Printer Friendly

Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics.

Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics. By Stephen Rumph. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. [xi, 265 p. ISBN 9780520260863. $49.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Stephen Rumph's new book is a text-centered study of musical meaning. Philosophical texts discussed include selections from the writings of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Adam Smith, and others; musical texts are mostly familiar passages from Mozart's operas, piano concertos, symphonies and sacred music; and music-theoretical or musicological texts include books by Leonard Ratner, Wye J. Allan-brook, Robert Flatten, Raymond Monelle, and Elaine Simian. Rumph reconstructs two competing paradigms from the writings of Enlightenment philosophers and theorists of language: a rationalist model based on rhetoric, and an empirical model rooted in cognition. His aim is to encourage a shift of attention from the dominant rhetorical model to the empirical model because he believes that the latter more fully captures the contradictory essence of Mozart's style. Rumph's method, then, involves an impressive mix of philosophical exegesis, forays into intellectual history, and close musical analysis. He ascribes meanings and describes the mechanisms by which they are generated. He is especially alert to deeper-level processes involving metrical shifts, textural succession, and the working oui of motives; indeed, some patterns of sub-surface activity, he argues, reveal strong affinities between Mozart's compositional manner and certain modes of eighteenth-century theorizing. Wide-ranging and ambitious, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics aims to capture a series of historically-grounded musical meanings while unveiling deep affinities between music and ideas.

The book contains six chapters, a cogent introduction, and a brief epilogue. According. to Rumph, "we lack a 'historically informed' semiotics of eighteenth-century music" (p. 3); he aims, therefore, to plant Enlightenment sign theory firmly within music history and music theory. Music and ideas share "common foundations" (p. 4), and Mozart's music "embodies the ideals [of the Enlightenment] with unusual clarity" (p. 9). So if we can reconstruct the ways in which the composer and his contemporaries "understood language, rhetoric, or signs" (p. 3), if, in other words, we can gain access to a" 'native' perspective" (p. 3), we can get a better--that is, historically more plausible--handle on meaning.

Chapter 1, "From Rhetoric to Semiotics," argues directly for the greater relevance of the linguistic model over the rhetorical one. The demonstration piece here is the opening movement of Mozart's G-Minor Symphony, K. 550. According to Rumph, the movement does hot set out to persuade or communicate; indeed, its phrase structure is said to enact a dance-based binary impulse that releases it from certain rhetorical obligations. Rather, the movement enacts its own analytic process by, for example, creating, an initial structural problem (based on the repetition of a sigh motive in the opening melody) which it eventually solves. Rumph approaches this analysis through Condillac's "sensualist philosophy" (p. 21). which, among other things, "demonstrates the interdependence of signs and thought" (pp. 22-23). The idea of music as thought. inscription, or writing has been advanced in connection with later composers like Brahms and Beethoven (sec. for example, Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in Om Age of Beethoven [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006]), but Rumph sees signs of it already in the G-Minor Symphony

The second chapter, "The Sense of Touch in Don Giovanni," explores the epistemological fallout from elaborations of the sense of touch in the Enlightenment imagination. Citing the living statue in Don Giovanni as a ready reference, Rumph restates Kant's idea contrasting the rationalist's preferred modality (sight) with the empiricist's (touch). He then proposes not an allegorical or symbolic reading of the opera but a sensualist-empirical one that probes the very conditions of representation. Quotations from the writings of Berkeley. Condillac, and Herder dealing with the sense of touch provide the backdrop to the author's analysis of three passages from Don Giovanni the aria "Vedrai carino,", the aforementioned duet "La ci darem la mono," and the act 2 banquet scene. These readings 'typically stage a confrontation between mediated and unmediated hearings, the former gesturing towards the symbolic realm. the latter drawing on natural signs.

Rumph's main music-descriptive tool, the idea of topic, takes center stage in chapter a, "Topics in Context." Few would disagree that "Ratner's concept lot. topic I has proved one of the most fruitful approaches to musical semantics" and there-fore that it "belongs at the heart of any discussion of Mozart. and semiotics" (p. 79). Allanbrook's writings on Mozart's operas and instrumental music have prc wed exemplary in this respect (see, for example. Metric Gesture in Mozart: nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983] and "Two Threads through the Labyrinth: Topic arid Process in the First Movements of K. 332 and K. 333," in Convention in Eighteenth.-and Vineteenth-Century Music Eassays in Honor of Leonard G. Ruiner, ed. Wye Jamison Allanbrook, Janet Levy, and William P. Mahrt. pp. 125-71 [Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon. 1992]), and it is perhaps no accident that Rumph came under this influence as a ductoral student at the University of California. Berkeley, where Allanbrook taught. Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics is laced with suggestive topical attributions: it thus contributes positively to ongoing demonstrations of the interpretive it of topic.

Rumph's third chapter is not, however, a celebration of topic theory; on the contrary, it includes a critique of the ontology of topics. He is troubled by the seeming absence of a precise, historically supportable definition of the term topic. Furthermore. critics influenced by Ratner he contends, "have tended to treat topics as codified symbols rather than fluid indices. As a result they have often taken a facile approach to semantic interpretation, while neglecting the syntactic structures that articulate and transform It and which govern their dynamic interaction with meter, tonality, rhythm, and texture" (p. 84). To construct is pr posed alternative, which, among other things. promises "a more rigorous syntactic analysis" (p. 85), Rumph first turns to another eighteenth century writer. Vico, for an account of "rhetoric, invention awl topics" (p. 90). He finds a "cognitive orientation" (p. 91) that aligns Vico With the empiricists. We need to attend. therefore, to the "physical properties of the musical sign" (p. 941. Meter and texture in particular demand our attention. while concepts like markedness and neutralization help to delineate the work of topics. Rumph concludes that "any interpretation guided by traditional rhetoric, which treats topics as a codified lexicon. will miss the deepest part of Mozart's art" (p. 106). While this seems unexceptionable, the "deepest part" is not conveyed as a well-defined quality accessible by means of a replicable analytical strategy.

Chapter 4, "Mozart and Marxism." is an exercise in musical aesthetics. Citing critiques of Susan McClary's decoding of an individual-versus-society dialectic in the slow movement of the G-Major Piano Concerto, K. 453 as point of departure (see Susan McClary, "A Musical Dialectic from the Enlightenment: Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453, Movement 2," Cultural Critique 4 [Autumn 1986]: 129-69), Rumph rehearses the authenticity of the sensualist model, drawing now on the writings of Adam Smith. The main example here is the Piano Concerto in B-flat Major, K. 450.

The fifth chapter, "A Dubious Credo," takes us into the realm of theology. Rum ph First focuses on two credo masses, the Mass in F, K. 192, and that in C. K. 257, and suggests "how they might correlate with important strains of eighteenth-century language theory" (p. 143). Later, he adds a counterexample, the Credo from the Coronation Mass, K. 317. Two of the many issues considered in this exploration of a composer's belief and its articulation are, first, the paradoxical role played by the stile antic in Mozart insofar as it functions both as a topic and as a repository ot the ideal of "purely rational language, grounded in universal principles" (p. 153), and second, shifts in the relationship between subject and object.

The book ends, appropriately enough, with a chapter on closure, "Archaic Endings." Rumph's interest here is in logic, pursued through endings suffused with archaic signs, most commonly the learned style or stile antico. As in previous chapters, Rumph mounts a nuanced argument around three principal analyses illustrating three different paradigms. The first is the C-Minor Mass, the second the piano concerto in E-flat Major, K. 449, and the third the great quartet from act 2 of Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. The contrast between the rationalist and empiricist models continues to serve as a bort/oft lor interpretation, but we come to understand that Mozart sometimes operated with a kind of divided consciousness, mixing old and new paradigms.

Of the many issues raised by Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics, three might be mentioned briefly. First and most obviously, the idea that music and ideas (originating linguistics or philosophy) share certain "foundations" remains to be established unequivocally. In conceding that he cites authors "as witnesses ... not as influences" (p. 3), Rumph signals diverse modes of conceptual transfer between domains--allegorical, metaphorical, analogical, or deriving from the verbal component of vocal music. Is it possible that binary opposites of the sort that Rumph frequently deploys are more appropriate in word-based disciplines like philosophy and linguistics, but less so in music analysis? It would have been helpful to establish an ontological limit by demonstrating, for example, the conditions under which "music" and "ideas" can ever display incompatible foundations. While it is not difficult to imagine that "Mozart's musical expression reflects a core of assumptions that permeated late eighteenth-century thought" (p. 5), I wonder whether it is ever possible for a musical style not to share in contemporaneous thought. Clarifying this issue would. I believe, help SOC readers appreciate better the very premises of Rumph's project.

Second, a direct illumination of musical procedure, preferably guided by the most sophisticated musical thinkers (of both the eighteenth century and the present day), might have strengthened the analytical portions of the book. In making the case for a topical syntax, for example, Rumph might have invoked a treble-bass hierarchy (found, for example, in Ratner's two-voice reductions, or in Schenker's voice-leading graphs) in order to set into relief the alternative hierarchies emanating from the disposition of topics.

Third, I tripped over a few of Rumph's characterizations of passages from Mozart. For example, he refers to the "confused opening" (p. 25) of the G'-Minor Symphony, K. 550, Ina others might hear richness and a multiplicity of implication. In a later chapter, he maintains that "La ci darem la mano" "opens with a striking absence of topical reference" (p. 71). even though the melody-versus-accompaniment delineation together with the deliberate pacing might suggest otherwise. Rumph indeed rejects Allanbrook's suggestion that the opening (if this duet might index a serenade (p. 69).

These are minor points, however, that should not detract from the value of Mozart and Enlightenment Semiolics. Advanced students of late-eighteenth-century music, music analysts and semioticians will find much to ponder in this book. Taken together with such recent books as Karol Berger's Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) and Michael Spitzer's Music and Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's Late Style (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006). Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics exemplifies the prospects for a music-centered analytical project with interdisciplinary ambitions.

It is pity that a number of errors crept into the musical examples: Example 11 on p. 65 has stray natural signs in mm. 76 and 77, and a wrong note occurs in the highest sounding voice on the downbeat of m. 77; Example 18 on pp. 112-113 is missing a key signature; in Example 19 on p. 115, the last melody mote in m. 39 should be a G not an A; in Example 21 on p. 127, the last bass note in m. 13 should be an F not a B-flat; and in Example 38 on p. 180, the bass note should be an A-flat not A-natural; hopefully these will be set right in a future edition.


Princeton University
COPYRIGHT 2012 Music Library Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Agawu, Kofi
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
Previous Article:Directions in Music Cataloging.
Next Article:Liszt's Transcultural Modernism and the Hungarian-Gypsy Tradition.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |