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  • Coming to Terms with our Musical Past: An Essay in Mozart and Modernist Aesthetics ed. by Edmund J. Goehring
  • Marshall Brown
Coming to Terms with our Musical Past: An Essay in Mozart and Modernist Aesthetics. By Edmund J. Goehring. Pp. xii + 209. Eastman Studies in Music. (University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, and Woodbridge, 2018. £80. ISBN 978-1-58046-930-2.)

Edmund J. Goehring has written a lively, well-researched, original, and illuminating close [End Page 583] study of Mozart. That is his first book: Three Modes of Perception in Mozart: The Philosophical, Pastoral, and Comic in Così fan tutte (Cambridge, 2004). This new book strikes out in a different direction, with a carefully composed, wide-ranging, forceful, even passionate, but sometimes frustrating defence of the humanity of music, directed against currently influential trends in studies of classical music and aesthetics generally. Both parts of the new book's title are misleading; the polemic concerns coming to terms with music generally, not just with the past, and Mozart plays only a sporadic role as a case in point, and that more in connection with the plots and characters of the operas than with the music. Indeed, much of Goehring's prior work has probed the history of stage drama from the perspective of opera; his plea for a new humanism (my term, not his) finds a natural and persuasive base there, but might face more challenges with purely instrumental music. This book is, rather, a sustained critical intervention in debates about music aesthetics.

The ten chapters are: On Critique; On Transcendence, Present and Past; On Intention; On Being; On Chance and Necessity; On Ambiguity; On Mimesis; On Pleasure; On Concepts and Culture; and The Flaws in the Finale. The formula brought to mind the thirty-five chapters 'on' mostly abstractions in Daniel K. L. Chua's second book—following a staunchly analytic first book on Beethoven's late quartets—Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge, 1999). The two books are radically different in their stances and tones—with Goehring's earnestness balancing Chua's wit—and likewise in their approach to musical understanding. Yet underneath they share a push for a philosophically grounded musical scholarship that can unflinchingly confront large-scale conceptual issues. Impulses like this come often enough from above—from philosophers and theorists—but they strike a different chord when prompted from the start by direct encounters with artistic texts. Challenge like this is invaluable, even if, as with both these books, the details are beleaguered by devils.

Goehring's tonic note is life. He strikes it in his introduction, which sets up an opposition that divides the artifice shared by modernism and post-modernism that he calls 'self-consciousness' (p. 4) from the 'vital force' and 'energy' belonging to Mozartian Enlightenment. His heroes include Charles Rosen, Umberto Eco, Stanley Cavell, and Marilynne Robinson, but villains figure more largely in his polemic. The lead-off in 'On Critique: or, Two Paths through the Art-Critical World' is Michel Foucault's essay on 'authorcide' (p. 10), 'The Death of the Author', soon abetted by Bruno Latour and Rita Felski. Goehring's logic is consistent throughout: while, thankfully, he avoids the now clichéd term deconstruction (and mentions Derrida only on one page), he scrutinizes the negatives that post-modernism posts along its roads, remaining always mindful that any significant denial presupposes the significance of the positive that is denied. You can't get much mileage out of killing an author if there never was one. Likewise, as Goehring rightly argues in 'On Transcendence', Mary Hunter's preference for particularity over 'universals' (her scare quotes) falls prey to the evident fact that concepts are universals, and Hunter cannot do without them; if she is scared of universals, she should be equally scared of generalizing about 'structures of power' (p. 32), as she does in claiming that Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is 'about the kinds of power that a work and its characters can have over the audience' (quoted on p. 34). And then the short but crucial chapter 'On Intention' takes on Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, and eventually Theodor Adorno, to argue that...


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