Robert Hatten's Musical Meaning in Beethoven is an extended interpretive study of Beethoven's late style conceived in a strictly semiotic framework and wedding this with detailed technical analysis. Perhaps no other work has been so audacious in confronting the paradox of interpretation in absolute music. The German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus offered a fascinating hermeneutic investigation of "absolute" music as an idea invested with the ideology of Romanticism. He showed that an aesthetic paradigm denying the referential content of purely instrumental music was historically contingent and ripe for revision (1989: 7-8). Analytic aestheticians have approached the problem from an opposed, historical perspective, by examining what it is to make an assertion about music that includes semantic attribution. The use of metaphor has been central in this discussion. Nelson Goodman (1968), for example, has explored the notion of absolute music as being able to give metaphorical exemplification to certain semantic states. Roger Scruton (1983) has denied the musicality of someone unable to hear the metaphorical content of a work (see Cumming, 1994). Peter Kivy (1990) has suggested that the impulse to metaphorical description should be linked to the cognition of musical structures. None of these writers is, however, able to offer an account of how the affective content that they describe through metaphorical language is derived from specific aspects of structure or style.
Hatten's theory begins to answer this need. He sketches a systematic framework for musical semantics, and most importantly, distinguishes the descriptive use of metaphor from the creation of 'metaphor' in music itself. Hatten avoids the danger of subjectivism found in the generalized aesthetic accounts of metaphor by emphasising the stylistic encoding of expressive attributes. He establishes intersubjectivity by identifying the shared stylistic categories that govern the perception of works, and using them systematically as a means for placing constraints on the application of metaphorical terms in interpretive semiotic description. Hatten's strategy in this book is first to present the theoretical framework within which he is to treat systematic oppositions (Chapter 2) before proceeding to an overview of the literature on Classical style (Chapter 3). Michael Schapiro's elaboration of markedness theory (1976, 1983) is a primary influence. His work identifies paired semantic oppositions as typically having a single 'marked' term, one that is more distinctive or limited in its application. Hatten applies this idea of marked opposition to distinctions between and within stylistic categories (Chapter 3). Leonard Ratner's (1980) theory of musical topics provides a concrete list of distinctions that are found in 18th Century music (pp.74-75). For example, one scale of comparison distinguishes degrees of dignity (high, middle and low); another responds to contexts of performance (church, chamber or theatre), while a third identifies the diverse and unconnected stylistic associations that are found as elements of compositions in this period (e.g. "military," "Turkish music," "Storm and Stress").
These stylistic distinctions are enriched by Hatten's account of further expressive genres, such as the Pastoral (pp. 82-84) as well as by reference to distinctions that are commonly made in music theory, which might include discriminations of dynamic levels, modes (major/minor), types of key relationship and directions of melodic motion. Some of these scales of comparison can be translated simply into oppositional pairs where a marked term is identifiable. The major mode, for example, is unmarked in relation to the more specific affective connotations of the minor; a 'middle' stylistic register is unmarked in relation both to 'high' and 'low' styles. Some other, more amorphous, categories, depend on context for their evaluation. Chapter 4 provides a concrete example of how they can be assessed. Hatten treats the Piano Sonata, Op. 101, as an exemplar of the pastoral genre. When tragic outbursts are found in the first movement, or a learned fugue in the last, their opposition to the pastoral context is taken to ameliorate the extremity of their effect. The identification of the work as pastoral sets up the standard by which other topics can be heard as marked .
For the remainder of the first part Hatten continues to alternate chapters of theoretical exposition with detailed analyses of selected movements from the Piano Sonatas and String Quartets of Beethoven's late period. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the means by which thematic material can be marked within classical forms. Three basic types of material are distinguished: the "thematic/presentational, transitional/developmental, and cadential/closural" (p.115). When presentational material occurs at an opening, or harmonically unstable material in a development section, it is unmarked because it conforms to the conventions of sonata form, but if any type of material is displaced to a location that is stylistically sensitised for another function, it is then marked by its incongruence. This account recalls Leonard Meyer's emphasis on unexpected events as stimuli for affective response or a rationalisation of meaning in music (1956: 34). Meyer's analysis of a cadential gesture that is displaced to an opening presents the kind of contextual violation that interests Hatten. The slow movement of Brahms's opening offers a synthesis of closural resignation with the anticipatory quality of an opening event. Beethoven demands a comparable integration of opposed impulses when he combines a 'yearning' melodic direction with 'yielding' harmonic tendencies. The emergent sense of this combination is thematised in the first part of the book with recurrent references to it as a state of 'abnegation.'
Chapter 6 gives a thematic analysis of the first movements from the String Quarterts, Opp. 130 and 131. An obvious subtext of this chapter, as of the last, is a defence of analytical procedures that do not privilege harmonic and voice-leading structure, but focus instead on the expressive motivations for thematic discourse. Hatten seeks to redress an imbalance that he finds in music theories influenced by the work of Heinrich Schenker (p.113). He argues that a Schenkerian view of structure is inadequate to account for the expressive significance of marked features in the foreground, or for the dialectics of thematic discourse (p.133). This is demonstrated in the first movement of Op. 130, where the opposition of closely juxtaposed Adagio and Allegro themes is "strategically marked" (p.134) and forms the primary motivation for the discourse of the movement.
In Chapter 7 Hatten looks again at the musical consequence of placing opposed topics together in a single structural location and uses his observation of the phenomenon as a means of developing an account of narrative, irony and shifting levels of discourse in music. In elaborating the question of how semantic types interact, he acknowledges the insights offered by Marta Grabocz in her (1986) study of Litzt (p. 168), as well as a suggestively humorous study of semantic confusion by Vladimir Karbusicky (1986). His own contribution is to define more precisely the conditions under which established semantic correlations may combine in a manner that produces a purely musical 'metaphor.' In doing this, he opens up the possibility of exploring musical metaphor in a way that is independent of its linguistic use. By treating it in this way he avoids the trivialisation of the concept found in some philosophical accounts of musical description (p.166), and also gives a strong motivation for interpreting the semantic evolution of a work or style. Hatten refers to this use of musical metaphor as a 'trope.' David Lidov suggests, fairly, in his foreword that the concept of troping forms the heart of Hatten's theory (p.X). All aspects of the theory are brought together in a final extended analysis of the Cavatina from Op. 130 (Chapter 8).
A complete reproduction of the scores under discussion in the analytical chapters of the first part of the book is a generous aid to music analysts and semioticians who are interested in pursuing the details of Hatten's interpretation. Readers without a strong background in music theory may find the purely analytical chapters (4, 6, and 8) in Part I a little strenuous, but an adequate impression of Hatten's argument can be gained by reading the theoretical chapters alone. These include analyses that are shorter and more accessible, although they still require a basic knowledge of harmonic nomenclature for their subtler points to be grasped. Part II gives a broader theoretical context to Hatten's theory. Chapter 8 posits semiotic theory as the natural successor to aesthetics in its ability to deal with questions of musical content. It includes a brief synopsis of 19th century aesthetics, early symbolic positions on musical meaning, and the work of Peter Kivy before introducing the most influential sources for Hatten's semiotic work: Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand Saussure, Umberto Eco and Michael Shapiro. This introduction is necessarily brief. Readers who are new to semiotics will be assisted by the extensive glossary, where succinct definitions are given for all technical terms, and by the wide-ranging bibliography. A final chapter relates Hatten's theory to work in music cognition and features a more technical discussion of categories taken from Peirce.
The analyses in the first part of the book are not only to be read, but to be performed, listened to and felt. Hatten commences with an analysis of the slow movement from Beethoven's Piano 'Hammerklavier', Sonata Op. 106 before proceeding to any theoretical discussion. He identifies the first measures as tragic, hymn-like, spiritual, monumental and timeless (p.13). This description invites assent primarily through an imaginative engagement with the music, an assent which will later be ratified by considering his theory of semantic oppositions and their markedness. Repeated hearings are required in order to respond to Hatten's sensitive and highly nuanced characterization of the content evoked by small musical details. 'Striving' appears within the overall mood of 'tragedy'; a moment of doubt is followed by 'reversal;' a 'serene' moment of 'transcendence' breaks in. These moods last for no more than a few bars. As they are isolated in a description that must be read outside of the realtime context of listening, the reader may feel some concern about over-determination, the possibly excessive investment of meaning in ephemeral events. An integration of these details with a hearing of the whole passage will, however, confirm their authenticity as moments of experience. It is naming the usually inarticulate perception of a shifting affective content that causes surprise.
To find a moment of 'insight' in a shift from the tragic to the transcendent (p. 15) is to borrow the language of conscious understanding for the delineation of a changed mood state. The positions of Goodman, Kivy or Scruton would suggest that this description cannot be affirmed as 'true' in any literal sense. They would deny that its metaphoricity could allow it to ask such affirmation. Hatten challenges this view by providing a strong case for how the qualities identified in music are related to semantic states. Identifying a move from tragedy to transcendence conveys the sense of a change, positively appraised, that is experienced with some surprise, as a breaking in of something new. The music does have this effect, even if it is not habitually named, and the description is intuitively persuasive. Imaginative engagement might, then, allow the affirmation of the description as suggestive metaphor alone, but Hatten asks the reader also to consider his analyses as 'true' in a stronger sense, based on an acceptance of his documented beliefs about the structural manipulation of stylistic topics.
As noted above, Hatten depends on Schapiro's markedness theory, in which semantic oppositions are seen to have one term that is marked as bearing a more specific or constrained meaning (tragic vs. non-tragic). In Hatten's view "these cultural units are mapped onto general stylistic types, as oppositionally defined by traditional or other theories" (p.30). An exemplary mapping for tonal music is found in the opposition of modes - minor is to major as the tragic is to the non-tragic. By using this characterization instead of the terms 'sad' and 'happy' that are commonly used in naive descriptions of minor and major, Hatten emphasizes that the minor mode has a more distinct range of associations. The important analogy is between structures of contrasts in the realm of music and the realm of emotion, not directly between isolated musical elements and psychological elements. When reconstructing the listening experience that Hatten describes in his analyses, it is, then, important to assign the oppositional value of the descriptive terms a weight that may equal their intrinsic content. Tragedy cannot be experienced in a moment, if its dramatic nature is predicated upon the development of a character in complex circumstances, but the opening motive of a minor key movement can instantly convey a tragic mood. This content is ratified when "tragic" content is recognised as characteristic of the minor mode in its marked structural relationship to major within the diatonic system. It might be attractive to associate the "tragic" with Shakespearian drama, but the term is not able to carry this associative weight if it is applied as a structural attribute without further context. In fact, it conveys little about the particular qualities of any passage until it is modified by an analysis of its relationship to other oppositional features. In Hatten's analysis of the Hammerklavier's slow movement the tragic is nuanced by observations of texture and harmonic rhythm that yield supporting attributions of solemnity and timelessness to the opening section of the work (p.14). The interpretation is further deepened when the tragic element is found to assume an active (or "strategic") oppositional role within the specific movement, rather than solely as a choice within the possibilities of the style. An opposition is made explicit when a new topic is momentarily introduced, and the short passage (mm. 14-15) described by Hatten as 'transcendent' (p.15) is able to fulfil this role.
Oppositions can be heard spontaneously. The 'transcendence' identified in mm. 14-15 gains its sense for the listener, not from a prior notion of spiritual enlightenment, but from its unexpected invasion of the sombre, tragic, mood. This invasion makes an opposition palpable. A radical shift is heard without any need to consider consciously the external circumstances under which the transcendent is named. The use of 'transcendent' for this particular opposition is nonetheless well motivated, and its structural relationship to semantic circumstances in a non- musical context can be made explicit. The transcendent relates to everyday experience as something above ordinary reason, unexpected and insusceptible to obvious logic. This passage breaks in to its context with a higher register and distantly related key, defying any local harmonic implication. A correlation of the passage with the transcendent is thus justified by a structural analogy. Its occurrence in the nontragic major mode completes its oppositional value in relation to the tragic connotations of the surrounding minor context.
Analogies between oppositional pairs in music and semantics may become established as conventions within a style (e.g. tragic: nontragic::minor: major). Identifying an opening minor motive as tragic is responding to it as a token of a semantic correlation that has become conventional within tonal music. When this occurs, the structural role of analogy in defining musical content is weakened or extinguished as the frequent repetition motivates a direct correlation between an individual musical element and a semantic content (p.38). In the modal example, minor keys come to signify a class of tragic states without the interpretive mediation in presentation of reference to opposed qualities in the major mode. This elision, characteristic of musical experience, can lead to ambiguity in the language of analysis because it suppresses the structural origin of the descriptive terms. If misread, the elision can give an impression that semantic descriptions are being presented as intrinsic qualities of a musical feature. This leads to an overly literal reading of Hatten's analyses, and with it a state of emotional indigestion or scepticism about alleged musical content. As he develops his argument in the following chapters, Hatten guards himself well against this misreading. It is of course redundant to remind the reader constantly that minor stands in opposition to major, or that the semantic attribution of tragedy is a recognition of type, to be given interpretive nuance by its contextualisation. He makes these points clearly enough not to require further reinforcement.
If explanatory elision has some disadvantages, its payoff is considerable in leading to the original account of musical metaphor that is unfolded in chapter 7. The correlations of musical and semantic conditions that result from a process of suppressing structural analogies are then taken to function as the literal terms of musical discourse, rather like the frozen metaphors of language (p. 165). George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) have offered numerous examples of how metaphors lose their force, allowing a word to function within a discourse as a literal term without stimulating any interest in its figurative content (as in "Prices are going up"). Semantic correlations in music demonstrate a similar process because listeners recognize them with an immediacy that excludes interpretive reference to their analogical origin. A semiotic interpreter can share this spontaneity in recognising musical content, but an awareness of hidden analogy offers the possibility of supporting descriptive attributions with an assessment of oppositional structures or events. Hatten suggests that such rationalisation can serve to ensure a movement from subjective response to intersubjective experience, thus circumventing an arbitrariness in the use of metaphor that he finds in Goodman's (1968) (1976) theory (pp.164-165). His analyses thus ask for two modes of acceptance, one of them a direct response to the persuasiveness of a term in conveying the quality of a musical experience, the other a rational consideration of the structural oppositions that motivate its choice.
Treating semantic correlations in music as literal terms is an important dialectical move. In response to philosophical positions that assert all affective terms to have a metaphorical status when applied to music (cf. Goodman, 1968; Scruton, 1983) , Hatten makes a decisive step by defining (suppressed) correlation as the means by which music comes to have functionally literal content. It must be remembered, however, that the correlation of music's structural oppositions with those of a non-musical world is a correlation of oppositional types that allows considerable freedom to the analyst's verbal articulation. The music may literally possess its oppositional qualities, but the analyst is dependent on making verbal approximations with other semantic contexts, and retains his or her individual imagination when discriminating the most accurate word for a given context. Some caution is necessary in asserting 'literal' attribution as an outcome of standardised or suppressed correlation because the semantic content correlated with a particular structure is an expressive 'type' requiring further specification. Individual differences in the description of a passage are not necessarily inconsistent with agreement about the type of content it conveys. The objectivity or 'literalness' of a passage's content may be conveyed with alternative vocabularies, providing that the marked relationship between the terms of description is retained. The literal content, is then, a property of the relationship between the main terms of the description, rather than anything that is attached to a particular term. I might, for example, find in the fourth measure of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op.7 a placid reconciliation to mild, but not wholly unpredictable, disappointment where Hatten finds a "willed resignation" that suggests abnegation (p.59). These descriptions fit within the same general class and show agreement about the marked effect of a harmonic substitution in the bass.
Hatten's concern with establishing the objectivity of semantic terms that are applied through structural correlation allows him to understate his own identity as an interpreter in the analyses. His descriptions imaginatively evoke his own ideal performance of the works in question, and they grant some passages an expressive weight that is poorly conveyed in performance by another interpreter. For example, he finds that a progression in the first movement of Op.101 (m.93) "conveys resignation, as though this one poignant phrase might summarize, reflectively, an essential insight of the whole movement," but the performance I have by Alfred Brendel does little to emphasize the passage as carrying such weight. Hatten's reading is in no way discredited by this difference, but it does suggest that the objective semantic attributes defined through an analysis of structural oppositions require an attentive interpreter for their realization. The possibility of individual difference is not obviated by an awareness of marked oppositions, because it remains for the interpreter to recognize and select those oppositions that are to be emphasised as most strategic for the work. Hatten's interpretations are at times surprisingly poetic in their expression, and despite his eschewal of a strong authorial presence, the sensitivity of his individual response to the music should not be underestimated.
In its wide inter-disciplinary reference, Hatten's book is perhaps a good example of the metaphorical 'troping' that forms such a central part of its content. Hatten observes that "at its most powerful, a metaphor offers a novel insight by creating an interaction between two already established meanings that involves disparate, perhaps contradictory, domains of meaning, and that is brought together by a linguistic act of predication" (p.168). In his book he effectively creates an interaction between aspects of music theory, analysis, aesthetics and semiotics. His work yields some novel insights that deserve careful consideration from anyone in these fields, as well as from others who are concerned more generally with the semantics of markedness in a non-verbal art.
Dahlhaus, Carl (1978) (1989). The Idea of Absolute Music, translated by Roger Lustig, University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Goodman, Nelson (1968). Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Bobbs Merrill: Indianapolis.
Grabocz, Marta (1986). Morphologie des oeuvres pour piano de Liszt. MTA Zenetudomanyi Intezet: Budapest.
Karbusicky, Vladimir (1986). "Signification" in music: a metaphor? in The Semiotic Web 1986, ed. Thomas Sebeck and Jean Umiker-Sebeck, Mouton de Gruyter: Beriin,430-44.
Kivy, Peter (1990), Music Alone. Cornell University Press: New York.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Meyer, Leonard (1956), Emotion and Meaning in Musäc. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Meyer, Leonard (1973), Explaining Music. University of California Press: Berkeley.
Ratner, Leonard (1980), Classic Music: Expression, Form and Style. Schirmer: New York.
Shapiro, Michael (1976), Asymmetry: An Inquiry into the Linguistic Structure of Poetry. Amsterdam: North Holland.
Shapiro, Michael (1983), The Sense of Grammar. Indiana University Press: Bloomington.
Dr. Naomi Cumming is a Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne She publishes extensively on musical epistemology and musical analysis.