Studies in Music with Text

Studies in Music with Text

David Clampitt

Studies in Music with Text. By David Lewin. (Oxford Studies in Music Theory.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [xii, 409 p. ISBN 0-19-518208-1. $65.] Music examples, index.

David Lewin (1933-2003) was doubtless the most significant music theorist of the last half century. Oxford brilliantly inaugurates its new series, Studies in Music Theory, with a collection of essays that gives a more complete sense of Lewin’s achievement than if we had been left with only the two extraordinary but highly technical volumes published during his lifetime, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) and Musical Form and Transformation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

The essays comprise nineteen chapters, distributed over seven parts, each associated with a composer–six canonical German composers, organized chronologically from Mozart to Schoenberg, and Milton Babbitt (whom Lewin places as following in the German tradition). Seven of the chapters appear here for the first time. Among the twelve that have previously appeared are a number that may reasonably be considered to have achieved the status of classics of music theory and analysis: “Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of Perception,” “Auf dem Flusse: Image and Background in a Schubert Song,” “Amfortas’s Prayer to Titurel and the Role of D in Parsifal,” and most of the Schoenberg articles chosen by Lewin to represent his long engagement with this composer.

In addition to–and more important than–the cultural boundaries within which the contents of the book are brought together, there are attitudes to music analysis generally and to the analysis of music with text specifically that are characteristically Lewinian and that recur throughout. In his introduction, Lewin notes his tendency to seek “ways in which music and text … enact each other.” Thus, in his Tristan study, appearing here for the first time, Lewin asserts a dialectic tension between “the well-made play” and “the drama-of-passion,” a tension that “enacts and is enacted by” a tonal/atonal musical dialectic. There are three new essays on Robert and Clara Schumann, following an essay (also previously unpublished) on Schubert’s Ihr Bild. Weaving biography and cultural history together with the sort of metric-harmonic reductions he used for the first time in the Auf dem Flusse essay, Lewin demonstrates an “enactment per musica” in Clara Schumann’s setting of “Ich stand in dunkeln Traumen” that is far removed from Schubert’s in Ihr Bild, but equally valid compositionally and poetically. In two related essays on modal-tonal ambiguity in Robert Schumann’s Anfang wollt’ ich fast verzagen and Auf einer Burg, Lewin leads us to hearings in which an ambivalence between ancient Phrygian and modern minor enacts temporal disjunctions for the respective personae of the songs. A postscript for the opening Mozart essays discusses how “tonics” and “dominants” might be said to “enact drama,” and “be enacted by drama.” In the final chapter, “Some Problems and Resources of Music Theory,” Lewin suggests that Babbitt’s serial technique enacts the central weaving imagery in Philomel (a suggestion, as we learn in an appendix added here, that was corroborated by the composer).

Lewin’s preference for the locution “enact” is related to the methodological stance he promulgated in many of his writings, in which he interpreted his favored “transformational attitude” as that of one who is “inside the music, as idealized dancer/singer” (Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations, p. 159). He wished to emphasize the gestural, embodied activity of the musician, the “singer, player, or composer, thinking: ‘I am at s; what characteristic transformation do I perform in order to arrive at t?'” (Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations, p. xiii). This stance is given its fullest expression (not only in the Studies in Music and Text volume, but in Lewin’s entire oeuvre) in the article, first published in 1986, “Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of Perception.”

The heart of this essay (by far the longest in the book) is an examination of a passage from Schubert’s Morgengru[beta], including some trenchant remarks on text-music relations, but the context is a meditation on the aims, methods, and scope of music theory. By taking us through a set of musical perceptions–each perception itself the collocation of a musical event with a context, with a set of perception/relation pairings, and with a set of statements-in-a-language–Lewin brings to our attention a multiplicity of positions in phenomenological time and space. “The g minor chord of m. 12” is disclosed not to be the unitary object that its representation on the Cartesian, Euclidean plane of the score suggests, but the locus of a complex of interacting perceptual frames. Lewin uses his model to tease apart these frames, leading to unexpected analytical insights into the Schubert song. His analysis is informed by his reading of the text, and in turn informs our hearing of the text and music–the irony of “als war’ dir was geschehen” in mm. 9-10, for example: “the contrary-to-factness of the subjunctive itself contrary to fact: ‘–as if something were the matter’–as if nothing were the matter!” (p. 77).

Lewin’s model suggests a rhythmic counterpoint between the events and perceptions of phenomenological time and the events generated by the acoustic signal in clock time. He acknowledges that this aspect of his model is not formalized, and is perhaps in principle not formalizable, but he rightly insists upon his model’s value in bringing out rhythmic aspects in a new way. Moreover, his methodological discussion alerts us to habits of mind that dangerously simplify our discourse: a predilection for the false dichotomies that he calls “political/legal,” that force us (often inappropriately) to choose a side or produce a verdict; the slovenly use of the article “the” and of the verb “to be” (to which Lewin returns in the final chapter, “Some Problems and Resources of Music Theory”); and “misleading expressions of the species ‘merely/only/naught but/simply/'” (p. 82). Twenty years later, these caveats still bear reconsideration.

Dramaturgy is thematic in this book, whether the discussion is of music for the stage or not. Lewin’s analysis of Brahms’s Die Schwestern (newly published here) draws on Brecht’s theories. The three essays on Lenozze di Figaro all engage aspects of stage direction. This red thread too may be followed back to the “Phenomenology” essay, to its final section, “Perception and Productive Modes of Behavior.” Lewin argues there that a music theory cannot be only or even primarily a theory of perception, emphasizing again the active and behavioral aspects of music. Although he declines to say “what a ‘theory of music’ might be” (p. 96) in this context, he gives a positive definition of the activity “music theory” at the outset of the final essay: music theory “[attempts] to describe a conceptually structured sound-world that [is] categorically prior to any particular musical event, score, or experience” (p. 385), a paraphrase from an earlier response to Edward T. Cone. His peroration to the “Phenomenology” essay includes a critique of our society’s tendency towards passive modes of reception, a post-Bloomian search for poetics, and a demonstration of the efficacy of a “theatrical” approach to music with or without text.

Not only the musicological community but a wider audience should be grateful for this book. The work was essentially finished before Lewin’s death, but was, as he described it, “not quite in final form.” It was brought to completion by a group that included the author’s widow, June K. Lewin; Fred Lerdahl; the series editor, Richard Cohn; Lewin’s former students Edward Gollin and Raphael Atlas; his son Alex Lewin; and Don Giller. There seem to be very few errors, but Kristina Muxfeldt’s name is consistently misspelled (deprived of its final t), Beethoven’s String Quartet, op. 135, is listed (in the index) as “in B-flat,” and considering that this is the third time the Aufdem Flusse study has been published, it is disappointing that Lewin’s Example 5.3 (p. 120) still has “A” instead of “G” in the reduction corresponding to m. 7 in the piano right hand. Lewin insisted that his sketches be performable (and, presumably, performed as part of the process of reading). Whether any of the new essays achieve quite the legendary status of some of the reprinted ones remains to be seen, but in any event it is wonderful to have both the seven new and twelve old pieces–an instance of musico(numero) logical joking? Lewin’s wit and the many registers of his voice resonate throughout the book, not the least of its pleasures.


Yale University


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