Messages resonant in the midst of a score

August 22, 1997

Can music be moral, or fascist, racist and sexist? Current thinking in the United States is that it can. The "new musicology" makes context king. How music is created, performed and heard and by what kind of people, in which country, age and social setting inevitably affects its meaning.

New musicology's interest in social context has led academics to explore issues such as gender, race and class, examining how power struggles have affected musical knowledge. Tamara Levitz at McGill University, Canada, suggests recent interest in music's ethical and political meanings can be attributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the second world war and the use made of music by Hitler and Stalin to encourage people to commit atrocities, musicologists wanted to focus on music without meaning. Arnold Schonberg was seen as the ideal proponent of this universal music. Now, says Levitz, people are tentatively looking for messages in music again.

It is striking how far modern musicology is dominated by the impact of the two world wars. It was a time when Wagner was used to inspire a national pride that led to holocaust, and Kurt Weill songs played a part in undermining the Nazi regime. For some it is a time which demonstrates the power of music to influence character. For others, however, it proves the opposite. "If the emotions inspired by music could empower someone ethically, one would have to assume that a country like Germany, so proud of its musical tradition, would have benefited from it," says Albrecht Rietmuller, of the Free University, Berlin. "If music has ethical effects at all, the land producing so many musical masterpieces for two centuries could hardly have led to the organisation and carrying out of the Holocaust."

The belief that music has ethical properties dates back to the Greeks. Plato believed it helped form character. The ancient world thought music derived from a higher sphere and therefore could improve mankind. While they condemned "lascivious music" as inspiring baser instincts, they saw the right kind bringing man closer to the gods. It was a view which continued through the Middle Ages when the cadences of religious chants and church music were exploited to inspire godliness in congregations. Discordant notes were avoided as notes of the devil, harmonies and repetition used to develop feelings of community.

This century, John Tavener, a composer who often professes his commitment to orthodox Christianity, uses the same tricks. Mitchell Morris, assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, argues that this is deliberately tapping into the corporate experience, the traditions and authority of orthodox Christianity to promote Tavener's ethical message. "Music plays an enormous role in the construction of communities," he says. "To listen together binds audiences into an imagined community, whether nation, subculture, congregation. We listen with others and the way the music addresses us determines us as a collectivity with a certain character and a certain potential moral career."

Is it possible to draw from music the sort of messages which can be spelt out in writing? Levitz, in studying the work of the 1960s avant-garde Italian composer Luigi Nono, argues that it is. While Nono recognised the power of the word and chose his texts carefully, he used them in a musical way, breaking them up and superimposing them so that the words emerged with a violence separate from their intrinsic meaning.

She says he wanted to give his listeners music that was difficult in order to make them think. If they were forced to hear music differently, they would also learn to relate to the world and their fellow men differently. She contrasts this with the Spice Girls who communicate female rebelliousness in an easily packaged commercial way. "Teenagers can enjoy the feeling of rebellion just by buying products associated with the group - products which do not force those teenagers to change their behaviour in the world or with their fellow teenagers."

The articles here are drawn from papers delivered at the 16th International Congress of the International Musicology Society, in London this week.

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