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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 467-476

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Critical Discussions

Tchaikovsky versus the Western Canon

Brian Hendrix

In the real world, professional music critics and amateur audiences exhibit consistent disagreement in their evaluations of musical merit. In the somewhat smaller realm of philosophy of music, there are those who tend more towards a formalist, cognitive account of musical value and those who shy away from leaving behind or disparaging music's more tangible features. Like professional critics and amateur audiences, the two philosophical camps also tend to disagree in their evaluations of the same musical pieces, yet each remains hopeful of convincing the opposing side that the source of their disagreement is their choice of evaluative criteria. For example, in the ongoing debate between Bruce Baugh and James O. Young, Baugh argues that rock music has aesthetic criteria particular to itself, drawing the conclusion that it is impossible to judge rock music fairly according to the set of criteria normally applied to classical music. In his reply, Young not only accepts the existence of the particular aesthetic characteristics posited by Baugh, but claims that these features of rock music are also present in classical music, that they are already accounted for in that music's set of evaluative criteria, and that it is still possible to apply the same criteria to both types of music. 1

The disagreement between Baugh and Young is not simply about which evaluative criteria ought to be applied. Hence we ought not to agree with Theodore Grayck when he claims that "the recent debate between Bruce Baugh and James O. Young is largely beside the point" because it "does not matter whether rock music . . . shares the specific [End Page 467] values of any sort of traditional art." 2 Regardless of the status of Gracyk's larger argument for the possible incommensurability of evaluative standards, the debate between Baugh and Young is still important because it brings into fresh relief an old and almost intractable problem in philosophy of music, a problem which is also present in other areas of critical inquiry into the arts.

When comparing different critical evaluations of an artistic work we must first secure a common ground: the object of evaluation itself. When discussing music, however, this common ground exists less often than we think, simply because different listening styles (which frequently correspond to particular types of music and particular sets of evaluative criteria) can actually produce different musical objects. (Here "musical object" refers not to the score or the recording, but to the listeners' internalization of the sounds and their synthesis of these temporally successive auditory experiences into a common totality--in other words, the end result of having the experience of hearing a musical work.) Two different people, having attentively listened to the same musical performance, may in the end each be evaluating a different musical object, thus making possible a disagreement over musical value which springs from something much deeper than our espoused choice of evaluative criteria.

In order to avoid the broader classical versus rock music debate, which Gracyk correctly characterizes as really being an argument about cultural tastes rather than evaluative criteria, it will be helpful to turn our attention to a limited example: one composition from a single musical tradition. It will also be helpful for this example to be well-known and, in order to draw out the difference between formalist evaluations and physicalist evaluations, we should choose a piece that has a significant amount of what we might call "visceral" as well as formal elements. There is an obvious candidate.

In Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture there is a cannon. According to the score, the cannon ought to be fired nineteen times, thus ensuring a series of percussive effects which cannot be missed by even the most tin-eared audience member. In fact, if deaf people were to attend a performance of the piece it is likely that they would be able to sense, if nothing else, the percussive effects of the cannon; it is a sound so loud as to be capable of being "heard" by one's...


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