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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Another thought on the melodramatic style

The function of the melodramatic style in musicology is this: it makes "pure" music into "program" music by attaching semantic content to musical syntax. We know that music in this particular system of tonality is a series of tensions and releases. So a delayed release or prolonged tension can be interpreted as a prolongation of sexual desire, etc...  We can construct a narrative out of how the particular way tension and release can be allegorized in any given instance. We even have characters: the musical themes themselves are like literary characters, etc...  Susan McClary is quite explicit about this. This is a way of attaching particular social meanings to forms instead of leaving them as purely formal. We re-semanticize music by attributing specific social or sexual values to formal operations like a dominant resolving into a tonic.

(Rhetorically, the straw man is a theory of pure music: the idea that music has no meaning at all. Nobody really believes that, though.  What is at stake is what kind of meaning it has, and how and why it acquires these meanings and for whom, and who gets to decide using what criteria.)  

So far, so good. The question remains is why this narrative has to be cast in melodramatic terms, why it has take the form of hyperbolic statements rather than being more matter-of-fact in tone. All this flirting with disaster and breathtaking reversals of fortune. The necessity for this is possibly this: a less emotional treatment would be too dry and formalist; the stakes would be too low and the end results less "dramatic" and compelling. So the rhetorical figure of hyperbole bears the weight of the persuasive power.  It also has the element of fun to it: it makes an entertaining narrative out of a series of syntactical operations! We feel something significant is happening.

But it is also the source of skepticism, in that hyperbole invites deflation.


el curioso impertinente said...

Have you read Deryck Cooke, _The Language of Music_? What did you think?

Jonathan said...

I will have to read that.