11. On the Definition of Aesthetics in Music

In the Fall of 2017 I was returning to Milano and its famous cathedral for the purpose of finding a quiet place where I could gather my thoughts at the conclusion of a month-long conducting tour, rehearsing and giving concerts in major cities in Italy, including the Vatican in Rome. But any thought of contemplation was destroyed by a great number of tourists, mostly American, judging by their clothes, who were wandering around with guide book in hand, bewildered and inquiring of each other, “What are we supposed to see? Why are we here?” This sad scene clearly documented their lack of cultural education.

A thought that followed this was that the experience of these people was not so different from that of many band members. We give them an instrument, teach them how it works and how to read the notation on the page and then we put them in a band giving them a nice social experience, but leaving them lost in so far as the aesthetic aspects and meaning of the experiences they would encounter. The following essay was written with the hope of helping teachers begin to include this subject in their discussions with their students.

Although music is usually associated with the other arts, painting, sculpture, acting, etc., it is actually quite unique. Unlike painting and sculpture, which are representations of something else, music is not a representation, nor a symbol, nor a metaphor of anything else. It is more accurately a language, a special non-rational language through which we communicate the experiential side of our nature. For the listener, it is this musical language which allows him to communicate directly with the composer’s original inner idea and through contemplation learn more about himself.

The painter often has an object, say a vase of flowers, from which he develops an inner artistic vision, from which through the technique of oils, brushes, etc., he turns into the work of art, a canvas. The composer has no comparable object, but rather begins directly with an inner artistic vision, which he turns into a score, the notated form of music. But this notated form, the score, is not the art work. Written music, like written English, is only a symbolic language, symbolic of something else—which in the case of music is symbolic of the composer’s more complete inner idea.

Equally important is the process of the listener, who goes in the opposite direction. In the performance of music, the listener experiences the music immediately and has an instantaneous connection with the inner artistic idea of the composer. Here lies one of the great educational values of music, the direct exposure to great minds. The observer of a canvas, on the other hand, first employs exclusively the eye. If he is going to be successful in going beyond this to see the inner artistic idea of the artist, he must make a shift from vision to mental contemplation. In other words, he must get past the experience of the eye before he can get to the experience of the artist.

But there are additional important distinctions. First, the art work of the painter is “frozen” in time. In this way it is like a photograph. If you think of someone you know well, you can “see” in your mind much of his features. But if you happen to have a photograph of that person, when you look at that a much more complete picture of the person comes to mind. But the picture never becomes the real person. A recording, by the way, has this same relationship with real music.

In the case of the performance of music, the direct experience through which the listener communicates with the composer is always in the present tense, and seems so even when one listens to older music. For example you can listen to 13th century dance music and with little effort your emotional and experiential empathy allows you “see” in your mind the palace room, the dancers, and, through meter and rhythm, often the actual dance steps, as if you were actually present. A significant part of this empathy comes from the fact that the genetic emotions have changed very little in the interval. But, on the other hand, looking at a 13th century painting of a dance scene would give you none of this, indeed a 13th century painting would appear to be little more than a cartoon.

A final important distinction lies in the nature of the existence of the art work. A finished canvas exists as a work of art even if it is hanging in a closed museum where no one can see it. A composition, on the other hand, exists as genuine music only in performance, which implies the presence of a listener—as there would be no purpose in a performance if there were no one to hear it. Therefore in a musical performance the listener is not a mere observer, but a participant in a live aesthetic experience.

Unlike a painting, which is, and may be judged as, a finished art object, music, in its genuine sense, exists only when it becomes a live, present tense experience. It follows, therefore, that the difficulty in formulating a meaningful and universal theory of aesthetics in music is that it must take into account not only the product of the composer, but the circumstances through which it is re-created in performance and heard. Because composer, performer and listener all play a role in determining the final aesthetic experience in music, we must begin by examining each of the constituent parts of the musical experience: The composer and his inner idea, which through his technique in writing music he expresses in the form of a notated score, which is re-created in the form of a live performance, which is perceived by a listener.

If music were a static art, if there were no performances of music and instead one examined a score on display and just imagined the music, as one examines a painting and imagines the artist’s inner idea, then all of aesthetics in music would be centered here, in the study to imagine the composer’s idea. While this is not the case, everything that we do mean by aesthetics in music begins here, with an original idea which will be communicated through performance to a listener. Let us begin, then, by considering the nature of this inner idea.

The inspired composer’s original inner idea is usually at heart one associated with feeling. It is not something he could express very well in words and at first something he might not express very well in music (Mozart excepted!). At some point the composer decides to communicate his ideas with others through musical composition. To do this, whether well or poorly, depends on the technique of composition, the next step in the aesthetic chain in music.

What do we mean by technique in terms of communicating ideas through music? Technique in composition in music exists on two primary levels, the first of which is purely knowledge, the grammar of music. This is a highly technical form of knowledge that deals not only with every aspect of how to write music, but also with a whole range of technical information regarding the acoustic and performance considerations upon which music depends. Some of this knowledge is very specialized and absorbed through what we might call the composer’s practical experience. A case in point is the composer’s understanding of how music carries the listener along in time. When is a sense of movement in time desired and when is a “sense of arrival” appropriate? One composer who understood perfectly how to combine his aesthetic ideas with these kinds of practical considerations was Beethoven, as the distinguished composer, Jan Meyerowitz observed,

Even with very little training we can place any short quotation from a Beethoven movement in the exact spot where it belongs in the piece, where it fulfills a very definite function in the whole structure. You can recognize whether it is a first or a second theme, an episode, a transition or a retransition, a coda, a beginning, a climax, the end of a development, etc. Each passage, each motif is so clearly devised for its very special, exclusive function that we can place it in its correct spot in a composition we do not even know!

Jan Meyerowitz, in “Do We Overestimate Beethoven?” High Fidelity Magazine (January, 1970), 79.

Of course, technique has its limits, for, in the end, all the technique in the world will not produce beautiful music. Early man had no pictorial equivalent for his music, so his music was a means of directly communicating his feelings. This was such an effective system of communication that no further “improvements” were needed over a great period of time. The “improvement” which came was music’s equivalent of a phonetic alphabet, and we call it our modern musical notation. But our notation was the invention of Church mathematicians, and they carefully observed the Church’s intolerance of emotion by inventing a notational system which has not a single symbol for feelings or emotions—even though, then as now, music is basically a language for the expression of emotion.

Once notation arrived it also required an intermediary to connect the musician’s experience with the notation, to show him how you really play what is on paper. As Wagner points out, until the 19th century the composer was also present to tell the players how the music should really be played, a role now given over to the conductor.

“Even today, although we have accustomed ourselves to a most minute notation of the nuances of phrasing, the more talented conductor often finds himself obliged to teach his musicians very weighty, but delicate shadings of expression by viva voce explanation; and these communications, as a rule, are better understood and heeded, than the written signs. [Ellis, “Prose Works of Wagner,” IV,192]

It is very difficult to speak objectively of the technique by which a composer communicates feelings through musical notation because, unlike the more academic kind of technique, this technique is a very personal. Indeed, Wagner once said that the composer has to actually invent this kind of technique for himself. In another place, defines more precisely how the composer does this. He points out that the poet, who deals in words, must go into more and more detail to define his meaning, while the composer does the reverse. The composer must concentrate his emotional ideas into the most condensed and refined form, which he refers to as the Melos. Wagner continues,

“To address the Feeling to any degree, the Poet wandered into that vague diffuseness in which he became the delineator of a thousand details, intended to set a definite shape before the imagination as clearly as possible. But the imagination, bombarded by a host of motley details, only masters the proffered object by trying to grasp these perplexing details one by one, thereby losing itself in the function of pure Understanding… The composer’s purpose, on the other hand, is to condense an endless element of Feeling into a definite point in order that it might be understood…” [Ellis, II, 277ff]

This form of feeling in music, that which he calls the Melos, is the aspect of emotion in music which might be called “Universal.” For example, nearly everyone, we believe, would find it emotionally “wrong” to sing “Crucifixus” in place of “Hallelujah” in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Why does it sound “wrong?” It is not just because we are used to the word we know, it is because the inherent emotion of this music does not correspond to the emotion of the word Crucifixus. Music, in other words, does have its own inherent emotional meaning. The composer must have the sensibility to create music which accurately reflects the emotional content of his inner aesthetic idea.

Although the score is a vital step, even an irreplaceable step in art music, the score is not to be considered music, it is only grammar, a technical representative of the music. The score is a document in symbolic language which only represents the composer’s original aesthetic inner idea. No matter to what degree of detail the composer notates his ideas on paper, no matter how much time and effort he expends, the score can never be considered as synonymous with his inner musical idea. The German make this distinction very clear as they call the written form, “Die Noten,” and what these symbols represent they call “Die Musik.”

Also, our musical notation is not capable of precision. We have, for example, only one way of writing a dotted eighth-note followed by a sixteenth-note, while in the actual practice of performance this figure is played with great variety, under the influences of tempo, articulation and style. And in this regard, we skip over symbols such as dynamic markings, which are not only incapable of precision, but were never intended to be precise.

In the end, however, we must assume that the score represents the composer’s idea as precisely as the notation is capable or as precisely as the composer intended. That is, we must assume that it is the physical representation of the composer’s idea. It is for this reason that if a performance fails to communicate the composer’s inner idea, the blame will always be assigned to the performer and not to the score.

We must presume, as a matter of artistic integrity, that the performer’s goal is to re-create the composer’s original aesthetic idea, and it follows that we must assume the performer is indeed capable of doing this. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that in saying the performer should be able to achieve this goal, we can not say he always does. We know all too well that with respect to rational language one may speak or write well, but based on erroneous concepts. In the same way, a performer may perform well, yet distort the composer’s intent. Certainly it is wrong to think of a “beautiful performance” as the aesthetic goal. As Liszt once observed, “A successful performance cannot as a rule be considered as a criterion of artistic worth.” It is rather the performance of the composer’s beautiful idea which is the aesthetic goal.

Another mistake is the viewpoint that the performer should simply play the music as written, “letting the music speak for itself.” The error in this viewpoint lies in the false notion that the work of art is the score, when in fact the work of art is that which the score represents. Closely related to this is the error made by the performer who thinks of his responsibility as one of “understanding” the score in a rational sense, or an academic sense. By this we mean looking at a score as an accumulation of forms, types of melody, harmonic practice, etc. In a word, he only studies the grammar of the score. In doing so, he “fails to see the forest because of the trees.” The “forest” in this metaphor is feeling, as Wagner reminds us.

An artist addresses himself to Feeling, and not to Understanding. If his work is discussed in terms of Understanding, then it might as well be said he has been misunderstood.

“Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde, 1851

We do not ignore the grammar of music, but, as the great pianist, Alfred Brendel, suggests, in doing so we must not lose our focus on feeling.

Although I find it necessary and refreshing to think about music, I am always conscious of the fact that feeling must remain the Alpha and Omega of a musician; therefore my remarks proceed from feeling and return to it.

The New Yorker, May 30, 1977

One type of performance which is most objectionable is that by the performer who simply substitutes his own interpretation without any consideration for the composer at all. This is usually a matter of excess. Certainly, it is the performer’s duty to seek the Melos of the composition and certainly no two performers will arrive at exactly the same understanding of this, but we speak of the performer who goes too far and simply creates the music after his own image. Wagner found the performers who were most guilty of this excess to be conductors.

He can be a virtuoso too, and tempt the public by all kinds of spicy nuances into thinking that it after all is he who makes the whole thing sound so nice. He finds it neat to let a loud passage be played quite soft, for a change, a fast one a wee bit slower. He will add for you, here and there, a trombone effect, or a dash of the cymbals and triangle. But his chief resource is a drastic cut, if he otherwise is not quite sure of his success. Him we must call a virtuoso of the Baton.

Ellis VII, 114

The highest aesthetic goal in performance is reached when the performer comes to understand that his duty is not to reproduce the score, but to reproduce what the score represents. The most important key to revealing what the score represents is to call upon his genetically shared emotions. It is this genetically shared language that allows him to understand what the notated symbols mean. The vital first step is that he recognize that the notated symbols of the score are not comparable to the notated symbols of rational language, including the entire range from newspapers to legal briefs. In other words, the highest aesthetic goal in performance begins when the performer comes to understand that not all of the music is found on the score page. This is what is meant when some of the greatest musicians of all time understood:

Gustav Mahler:

The important things in music are not found in the notes.

Felix Weingartner:

There are musicians who only see the notes and those who see behind the notes.

Franz Liszt:

With notes alone nothing can be accomplished; one thirsts for soul, spirit, and actual life.

Bruno Walter:

The performer’s duty is to recreate the spirit of the score, not the letter of the score.

The “missing” music these artists are describing is that part of music for which we have no notational symbols. It is the central core of feeling, or emotional meaning, which Leopold Stokowski called, “the inner spirit of the music and all the potentialities lying dormant on the printed page of the score.” Koussevitzky called the “elan vital,” and Weingartner, “the spiritualizing internal factor that gives the music its very soul.”

It is when this is missing in performance that the re-creation of the music fails to achieve its highest aesthetic end. It is when the performer fails in this responsibility that the composer suffers, for he knows his most important and beautiful ideas have not been communicated. It is interesting, in this regard, to read Verdi’s anguished cry regarding performances he heard of his opera, “Aida.”

For my part, I vow that no one has ever, ever, ever, ever even succeeded in bringing out all the effects that I intended … No one!! Never, never … Neither singers nor conductors!!”

Bamberger, “The Conductor’s Art,” 312

On the Classification of the Musical Experience

I believe the performance of music in actual practice falls naturally into four classes, which are: Art Music, Educational Music, Functional Music and Entertainment Music. Music of high aesthetic quality is possible in each class, subject to the conditions of the performance. I begin this discussion by defining Art Music, the highest quality of experience and is the most unequivocal in definition. The other three classes are more clearly defined in how their conditions and functions differ with Art Music.

I. Art Music

Art Music we believe is defined by four conditions, all of which must always be present, if the experience is to be classified as Art Music. These are:

1. Art music is inspired. Art music is music in which it seems evident that the composer has made an honest attempt to communicate genuine feelings. Feelings must be presumed to be generally recognizable in music, as they are in any other art form, including painting, sculpture, dance, and architecture. Due to the common genetically understood nature of emotions, it must also be understood that in music emotions or feelings can not be “faked.”

2. Art Music has no purpose other than the communication of its own aesthetic content. Art Music is free of any purpose or function, save the spiritual communication of pure beauty.

3. Art Music is that which enjoys a performance faithful to the intent of the composer.

4. Art Music must have a listener capable of contemplation.

If any of these conditions are missing, the performance must result in a lesser aesthetic experience. For example, the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven played in a stadium, during the half-time of a professional football game, would fail for the lack of the presence of Condition Number Four. The same Symphony heard in a concert hall, but in a poor performance, not faithful to the intent of the composer, would fail for the lack of the presence of Condition Number Three.

II. Educational Music

Educational Music may or may not have the same conditions as Art Music and it may or may not occur within an educational institution. But Educational Music is generally burdened with Condition Number Two, for it has a purpose. If it is music specifically composed for its educational purpose, it cannot be Art Music. However, Art Music can be performed by students for the purpose of education.

III. Functional Music

Functional Music is music put at the service of something else. We include here, for example, all kinds of religious music, music for weddings, music for the military, and occupational music. Functional Music may share the same conditions as Art Music, excepting Condition Number Two.

One may ask, how can a Mozart Mass be called Functional Music, and not Art Music? The answer is that if the observer were not contemplatively listening to the music, but were rather contemplating religious thoughts, then the Mozart Mass becomes merely a very high level of Functional Music. If, on the other hand, the observer is a contemplative listener of music, forgetting about religion, then the Mozart Mass is Art Music, but has failed in its function as church music.

Military and wedding music are examples of music in which the contemplative listener is missing entirely. How about airport, supermarket and elevator music where there is no listener at all? According to the definitions we have given, recorded music without listeners is not to be considered music at all.

IV. Entertainment Music

Most Entertainment Music is music with no purpose other than to please, which is missing Condition Four, the contemplative listener. For this reason, Entertainment Music may be inspired music, but the composer is unlikely to be inspired by lofty and noble emotions, knowing there will be no contemplative listener.
It is for these reasons the Entertainment Music can never be Art Music. But, one might protest, when a tired businessman goes to the opera at the end of his work day, is this not for him Art Music which is also a very high level form of Entertainment Music? Franz Josef of Austria once posed this very question. When Mahler was music director of the State Opera in Vienna, he once became frustrated because of the disruption of those arriving late. Therefore he began a policy of having all late arrivals placed in a separate room until the first intermission. When informed of this, the emperor was puzzled and observed, “But after all, the theater is meant to be a pleasure.” [Alma Mahler, “Gustav Mahler,” 136ff]

The answer is “No,” Entertainment Music and Art Music can never be the same thing because of Condition Number Two: Art Music has no purpose other than the communication of its own aesthetic content. It is inconsistent with the nature of great art to have any extrinsic purpose, including the purpose to entertain.

A great deal of additional information on this subject can be found in my 8 volumes of Aesthetics of Music.