Music in Search of Itself

Author: Greene, David B.
Many contemporary composers and music critics say in an offhand way that all music written in the past quarter century is about music—that it is reflexive and self-referential in some significant sense. It is music in search of an understanding of itself. This book tries to deepen the understanding of music about music as well as music itself in four ways. First, it puts music’s own self-understanding onto an equal footing with philosophical aesthetics of music. It subjects pieces of music about music to close, detailed analysis, and puts the statements about the nature of music that emerge from these analyses into conversation with philosophical statements about music. Second, it investigates whether and in what way the concept of reflexive music makes sense and to what extent music about music is possible. Third, it inquires into the need for music to search for itself, and evaluates the connection between this need and the European fascination and then disillusion with the concept of aesthetic experience. Fourth, it brings to the surface a sense, embedded in music’s self-understanding, that there are severe limits to the meaningfulness of music in general that it is thus impossible for music about music to be fully meaningful.


“I first became acquainted with the writings of David Greene when I reviewed his Temporal Processes in Beethoven's Music for the Times Literary Supplement in 1984. I found that book a very rare phenomenon: a book about music that opened vistas, and has continued, over the years, to hint at unforeseen, but deeply revealing, ways of approaching the art of music, especially as manifest in the art of one of the most profound, and certainly most complex, sensibilities in European history. Greene's book still seems to me exceptional, not far from unique. By background, he is an exceptionally talented musician, but also a trained philosopher and theologian; clearly, the nature as well as the quality of his writings comes from the range and depth of his interdisciplinary skills. This is abundantly evident in the essays on Music about Music that follow in this volume. The essays start from philosophical reflections on the meanings of music: reflections which, as is usual with Greene, turn out to be theological as well as philosophical. He then centers on five examples of music about music's meanings, which represent a gradually expanding range of reference from Handel=s setting of Dryden's poem about music as a manifestation of God's glory as experienced by us human creatures; to Beethoven's mysterious revelation of the (quasi-divine?) Order and principle manifest in an apparently trivial musical artefact originally made by a very average representative of our human race; to Britten's extraordinary collocation of a traditional public statement about war and peace, death and love, with exploration of the private experiences that give such statements substance; to Penderecki's attempt to make a humanly scientific statement about music's meanings; to Strauss' wonderfully subtle creative analysis of the relationship between literary and musical meanings, in his opera … Very few books display such depths of meaning while never denying the profound truth of contradiction! One cannot deny, however, that readers will need to work hard to garner the riches the book offers. It calls for musical, literary, and philosophical expertise which few can be expected to share in. Against that, Greene writes like the proverbial Angel, so any person of Good Will will be eager to make the effort he calls for.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Wilfrid Mellers, York University

“Many musicians and musicologists sometimes appear tone deaf to the language and sensibilities of philosophical activity; they often seem not to be clear on what is at stake, or why one should be deeply interested in philosophy if what one ostensibly studies is music. A clearer view of the matter might reveal that the two disciplines are both high-order human activities that spring from the same source, the contemplation of being … Music is capable of showing forth contours of existence that are not immediately accessible to discursive speech, and hence music offers an encounter with being that stands alongside, or perhaps even challenges the philosophical account. It is with this possibility in mind that we study music with care, as opposed to simply enjoying it. Dr. David Greene takes us one step further in this book, showing that if music has this power to disclose, then it is only reasonable to suggest that music itself can be an object of the disclosing. Dr. Greene offers us a methodology and a vocabulary for exploring this idea, drawing upon a rich scholarly tradition, which Dr. Greene both works within and expands. Dr. David Greene’s fresh and fascinating study of meta-music – music that contemplates music – operates with an understanding of a deep relationship between music and philosophy, which nevertheless is not rigid in its expectation that the reader share the view that the relationship is manifest. Even if one disagrees with this characterization of music, the mode of expression that results from Greene’s approach is nevertheless penetrating and lucid. The philosophical implements at his disposal serve him well, and he uses them with finesse and subtlety, initiating the reader into ideas that are complex and elusive.” – Professor Jonathan N. Badger, St. John’s College, Annapolis

"Claude Levi-Straus writes, "Since music is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the music creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man." David Greene's closely argued new book Music in Search of Itself explores the mystery of musical meaning by tracing a line from Kant's "aesthetic object in self-repose" through Nelson Goodman's "metaphors which possess and show forth" their expressive content, to Arthur Danto's "end of art" in self- referentiality. The heart of the argument is in the nuanced analysis of five works which were self-consciously written to examine and critique music's materials and expressive possibilities: Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, Beethoven's Variations on a Theme by Diahelli. Britten's War Requiem, Penderecki's "De Natura sonoris" and Strauss's Capriccio. By narrowly focusing on how these works are "about" music, Greene broadens out to examine the possibility (or impossibility) of musical meaning itself, in prose that is always lucid despite the subtlety of the issues involved, and often graciously poetic (" beautify mourning through liturgical music is to tell a lie, or, at least, to put a narcotic into the cup of sorrow."). This book makes an important contribution to the field of music aesthetics, extending the ideas put forth by Suzanne Langer (Feeling and Form), Gordon Epperson (The Musical Symbol), Donald Kivy (The Corded Shell), and others who have dared to ignore the infamous warning "Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture" and have attempted to bring some kind of philosophical order and insight to Levy-Strauss' "supreme mystery." And while in the end the mystery is left intact, surrounded and guarded by paradox ("One is left in the awkward position of affirming that music about music is possible, necessary and impossible, all at the same time."), the line of inquiry leads back to the musical encounter itself with a deepened appreciation of its problematic surfaces and unfathomable depths." - Jonathan C. Kxamer, Ph.D., Associate Director, Department of Music Institution: North Carolina State University

Table of Contents

Preface by Wilfrid Mellers
The possibility of music about music
Hearing the possibility of music about music: five pieces
The need for music about music
The impossibility of music about music