In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Shaw and MusicMeaning in a Basset Horn
  • Peter Gahan (bio)

About 1600 … a truly revolutionary change occurred in Western music, such as had never happened before and never since…. Suddenly out of a clear blue sky musicians came up with the idea of making language itself, including dialogue, the basis of music.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech, 1989

I learnt my trade from Mozart.

Bernard Shaw to W. Nugent Monck, 26 May 1936

Mozart is only a clavier player with a depraved ear!

Giuseppe Sarti (1729–1802)

The Shavian key—D flat major, vivacissimo.

Bernard Shaw to Siegfried Trebitsch, 1906

Music has inspired poets and philosophers from Pythagoras to Bernard Shaw, who adopted the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto (basset horn) for his writing as music critic, but it has been very difficult to explain how. What is music's power to affect? Indeed, what does it mean to ask that question?

Although both questions are almost impossible to answer with certitude, personal experience tells us that (except in the cases of the deaf and the tone-deaf) music exercises its affective power on practically everyone. This essay is a cross-disciplinary exercise that will make brief forays into the fields of structural linguistics, music history, theory, and performance practice, and keyboard history and technology, taking into account three aspects of Shaw's work: (1) how Shaw's music criticism anticipates both the theory and practice of recent baroque music performance; (2) how Shaw's writing in his plays can be related to a theoretical approach to music as a semiotic system functioning as a language; and (3) what Shaw meant by saying he learned his trade from Mozart. [End Page 145]

At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Italian music scholars like Beldomandi of the University of Padua wrote treatises inspired by Pythagoras on methods of dividing the monochord.1 The results of such truly revolutionary labors included the clavier (any type of keyboard instrument: clavichord, harpsichord, fortepiano, pianoforte, or modern piano), which will play an important part in this essay, along with the renaming of the monochord as the octave because of its division into a scale of eight notes. A consequent and equally important revolution in musical history occurred nearly two centuries later, about 1600: the quite deliberate creation of a new art form, dramma per musica, later known as opera, that made possible what we call diatonic music, so-called Western or classical music, which again looked back to the ancient Greeks for inspiration, specifically Greek drama. This latter revolution, not without eliciting protest from traditional music theorists, changed music itself. So-called absolute music—never absolute, as its rules are never constant—is always the result of a changing (developing or evolving) series of conventions of signification whose signifiers are sounds with physical properties known as harmonics. The reason we react as we do to Brahms, or Jazz, or Heavy Metal, is because music functions as a language we can understand, a language born with the birth of opera.

From the second half of the twentieth century, two movements in separate fields help fill out this notion of music as language. The first, an offshoot of the postwar performance practice of baroque music by Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and others, is the understanding of baroque music (c. 1550–c. 1750) as a type of tonal rhetoric, "speaking sounds," where each musical phrase means something. Such "speaking sounds [or tones]" follow rhetorical procedures such as, at the most basic level, that of question and response in dialogue.2 According to Harnoncourt, for instance, J. S. Bach showed deep interest in the art of rhetoric not only through his friendship with the university rhetoricians in Leipzig but by applying its principles, derived from Quintilian, to his music.3 The second, structural linguistics, which developed from the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), may allow us to consider music as a semiotic system of signs and meaning. If music has developed in the past four centuries as a language, its basic units are the musical sound (tone or note) and the feeling, analogous to the basic units of spoken language being the...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 145-175
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.