To the music theorist with whom I’ve had the pleasure of taking several courses – and with whom I’ve had many a good-natured argument about the value of historicism – this one is for you.
Of the several binaries that occupied our attention in a course entitled “The History of Music Theory,” the debate between historicism (studying works as they were created in history) and presentism (studying works as they are received now) was perhaps our most hotly argued, largely because the students tackling this material included me, an early music scholar and historically-informed performance practitioner, and a music theorist of 20th-century music, focused only on what studies of music past can offer him today. He’s famous in our department for offering up an Italian madrigal analyzed completely (okay, incompletely…there’s only so much you can do with this so-called “pre-tonal” repertoire) in Roman numerals when my class “The Italian Madrigal” was learning about contemporary modal theory. This theorist friend constantly questioned my basic assumption that the composer’s intention was important, that it even mattered, and for making me aware of my own scholarly biases, I am incredibly grateful. (It didn’t change my belief that there is value in attempting to determine what a composer meant when he or she wrote a piece of music, and in analyzing that music in the contexts of its contemporary culture and musical practices. But at least now I’m aware that I start with this assumption, and that it is not a view that is universally shared.) This theorist would say, “Why does it matter how people heard it back then? That’s not how we hear it today. Therefore historicism does nothing for ME.”
Well, friend, in an attempt to understand your perspective, I searched out an article tackling similar ideas:
W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., “The Intentional Fallacy” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (New York: Noonday Press, 1954), 3-18. The fact that this article specifically regards poetry rather than music is superfluous. As works of art, poetry and music can be examined with the same range of approaches. That’s precisely why I found an introduction on literary criticism to have so many potentially useful applications to my own work as a musicologist (you can read more about that discovery here). In any case, when Wimsatt’s article begins with this compelling statement, I knew I’d landed upon an article useful precisely because I so vehemently disagree with it: “We argued that the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art…” (3).
Poetry as conceived by Wimsatt and music have more in common than I first realized, for they are both a performative art. Poetry is not created until it is performed; similarly, some musicologists argue that music written on a page is not actually music until the written notes become an aural reality, enabled by the physical action of a musician. That’s a whole big debate that I don’t want to get into here. But it matters because, as Wimsatt says, “But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker, and if to the author at all, only by an act of biographical inference” (5). Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, all performative works, music included, are created not by the author or composer but by the performer. Thus, it doesn’t matter what the musical composer intended. What matters is how the musician performed it – and when it comes to, say, a piece of early music, someone with this viewpoint might not care how it may have been performed centuries ago, only how it is performed today, with all our modern approaches and reactions. Another argument is that a poem (or a piece of music) is neither the composer’s nor the listener’s, but belongs to the public, as an expression of the universal human experience, enabled by the universal drive for language.
According to this article, author biography is a legitimate study, but one that must not be confused with research of the author’s works. Both the study of author history/psychology and the study of the author’s creations are means toward understanding author personality – but these are too easily mistaken and intermingled. Wimsatt wants scholars to differentiate between three kinds of evidence: public (the internal evidence found in the work itself), private (the external evidence not part of a work but about the author, as in journals or letters), and intermediate (evidence about the meanings the author assigned to particular elements of his/her work).
Wimsatt seems to be arguing, overall, that inquiring what an author intended when he or she created a work is meaningless. What matters is how successful a performer is when presenting the work, and how it is received by the public as an expression of the public. Or something like that. I find it difficult to truly understand anti-historicist viewpoints (which is why I will continue to struggle through articles like this one).