Music as an Art by Roger Scruton

Music as an ArtThis very interesting book consists of two parts. In the first, Scruton is trying to wrestle with what music is.

“And surely that is part of the point of art, that it offers conclusions in a world that is otherwise deprived of them. This is not an escapism but its opposite: taking some feeling, however bleak, to its conclusions, and showing thereby that it is in our nature to bear it.” (68)

“It is in this way that we are consoled by music . . . namely, that it provides order and completion to states of being that drift through our lives in fragmentary or inconclusive ways.” (69)

I think it a sensible conclusion. How do we deal with the partialities of this sublunary life? We hope for more, and one of the things that offers consolation is music that is so ordered as to develop its theme, progress through the stages of a thing, and reach a perceptible conclusion. We applaud it if only for that reason.

One of the options that Scruton raises in his quest to understand the nature of music is that “We are dealing with the aesthetic, rather than the metaphysical, idea of the transcendental.” (76) He of course discounts that we have contact with the transcendent as such. When C. S. Lewis concludes that it stands to reason that if we have longings that nothing in this world can satisfy then we must be made for another world, Scruton refuses the conclusion. I hope it isn’t an act of unbelief, but I am afraid that I see no other real alternative. That is the limitation of Scruton. He really accepts the Kantian conclusion. He once quipped that the Enlightenment was a form of light pollution which blocked our view of the stars. He must not have thought we can flip the switch off on the Enlightenment. (C. S. Lewis spent his life trying to deny that the Renaissance happened, let alone the Enlightenment . . . )

But I myself find the suggestion that music depicts metaphysical realities in the aesthetic realm compelling. As one who tries to function on premodern assumptions, I don’t see why not. What Scruton concludes is that the self is somehow a thing beyond the world. What he has said elsewhere, that we are incarnates subjects in a world of objects. It is just he allows for no consciousness other than that we have in the world of objects as perceiving subjects. So, what constitutes a subject is what is being dealt with in music. Music, then, is an address from subject to subject, achieving a harmony of empathy. It is a conclusion still brimming with possibilities.

The second part of the book contains various of Scruton’s reflections, mostly on composers and musical figures. You can expect something on Schubert and Wagner of course, but there is a lot on British composers, and the recovery of music after the dead end of serialism. A lot of Adorno in this book, an answer and refutation of Adorno, it may be considered. He is also very trenchant on Shostakovich, which made me grateful. When I think of consoling music, I actually think of Shostakovich.

Here is an unexpected tangential gem buried away toward the end of the book: “the longing for experiences outside the bounds of our Anglican upbringing, and at the same time the stunning message of Four Quartets, which told us that those experiences were not out of bounds at all but could be blended with the spiritual heritage of England—all these were shared by our generation . . . Four Quartets brought together the subterranean current of Anglican Christianity with the questioning search for a purified and modernist art that would seek redemption in the immediate moment, observed, internalized and expressed without lies. As the title declares, Eliot had before his mind the great example of Beethoven, whose late quartets show religious questions answered through aesthetic discipline, and redemption by the hard path of artistic truthfulness.” (157)

The penultimate chapter ponders the music of the future, a kind of ‘whither music?’ And the last chapter is on the culture of pop. That last is a most illuminating and engrossing essay indeed!

It is not a book that requires any special musical ability. I have absolutely none. Of course, I could be deluding myself since, after all, I find comfort in Shostakovich. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.