greek times was Chladenius (1710-1759):

“There is nothing more common than someone, who, in his desire for us to understand a certain book, will teach us those concepts necessary for its understanding. And we say of this person that he has interpreted the book for us. An interpretation is, then, nothing other than teaching someone the concepts which are necessary to learn to understand or to fully understand a speech or a written work. [Chladenius 169].

“It may just so happen that we ourselves will arrive in time at the concepts necessary for the understanding of a text (168). But this method alone is copious and precarious. We can achieve our goal more quickly if we learn the concepts we are lacking from someone who fully understands the book and knows which concepts we need to acquire. We could act as interpreters ourselves in the hope that we would be lucky enough to hit upon the correct and necessary concepts, but it would still be easier, if someone who understands the book were to help us. [Chladenius 170]

“Since an interpretation only takes place if we are still lacking certain concepts necessary to the complete understanding of the book, the interpreter’s duty terminates when we completely understand the work.” (171).

“Aside from the shortcoming mentioned above, as to the unsuitable placement of this discipline (177), other oversights were made which have distorted its reputation and made it unrecognizable. Philology and criticism, insofar as the latter consists of improving and restoring damaged passages, have almost always been associated with hermeneutics; but when the critic and philologist have done their work on a book, the work of the interpreter is just beginning. One has arrived at the notion that this admixture of philologist and critic could constitute an excellent interpreter. Indeed, we have them to thank for the fact that we receive the book in its entirety and that we can clearly discern the text. All of these are great merits but differ only too greatly from those of interpretation. Many interpretations that were advanced with this belief in mind lacked the necessary prerequisites. (178).

Many things were demanded of interpretations which were impossible, either in themselves, or according to the few principles of interpretation which were available. An interpretation can only take place if the reader or listener cannot understand one or more passages (169,170). On the other hand, it is impossible to find an interpretation if the words in themselves do not contain anything from which the meaning can be conjectured or ascertained with certainty. The interpreter has been called to give meaning to such dark and ambiguous passages, which is of course impossible. To ask him to give even a probable meaning to these passages would be too great a demand, for an interpreter is not in a position to be called to account for passages, even when their meaning is obvious and clear. It cannot be denied that a probable interpretation can be made where a certain one is not possible, but this would be too difficult to put into rules since a rational theory of probability has not yet been sufficiently developed, even though the manner by which we obtain certain truths has been thoroughly ascertained. It is no wonder then that the theory of interpretation has been attacked in its most difficult chapter and that it has not been easy to come away from this. [see 179]

Therefore, an interpreter of music contemporary with Chladenius must imagine the account which he wishes to interpret from both viewpoints; from the viewpoint of the person who finds it incredible and from the perspective of the scribe who wrote it. But since we are usually lacking such interpreters, we must help ourselves and serve as interpreters. Our concern here nevertheless is that we gradually learn to understand an account which we did not thoroughly understand in the beginning and which is why we did not believe it (161). This means in this case that we learn the circumstances of the event of which we were previously unaware and that we learn to reflect on those details which are already known to us (323). But we cannot foresee which details we are missing and which details would allow us to comprehend the account if they were known to us. (324).

The next writer of importance here was Boeckh (1785-1867):

“Aside from the quality of training, not everyone can be equally good as an expositor; and above all an original talent belongs to interpretation… one can generally acquire no knowledge, but can only develop and discipline what is innate in the interpreter (man can be born to misunderstanding as well as to understanding). Interpretative talent is not developed by mechanical practice of hermeneutical precepts; these must rather, after they become vividly alive through actual interpreting, become so familiar through practice that one unconsciously observes them. They must at the same time combine to form a conscious theory, which alone guarantees the trusfcworthlness of the clarifying interpretation. In genuine interpreters, this theory is itself elevated into Intuition; and so arises correct taste, which guards against sophistical, strained interpretations.” 1 [KM-V], [Boeckh].

Dilthey (1833-1911)

In the great period when historical consciousness dawned in Germany, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher and Boeckh replaced hermeneutical systemization by a doctrine of ideals which based the new deeper understanding on a conception of mental creation; Fichte had laid its foundations and Schlegel had intended to develop it in his sketch of a science of criticism. On this new conception of creation rests Schleiermacher’s bold assertion that one has to understand an author better than he understood himself. In this paradox there is an element of truth which can be explained psychologically. [ Dilthey]
Schleirmacher (1768-1834) says that it is no longer the natural and primary thing “when works of art come into general commerce. Part of the intelligibility of each one derives from its original purpose. Hence the work of art loses something of its significance if it is torn from its original context unless this happens to be historically preserved.” He even says “hence a work of art, too, is really rooted in its own soil. It loses its meaning when it is wrenched from this environment and enters into general commerce; it is like something that has been saved from the fire but still bears the marks of the burning upon it.” [Schleirmacher]

Gadamer’s recent questions on this were whether or not the work of art enjoys its true significance only where it originally belongs; is it to grasp its significance to re-establish this original world? If it is acknowledged that the work of art if not a timeless object of aesthetic experience, but belongs to a world that endorses it with its significance, it would follow that the true significance of the work of art can be understood only in terms of its origin and genesis within that world. Hence all the various means of historical reconstruction, the re-establishment of the ‘world’ to which it belongs, the re-establishment of the original situation for which the composer was writing, performing in the original style, etc., can claim to reveal the true meaning of a work of art and guard against misunderstanding and false reproduction. This is, in fact Schleiermacher’s conception and the tacit premise of his entire hermeneutics: historical knowledge opens the way towards replacing what is lost and re-establishing tradition, inasmuch as it brings back the circumstances of the situation and restores it ‘as it was’. The work of hermeneutics seeks to rediscover the point of contact in the mind of the composer which will open up fully the significance of a work of art.

Now, the reconstruction of the conditions in which a work that has come down to us from the past fulfilled its original purpose is undoubtedly an important aid to its understanding. But it may be asked whether what is then obtained is really what we look for as the meaning of the work of art, and whether it is correct to see understanding as a second creation, the reproduction of the original production. Ultimately this view is as foolish as all restitution and restoration of past life… the reconstruction of a dead meaning…. Hegel went beyond Schleiermacher’s views, taking the most extreme counter-position to the self-forgetfulness of historical consciousness: the historical attitude of imaginative representation was changed into a thinking attitude towards the past – the essential nature of the historical spirit does not consist in the restoration of the past but in thoughtful mediation with contemporary life, where thoughtful mediation is not an external and supplementary relationship but on the same level as the truth of art itself. [*]

Dilthey held that “If a play is performed, even the cognoscenti can be wholly captivated by the action. Their understanding is directed towards the plot, the characters and the fateful section of life presented and understand and relive the action as the poet intended. All this understanding of mental creations is dominated by the relation between expressions and the world of mind expressed in them.” [Dilthey: Understanding of other persons (notes c.1890) [KM-V].

Understanding and interpreting in historical/social context

The real meaning of a text, the way in which it speaks to the interpreter does not depend on contingencies that the author and his original public represent. At least, it is not exhausted by them. It is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter. The meaning of a text goes beyond its author not only occasionally but always. [*]

If one examines Gadamer’s analysis of prejudice and tradition its affinities with anti-Enlightenment attacks on reason seem clear. On his account, all knowledge of the natural or social world, of ethical demands, aesthetic value or the requirements of political action is grounded in a traditional orientation. We never come upon situations, issues or facts without already placing them within some context, connecting them with some other situations, issues or facts and, in short, interpretations derive from our circumstances and experience and these circumstances are always already informed by the history of the society and culture to which we belong. So we never assess the beauty or worth of a work of art in the light of a supra-historical standard or rationality, but are always indebted to the various aesthetic, scientific and ethical-political traditions to which we belong. To this extent, he is close to the ideas of Rorty, Foucault and Lyotard: to appeal to supposedly neutral criteria of rational justification is to betray a hopelessly uncritical response to our historical and cultural parochialism. [see Warnke]

This, then, is the traditional hermeneutic outlook on the interpretation problems to be faced by a performer: one would expect the modern performer of mid-l8th and 19th century music to be aware of it at least. In this century, much work was done in defining the methods requisite for ‘breaking’ the codes of art-forms such as music. While Scruton defines this decoding as “the discovery of certain conventions, rules or codes, which determine the symbolic meaning of the work” [Scruton:], Stravinsky asserts that “A written score always contains hidden elements that defy definition, because verbal dialectic is powerless to define musical dialectic in its totality. The realization of these elements is thus a matter of experience and intuition, in a word, of the talent of the person who is called upon to present the music. [Stravinsky].

Composition and decoding

But there has long been a tension between the practice of the composer and that of the performer. From the composer’s point of view, performance appears arbitrary and capricious, if not actually superfluous. This tension becomes all the greater when interpretation is attempted in the name and spirit of science (such as set theory); [when the composer is asked about his work (i.e. late 20th century SPNM concerts) he is quite likely to quote] Ernst Junger: “anyone who offers a commentary on his own work demeans himself.” [Junger] What, then, is interpretation? It is certainly not the same as conceptual explanation; it is much more like understanding or explicating something. And yet there is more to interpretation than this. Originally it implied pointing in a particular direction (not to some final endpoint). We do not have to interpret an unambiguous order which simply requires obedience [remember that the performer is one who obeys or carries out an order]. We have only to interpret something when its meaning is not clearly laid down or when it is ambiguous. [*]

Moments of interpretation

Critical hermeneutics seeks out the causes of distorted understanding and communication which operate underneath seemingly normal interaction. For Emilio Betti, intolerance and selfishness represented the main barriers to understanding, so that an exhortation to avoid these sins was all that was necessary and possible. Even in his ‘critical-objective’ approach we miss an acceptance of the possibility of distorted meaning that can only be recognised and dissolved by assuming a standpoint outside this sphere of the creation and distribution of meaning (i.e. by leaving the ground that binds together all participants in understanding processes). [Bleicher]

Betti notes four .theoretical moments, within the process of interpretation which each represent different forms of receptivity and intellectual approach and which alternate in the course of this process:

  1. a) the philological moment which is effective in the general effort to understand the notation of the score;
  2. b) the critical moment, called upon when cases require a questioning attitude, such as when there are illogicalities in the score or when the need to distinguish between composer and editor.
  3. c) the psychological moment which is active if/when the interpreter follows the task of putting itself into the composer’s place and thereby re-cognizes and re-creates his personal, intellectual position.
  4. d) the technical-morphological moment, which finally “aims at understanding the meaning-content of the objective-mental world in relation to its particular logic and formative principle; it is a meaning that can be sensed in these creations and can be reconstructed;” here the object is considered in its own right without reference to contingent, external factors. [Bleicher]

Meanwhile, George Steiner notes that the act of elicitation and appropriative transfer of meaning is also fourfold:

  1. a) initiative trust, an investment of belief in the meaningfulness within a difficult or adverse text. This trust can never be final – it can be betrayed.
  2. b) aggression: the interpreter’s next act is incursive and extractive: hence
  3. i) St. Jerome i.e. meaning brought home captive by the translator.
  4. ii) Hegel i.e. all cognition is aggressive, every proposition is an inroad on the world.

iii) Heidegger i.e. when he focuses attention on understanding as an act – on the access (inherently apropriative and therefore violent) of Erkenntnis to Dasein (the latter = ‘the thing that is because it is there’ which only comes into authentic being when it is comprehended).

  1. iv) These days, we still ‘break’ a code.

This aggression will naturally lead to sadness: if the act has proved unsuccessful (see Ortega y Gasset on translation-blues) or even if successful (see Augustine’s tristitia which follows on the cognate acts of erotic and of intellectual possession).

  1. c) incorporative: the importance of what has been understood is not left in a vacuum but included into the performance. However, the act of importation of what is to be incorporated can potentially dislocate or relocate the whole of the work’s structure. Where the incorporation is disoriented or immature, the importation will not enrich, it will generate not an integral response but a wash of mimicry (e.g. French neo-classicism in its north-European, German and Russian versions).
  2. d) the enactment of reciprocity in order to restore balance: the most difficult since the jolting of the initial trust-level tends to throw off balance the sense of structure already attained. Here lies the greatest stumbling-block of the performer. [Steiner]

These four-fold interpretative acts form the central set in Jakobson’s “six factors which constitute any speech event: the addresser, context, message, contact, code, the addressee.” [Jakobson]. Any message selects one of these six factors, he suggests, as its primary focus, and this focus determines the primary function which the language is serving in the given message.

Concern for the work of art

Objects of art not merely interest and absorb, they move us; we are not merely involved with them, but concerned with them, and care about them; we treat them in special ways, invest them with a value which normal people otherwise reserve only for other people – and_ with the same kind of scorn and outrage. They mean something to us, not just the way statements do, but the way people do.[Cavell]

Since Rorty and Gadamer, the ‘cultured individuals’ (gebildete) are those who have moved beyond the narrow scope of their private interests and concerns and taken up the concerns of the community to which they belong. To be gebildet in this way is to have overcome selfishness, to have learned to postpone immediate gratification and make the interests of one’s group, profession or the like one’s own. [Warnke] Meanwhile, the artist no longer speaks for the community, but forms his own community insofar as he expresses himself. Nevertheless, he does create a community, and in principle, this truly universal community extends to the whole world. In fact, all artistic creation challenges each of us to listen to the language of the work of art speaks and to make it our own. It remains true in every case that a shared or potentially shared achievement is at issue. This is true irrespective of whether the formation of a work of art is supported in advance by a shared view of the world that can be taken for granted, or whether we must first learn to “read” the script and language of the one who speaks in the creation before us. [*]

Reproductive interpretation

Understanding is, by its nature, reproductive in that it Internalises, or translates into its own language, objectivafcions of mind by means of an actuality that is analogous to the one that brought forth a meaning-full form. Hermeneutically trained understanding of musical creations adds another dimension – and with it a specific responsibility to what is, in fact, a process of ‘rendering understandable’: it is directed at an audience, potential or actual, and requires complete self-surrender on the part of the interpreter in order to remain ‘faithful’ to the work and composer in question. The characteristic difficulty encountered in this sphere is located in the need to bring to full expression what the composer may have intentionally (or not) left vague. Reconstructive interpretation, therefore, can come perilously close to the line separating objective from speculative interpretation. In the performance of a piece of music, the ‘interpreter’ is engaged in the activity of transposing one context of meaning into another and in this sense re-creates the work in question. The principal guideline in this process, which can so easily fall prey to subjectivism and arbitrariness, is the demand to try and fulfil the intention of the composer, and all energy has to be put into the task of making it apparent. [Bleicher]

This, of course, is easier said than done. Composers’ instructions are quite indeterminate: consider tempo-markings (even when the precise duration is given it pre-supposes an unknown performance-acoustic). The correct tempo can never really be quantified or calculated – one of the main confusions that the technical advances of our age have made possible, and that has even affected artistic practice in certain bureaucratic countries, is the attempt to regulate performances so that the authentic version made by the composer (or someone authorized by him) becomes canonic along with all the particular tempi of that performance. In fact, the realization of such a thing would spell the death of artistic reproduction and its substitution by means of some kind of technical equipment instead.

Whenever we try to reproduce a work by simply copying the original and “authentic” reproduction of someone else, then we are falling back into a fundamentally non-creative form of activity which the listener will notice in time – if he is still listening.[*]

As Glen Gould pointed out in 1966 [Glen Gould] the preservative aspects of recording are by no means exclusively in the service of music. “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory” says a Jean-Luc Goddard character; in the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge [see Blomdahl’s “Mima”] which were intended by the medieval scholastics – an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early middle ages – can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them. But in limiting our investigation to the effect of recordings upon music, we isolate an art inhibited by the hierarchical specialization of its immediate past, an art which has no clear recollection of its origins, and therefore an art much in need of both the preservative and translative aspects of recording… Whether we recognize it or not, the [record of a] recording has come to embody the very reality of music [Glen Gould].

Many philosophers, especially those of this century, have pondered (at length) on the identity of a performed work of art. The leading exponent of these deliberations was Roman Ingarden; one of the latest to follow suite is Nicholas Wolterstorff, who makes the following claims on the subject:

“One performs that work which one believes to be W if and only if one brings about a sound-sequence-occurrence which is not a reproduction of any other occurrence, and which comes fairly close to exemplifying the acoustic and instrumental properties normative within that work which one believes to be W, and one does so:

  1. i) by operating the instrument(s) from which the sound is produced in such a way that there is a relatively large amount of adjustment in how one handles the instrument(s) in light of what one anticipates will be the acoustic properties of the resultant sound-sequence-occurrence if one does this or that to the instrument, and a relatively large amount of feedback from what one discerns to be the acoustic properties of the resultant sound- sequence-occurrences to what one does subsequently with the instrument(s); and
  2. ii) by having beliefs which come fairly close to being correct and complete as to what are the acoustic and instrumental properties normative within the work; and

iii) by aiming to produce a sound-sequence-occurrence such that, for most of the properties about which one has those beliefs, one tries to make the occurrence exemplify them, and, for at best a few, one does not try to make it exemplify them; and

  1. iv) by coming fairly close to succeeding in that attempt on one’s part to produce a sound-sequence-occurrence which, for most of those properties, will exemplify them. [Nicholas Wolterstorff]

Organ improvisation [MAN PRETENDING TO BE A GOD]

Wolterstorff, as with many others, tends to equate the rambling extemporiser on the organ stool with the art-improviser on the organ: the extemporiser proceeds as the immediate whim (and his questionable technique) takes him, whereas the improviser has fully mastered form and structure, has a definite paradigm in mind which he follows throughout, and hopefully sounds as though he is performing a learnt art-work. Nevertheless, Wolterstorff (prof. of philosophy in Michigan) has something of interest to say:

“A composer may have views as to what an aesthetically excellent occurrence of his work would be like, and views as to how best to achieve such an occurrence. He may think a certain tempo would give the best performance, or a certain registration on the organ. But if he does not lay these down as requirements for correctness they remain as matters of opinion and judgement on his part. As such, they are true or false. And his holding of such true/false views has nothing to do with his act of composing. A corollary to this understanding of the nature of composing is that to improvise is not to composed). Suppose that someone has improvised on the organ, has then gone home and notated the work without any amendments; in spite of that, the composer did not compose his work in performing his improvisation. In all likelihood, he did not even compose it while improvising; for in all likelihood he did not, during his improvising, finish selecting that particular set of requirements for correctness of occurrence to be found in his score. One cannot uniquely extract a work from a performance.” [Wolfcerstorff]

On the other hand, Gadamer is more respectful:

“Even the most fleeting and unique of experiences is intended in its self-identity when it appears or is valued as an aesthetic experience. In normal circumstances, an organ improvisation will never be heard again. The organist himself hardly knows afterwards just how he played [unless he has been trained rigorously] and no-one transcribed it. Nevertheless, everyone says “That was a brilliant interpretation or Improvisation” [i.e. they do not know whether hewas playing a pre-existing work], or on another occasion “That was rather dull today”. What do we mean when we say such things? Obviously we are referring back to the improvisation; something ‘stands’ before us, it is like a work and not just an organist’s finger exercise. Otherwise we should never pass judgement on its quality or lack of it. So it is the hermeneutic identity that establishes the unity of the work. To understand something, I must be able to identify it, as it was or as it is, and this identity alone constitutes the meaning of the work. [*]

Knowledge-reliance and experts

There is an obvious problem concerning the relationship between an analysis of a piece of music and a performance of it. The Hammerklavier sonata can be analyzed as sequences of falling and rising thirds, but it would be mad to perform the piece accenting all intervals of a third. How much, or what points of an analysis do you play? To carry this question a degree further, consider the relations between the score, the analysis or interpretation of it, and a performance in terms of that analysis or interpretation [by someone other than the composer]. The problem is not (as is often put) that no performance is ideal, because this suggests that we have some idea of what an ideal performance would be (perhaps an idea of it as embodying all true interpretations, every resonance of the text struck under analysis). But this is no more possible, or comprehensible, that an experiment which is to verify every implication of a theory. [Cavell]

Rorty [] insists that we must rid ourselves of a reliance on knowledge altogether, or at least of a reliance on it as something approaching justified true belief. “This century’s knowledge is the next century’s superstition”: thus, the notion of knowledge as either requiring justification or capable of it has to be discarded. On the other hand, Gadamer argued that the ‘expert’ has replaced the ‘man of practical wisdom’: social decisions are not the result of reasoned discussion in an informed public sphere but instead the decisions of small groups of experts who have, they believe, mastered a great deal of technical information and therefore claim to be able to act in the name of everyone else. Such a society of experts is naturally a society of functionaries – what becomes important is not the capacity to make responsible decisions on one’s own but rather the willingness to adapt to decisions others have made for one, decisions which are largely dictated by technological demands. Human beings are therefore threatened with a loss of identity; their actions are not those of responsible soloists but cogs in an orchestra who function as part of a well-oiled apparatus. The effect of this reversal of the roles of practical-moral deliberation and scientific-technical reason, however, is an Increase in ‘social irrationality’. [Warnke]

Performers’ problems

Thus spake Corinth [Corinth]:

“Egotistical as a goddess, who stands in all her beauty and allows herself to be worshipped by her true purists… great art has only one fatherland: heaven ruled by divine power from eternity to eternity.” [hence Corinth’s seduction by the rhetorical].

In art, the chances you take are your own. But of course you are inviting others to take them with you. And since they are, nevertheless, your own, and your invitation is based not on power or authority but on attraction and promise, your invitation incurs the most exacting of obligations: that every risk must be shown worthwhile (and every infliction of tension lead to a resolution, and every demand an attention, and passion be satisfied – risks which those who trust you cannot have known that they would take) will be found to yield value which cannot have been known to exist by the participants. The creation of art, being human conduct which affects others, has the commitments any conduct has. It escapes morality, but in being free & choose only those commitments it wishes to incur. [Cavell]

Ideals of the performer and critic

Ideally, the interpretation of a critic or a performer should reflect in its structure what he finds pleasurable or exciting or interesting in the work, by foregrounding certain elements in that work. A more complicated case will occur where the overall structure of the work dictates a climax which most of us find less impressive than some of the detail; the fault may lie with the work or with ourselves. [R.A.Sharpe]


The prime job of the performer is in the realm of technique; thereafter that of UNDERSTANDING and interpreting the work of art. Unlike the performance teacher, I am not suggesting that it is the task of performers to study composition-scores if they are studied to find the history of pitch-etc.-choice (the composer chooses which is the final 1st version of a work – later versions (re. local alterations, perhaps by someone else (Bruckner, Schumann, Mahler) not necessarily valid: see poets on reworking old poems))).

After all, COMPOSERS who conduct their own music: often as if by someone else, changedots if they don’t like what they hear.

COMPOSERS who write for a particular player’s sound (Stravinsky & USA oboes).

THE COMPOSER expects the educated ear (even if only that which has determined the de-limits of style – patrons), the performer at the time of composition would react – to the educated’s ear – it is not the performer’s role to re-educate (to an earlier era) the audience’s ear [some of which might be already be attending anyway]: this role is the promoter/educator/etc. [WHO?].

TO PERFORM, not just necessary to know the historical/cultural period, also need to know:- rhetoric/ basic logic-training of the composer (Kant on Beethoven etc.); and possibly current hermeneutic thinking as well as general philosophy of era (such as Batteaux on imitation: never practically taken on board by composers.).

SOLO performer usually doesn’t know why (only when) audience is suddenly quiet (= normally the best performance): solo performer should only play that which they understand to their audiences.

THE PERFORMER should expect the educated’s ear/play always as if to be a ‘good audience’ [see SOLO PERFORMER above].

But COMPOSERS who change libretto (which/how should the singer interpret?)?

The end: the muse’s invocation

Hesiod, in his invocation of the muses was the first to express clearly an awareness of the poet’s mission. At the beginning of Theogony, the muses appear to him and say “We know how to say many false things as though they were true, but we also know, when we so wish, how to reveal the truth.” [ Gadamer’s interpretation of this was that] :whenever the muses have anything to give, they give both truth and falsehood. It is characteristic of the language of poetry that it speaks both truth and untruth and points to the open realm of interpretation. The truth of poetry is not governed by the distinction between true and false as it was understood by the hostile philosophers who claimed that ‘poets tell many lies.’ Thus an element of intention and interpretation has always belonged to the ambiguity of poetry. But, when the shared horizon of interpretation has collapsed, when there is no longer a shared language, when the remarkable fusion of classical myth and Christian religion still in force two hundred years ago has finally lost its self-evident status, then this breakdown will inevitably be reflected in the language of art. Consequently, we see the element of interpretative reflection assume an even greater role.

The common bond between poet and interpreter, composer and performer, is becoming increasingly obvious today. In the last analysis, this stems from the fact that we live in a time which, in spite of tireless efforts to discover the definitive word of interpretation, is marked by the renunciation of certainty expressed in the second version of Holderlin’s poem “Mnemosyne” (d800):

“We are a sign without interpretation.” [*]

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[ * n.b. Names of quoted authors are given, but please use the Contact Form to request full citations or to make helpful comments. The notes above were the basis of a lecture, not an article.]