- Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony
Melanie Lowe's book puts rather high demands upon its readers. At its center it attempts to establish "meaning" in a transcending sense as an essential trait of the Classical symphony and to define the listener's resulting pleasure in tracking down this meaning. "Meaning," however, is not to be understood here in a semantic sense of "expression," but in a structural sense. This semiotic approach to musical meaning participates in a rich scholarly tradition that the author thoroughly recapitulates and evaluates in the course of arguing that musical meaning could only originate for the classical audience within the individual listener as a diffuse mixture of external impressions and internal perceptions. Lowe argues that the pleasure of the late-Enlightenment listener must have consisted solely in gleaning meaning from a composition's structural elements or "topics," a position derived from the doctrine of topic theory as it was defined by Leonard Ratner and significantly deepened by Kofi Agawu.
Consequently, a central concern of the book lies in tracing such musical topics—particularly in Haydn's symphonic output—as they take shape and play out in the listener's perception. To this end, the author takes on the definition and analysis of a large range of abstract patterns of perception: surface topics and rhetorical processes, including stability and instability (opening, preparation, and conclusion or development); and also expressive kinship and cyclic organization (opening, conclusion, and center). Against this background of specific observations gleaned from a reading of the scores, Lowe then turns in the core of her book to a comprehensive attempt at reconstructing historical perception. Her approach here is to use Haydn's music as well as documentation of its reception history to re-create three possible sets of meaningfulness, one for each of three imaginary listeners in Vienna, Paris, and London. This heuristic experiment leads to a broad discussion of the notion of pleasure, which is partly extracted from historical [End Page 628] writings and partly from compositional facts. Finally, to underline the longevity of these perceptual patterns, the book concludes with a survey of American music in the early twenty-first century.
The ingenious execution of the book offers deep insights into the musical vocabulary of the late eighteenth century, not so much regarding its given intentionality but rather the context of its application. In Lowe's argument, a given listener's perfect familiarity with this vocabulary allows the tracking-down of functional correlations and guarantees aesthetic pleasure. The methodological risk involved here arises from the intermingling of historical and synchronic approaches: the systematic exploration of compositional facts is established first and then projected onto historical patterns of perception and the broader aesthetic debates of the late eighteenth century. That music commands meaning via interplay with the structures of cognition is not a premise of musical perception unconditionally available in the eighteenth century, but rather one of its most striking outcomes. The classical era produced the idea of structural musical meaning, and therefore Lowe's methodology begs the important historical question of how this yardstick of pleasure was produced. Even if one disregards terminological problems—the use of the term "classical symphony" hearkens to a questionable historiographic model rather than to a truly historical perception—difficulties arise on a more fundamental level, i.e. in the choice of the underlying categories. For example, although there is no doubt that the eighteenth century represented a time of a fundamental change in the "public sphere," today it is not sufficient simply to refer to Jürgen Habermas's Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Important as this book was in its time as a historical impulse, its conclusions have since been much debated, modified, and even corrected. In any case, the process of establishing a public realm in the eighteenth century was a contradictory and by no means linear development that cannot really be understood by applying theories of social hierarchy. (Compare, for example, the new methodological approaches in Peter Albrecht, Hans Erich Bödeker, and Ernst Hinrichs, eds., Formen der Geselligkeit...