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The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton

Jane O’Grady describes the musical mysticism of Roger Scruton.

Under the Stalinist regime, the last movements of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony were often reversed in order to bring the work to a triumphal, rather than despairing, conclusion. The reason that listeners find this reversal unsatisfactory, says Roger Scruton, is that the third movement cannot be heard as an answer to the fourth. But why does its failure to respond seem wrong? Why should we even expect to hear it as an answer? Is music a language? And should we describe the Sixth Symphony as an expression of Tchaikovsky’s despair, an evocation of its listeners’ despair, or the depiction of despair in general?

Such questions, never satisfactorily answered, trouble musical aestheticians, and are tackled by Scruton’s impressive book. His quest begins with the rudimentary but difficult question ‘what is a sound?’ and, using musical illustrations, builds up through music’s aspects to its place in morality and culture. Sounds, Scruton argues, are ‘pure events’, which do not happen to any thing. Unlike colours, tastes and textures with which they are often classed, sounds are emitted by, but not inherent in, what produces them. But whereas with a nonmusical sound we may often hear it as what produced it (for instance, ‘hear a car’ or ‘hear a bell’), a musical tone is quite cut free from its causal moorings. We hear it not as ‘someone playing the oboe over there’ and ‘someone playing the violin a few feet away’ but as part of a musical gestalt. Each note seems to be engendered by its precursor and rightly to respond to it “as though indifferent to the world of physical causes.” Similarly we hear notes as higher and lower, rising and falling, and the melody moves from its beginning to its end. Yet where could the movement of pitch and melody occur? We refer to material sounds, yet under a description that no material sounds could satisfy, and to abandon these metaphors is to abandon discussion of music, which cannot dispense with them. Music does not fit into a scientific account of the world, any more than a smile does, but is part of the world as we live it, and even of a world beyond contingency. For, says Scruton, in the inexorable necessity by which “each note requires its successor” we glimpse true freedom – the ‘causality of reason’ which belongs to rational action, the ‘transcendental unity’ of our scattered selves. And in gaining “a first-person perspective on a life that is no one’s”, we enter a ‘dance of sympathy’ with others.

This abstract, mystical argument is a gradually accumulating motif through Scruton’s concrete technical examples. As usual his wistful mysticism is accompanied by slashing attacks – on the Marxist reductionism that would degrade the last five centuries of European music to an accident of power relations, on how ‘early music’ authenticity only fossilises and obscures the music it purports to reconstruct, on sentimentality and cliché, and, sometimes unsubstantiatedly, on rival aestheticians. Like Plato, he sees music as an important moulder of, and index to, a culture’s moral character. Predictably, but movingly, he laments the way tonality is no longer available to composers in our spiritual condition, and the loss of exclusive standards of taste which, paradoxically, enabled a universality of allusiveness. He mourns the decay of aristocratic culture, the rampancy of anomie and consumerism.

Sometimes priggish and abrasive, Scruton is always interesting and provocative. But this is a difficult book, requiring knowledge of both music and philosophy. How music so tantalisingly combines the expressive and the ineffable is fitfully illuminated, but ultimately the reader, stimulated and overwhelmed, may wonder how much nearer to solution the old aesthetic questions are.

© Jane O’Grady 1998

Jane O’Grady co-edited (with A.J. Ayer) the Blackwell Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations.

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