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Music as an Art, by Roger Scruton

23 November 2018

Richard Lawrence on a book of musical ideas which is good in parts

THIS is a strange book: part philosophical examination, part musical analysis, part polemic. It doesn’t really hang together, and the reason is that its 17 chapters include eight that have appeared before, in written or oral form.

The first part, “Philosophical Investigations”, wrestles with subjects such as “Music and the Transcendental” and “German Idealism and the Philosophy of Music”; it is followed by “Critical Explorations”, variously examining individual composers, specific works, and important matters of moment. The book has been carelessly edited: Chapter 16, “The Music of the Future”, repeats passages from Chapters 5 and 12, one of them word for word.

Scruton’s concern is for the way we listen to music. He points out that there is a difference between listening and hearing. Many people only hear music: it’s all around us in shops and lifts, and casually available at the touch of a button; few know how to listen, how to concentrate and discriminate.

In his opening chapter, Scruton discusses tune and melody, how the one can be what he calls artless, the other capable of development. This is all good stuff, though I would dispute his analysis of Vaughan Williams’s hymn tune Sine Nomine (“For all the Saints”). (And I wonder what he has against metrical psalms: does he not recognise the quality of “As pants the hart”?)

After that, things get knottier. In “Music and Cognitive Science”, he points out that tonal music has a grammar and syntax: no problem there, but his subsequent discussion is opaque. In “Music and the Moral Life”, he refers to the “nobility” of the development of the first subject in Elgar’s Second Symphony. But where he hears nobility, you might hear a dog straining on a leash.

Elsewhere, he recognises that music is an abstract art. He then makes heavy weather of what it is that music communicates. You can touch a sculpture, read a poem, look at a painting. You can’t touch, read (in the same way), or look at music; it can’t be perceived until the symbols on the page have been translated into sound. Scruton would dismiss this as simplistic — but that is why music is, to use his terms, transcendental and ineffable. To say that “it is seldom clear that we could distinguish . . . between a piece of music that presents us with the transcendental and a piece that presents us with feelings towards the transcendental” seems to me counterintuitive.

The second section of the book, “Critical Explorations”, is an easier read. It gets off to a rocky start with an analysis of Schubert’s unfinished piece for string quartet, the Quartettsatz. He rightly draws attention to the composer’s unorthodoxy in his key relationships, but goes astray in saying that the second subject of a movement in C minor ought to be in G, the dominant. A glance at other works in C minor — such as Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K491, Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 18, No. 4, or Weber’s Der Freischütz Overture would remind him that the “normal” key is E flat, the relative major.

Things improve thereafter. Scruton has much of interest to say about Mahler, the contemporary composer David Matthews, and tonal music. He is very entertaining when on the attack: robust on way-out productions of opera, and on what he sees as the baneful influence of Pierre Boulez. And throughout the book he is trenchant on the writings of serialism’s dreary apologist, the Marxist writer Theodor Adorno. There is plenty to think about here.

Richard Lawrence is a writer and lecturer on music.

Music as an Art
Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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