[Smt-talk] Goethe and organicism

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Mon May 20 09:11:55 PDT 2013

Dear Folks,
  Thanks one & all for the interesting comments and directions this thread has taken. And apologies for the length the following. It seems to me that the influence of Goethe in particular exposes the remarkable roles of music and music theory in the history of ideas. I say "remarkable," because music's intellectual history is so distinctive. Arguably, for instance, the broad position of literary New Criticism in the previous mid-century, that literary texts can and must be taken on their own terms, without explicatory frameworks from non-literary conceptions, was articulated for music a century previous by Eduard Hanslick. The notion that musical discourse should not be understood in blended or subordinate form in turn varies the Pythagorean model of musical sense obtaining from the natural order--a view I have never heard proffered to explain poetry. (Rousseau's and Herder's celebrations of the poetic voice of natural peoples perhaps comes close; the manifold Enlightenment attempts to explain all art from a natural principle such as imitation always struck me as uneasy where music is concerned.)  These hasty comments to offer come context for replies to Nicolas's thoughts. Of itself, the question of the correlations of music theory with other kinds of discourse and thinking might appear trivial. In fact, I think it holds out ways to understand our ways of understanding music historically.

      Do you believe, with Helmholtz, that Goethe was but a poet
      speaking of science and that science should be reserved to
      scientists, music theory to theorists, or on the contrary that we
      should admit some level of poetry, of intuitive musicianship? Is
      your question whether music theory may be a matter of talent, of
      innate capacity, or one of science, of reflexion, of education?

      MWM:I will reread the Helmholtz essay, but my sense was that he was saying, in addition to what you've said here, that there was also something insightful, "intuitive" as you put it, to Goethe's power of observation, something potentially to be developed properly by scientists. In other words, and slightly paradoxically: the roots of scientific observation do not always lie directly in observation by scientists, as Goethe, the ultimate gifted amateur, demonstrates.
I have long been fascinated by what what kind of talents inform music theory. Of course it depends in part, though quite directly, on whose version we're considering. The kinds of prowess that, say, Ernst Kurth brings to Romantic Harmony are evidently different from the animating and operant impulses of Schoenberg's Harmonielehre. Sure; but is that all there is to it? Frankly, still I have nothing better than suspicions. As may be obvious by now, I don't read music theory as a sui generis discipline, but invariably as a moment in the history of ideas. That's far from the only way to proceed, and perhaps not even the best. But has any theoretical figure been as influential on the course of recent music theory as Goethe? (Hanslick, perhaps.) A crude conclusion would be that music theory has no choice but to proceed by analogy. A more sophisticated interpretation is that music theory's address to its problems, regardless of how technically integral, is inevitably and intrinsically part of a larger historical spectrum of ideas and intellectual practice.Nicolas:
[...] The influence of Goethe's ideas in the 19th century could hardly
      be overestimated. It probably remains quite more vivid today than
      what many of use imagine. The idea that a work of art (any work of
      art) arises from an overall plan, rather than as a mere
      concatenation of formal units; that a painting is not painted from
      left to right and from up to down, but rather as the elaboration
      of an overall sketch; or that a piece of tonal music is not a mere
      concatenation of harmonic "functions" (as Ildar Khannanov would
      describe them), but as the elaboration of a tonal plan, of a Grundgestalt,
      as Schoenberg viewed it; etc., etc.; all that stems from Goethe's
      organic conception.
MWM:As some subsequent arguments here have shown, your summary of the core of Goethe may not be entirely fair.  I will append a bit of translation I did some years ago, comments on his Orchestra Variations opus 30 by Webern. Significantly in our context, I believe, they are addressed to a poet and a sculptor. What I think Webern is saying is that what matters is how the "overall plan" is generated--in a word, process. I think the appeal of Goethe or Goetheanism lies its promise of a view that resolves the otherwise vexing questions of part and whole, matters we all know are especially tantalizing (and frustrating!) in considering music.Nicolas:

      [...] If music theory was influenced by Goethe (and it certainly
      was and remains), it is not a matter of influence from poetic
      theory, rhetoric, sociology, or the like, but rather from one of
      the most powerful philosophical thinking of the late 18th- and
      early 19th-century.
      Your message, if I understand it correctly, appears to indicate
      that 20th-century music theory on the North-American Continent was
      much more "positivist" than I ever figured; but even if that were
      true, it would concern, say, the 1970's and 1980's, I'd say.
MWM:Agreed. A kind of crude example of what I mean by positivist thought might be the difference between Schenker and Alan Forte. Anti-positivism can easily go overboard, as both Joseph Kerman and early Habermas show us. I'm not interested in their kinds of position, frankly. But music theory's capacity for intellectual independence and integration fascinates me!
Again thanks, Nicolas and comrades. Renewed apologies for the garrulity. Here's the Webern quote:
May 26, 1941  You’d like to hear “details” about my latest work? [Variations for Orchestra] How dear to me your question is!  Imagine this: six notes are presented, in a form determined by direction and rhythm, and all of what follows (throughout the length of this piece of approximately twenty minutes) is nothing other than this form continuously recurring!! Of course this occurs in continual ‘metamorphosis’ (in music this process is called “variation”)—but it does recur continuously.  Goethe says of the “Primal [ossia: archetypal] Phenomenon”:“ideal, as the ultimately knowable;real, as the known;*symbolic, because every case is embraced,identical with them all”**     *In my piece, this is the constantly recurring form! [The comparison is only meant to underscore the nature of the          process.]     **Just like in my piece! That’s what it does!From this form the “theme” is derived, followed by six variations of this theme. But this “theme” represents (as I mentioned) nothing other than variations (metamorphoses of the first form). As a unity, it is a point of departure for ever-new variations. . . . Thus, though I have titled the piece “Variations,” they all fuse into a new unity (in the sense of a different form). So and so many metamorphoses of the initial form produce the theme. This, as a new unity, undergoes so and so many more metamorphoses; these are fused again into a unity, yielding the form of the whole. Roughly, this is the shape of my entire composition.
Michael MorseTrent UniversityPeterborough/Oshawa 		 	   		  
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