Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History 

Title: Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History

Author: Lawrence Kramer

Published: University of California Press, 2002

Lawrence Kramer is a professor of English and Music. Neither seems to be a speciality. He states in the above book:

"the question of whether music has meaning, becomes, precisely, the meaning of music" (p.2)

It is a conundrum without any solution. But Kramer makes hay out of this by imposing his own interpretations on pieces of music, whether or not they fit.

Moonlight Sonata

Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" is analysed thus:

  1. It epitomises and enacts love's renunciation (p.32)
  2. It is a school for erotic love (p.40)
  3. It is a model of identity-defining sexual love (p.45)
  4. The single theme is sublimely impressive (p.32)
  5. The single theme is a search for resignation (p.36)
  6. The dotted rhythm is the hesitant look of the renouncer (p.36)
  7. The changing harmony shows Freudian mourning and reliving (p.36)
  8. The form is the result of spontaneity (p.40)
  9. The flow of the fingers is that of a serenading lover (p.36)
  10. The physical playing of the work is charged with sensuality (p.48)
  11. The dedication to Giulietta Guicciardi is an articulation of sexual desire (p.37)
  12. The cultural work of the piece is to make the domestic sublime (p.42)

That is a heavy load of meaning for someone who questions whether music has any meaning! That is because the agenda of people like Kramer is to say that music means nothing until they have decided what it means. This leaves the composer with no possible way of writing music which sets out to communicate something specific since there is no connection between what the composer means and what the analyst finds.

Musicology, by what standard?

Fundamentally, such "musicology" is an attack on truth. But Kramer is not concerned with truth. He set out his stall for humanistic music thus:

"The theories that ground [postmodernist] strategies are radically anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, and anti-totalising. They emphasise the constructedness, both linguistic and ideological, of all human identities and institutions. They insist on the relativity of all knowledge to the disciplines - not just the conceptual presuppositions but the material, discursive, and social practices - that produce and circulate knowledge. While often disagreeing with each other, post-structuralists, neopragmatists, feminists, psychoanalytic theorists, critical social theorists, multiculturalists and others have been changing the very framework within which disagreement can meaningfully occur."

Kofi Agawu explains what Kramer meant:

"A simple - though I hope not simplistic - account of Kramer’s statement may be given as follows. We should now accept that there are no nuggets of identity, no positivisms, no irreducible essences. There are no invariant first principles, no God or universal reason, no single grand narratives by which human history can be conceptualised. Our epistemologies are constructed and situated. Everything is fragmented and discontinuous: all truths are partial and provisional. Nothing is ever objective, nothing is ever “new,” and nothing can be taken for granted. This bold attempt to wipe the slate clean is, of course, salutary, a long overdue and a much-needed initiative to liberate musicology (and music theory) from their ostensible conservatism and complacency." (from Analysing Music under the New Musicological Regime)

Kramer has declared cultural war. And it's a pretty pathetic call to arms. After all, who will know what he means when he blows the trumpet?