Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Mesopotamian Manner

I was just over at Greg Sandow's blog reading about his music criticism course and leaving a comment. One of his reading assignments was this essay by George Bernard Shaw in his role as one of the great music critics. He makes fun of a new (at the time) book on music theory by H. H. Stratham called Form and Design in Music. Shaw doesn't like it for a couple of reasons. One is that Stratham chooses a melody by Wagner as an example of bad melodic writing and Shaw, of course, is a famous Wagnerian. The other is that Stratham engages in what Shaw calls the "Mesopotamian manner", that is, he talks about music using technical vocabulary such as "the dominant of D minor". Shaw delivers a brilliant satire of this by subjecting Hamlet's soliloquy to the same technique. A sample: "Shakespeare, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive..." Brilliant, funny and almost telling. But it is really a straw man, isn't it? It is usually quite unnecessary to discuss Shakespeare in this manner because he is writing in what we almost recognize as our own tongue (though more and more remote from us with every decade) and there is hardly a need to point out that "To be or not to be" is in the infinitive, because we know it by virtue of speaking English. But the dominant of D minor is not necessarily obvious until it is pointed out, and it has a very definite function and role that may be worth mentioning.

Unlike Shaw, we are living in a time when fewer and fewer books on music contain what I would recognize as talk about music. If I buy a book on Shostakovich symphonies and concertos, I hope very much that it will inform me about them. I hope to find the important themes in musical notation, discussion of the harmonic structure and so on. But that is no longer the case. A book on Shostakovich symphonies and concertos contains no musical examples whatsoever, but merely the author's attempt to communicate, in metaphor, his impressions of those themes. You can talk all you like about passionate reveries and juggernaut marches, but at the end of the day it is just vague metaphor and I know very little more than I did before. Instead of ten pages of rambling metaphor, I would much prefer a line or two of musical examples.

Shaw delivers some scathing criticism of Brahms in this review and while I think he is actually too kind, I think the argument would have benefited from a couple of specific examples. Having strong opinions is all very well,  but it is even nicer to mention why. The internet provides us with some amazing resources. Not only can we put up thoughts in writing, but we can also put up musical notation and even performances to demonstrate our points:

Sometimes, we can do both simultaneously! I leave you to find on your own the other seven (7!!!) clips that make up the rest of the piece.

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