Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Music Speaks

“Criticism so relentlessly intelligent is rarely so buoyant, so ready to charm while it challenges.” Thus did Scott Burnham (author of the widely acclaimed book Beethoven Hero) welcome Daniel Albright’s Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song upon its release by University of Rochester Press in November 2009. Albright, who holds a named chair in the English Department at Harvard University, is the author of two previous books for the Press: Berlioz’s Semi-Operas and Musicking Shakespeare: A Conflict of Theatres. The new book, Music Speaks, is indeed brilliant, and its subject matter is remarkably diverse, ranging from subtle art songs by Schubert to Brünnhilde’s full-throated war cry (in Wagner’s Ring Cycle), and from Stravinsky’s hieratic oratorio Oedipus Rex to a dreamy painting of dancer Loïe Fuller by Toulouse-Lautrec. Below we reprint Albright’s tasty preface to this important—and unceasingly delightful—book of studies on the interactions of music with literature and dance.

Music Speaks is a sort of rehearsal-piano reduction of a number of multimedia lectures I’ve given in the past few years.

I might argue that there’s a hidden unity behind its miscellaneous character by pointing to some of the features that bind these essays together. My continuing preoccupations are these:

1. How to deal with the problems of articulating the meaning or meanings of music.

2. How to deal with the larger question of how music and language interact, whether music is “like” spoken/literary language, whether it transcends language, whether our musical apperceptions are of a different sort from those we engage in regard to words or visual images.

3. How, especially in the world of Lieder, text-setting highlights certain areas of meter, or theme, or ironic undertone, and leaves others in darkness.

4. How a musical composition can behave as a critique of a previous composition: how it can be an homage, or an act of affectionate mockery, or a full-scale repudiation.

5. How music interacts with bodily gesture (and, again, how both become “legible”). Sometimes dance seems to spell out words with an alphabet of the whole body; sometimes it refuses to constitute itself as a language.

6. How one might rehabilitate certain underappreciated or much-scorned figures, such as Meyerbeer, by showing that the very terms of invective used against them can be seen, from another angle, as an indication of what is exciting in their work.

I mean to show how music history has an aesthetic of its own, and how music history interacts with intellectual history (from Rousseau and the Encyclopédistes to Paul de Man). The method of these essays is juxtapositive: by abutting music against literature and painting, and by abutting the musics of different centuries, I try to frame a particular work, to isolate what is arresting and important in it.

Some readers are likely to object to my preference for a contrapuntal rather than a linear mode of argument. Almost all of the chapters take detours, forward or back in time, sometimes a few decades, sometimes centuries. But I hope that the lack of chronological boundaries, or genre boundaries, or language-region boundaries, might be seen as natural extension of the freedom that the individual chapters allow themselves—to make one genre comment on another, to make one era comment on another, to make one artistic medium comment on another.

I might also note that this book can be understood as a tribute to mechanical reproduction—to the LP record, the compact disc, the .mp3 file, which have integrated music into our daily lives in a way once scarcely available even to kings, and which have not only gratified an appetite for music but also created one.

All these pieces (except one) were written in a span of four years (2004-8), and mostly concern the music of the last two centuries. During much of this period I was working on Jacobean and Restoration music for a project on Shakespeare, and I found it most pleasant to turn from Robert Johnson and Lanier and Purcell—delightful though they are—to the composers treated here, my oldest loves. As to the two essays on dance that conclude this volume, they were called forth by my friend Simon Morrison of Princeton University, who, on the Day of Judgment, may have to answer for them.

In a future posting, we shall provide some sprightly excerpts from various chapters of
Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song.

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