Discourses in Music: Volume 5 Number 2 (Fall 2004)

A Response to Leslie Kinton’s “How We Got Out of Analysis and How to get Back In: A Polemical Re-Appraisal of Joseph Kerman”

By Sandy Thorburn

Leslie Kinton’s recent article, “How We Got Out of Analysis and How to get Back In: A Polemical Re-Appraisal of Joseph Kerman,” is a fairly scathing critique of Kerman’s 1980 article, “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out,” focussing largely on Kerman’s apparent dislike for Schenkerian analysis (or, more accurately, “criticism.”) In fact, though, Kinton takes issue with a larger aspect of the discipline of critical writing about music. He discusses the divide between analysis and musicology, and attempts to delineate the role of analysis in the context of music studies. His Achilles’ heel seems to be his insistent warnings against doing something, and then his tendency to do precisely what he suggested we not do. He tends to use these tools he has discredited in reference to analysis to discredit the discreditors and their discursive techniques.

Take, for example, his opening paragraph in which he writes that “musicology has been attempting to redefine itself … often by means of raging, polemical debate,” and then goes on to defend the silence of analysts because (quoting Nicholas Cook) “Kerman’s characterizations [of analysis] were really caricatures.” To draw the battle lines as cartoons on either side is misleading – and many of Kerman’s characterizations did involve caricatures – but to call the subsequent discussions “raging polemical debates” also does a disservice to the argument Kinton is trying to define.

Kinton refers to Internet discussion lists as though they were the standard by which all music discussion should be judged. I find that Internet discussion groups, potentially useful though they are, to be more often forums for verbose and opinionated people to impose their opinions on others, rather than a place for genuine discussion; their peculiar combination of intimacy, anonymity (of a sort) and impunity make for a difficult academic source. What is more relevant to me are the on-line journals like Discourses in Music or Echo, that try to have in-depth discussions about these same issues, which is why I welcome Mr. Kinton’s article, although I do not subscribe to his worldview. Graduate student journals in music (online or on paper) have long been the source of some of the most important discourse on this very topic: the existence of these two polar opposites named “musicology” and “analysis”. In fact, though, there are a series of ways of talking about music, all different, all relevant, none requiring allegiance to any particular agenda. To call something analysis or musicology is simply a short-cut for those who like to preach to the converted. Music, after all, is the subject of our study, but it must expand from there to include the social context, the interaction between the art (music) and the community (its relevant audience).

Kinton’s initial statement reads:

The major premise behind this paper is that Kerman's (implicit) dichotomy of analysis vs. criticism is a false one and, further, that what he calls “analysis” is really nothing more than positivist “description”: real analysis is, in fact, music criticism in its “purest” form (i.e., unmediated by other academic disciplines, albeit at times drawing on them).
I am not sure why he puts the word “purest” in scare quotes, but it seems to me that even he may be afraid of using a phrase like this. It smacks of the Romantic Eduard Hanslick’s On the Musically Beautiful, dating from 1854. Music criticism does not really have a “purest form”; it has many faces, and it must have many faces, because music cannot really be expressed in words. Kinton’s assertion that dissertations dealing with Beethoven piano sonatas could not be written in past years because these subjects were considered “done” is clearly a subject that would be worthy of criticism if it were true, but a cursory glance at the AMS list of current musicology dissertations reveals that this is obviously false.1 Beethoven is no more in danger of being overlooked than the English language is in danger of dying out, nor was he ever.

Furthermore, there are many studies of music conducted in journals, conferences, and round-tables throughout the world that do not subscribe to Kinton’s America-centric understanding of analysis and criticism. Most active scholars will allow that European, Asian, and Oceanic (Australia and New Zealand being the most frequent contributors to this group) music scholars approach their fields in very different ways, and one of the most fascinating things about this study is how differently scholars from various cultures approach a similar repertoire.

Sadly, for the art world at large, the issue of the shortage of good criticism is by no means confined to music. For example, in a recent issue of The Walrus2, Andy Lamey laments the lack of effective criticism in literary circles (particularly in Canadian ones) because potential critics are drawn from the same community as the authors they are critiquing. Thus, they fear retribution from their peers. If music critics were also composers and performers, they would be vulnerable to these same career risks every time they put pen to paper. The kind of criticism that is created by practitioners is rarely interesting either, as Socrates noted in the platonic dialogues (Apology 22b-c).3 Although the poets thought themselves wise in “other things in which they were not wise”, the philosophers were much better equipped to speak of the work of the poets. Fortunately, Kinton then goes on to invoke philosopher and literary critic Northrop Frye, who claimed that there was an “ absence of systematic criticism [in literary criticism, which] has created a power vacuum, and all the neighbouring disciplines have moved in.” Kinton claims that this has also happened to music criticism, and describes (tongue-in-cheek) the recipe for criticism, claiming that one needs to map another field – Marxism, semiotics, etc. – thereby committing a “fallacy of argument by analogy.”

Kinton describes the worst kind of dogmatism and calls it the standard. Even his example of fallacy by analogy is a fallacious reading of Susan McClary’s intention in writing the article “Getting Off the Beanstalk.” He claims that her article “analogizes the violence in the recapitulation of the first movement [of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] with that of a deranged rapist.” In the published article, she did not do this; she merely notes that the energy of the first movement, especially when recapitulated in the final movement, has powerful and violent sexual energy, something that does not take a wild imagination to hear in the music. She nowhere suggests that it is like a deranged rapist – her argument characterises this recapitulation in the same way as the phallo-centric view of many Romantic composers from Beethoven and Mahler.4

Despite the fact that describing any field by its worst examples – or worse, by hearsay and misquoting a senior scholar – is unfair and ultimately of little value, McClary aside, he goes on to claim that “the music itself” (his words, not mine) is shunted to the side in favour of the locomotive called political agenda. He suggests that a sociologist might reasonably find “The Spice Girls to be more important and interesting than the complete works of Rebecca Clark [sic].” In point of fact, The Spice Girls have had more influence on the world than Rebecca Clarke, particularly in recent years, and I suspect that his choice of (and misspelling of) Clarke was chosen to juxtapose two favourites of feminist musicology. (In my innocence, I thought the era of feminist bashing was over in academia.) Kinton’s own agenda seems to be the perceived need to adopt the theories of literary theorist Northrop Frye, although precisely why this should be is unclear throughout the article. Frye represents a certain male-dominated, Christian, conservative doctrine that seems to pass, rather in the manner of accents in language, for having no agenda. He has the god’s eye view, devoid as he is of axes to grind. His work is tightly bound up with exegetical work on the Bible, on the one hand and William Blake, on the other.

Kinton argues against mapping an argument from one discipline onto another. This is manifested in Frye’s call for “literary literacy” which demands that the practitioner be familiar with the art of writing. The musical analogue, called “musical literacy” would presuppose an ability either to play or to compose in order to be an effective critic. Although I wish this were true, (as a musicologist who both composes and maintains a performance career – and I suspect that Leslie Kinton wishes it into reality for similar reasons), “it ain’t necessarily so.” To understand music, one need not know how to play an instrument or to have composed music. Of course, an ability to understand music deeply is crucial, but at the same time, an ability to distance oneself from the work is also necessary, and performing or composing sometimes has a tendency to make the player or composer lose the necessary detachment.

Ultimately, as he himself shows in his comparison of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Bach’ s B-flat major fugue, the devil is in the details. His discussion of Heinrich Schenker is essentially (as he admits) a rehashing of the essential techniques of this method, and it seems to add little to his essential discourse. Nevertheless, the comparison of Frye on literature with Schenker on music is compelling, despite his caveats against transference from one art to another earlier in the paper. He correctly points out that Kerman’s description of this sort of musical analysis of “the music itself” (which it is not, but rather “the musical text itself” – a very different thing), should not be called “positivism.” I submit that any musical discussion that tries to reveal the “true beyond” or the “very soul of art” (terms he uses) is simply someone’s opinion masquerading as fact. What Beethoven “meant” is no more sexual aggression than it is an expression of universal love or anything else, and even if it were, instrumental music has the dubious quality of imprecision, allowing meaning to be mapped onto the phrases of music. Ultimately, music consists, as Schenker concedes, of shapes that float through air, conjuring up ideas and feelings, shapes and lines. Schenkerian analysis tries to point out through the application of arithmetical (or even mathematical) principles, the architecture of an artwork. This is not positivist analysis; it is reductive. Whether it is useful or good is as much a matter of opinion as the work it seeks to illuminate.


1. The following is a list of Beethoven Sonata related dissertations listed on the MAS website: Ahn, Suhnne, Genre, Style, and Compositional Procedure in Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, Op. 47, Ph.D., Harvard, 1997. Amstutz, Peter, Arietta: Aspects of Variation Form and Style in Beethoven's Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, DMA Peabody Conservatory, 1977. Bakos, Daniel Frank, Recapitulation Preparation in Selected Sonata Form Movements by Beethoven, Ph.D. Ohio State University, 1981. Chodkowski, Andrzej, Klasyczna forma sonatowa w twórczosci kameralnej L. van Beethovena [The Classical Sonata-Form in the Chamber Works of L. van Beethoven], Ph.D., University of Warsaw, 1964. Ermakova, Galina Principy voploscenija konflikta v sonatno-simfoniceskom cykle Bethovena [The Principle of Conflict in Beethoven's Sonata-Symphonic Cycle]. Ph.D., Kiev Conservatory, 1973. Goldstein, Joanna, An Analysis of Interpretation in Selected Performances of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Opus 111, Ph.D., New York University, 1985. Holt, Marilyn. Developmental Procedures in the Sonata Form Movements of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, Ph.D., Musicology, Case Western Reserve University, 1973. 359 p. King, Terry B. Beethoven's Arrangement of the String Trio, Op. 3: A Cello Sonata?. D.M.A., Performance, University of Iowa, 1992. Lorince, Frank E. Jr. A Study of Musical Texture in Relation to Sonata-Form As Evidenced in Selected Keyboard Sonatas from C. P. E. Bach through Beethoven, Ph.D., Theory, University of Rochester, 1966. Marston, Nicholas John. The Sketches for Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E, Opus 109. Ph.D., Musicology, Cambridge University, 1986. Meredith, William Rhea III. The Sources for Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E Major, Opus 109, Ph.D., Musicology, University of North Carolina, 1985. Miyake, Jan M., Multiple Themes in the New Key Area of Sonata Form Expositions, Ph.D., Music Theory, City University of New York. Rehman, Gail. Modifications of Sonata Form in Beethoven's Overtures, Ph.D., Theory, Yale University. Skoggard, Carl. A Transcription and Analysis of Sketches for Beethoven's Piano Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110, Ph.D., Music, City University of New York. Sterk, Valerie Stegink. Robert Schumann as Sonata Critic and Composer: The Sonata from Beethoven to 1844, as Reviewed by Schumann in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Ph.D., Musicology, Stanford University, 1992. Wiesel, Henry Meir. Thematic Unity in Beethoven's Sonata Works of the Period 1796-1802 Ph.D., Musicology, City University of New York, 1976. Wulfhorst, Martin, Louis Spohr's Early Chamber Music (1796-1812): A Contribution to the History of Nineteenth-Century Genres Ph.D., Musicology, City University of New York, 1995.


3. “I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be instantly detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them--thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to confess the truth, but I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. The poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.” Translation by Benjamin Jowett.

4. This deliberate misreading of Susan McClary’s words is not unique to this essay. It does not appear in Feminine Endings, but it was published in a very small, unrefereed journal called the Minnesota Composer's Forum Newsletter. The argument McClary makes in this journal was expanded (and changed) for publication in Feminine Endings, and this version remains the only published version of the argument (even McClary herself does not have a copy of the offending journal.) Various authors, intent on attacking the discipline of feminist musicology by ridicule, got hold of the MCFN version and circulated the infamous phrase out of context. The citation that appeared in the MCFN (provided by McClary), before revision, is as follows: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.”