When pondering Rowell’s “questions on the thing itself,” the whole lot of questions seems to hinge around the first question--What is its substance? In philosophy, the substance of a thing is equivocal with the thing’s essence, essence referring to that which makes a thing X just in fact X. So, what is it that we count the essence of Mozart’s “Minuet”?
We are tempted to, initially at least, describe the essence of the piece (or any other piece of music) in terms of the sum of its parts of expression or manifestation, i.e., the written score, the physical medium through which it is expressed, the causal effect of the musician upon a given instrument, the electrochemical neural cascades in the brain, etc. As we scrutinize this view more closely, we find it grossly inadequate as it seems clearly to us that there is something behind this limited picture, though what it may be we find hard to access and describe. It is tempting to speak of the substance of the musical piece itself as being transcendent but this is not without problems of its own as we cannot help but acknowledge the immanence of musical experience.
As we think of music in the above sense, one might be reminded of Plato’s theory of the forms in which there exists a world of perfect universals which are manifested, though imperfectly, as particulars in the phenomenal world, i.e., the world in which we live and experience. But just what would the form of music look like? In terms of modern philosophy, one might suggest, in a similar vein, that music exists in a realm all its own such as does mathematics (Pythagoras had much to say on both of these topics).
In the final analysis, regarding the substance of Mozart’s piece, we find that this is no easy question to answer and that it only sets the stage for further questioning. But this is the point, after all, for structuring such questions helps us to better understand the thing in question.
Another question that can be asked, according to Rowell, is whether or not the piece (or any other musical piece for that matter) has content, i.e., subject matter. It seems to me that music, generically and specifically, as in the case of Mozart’s “Minuet”, does have content. However, this is no doubt due to my upbringing in Western culture, a culture in which meaning plays a significant role in all that we do.
The real question, it seems to me, is not whether there is in fact content in Mozart’s piece but rather whether or not we as individuals can ever come to ascertain the meaning thereof or at very least the selfsame meaning Mozart himself ascribed to the piece. This is questionable (though highly likely), but the fact, at very least, that there is emotional content seems a safe assumption. And emotional content, though often hard to decipher and describe, at least accurately, is content nonetheless.
Is this piece beautiful? Instinctually, the piece seems beautiful to me though I have a hard time justifying just why this is the case. Perhaps, as a member of the musical canon of Western civilization, it meets the criteria of just what it means for a thing to in fact be beautiful and thus my presuppositions uphold my interpretation. Certainly particular aesthetic criteria are met, as Rowell points out, namely the piece manifests harmony, a measure of complexity, and a certain emotional intensity.
Does the piece have meaning? The notion of meaning is intricately bound up with the products of Western culture. It seems safe to assume that the piece has meaning and there are at least two ways of approaching the subject of meaning with the arts, to include music. First, we could consider the meaning that is found in the mind’s eye of the interpreter, i.e., the one experiencing the piece. Secondly, there is the intended meaning (intentionality) of the artist.
It is clear with any piece of art that the experiencer can take meaning from a work with or without knowledge of the intended meaning of the artist. Is meaning found apart from the intent or even in clear opposition to the meaning of the artist herself not still meaning and valid to the one having the experience? Or does meaning depend solely on intentionality, i.e., what was intended by the artist? A more reasoned view might be a synthesis of the two.
Most certainly Mozart’s “Minuet” has meaning though what it means to me might not be what Mozart himself, taken in the socio-historical context of his day, would have it mean. Perhaps the better option in ascertaining meaning from such a piece is a synthesis of the views. After all, art does not occur in a vacuum and part of the meaning just might be bound up in the ongoing process of experience and interpretation.
“Can my discussion of the work meet the demands of disciplined critical discourse?” asks Rowell. Though it seems to me that I am a technically competent reasoner on general matters and even particular matters philosophical, music, not at all unlike philosophy, is a highly specialized field. As such, one seemingly need be well versed in the language, history, theory, etc. of music to be able to reason about it on any significant level and in an intelligent manner.
Rowell asks if an individual must possess any specialized skills or knowledge with respect to making particular assertions about a musical piece, e.g., the composition has meaning, the music is good, the piece is beautiful, etc. Clearly if one possesses an inclination for music his or her perception thereof will be superior and it follows as such that assertions might be more descriptive of the piece than would those of an untrained listener and commentator. But it does not seem to follow that one cannot still see (and perhaps feel) the meaning, goodness, or beauty of a piece without such specialized skill or knowledge depending upon one’s own inherent system of values.
Related to context of the piece, we may pose yet additional questions. For example, what did Mozart’s piano sound like? Is such a question even important? Seemingly, no. This would only be important to us in as much we were alive in the time of Mozart and could hear him play this piece on the piano in question, and this only for historical purposes and edification. But the piece itself exists independently of any particular musical instrument and does not depend upon Mozart’s piano for its being and sustenance.
One might also question Mozart’s intention for the piece. Was there, in fact, a purpose or deeper meaning than appears on the surface? Such questions, at first glance at least, seem only to be important with respect to history but not so much to our actual appreciation of the piece. The music, though it emerges from the mind of an individual in a particular socio-historical context, exists independently and in its own right and as such can be evaluated as it stands on its own.
A systems analyst by profession and a curious polymath by birth, I research and write on a variety of topics.