Bringing Musical Insights into Conversation with Biblical Hermeneutics
By Cynthia R. Nielsen
Performers and Composers as Co-creators
Bruce Ellis Benson in his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, argues that instead of choosing between Werktreu1 or a kind of musical anarchy, we should look to the past where we find a way of conceiving music composition as an event in which the composer and performer become “co-creators.” Using Gadamar as a way to help us to begin thinking about models of music composition, Ellis writes, “Gadamer claims that an ideal dialogue has what he calls the ‘logical structure of openness.’ I think there are at least two aspects to this ‘openness.’ First, the conversation often brings something into the open: it sheds new light on what is being discussed and allows us to think about it (or, in this case, hear it) in a new way. Second, the dialogue is itself open, since it (to quote Gadamer) is in a ‘state of indeterminacy.’ In order for a genuine dialogue to take place, the outcome cannot be settled in advance. Without at least some ‘loose-play’ or uncertainty, true conversation is impossible” (p. 15). As Benson notes, Gadamar of course realizes that this is the “ideal” for conversations and that they do not always flesh out in this manner. Likewise, in stressing “openness,” Gadamer is not suggesting that dialogues are without rules. Rather, “the rules are what allow the conversation to take place at all. In effect, they open up a kind of space in which dialogue can be conducted” (p. 15). Though rules are essential for a dialogue to occur, they can be overly restrictive or more on the “open” and “flexible” side and “are themselves open to continuing modification” (p. 15). Though today we tend to think of classical music as not particularly open, Benson shows that historically this view is relatively new and in fact is only one way, not the way to view composition. For example, in the 1800s there were two characteristic ways of conceiving composition and these were exemplified by Beethoven and Rossini. Though these composers represent two different styles of music, the deeper significance lies in the differing ways that they understand the nature of musical compositions, the role of the performance in expressing them, and the relation the artist and the community (p. 16). As Benson explains, “Beethoven saw his symphonies as ‘inviolable musical “texts” whose meaning is to be deciphered with ‘exegetical’ interpretations; a Rossini score, on the other hand, is a mere recipe for a performance’ (Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 9 [Benson, p. 16]. In other words, Beethoven’s view is the more recent, innovative view that has come to characterize how we think of classical music as Werktreu, whereas Rossini’s conception was significantly more flexible, allowing the performer to participate in the creative process. Moreover, for Rossini, “it was not the work that was given precedence; rather, the work (and thus the composer) was in effect a partner in dialogue with performers and listeners” (Ibid., pp. 16-17).
Benson on the Openness of Composing
In chapter two Benson observes our tendency to think that a musical composition is finished when the piece (in its “final” version) is written down. However, there are a number of assumptions that we should question in connection with such a conclusion. For example, why assume that a process of revisions always leads to a better version, much less to the “perfect” version? Beethoven was known for ceaselessly revising and offering a number of variants for musical passages and entire sections. Even if we grant that his revisions generally improved his work, we should not necessarily conclude that they always did. Beethoven himself often commented that his works contained a number of imperfections that he simply had to let stand given his duties and other commitments. As Benson points out, there are number of “nonartistic” reasons for compositions reaching a “completion” stage. “[T]he vicissitudes of life have a way of deciding something is finished—whether or not the artist is of the same opinion” (p. 68).
Is there a sense in which a composition becomes “fixed” and definite, or is it the case that even for the composer there is a certain “indefiniteness” and indeterminacy involved in his or her work even when the composition is “finished”? Arguing for the latter, Benson explains that though it is the case that composers have “reasonably” definite intentions, “it would be impossible for their intentions to encompass all of the details of any given piece”(p. 67). In other words, often or perhaps most of the time, the composer himself is unsure exactly how he wants every aspect and detail of the work to sound until the piece is actually played with a specific group and very particular instrumentation. Mozart, for example, would at times perform different versions of the same work to a group of friends in order to seek their input as to which is preferred. Benson proffers a number of other examples, which I will forego for brevity’s sake.
There is also the additional complication of the performer “rightly” interpreting the composer’s intentions. To illustrate, Benson quotes Edward Cone who comments on the difficulties performers face in playing Chopin’s music, “The performer’s first obligation, then, is to the score—but to what score? The autograph or the first printed edition? The composer’s hasty manuscript or the presumably more careful copy by a trusted amanuensis? The composer’s initial version or his later emendation? [and so on]”2 (p. 70) To be sure one might give good reasons for choosing and preferring one version over another. But still we must recognize that performers, conductors and arrangers play a role in the process of composing, i.e., composing a work that is already “finished.” Yet, as we stated earlier, composers certainly have some definite intentions, but how extensive those intentions are is another question (as Benson asks, using Husserlian language—are they “vague” or “distinct” intentions?) Composers can and do, for instance, change their minds about certain works over a long period of time. Likewise, composers may not even be aware of a lack of determinacy until the work is performed. Though dealing with verbal content, Benson cites a passage by Hirsch that is applicable to musical content, “Determinacy does not mean definiteness or precision. Undoubtedly, most verbal meanings are imprecise and ambiguous, and to call them such is to acknowledge their indeterminacy: they are not univocal and precise. This is another way of saying that an ambiguous meaning has a boundary like any other verbal meaning, and that one of the frontiers on this boundary is that between ambiguity and univocality” 3(p. 74). We tend to associate boundary with precision, so “what does it mean for an ambiguous meaning to have a ‘boundary’”? (p. 74). As Benson points out, boundaries can of course be conceived differently. For example, they can be thought as rigid and inflexible or in a more flexible and bending way. This more flexible conception is the model for which Benson argues in terms of the “boundaries” of a musical work.
A number of interesting parallels might be drawn from what we have highlighted in regard to Benson’s musical findings and Biblical hermeneutics. Here I would like to widen this monologue to a larger conversation and hear your thoughts. Specifically, what are some of the ways that we might bring Benson’s discussions above in dialogue with biblical hermeneutics—how might we understand the nature of Scripture itself and our roles as interpreters (in a community or tradition)? In what ways might we apply (or not apply) the above musical insights to Scripture and why?