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  • Virtuosity of the Nineteenth Century: Performing Music and Language in Heine, Liszt, and Baudelaire
  • Ulrich Baer
Susan Bernstein, Virtuosity of the Nineteenth Century: Performing Music and Language in Heine, Liszt, and Baudelaire. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. 239 pages.

Writers as diverse as Walter Pater, Joseph Conrad, Arnold Schönberg and John Cage have insisted, in different ways and with different intentions, on the supremacy of music over all other forms of human expression. Unlike even the most abstract other arts which rely on a medium to render intelligible or sensible a content that is located elsewhere in the “world,” music expresses nothing but itself. The fugitive expression of music coincides with its theme; while music is completely enigmatic, Theodor W. Adorno once intoned, it is at the same time totally evident. Every attempt to describe this effect of music, as philosophers, writers and musicians have asserted, forces language up against its limits where it is finally defeated. In her timely and incisive Virtuosity of the Nineteenth Century, Susan Bernstein deftly investigates the unexamined certitudes underlying such statements from two angles. Bernstein examines how the pervasive perception of music as the absolute and ineffable coincidence of expression and ‘expressed’ that reveals the limits of language compels us to think differently about language itself. Instead of rehearsing critical commonplaces about recent theories of language, however, Bernstein relies on a deconstructive understanding of language as depending on the failure to coincide with itself in order to produce meaning to ask the unresolved question about the relation between music and language in a new way. Music now emerges as something greater than the stumbling block of philosophical thought and the sublime achievement that humbles the pretensions of language to account for all of reality. Rather, the historically shifting metaphorical uses of “music” in various discourses are identified by Bernstein as resulting from, rather than simply signaling at, the crucial capacity of language to digress. When the absolute ineffability of music is diagnosed and described in language, it turns out, such descriptions depend on an unnamable digressive dimension that is inherent to—but also divides from within—language itself.

Bernstein’s book usefully complements other more strictly musicologically oriented works by Carolyn Abbate and Susan McClary that attempt to define the singularity of music while considering more recent understandings of reference and language. But Bernstein’s concerns soar above the [End Page 1125] preoccupations of individual disciplines. While musicologists and musicians proudly insist on the ineffability of music’s content in non-musical terms, and while most philosophers and literary writers have humbly accepted music as a chastening and sublime reminder of the conceptual and expressive limitations of their medium, music, as Bernstein shows, is ‘itself’ marked by a tension between the musical score and its performance. For music to be regarded as the absolute coincidence of subject and predicate, the performer of a given piece of music must essentially vanish into the idea of the piece during the performance lest he upstage the work which is meant to coincide with itself. While the notion of music as an absolute art was elevated conceptually to the level of self-evident truth, however, the sounds of the nineteenth century emanated from pianos played by child prodigies who would mature to become transnationally revered virtuosi and as such embody, night after night, the absolutely unrepeatable singularity of the musical event. A descendant of the coupling of the genius (which anchors the branch of philosophy known as aesthetics) and the enfant sauvage (with which empirical philosophy had propped up its enterprise), the virtuoso exposes as a truism the absolute indivisibility of music by drawing attention to the particularized event of each performance. While the perfect performer— in the 19th century Chopin—is supposed to vanish fully into the “idea” inherent in the music, the charlatan virtuoso—Liszt—frequently lapses into being a shameless and seductive self-promoter who upstages the idealized conception of music as the coincidence of composition and execution by becoming visible, as it were, instead of remaining a pure instrument.

Instead of treating the virtuoso as a stable entity whose history could be fully reconstructed, Bernstein analyzes the effects of the virtuoso...

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