‘In Defence of Music Analysis’

Julian Horton opened his keynote jokingly apologising for a sense of disorientation stemming from the train journey from Waterloo to Egham, ‘in which you seem to cross the Thames from the North to the South about three times… so I’m now not entirely clear which side of the Thames I’m on’. No such confusion was apparent, however, in his arguments for the role of theory and analysis in the age of postmodernist scholarship. Horton’s paper conjoined ‘two parallel threads’ that run throughout his research of the past decade or so. The first, polemical thread describes a series of published position papers that have ‘tried to stake out a territory for theory and analysis’. The second, analytical thread ‘put into practice the terms of the position papers somehow’. Not surprisingly, given Horton’s field, this knitting exercise transmuted into a coherent five-part form, with a modulation from polemics to analysis between parts 3 and 4 respectively, and then another smooth transition out of analysis into the concluding part 5.

Part 1 of the keynote cited two scholars whom Horton had identified as representative of a massive academic trend that has privileged ‘historical specificity over theoretical, analytical or hermeneutic engagement’. First, Horton recalled Roger Parker’s keynote speech from the 2011 conference for the Society for Musicology in Ireland, in which Parker, according to Horton, ‘aligned theory and analysis with a variety of dogmatic attitudes, not only modernism but also formalism, structuralism, positivism, organicism, Hegelianism, which by the turn of the millennium had come to be regarded as inhabitants of a historical dustbin’. He then mentioned Richard Taruskin’s view that only theory that explains composers’ actions in their historical context has historical, and therefore scholarly, validity. This, according to Horton, effectively ‘makes theory subservient to history, since history is the source of verification for theoretical explanations’. Adding the perspectives of New Musicologists to the mix (notably Lawrence Kramer and Susan McClary), Horton demonstrated how this basic stance has been radicalised and politicised to the extent that theory and analysis were charged with being somehow complicit in immoral acts of gender and race oppression.

In part 3 Horton began his defence by offering a plethora of personal reflections and rejecting the intellectually tyrannical assumption that we—all of us—have simply ‘passed from the time that generates discourse to a time that generates discourse about discourse’, as if no other scholarship were possible or desirable in the early twenty-first century. However, this did not mean a wholesale rejection of some of the things New Musicology brought to attention, which do indeed require us to think as theorists and analysts, notably, the need to address rigid cultural hierarchies and the consequences of ‘ahisotricst’ and canon-orientated musical-theoretical perspectives of the Western art-music repertoire. It was at this point that Horton brought in his personal research and put forth the notion of a ‘de-centred theory of sonata-form’, the idea of viewing this form from a variety of composers, locales and historical periods using a large-scale database, rather than through the lens of models predominantly based on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (as has been the case from A.B. Marx to Caplin and Hepokoski). Part 4 put this claim to the test through a number of case studies that challenged traditional Mozart-centered models applied to nineteenth-century piano concerti, in the course of which Hepokoski and Darcy’s Type 5 sonata form was put under special scrutiny. In the concluding part 5, Horton suggested that the aesthetic of the present, as uncovered by theory and analysis, is just as important as the techniques of history that uncover the aesthetics of the past. Plurality and interaction of these discursive modes are welcome, but each discourse can also sometimes operate independently to some advantage. In other words: theory and analysis can interact with the new discourses in immensely creative ways, without being subservient to them.

As is customary, formal questions were not invited to what the chair, Anne Hyland, described as a provocative address. Indeed, it was clear that Horton had conjured many-a-thought deep within the minds of the audience, some of which became voiced over post-address nibbles and wine. Overall, Horton’s keynote provided at least one clear example of how the discipline could decisively respond to, and even appropriate, the postmodern challenge. Indeed, the trend right now seems to be that of a quiet yet persistent convergence among the musicological disciplines (see Loya’s review of the recent BFE-AAWM conference), suggesting that it is the shrill and divisive posturing of 1990s that will soon find a home in the historical dustbin.

Stephanie Jones and Shay Loya

Another version of this talk, with a different analytical demonstration in the second part, was delivered at Durham University and is currently available on You Tube: