How very “musical” is the “extra-musical”

In an extended and substantial essay titled “Hector Berlioz und seine ‘Harold Symphonie’”, published in the year 1851 in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Franz Liszt explained his point of view on the aims and the aesthetics of “Programm-Musik”: that the descriptive intent and the focusing on a “central idea” are the means that can help composers to think beyond the chain of formal constraints that had been dictating the configuration of symphonic works up until then.

To be sure, up until then, there had been no shortage of instances in Western music history in which composers had enjoyed, and found it witty or clever, to give their works extra-musical connotations. A variety of effects depending on the historical context or national taste had been used and practiced: echo effects (e.g. in Lasso’s “Ola, o che buon eccho: lo spazio”), signals (e.g. in Mozart’s “Posthornserenade”), machinery (e.g. in  Beethoven’s “Wellingtons Sieg”), animal sounds (e.g. Janequin’s, “Le chant des oiseaux”), street cries (e.g. Janequin’s “Les cris de Paris”), bells (e.g. Byrd’s “The Bells”), sounds of nature (the tempest in Rossini’s William Tell, in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, and in many other symphonic and operatic works). There had also been countless depictions of the months and seasons of the year (by Vivaldi, Telemann, Haydn, etc.) and, also, compositional endeavours in telling with music an entire story – like, among others, Johann Kuhnau’s “Musikalische Vorstellung einiger Biblischer Historien” (Musical Descriptions of Biblical Stories) and the “12 Symphonien nach Ovids ‘Metramorphosen’” (12 Symphonies after Ovid's Metamprphoses) by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and Georg Philipp Telemann's "Suite Burlesque de Quixotte" in G major, to mention only a few.

Franz Liszt’s essay on Berlioz, however, made a precise point: that music had the power and the necessity of going further, and acquire meanings that go well beyond the expression of cleverness in putting together brilliant sonic configurations; in other words, it had to be more than just sonic architecture. In so doing Franz Liszt gave eloquent voice to an entire complex of aesthetic principles supported by the philosophy of Hegel and Schopenhauer, and from Wagnerism as well. That was a philosophy of music that did not remain totally unchallenged. In fact Eduard Hanslick published only three years later, in 1854, his youthful pamphlet Vom Musikalish-Schönen (About the beautiful in Music), in which he entirely rejected program music and proposed, instead, the aesthetics of formalism. It consisted in denying the Hegelian concept of the unity of the arts, in declaring the specificity of music, and in maintaining that “the ideas which a composer expresses are mainly and primarily of a purely musical nature”. It is a fact that Hanslick’s ideas had a much more sympathetic reception in the XX century than during his lifetime (even though the idea of the “absolute Musik”, just as Romantic as that of programmatic music, is undeniable based and nourished by Hanslick’s  formalism). In America, in particular, formalism became one of the pillars of what composer and critic Virgil Thomson used to call “the music appreciation racket”. What Thomson mostly criticized was the textbook-producing industry. Not so much did he however stress how the greatest majority of those textbooks were “hanslickian” in approach; by suggesting that all there was to appreciate in music was its formal construction (typically a course in music appreciation offers little or nothing in the way of music history; as to appreciate music seems to be tantamount to recognizing its architecture). That is precisely what the young Hanslick meant (later in life he mitigated his position considerably), when he maintained that “the object and content of music is sound forms in motion”.

Indeed, people like myself, born after World War II, have lived through a long period in which Hanslick was dominant. How often we have been told by our teachers that the best program music is ultimately the one which we still find interesting and attractive – even when we have no idea of what the program really is about. And yet today, intriguingly enough, both in the area of historical musicology and in ethnomusicology, we are in a way going back to Franz Liszt; we are more open to appreciate the aesthetic positions of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Wagner, and take distance from Hanslick. But what is happening now is not just a going back to the idea of program music pure and simple but, rather, a much better understanding of the extent to which the aesthetics of “programm Musik” hit the mark by perceiving that music very easily becomes more than itself. In other words, music very easily becomes ideological; and when ideological it is, that is no dysfunction; not at all a spurious addition impinging on the inherent quality of the sound production. That is, on the contrary, precisely what music is all about! Music is part of life and it consequently has a lot to do with all the good and all the bad that human life is made up with. This is something which we should be quite aware of, although neither Hanslick nor Liszt, much as they disagreed with each other, would have liked to know and would have been willing to accept. The first denied the extra-musical had any importance. The second believed the composer was in charge and could/would put into the music only a poetic extra-musical content, compatible and coherent with the other noble aspects of his imagination – which is far from recognizing music as a vehicle for ideological positions as it can be. The extra-musical was for Franz Liszt simply another area for the composer to explore, an area where the musician could express his creativity. In other words, the “extra-musical” was for him part and parcel of the noble process of artistic creation.

On the contrary, when we talk about music and ideology today, we do obviously deal with the “extra-musical”, but the extra-musical elements we are after are not necessarily noble. Quite the other way, much of the extra-musical can be quite ignoble, like in the case of propaganda, when music is used to encourage soldiers to kill, to provoke and even torture people seen as enemies, to bring in the involvement of third parties; so it is also not necessarily noble of music to work to consolidate ethnic sentiments, to memorialize victims and heroes of ethnic conflict who in such a manner that will elicit vengeance, and to assert control by more or less violent means over ethnicized urban space, or less bloodily when muzak is intended to steer consumers’ attitudes.

Today, and especially in the field of ethnomusicology for the past several years, we have become more and more aware of the fact that the extra-musical is more often than not, not obvious, not so visible on the surface, and is not meant to be easily recognizable. Here, unlike the case of program music and tone painting, we are rather talking about “function” and “covert function” of music. And, of course, Franz Liszt would not be pleased to admit that program music can be very ideological (let us just think of the patriotic tone-poem cycle Ma Vlast by Smetana); and Hanslick would not be happy to concede that the pure formalistic position (by which music becomes separated by real life, a religion in itself, by which the concert turns into  a ritual of lay sacredness and in doing so serves the purpose of some while denying that of others) also is ideological! In order to find out when and to what extent music can be, in a special case, ideological, it is not terribly difficult. It suffices to ask the question: “who benefits from it?” and “who is included or excluded by it?” If someone benefits, if someone is excluded, that the music is ideological – no doubt about it. And ideology is of course only a few steps removed from politics, even though ideological attitudes do not necessarily have to have a political connotation in the strict sense of the term. Revealing in this sense is the recent book by Matthew Gelbart arguing how the very concept of ”classical music” can be seen as an invention of German nationalism, an invention that, one could say in Hegelian terms – had also to invent its antithesis…folk music. It would be impossible to have one without the other. They both are ideological constructions. There really is no solid object out there that we may decide to call “classical” or “folk” music, or call with any other name, just like a table cold also be called “tavola” in Italian or “mesa” in Spanish. In this case the word “classical” and the word “folk” are more than just a name, the are a mental construct charged with ideological overtones that make us see something that without those words we would be perceived in a remarkably different manner.

This could be the beginning of a rather long series of considerations but, probably, who had the patience of following me to this point probably understands I am driving at: what music historians have been calling “extra-musical” is, on the contrary, very musical indeed – and we are only now beginning to scratch the surface of this world, and reveal in how many complex, entangled, twisted up manners musical sound is interwoven with the bad and good things human beings are capable of. Music is nothing inane, nothing neutral, and that is why music always matters. Music does not keep clean in a celestial dimension of its own, uncorrupted by a world where many things are unfair, antagonistic and…dirty. We are a long way away from understanding how, where and when music gets into all of that. But we are making progress. Recent contributions in ethnomusicology have a lot to say about "music and identity", "music and war", "music and torture", "music and minorities", "music and exclusion".