David Michael Wolach
Vagueness and the Logical Substructures of the Subversive
(reprinted from Proceedings of The Columbia Aesthetics Conference, 2005)
Let us move forward. Or go backward. To analytical philosophy. For here,
amidst the dullest of the dull, there remain certain elements that are alive, pregnant, as
some like to say, with possibility—here, specifically the possibility of becoming clear
about the notions of exile, transfiguration, and transgression in art. It is in this context
that retracing our steps, going back to a more fundamental question—that of what we
mean by meaning—can be of some service to the issues at hand, the kind of parallel
language to language that we call the arts. This is so for two reasons: 1) quite simply,
Critical Theory is awash with excess verbiage and, to be blunt, is often just plain hip. But
2) and more importantly, I take the language games of the arts, especially the literary arts,
to be parasitic upon what we might call ordinary language, or language (as ordinary
language philosophy phrases it) used in a non-performative setting. Enter „truth-rule‟
For some, truth rule-rule semantics is the logical ground zero for meaning
simpliciter. For others, it is a formal and instrumental system that approximates the kind
of rehearsal we play in our heads in order to pick out meaning-bearing sentences
(formulas). But no matter how one lands on the (metaphysical) weight we should give to
“truth” and “rules,” there remain important problems for truth-rule semantics as it applies
to what we mean by meaning. Such problems are not often stressed in the philosophy of
language because they do not generally stand in the way of successful (instrumental)
theories regarding the normative aspects of public discourse, i.e., determinacy of meaning
in context, of why we may be justified in claiming that a fellow speaker has erred, and so
on. Conversely, truth-rule semantics is not often stressed in literary criticism because
analytical models are not hip; in fact, they are decisively dead. So, to resurrect. For the
sake of argument.
Here I am not concerned with the success of truth-rule semantics in the domain of
constative communication, or speech acts elicited under the intention of direct and
sincere communication. Rather, they concern the family of linguistic acts that the
ordinary language philosophers (Austin first and foremost) have called „performative'.
These are acts of language that suggest, imply, or evoke rather than simply report
The performative actor depends not just upon an interpreter who will deduce her
meaning by use of available criteria, but who will, among other things, register
discomfort upon encountering juxtaposed utterances so novel they threaten to extend
beyond the walls of sense. Though parasitic upon accepted convention—insofar as they
are built up from sentences in a „language game‟ that are susceptible to analysis in terms
of truth—literary tropes, being that they register at the skin, so to speak, are abstracted
from reported, every day speech, and reach 'beyond' the merely propositional. All
linguistic acts, it could be argued, bear to some degree a performative stamp, but the
success of the literary utterance depends on communicative and also sensory aspects, and
moreover is approached with the intention that it will deliver these.
I want to stress what some literary critics and theorists of meaning have not
stressed and what truth-rule semantics can address by way of its instructive failure: the
integral role individual psychological histories play in the response to utterances and the
determination of the extension of lexical items, and more generally, that to confront an
utterance of another is to confront more than its truth-conditions, and therefore to
understand the meaning of an utterance of another entails more than the mastery of its
truth-rule (i.e., knowing what sentences the utterance materially implies and is implied
by). This must be so for at least two reasons:
1) In the case of ordinary communication, it seems that learning generalizations
such as 'p' is true iff G, is a sufficient condition for the mastery of a predicate, but the
truth-rule says nothing about another major component of communication--having a
procedure that decides whether something satisfies the right-hand side of the truth-rule.
While it is true that in radical interpretation the extension predicates in a subject language
is not a prerequisite for successful interpretation, we must realize that to succeed in
translating one alien sentence into a home language does not imply that the translator and
the alien speaker are having even similar thoughts (see Wittgenstein PI, "I express what I
think, and for you to understand, you need not think what I think, or have the same
thought as I.")
This, of course, is not news. But, as I will discuss below, it is the possibility of
divergent thoughts, associations, dispositions in response to an utterance that
performative and literary languages exploit; hence a thorough treatment of the
relationship between meaning and effect, or between interpretation and response, will be
needed to explore the functional difference between the language game of report and the
language game of performance.
One way in which I may fail at successfully interpreting your utterance (in the
case of communication between two speakers of the same language community) while
nevertheless having full mastery of its truth-rule, is by having learned a vastly different
extension for a predicate that you have learned, but which is used in the course of our
exchange. This is to say that truth-rule semantics says nothing about what determines the
extension of terms (we can be extensionalists, intentionalists, or neither in this respect),
and I will here argue that a term's extension is determined by the spatio-temporal history
of the speaker/text (the speaker is always encountering new uses of the term and
accommodating them into her repertoire), and so strictly, there is always an important
asymmetry between what I take myself to mean and what an interpreter takes me to
mean, even in the case that I have mastered the truth-rules underpinning our exchange.
Extending this further, there is also the possibility that the process of being interpreted
recursively effects the stability of the utterance I have just made such that there is also an
important asymmetry between what I think I took myself to mean (now) and what I took
myself to mean (then). Stanely Cavell, for one, has noted this (cf., The Politics of Art).
2) I take it to be a particular limitation of truth-rule semantics that its application
ranges only over constative communication--utterances that report present, past, or
possible states of affairs under a mutual assumption of sincere communication. Truth-
rule semantics ought to be able to deal with implied meanings, context-sensitive modes of
communication, as long as what is taken as evidence for an interpretation is wide-ranging
enough so as to include time and place, the history and intentional relation of the speaker
and so forth. But there is a performative aspect to ordinary speech acts that truth-rule
semantics cannot handle, i.e., situations in which there is no evidence for or against the
interpretation of a proposition, or, as in the case of open-text, where the game that is
played involves a frustration of norms and convention, and where another sense of
"meaning"--that which results from the response evoked by an exchange--is tantamount
and yet parasitic upon the rules and procedures of ordinary language.
This is why, much like Cavell, I claim that there are multiple senses of „meaning‟,
two of which predominate this discussion once we cross over from everyday speech acts
to the literary language game: the first concerns the rules and conventions of ordinary
language, conative communication, and enables us to determine the content of the literary
utterance. In this sense of "meaning," the literary language is no different from ordinary
speech acts, hence the interpretation of literary language should be no different from the
interpretation of an ordinary speech act. But the second sense does not concern truth or
falsity, and so escapes the notice of truth-rule semantics: it is open-textured, relies on and
exploits the variable histories of its interpreters, vagueness, and in this sense we can say
that the work's second meaning is subjective, a matter of how it effects the interpreter,
how it makes her act, where reporting is simply a sub-class of acting.
In this second sense, there is a much less straightforward normative component to
the meaning of the literary utterance. The meaning of the utterance exists as a possible
response (or in the language of simulation theory, it involves an „imaginative play‟); the
utterance itself is mediated by the interpreter's history; and the interpreter's active
translation of the utterance into a response recursively effects the pattern of future
responses. If this is so, it makes no sense to say that an interpretation of a literary
utterance is correct or incorrect, replete with error or otherwise. This is not to say that the
subjective meaning is inaccessible or private, but that its reference point is an interpreter
who has a unique spatio-temporal grounding, a unique perceptual point of view, and so
any disagreement over the interpretation of a literary trope will literally change the
meaning of that trope. To disagree over the meaning of the utterance would be to talk
around the utterance, to say: "Step into my shoes, see what I see"--which is not to re-
experience the utterance from a different point of view, but to re-experience the utterance
with the additional information of someone else's report of their point of view.
I will briefly review Davidson's truth-rule semantics, bearing in mind that his
project is not mine, his concerns just overlapping. I do think, however, that if we can
pinpoint the limitations of Davidson's thesis on radical translation, we can also more
clearly grapple with the problem of meaning as it pertains to subversion of norms in a
Truth-Rules and Ordinary Language
Any truth-rule semantics for natural languages is parasitic upon what Davidson
refers to as "an establishment of a ground for objective thought" (“Triangulation,” 21).
That is, when we ask the question 'how can we come to know the meaning of another's
utterance?' we arrive at the conclusion that, to link the object language with the subject
language in the case of two conversant creatures, there must be some meta-language that
gives us a rule for translating the expressions of one into the expressions of another--a
truth-rule. But, no matter what rule we choose (or has been chosen for us), underlying it
must exist a way of confirming that the rule works, that what has been interpreted has
been interpreted correctly or otherwise. The result of the project, if successful, is that of
analyzing the meaning of a sentence in terms of what sentences make it true, and what
sentences it makes true.
We ask: what grounds the success of the truth-rule? The Tarskian theory of truth,
the starting point of truth-rule semantics, says that for every sentence s of the object
language, there is a sentence such that s is true iff p. Supposing, for instance, that s is
"Davidson is a philosopher," the Tarskian sentence would yield 'Davidson is a
philosopher' is true iff Davidson is a philosopher. Here meaning is equated with truth,
where truth is defined as logical satisfaction. For the Tarskian model, what grounds the
success of the truth-rule is the assumption that the truth-conditions for a sentence are
preserved on the right side of the bi-conditional formula. But for natural languages we
cannot assume the carrying over of truth-values because we cannot assume translation.
Davidson points out that what is left is to turn Tarski's theory of truth on its head: rather
than assuming translation and deriving truth from it, we "take truth as basic and… extract
an account of translation or interpretation" (“Radical Interpretation,” 134). Put another
way, we turn a meta-language into an object language.
As language users we approach the world, Davidson says, with Tarskian
sentences already at hand. In the event that I am trying to translate an alien utterance, I
have sentences of the form:
(T) P is true in L when spoken by x at t iff P is S
And I am naturally confronted by evidence, common to both speakers, such as where x is
from, whether x holds S to be true at such and such a time, in such and such a place, etc.,
all of which may narrow what began (in the case of radical translation) as an infinite
string of possible interpretations (the possible relation of an infinite number of sentences
in the subject language to an infinite sequence of objects in the object language). I thus
consider such information as evidence that (T) is true--I weigh the utterance against a
background of "massive agreement" (136). What grounds the truth-rule for P, then, is
evidence that is available both to the speaker and to the interpreter. In "Triangulation,"
Davidson further stipulates that such evidence (in the case of radical translation), in order
that we may make sense of the possibility of error, must be available perceptually--it
must be in the form of a "proximal stimulus."
Davidson's way of analyzing meaning in terms of truth may give us a theory that
tells us under what conditions an utterance is true, and goes part way in describing why,
in the event of error, we are justified in telling a speaker that she is mistaken. But I now
want to highlight another aspect of Davidson's thesis, and more generally, of truth-rule
semantics. This aspect can best be seen as a follow-up to Davidson's question 'how can I
come to know the meaning of another's utterance?' The question comes out: 'to what
degree do I know the meaning of another's utterance once I have applied a truth-rule
analysis to it?'
We must not, as Davidson notes, move from conditions for truth to the
assumption that identification of the truth-rule gives us the meaning of an utterance: "if
truth values were all that mattered," he states, "the T-sentence for 'Snow is white' could as
well say that it is true if and only if grass is green" (“Radical Interpretation,” 135). There
are two points to be made regarding this. First, even in the case of ordinary speech acts,
we may have mastered a procedure for truth and yet, because of the open-texture of a
predicate, we may still not know whether the right-hand side of the Tarskian sentence is
satisfied. For instance, I may have the following truth-rule:
(A) x is a bird is true iff x is an animal with beak and feathers
and I may know that birds have a beak and feathers and still not know whether this object
satisfies the right side of the bi-conditional, i.e., if the object is such an instance of "beak"
and "feathers" such that it satisfies the predicate 'is a bird'. Such indeterminacy, or logical
vagueness, may not be because we do not have enough evidence, but because the
predicate ranges over an evolving set of objects (i.e., the extension of a predicate changes
with the use of the predicate); such is the case not only with evaluative terms, but also in
practice with everyday lexical items such as 'chair', 'person', 'bald', „tall‟ and so on.
Regardless of what does determine the extension of a predicate, we note
immediately that while learning truth rules may be a necessary condition for learning a
language, it is not a sufficient one. But for my purposes it is more important to note that,
roughly, extensions are rather (perhaps artificially) like dispositions to apply a certain
name in the sense that, just as I may be disposed to call something an x but not call
something else an x, I may be disposed to include under the extension 'is a bird' x, say,
while you may not. Though it is through an exchange that the extension of terms settles
to a state of uniformity, there will always be some disagreement as to the range of objects
a term covers (in set-theoretic terms: the size of the set and its members), especially in
the case of infrequently employed utterances, or utterances made outside their usual
Not only does our rough and ready way of gathering evidence in truth-rule
semantics ignore the possibility for fine-grained lexical differences between speakers
even in the case that wholesale disagreement is absent, these fine-grained differences
become magnified and exploited in (some) literary speech acts, where the history of the
interpreter (that which determines the extension of terms) becomes the locus for
interpretation. But there is a second point regarding Davidson's claim above. This
concerns the difference between the language game of reporting and the language game
Literary Language and Subversion
As in the case with performative speech acts, the role of the utterance may not be
that of reporting. If this is so, then the truth-rule becomes less important, if not irrelevant
to the nature of the interpreter's response. Consider the sentence:
(S) John's face is a wall.
If we interpret S according to Davidson's semantics, we approach it with Tarskian
sentences of the form:
(T) 'John's face is a wall is true' iff John is expressionless.
And then we begin by gathering contextual evidence surrounding the utterance. We
might consider that x claimed S in the context of a performative act, and we might also
use as evidence the inference that under such circumstances, x usually makes identity
claims such as S to draw a connection between two items generally taken to be
categorically distinct. We may add further evidence that elsewhere John was described
as a „poker face‟, that he was often 'blank', etc. The result may be something like:
(U) (x)(t)(c) (if x utters S in circumstance c then x holds true 'John's face is a wall'
at t iff John is expressionless.
But, though it is likely a plausible interpretation of the sentence, any such Tarskian
sentence, using truth as a guide, as it were, will fail to capture what is important in a
literary utterance: the response of the interpreter over and above the interpretation (the
bodily reaction of the interpreter, including the mnemonic associations S evokes in the
context of other performative utterances, i.e., the specific response of that interpreter).
That is, what Davidson's heuristic will give us is the publicly agreed upon content of S,
but will fail to shed any light on what I call (for lack of a more suitable term) the
subversion of S, the particular response to S of an interpreter given the interpreter's
unique history as an agent moving through the world.
The subversion of S, though parasitic upon the content of S--which is, like any
other utterance, available for the kind of truth-rule scrutiny outlined by Davidson--makes
the truth-rule analysis somewhat irrelevant (this is the case of climbing the latter in order
to shove it away). This is not because the subversion of S is private or inaccessible, but
because the meaning arriving at an inevitable dispute, rather than an agreement or
triangulation, concerns the effect S has on a particular interpreter, i.e., because one object
of the literary language game is not to report but to evoke, to resonate particularly with
particular interpreters, and to cause argument—a meaning-generating dispute.
As in the case of metaphor, double entendre, repetition, and other literary
conventions, performative speech acts (sometimes) seek not only to disrupt ordinary
language use and bend its limits (thus evoking at first awkward associations) but also
seek to exploit the often wildly varying histories of its interpreters. Certainly without a
general procedure which effects the determination of the extension of predicates we
would be lost as to the content of the literary utterance--and so lost, such sentences would
evoke nothing (this is Davidson's point about the importance of truth-rules in radical
interpretation). And indeed, there are literary practices (post-avant, spoetry, flurf, etc)
that wish to evoke nearly nothing in an attempt to deflect interpretations away from the
sentences in the work and towards a juxtaposition between the work as a whole and
normative (commercial) practices on offer (this would be a case of exploiting subversion
to the extreme). But this should not prejudice the notion that embedded in our exchange
of gestures, even on the level of everyday communication, is the possibility that one
utterance may evoke vastly different associations amongst interpreters. The ideal in
everyday communication, one would assume, would be to stifle this possibility enough so
that some communication, along with argument, could occur; but in the literary language
game it is encouraged, even exploited. Davidson recognizes this in "The Myth of the
Subjective." He states:
The grasp of meanings is determined only by the terminal elements in
the conditioning process and is tested only by the end product: use of
words geared to appropriate objects and situations. This is perhaps best
seen by noticing that two speakers who "mean the same thing" by an
expression need have no more in common than their dispositions to
appropriate verbal behavior; the neural networks may be very different…
Two speakers may be alike in all relevant physical respects, and yet
they may mean quite different things by the same words because of
differences in the external situations in which the words have been
Though Davidson concedes this point, since his work is to show that meanings are not
private, he does not relish in it. I will relish in it, as what interests me is the possibility of
logical vagueness as a precursor to subversive, hence, performative language acts—
behaviors that are meant to disrupt and do violence to the individual, to set up a debate
that results in the necessary disagreement over whether, and how, to agree.
Ernst Krenek: Violence, Art, and Intelligibility
(reprinted from Acts of Art, Works of Violence: Notes from the New Distopia)
A painting or a poem without any vestiges of "lived" forms would be unintelligible, i.e., nothing--
as a discourse is nothing whose every word is emptied of its customary meaning. 1
Though for Jose Ortega Y Gasset "lived" forms on the canvas stand more or less
in a referential relation to objects in the world, and though we may take this conception
of meaning in the modern visual language as overly simple, we might nonetheless agree
with him that the question of meaning, perhaps over and above the question of a work's
"newness," is of nagging importance to the modernist. Or, it seems to be such, insofar as
the question "what is new?" presents itself to us almost as if in protest to the question
which often precedes it: "is it new?"
Gasset, much like Benjamin, describes the modernist tendency as one towards the
dehumanization of the artistic product. Such a process entails the retaining of only the
slightest resemblance, a trace, in art, of what is human:
the question is not to paint something altogether different from a man,
a house, a mountain, but to paint a man who resembles a man as little
Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, 18.
as possible; a house that preserves of a house exactly what is needed
to reveal the metamorphosis.2
But implicit in, or dependent upon, such an annihilation of the human, is what I
want to call, in echo of Cavell and Danto, a "defamiliarization" of the familiar. Which,
arguments about what exactly is being transfigured or "metamorphosed" aside, the effect
is the rupturing of conventional usage, the obliterating of accepted criteria for judgment
of a particular work of art--a developing sense that one is entering upon unfamiliar
terrain. But to produce such an effect, almost paradoxically, is to preserve "exactly what
is needed" of the familiar, where the necessity is transcendental: to transfigure, as
opposed to obfuscate or obscure is necessarily to retain formal elements that are
somehow, some way, familiar.
Like Gasset, I take there to be an outstanding question, an anxiety, standing
behind historically modernist disputes about what constitutes a work's meaning, about
whether a modernist work can say something, about whether it cannot help but say
something. Connected to, but distinct from, questions about identifying modern art as
art, that is categorizing works as such (a boring discussion in my estimation), I identify
these problems as ones regarding a work's function. And so I take Gasset's observation to
be similar to Wittgenstein's question in the duck-rabbit case that picturing indicates
something about a thing's use: "What I can see something as is what it can be a picture
of?"3 Where picturing figures in imagining a language, and where "to imagine a
language means to imagine a form of life,"4 and where imagining is dependent on some
familiarization--some knowing one's way about. And so to situate the question of
meaning within a general problem of language is to ask: what form of life are we
imagining (inhabiting?) when we find ourselves outside, just outside and peering in on,
Schoenberg's Opus 11 or Krenek‟s Jonny Speilt Auf? Or, if the terrain is totally
unfamiliar, in what sense can we make it familiar? On its own terms? And the deeper
question: what are the terms?
Questions about meaning in the context of modernism are by now standard. But I
take them not to have passed away with notions of autonomy, pure form, structuralism,
and the like, and I suppose that when I read Cavell, in answer to the question of how to
understand "new music" some fifty years after its birth, that "the accommodation of the
new music [is] our naturalizing ourselves to a new form of life"5 I sense that he's given
me a kind of promissory note, an IOU of what that form would look like, and how we
may access it after all. "I know what it means to acclimate myself to a new language,"
one wants to say, "but I don't know what it would mean to invent a new language so that
others can acclimate themselves to it."6
Ibid., p. 23.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. Anscombe trans., Philosophical Investigations, IIxi.
"Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy," in Must We Mean What We Say? 84.
Later, in The Claim to Reason, Cavell comes closer to the pessimistic view that much of modernism
"stupefies" itself, consigns itself to "nonsensicality," for the reason that in the modern "the producer nor the
consumer has anything to go on (history, convention, genre, form, medium, physiognomy, composition…)
that secures the value or significance of an object apart from one's wanting the thing to be as it is" (95).
Cavell has since been charged with provincialism, as his continual criticism of screwball comedies and
In what follows I want to interpret the debates about new music that occurred in
1920's Germany and Vienna as ones as much about functionality as they were about
newness, national identity, and genius. Which is to draw an analogy (but only an
analogy) between music and language. Which is to suggest that underlying the
modernist's obsession with newness—specifically here Ernst Krenek's—is often an
anxiety about whether new music is "coherent," whether "organization" internal to a work
is sufficient, and whether there is a point at which newness devolves into non-sense.
Treat Gasset's discussion of the visual arts as one regarding modern music (which he
himself did elsewhere), and the question of how to understand the term "music," and
more particularly "dissonant," "consonant," "dominant," etc., immediately arises. Or,
more particularly, if we take "newness" to be an expression of freedom (nonconformity)
as Krenek himself does, and if there is a point at which speaking unconventionally
threatens to turn into speaking without sense, we may ask (as Krenek does) whether the
kind of freedom expected from such moves is any kind of freedom at all--i.e., whether it
can be discerned as such. Of course this is to ask whether music should be expected to
connect up to extra-musical content, and if we answer affirmatively, whether this
"connecting up" (a question not of meaning but relevance), is dependent upon established
criteria for judgment (a question not of relevance, but of meaning.)
I'm not interested in arguing that new music, of atonality and serialization, and
later of the method of its organization, lacks meaning because it lacks criteria for
judgment. Or even that it stretches accepted criteria to the extent that the criteria
themselves are lost. Such an argument has been played out ad nauseum, and might be
unsustainable in itself. I am rather interested in unearthing these possibilities, showing
them to be in the air as an anxiety, showing this awareness to be expressed as a note of
history in Ernst Krenek's first opera, Jonny Spielt Auf. The worry is not academic: for
Krenek, to express in music is to express a musical thought. Though the meaning of a
musical phrase has no extra-musical content, one's grasping of it is essential to one's
being able to do something with it, to handle it--to be moved by it. Or, in grasping the
musical thought we place ourselves in a position of being able to hold a phrase up to the
world (to state the relevance of the phrase to a particular form of life):
We must, for instance, strictly avoid the mistake of presuming that the
conception of liberty would be designated by the word "liberty" as well
as by some clearly defined musical figure… Nevertheless, music has
much to do with "liberty"… but exactly where the fanfares blare most
proudly and where the chorus is most vociferous in its praise of liberty,
there we often find the least musical liberty and so the least real liberty.7
In other words, Krenek‟s worry is one, fundamentally, of the sustainability of the
thesis that there is liberty, or freedom, in the act of certain modes of aesthetic production.
And if so, what kind of freedom this is. So to take Krenek's worry of the expressibility of
early American noir have been said to be an indicator of narrowness on his part. Let me be clear that I am
not towing Cavell's line here by amplifying the worry that modernist works might lack sense, only that I am
pointing to a living possibility.
Ernst Krenek, "Who Is Musical?" 20.
musical thought as a musical worry, is to take Krenek as a formalist. To take Krenek as
saying that musical freedom is connected to musical intelligibility, and intelligibility to
responsibility, is also to take him as a formalist in some sense. But to understand Krenek
as suggesting that the problems of musical freedom and intelligibility are tied to the
problems of freedom and intelligibility simpliciter, is to take him as saying that music,
though an autonomous language, is not autonomous in the absolute sense--it is not
divorced from sociohistorical implication.
To follow this series of moves, to take them seriously, is to take the desire for art
as a dialectical form of polemic seriously, hence, to take the problem of understanding
each other seriously. In the following section I want to spell out Krenek's formalism, his
conception of musical meaning and how it "connects up" to extra-musical content. In so
doing, I want to throw light on the tension felt between the wish for musical (hence extra-
musical) freedom and the wish for musical (hence extra-musical) coherence. To talk
about this tension is to understand what Krenek means by "freedom," "intelligibility," and
"criteria." In the final section I give a close reading of Jonny Spielt auf, which I take as a
citation of this anxiety. Krenek's reminder above is an eerie echo, I will argue, of the
problematic set up in this early opera. That is, as Krenek informs us that things may not
be what they seem, so too Jonny might not be what it seems: the train tracks might not
lead Max to freedom, Jonny might not be our hero, and the chorus might not know what
it is even applauding.
Here, too, I find a lack of real faith in what is uncertain, untested, problematic, dangerous: the
essence of composition with twelve tones (Schoenberg, "Krenek's Sprung uber den Schatten").
Why, unlike Arnold Schoenberg, was Ernst Krenek, in his own words, so
“anxious” about the new music? Why did Schoenberg believe the later to be unfaithful,
or in any case, skeptical about the musical language both would employ for decades? I
turn first to Krenek the musical critic and theorist, beginning with what has morphed into
somewhat of a piece of gossip in the history of the new music, but what should be more
seriously acknowledged as a public pronouncement of the composer's deeply considered
worry about musical meaning. This is the "Schoenberg-Krenek antagonism" that began
with Krenek's charge ("Musik in der Gegenwart") that the latter composer was nothing
short of an elitist in preaching that the artist has no obligation to his public. It was
perhaps Schoenberg's retaliation in Drei Satiren (1926) and his comments on the future
of opera in 1927--"It is self-evident that the highest art can never address itself to the
many"--that did much to obfuscate the true source of Krenek's criticism, turning the
short-lived set of exchanges into an example of the rather typical dispute about the role of
the artist in society, his obligation to the “many” versus the “elite”—in short, an
important, though less nuanced debate about the role of class and socio-economics in the
interpretation, and the function, of art.
Schoenberg's final word on the dispute--that Krenek, in seeking a "comfortable
middle ground" between high-art and accessible art compromised any potential for true
genius, showed, if anything, that a misunderstanding had taken place. The
misunderstanding ended with Krenek's adoption of the twelve-tone technique8 and
Schoenberg's acknowledgment that "for all his conscious superficiality" Krenek
composed works that at least seemed to contradict the composer's best intentions,9 and so
this piece of gossip ends in a strained reconciliation.
But the misunderstanding is a deep one, for Krenek's skepticism of the
Schoenberg group did not, at least privately, stem from Krenek's desire to position
himself against the tide of elitism. To take Krenek's concern for public reception this
way would be to align him, as many have done, with Gebrauchsmusik.10 Rather, the
early Krenek was as ambivalent towards some of the more crude notions of "music for
use" as he was of Schoenberg's expressionism, complaining in "New Humanity and Old
Objectivity" that to placate "this famous general public" was to "satisfy the hunger for
scraps of information in a particularly accessible field half-way between sex and
sentiment."11 Which is to say that Krenek might have had as little (and as much) faith in
his public as Schoenberg did, and that to compose for them could as serve little use as
composing against them. Here, what is at stake for Krenek—the source of his anxiety—
is not whether his audience would gladly adapt to the new music, but rather, whether they
could adapt to it, whether there was anything meaningful to adapt to. The public "makes
demands" and so should be "taken into consideration" Krenek tells us in the same essay,
and so if we are to understand the misunderstanding, we might ask what Krenek means
by taking something--someone--into consideration.
My claim is that Krenek's periodic criticism of (his own use of) „atonality‟ is
rather a worry about its intelligibility as a musical language, where the question
"Intelligible to who?" is not answered "this famous general public," but instead:
"someone in some community of speakers," where the community might be as narrow as
those who purport to speak the modern idiom, the Schoenbergs and the Kreneks. I take
this to be a periodic question for Krenek throughout the first half of his career—whether
he has uttered something communicable. From the mid-twenties and Jonny through the
years in which he found music "a poor and inarticulate medium of expression"12 on
through his later reconciliation with serial writing, the composer oscillated between
ambivalence and cheerleading on the use of the new music. Hence, the question (the
worry) becomes: do I understand what I am saying? Must I mean something by saying
it? If this is the worry (in its many forms) that Krenek is posing in his discussions on
atonality and the twelve tone method, then he is not far from Schoenberg when the latter
places himself in the predicament of Moses at the beginning of the great, unfinished, and
only Schoenberg opera, Moses und Aron. Here the composer places himself within the
score as a man who is in the paradoxical position of having been communicated a truth in
a language nobody speaks, in order to communicate these truths to “the many.”
Ernst Krenek, "Self-Analysis," 7.
Arnold. Schoenberg, "Glosses on the Theory of Others," in Style and Idea, 313-314.
Both Kaes at al. and Cook have put him in this group, despite his public condemnation of the movement.
See Cook, Opera for a New Republic, 84 and Kaes et al., "Music for Use: Gebrauchsmusik and Opera" in
The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, 579. For Krenek's commentary see, "New Humanity and Old
Ernst Krenek, “Self-Analysis,” 7.
We arrive, here, at the same question in a different context: does Moses know
what has been communicated to him? Is there anything to understand? (Here ring the
echoes of the Jewish metaphysical tradition, the Apocalyptic Tradition, out of which both
Schoenberg and Krenek grew and then claimed to abandon, and finally revisit.) Where
Schoenberg's anxiety can be formulated as one about how to communicate the ineffable,
Krenek's will turn out to be one of the relation between intelligibility and freedom. Both
are exercises, so to speak, in radical translation. To get at this I turn more specifically to
three claims about Krenek's philosophy of music: his formalism, his intentionalism, and
2.1 Krenek the Formalist
Krenek's criticism is often from the stance of structuralism and relative
autonomy,13 and this is reflected in his remarks on what musical understanding consists
in. The connection between music and verbal language, for Krenek, is more than an
analogy. In "Basic Principles of a New Theory of Musical Aesthetics" (1937) he writes:
What I am aiming at is a study of music comparable with a philology
that indicates the basic elements of language--as it were, what is
necessary if a form of expression is to be called language at all…14
And so we might take any exploration into the limits of sense within the musical
language as one that describes quite literally the limits of musical expressivity. To
understand a musical work is to understand a musical thought, and to understand a
musical thought is to understand the sound-language the thought is communicated in.15
Musical meaning, therefore, does not consist in anything extra-musical: sound phrases do
not refer to sentences that describe them, for the sentences are reports on what is going on
in the music. The use of verbal language to describe the meaning of a musical phrase is
something like attempting a radical translation from one language to another, such that
the verbal account--"this phrase resolves into E flat," "the pattern goes like this"--is an
indicator of, or report on, one's musical understanding: "His experience may be
compared to hearing someone talk in a streetcar and suddenly realizing that the language
is Italian…"16 To genuinely reply to the musical gesture, then, would be to hum the line,
or to vary some aspect of the phrase in a further composition—to answer back in that
same musical language. Krenek writes:
Since the units of music do not represent objects from the physical world, we can
hardly call this logic to our assistance when we seek to understand, or to
demonstrate, the sense of the musical development.17
Ernst Krenek, “Basic Principles of a New Theory of Musical Aesthetics (1937), 3. He also states:
"Recognizing that music too is a thought-process is also a guarantee of its autonomy."
Ernst Krenek, “Basic Principles of a New Theory of Musical Aesthetics (1937), 136.
By "sound-language" or "tone-language" Krenek does not mean "the musical work." A sound-language
is to the individual work what English, say, is to a sentence of English.
Ernst Krenek, "Who Is Musical?" 23.
And later, he expands the parallel between music and structuralist approaches to language
by remarking that units of sound in any sound-language--individual tones--have no
meaning in isolation. Rather, like words in a spoken language, tones are meaningful only
in relation to other tones:
This larger form can be interpreted as something coherent only if a recognizable
connection exists between the individual parts.18
Krenek's notion of musical meaning, then, is here grounded in a musical semantics that
parallels some aspects of early semiotics. The musical phrase expresses a musical
thought; hence, musical meaning does not consist, just as verbal language does not
consist, in a strict referential relation between sentences and objects. The relation to be
grasped is between tones, and between musical phrases and other musical phrases. And
yet this does not preclude the musical work from "connecting up" to extra-musical
content--emotions, "images in the head," etc. That a work can be spoken about, that it
can be used like a proposition, that it can be called "sad," "anxious," or "triumphant," is
an indication that something has been expressed, that something has been understood.
Krenek's insistence is simply that what the musical phrase expresses is nothing more than
its particular formal structure in relation to a network of formal structures, and that the
relation between the phrase and an emotion I may have towards it, or an image I may
attach to it, is a relative one--such a relation is insufficient to constitute the meaning of
the phrase. This is not to underscore the importance, for Krenek, of the emotional or
cognitive force of the musical work: that I react in some way to the work, that it indicates
something to me, that I can talk about it in reference to some aspect of my life, is to say
that it is relevant to me. Therefore the work's relevance is dependent on my
understanding it, on my ability to talk about the musical material--"this is an open fifth,"
"this is a transition," etc.19 On this level Krenek's remarks echo those of the later
Wittgenstein: "Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in
music… Why is just this the pattern of variation in loudness and tempo? One would like
to say 'Because I know what it's all about.'"20
A peculiar relation arises, for Krenek, between "musical" and "extra-musical" or "metaphorical" reading
of musical materials. The later, he says, is legitimate as long as we understand that whatever extra-musical
content we connect to the work is read into the work, not read from it. Furthermore, criticism which
partakes in the former "musical" readings should be practiced here and now, Krenek tells us, for the reason
that at present "all the bases of musical writing [are] changing--[which] makes it impossible to apply
academic rules in a schematic way…" Hence, given the state of flux of our musical landscape, to apply
metaphorical readings to purely musical materials only serves to confuse an already confusing situation. I
quote from "What Should Music Criticism Do?"
Everything which can be said about music must necessarily be metaphorical,
comparative and peripheral, unless ofcourse it directly concerns physical forms--
the actual audible sounds or the visible notes printed on the page. It is obvious
that such comparative presentations are the more problematical the less stable the
nature of the thing compared, the musical material. (74)
This anixiety about metaphorical readings of works--of music criticism--illustrates nicely the worry that
Krenek developed about understanding the new music, for the coherence of criticism itself is in question by
the time Schoenberg's 12 tone rows becomes public.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1937), 527.
In his essays dating from after the time he took up the twelve-tone system (1929-
1938), Krenek, without provision, writes often that to understand a musical phrase
consists in understanding "what it's all about." Which is to say that understanding a
sound language is a musical understanding, that there are no extra-musical facts to which
a musical phrase refers, but that situating the phrase in the context of extra-musical facts
is an indication that something--something musical--has been understood. But the
question immediately arises: what gives the musical phrase its normative force? Or
again: if what gives the musical phrase its meaning is the sound-language of which it is a
part, what determines the rules of the sound-language, its interpretation? And connected
to this: what makes just this interpretation the “correct” one? What leads me to talk about
it one way as opposed to another? What makes it correct (even possible) to say "this E
Flat-C-D-B chord is a suspension of a pure C Minor triad"? This is to ask what gives
musical materials their life, and Krenek has two answers that are seemingly discordant.
In some places he answers that it is the "context of musical practice," and yet in other
places he wants to insist that the musical thought itself, a non-verbal intention of the
composer's, is what dictates the form of the sound-language, which then sets the
parameters for the musical work--hence the meaning of the work is to be understood as
stemming from the composer's intention. I want to turn now to my second claim about
Krenek the theorist, that he oscillates--uncomfortably--between conventionalism and
intentionalism on the question of interpretation.
2.2 Krenek on Intention and Sense
Krenek speaks most predominantly of interpretation and meaning in three essays.
The first, "New Music and Old Objectivity," dates from 1931, while the later two, "Who
Is Musical?" and "Basic Principles of a New Theory of Musical Aesthetics," date from
1938 and 1939 respectively. In all three he seems to want to retain a kind of
intentionalism while at the same time emphasize the conventional, historical, even
collective, aspects of the meaning of a sound-language. I have discussed briefly Krenek's
notion that musical meaning does not derive from any extra-musical content, that what is
to be understood is contained in the musical material itself. When the question arises as
to what gives a musical vocabulary its life, a remark quoted above seems to give us some
kind of answer. That is, when he says that the work can be "interpreted as something
coherent only if a recognizable connection exists between the individual parts"21 this
might suggest to us that one criterion for coherence, for intelligibility, is a pattern, a
discernible structure of musical elements.
But is this a sufficient condition for a work's being a meaningful musical
utterance? Schoenberg was almost certain that was the case, so much so that in his later
years he would go to great lengths at proving Adorno wrong—that Schoenberg‟s seeming
audacity wasn‟t trying to serve the important function of challenging the schema of mass
culture by force. As long I set an order to the tones I have chosen to work with, and as
long as that order follows a certain development, could I then call the tonal sequence I
have sketched meaningful? In a later essay Krenek brings up this possibility:
We imagine three different categories of things. The things in the first…
Ernst Krenek, "Who Is Musical?" 25.
we shall call tones, the things in the second… chords, and the things
in the third…melodies. We conceive of the tones, chords, and melodies
as having certain mutual relationships which we indicate by means of
such words as 'high', 'low', 'interval', 'consonance', dissonance'…22
But then in answer to the question of sufficiency he continues:
Another case of thorough anarchy? Or rather, of utter arbitrariness?
For we cannot take the bare logical coherence of a musical "axiomatic" system
as the sole criterion of its soundness! The accuracy of musical axioms
can be proved exclusively by their fitness for practical use... That
is why a concrete theory which is valid for a particular sphere
cannot be constructed until a corresponding consolidated practice in
the sphere is available.23
And so, from this standpoint, we get a thoroughly conventionalist picture in which
an axiomatized system of tones forbids interpretation prior to the system's being put to
use. The case in which I set down to paper a series of lines and dashes in a discernible
order and then ask you to read them aloud would be on a par with this kind of account.
Which suggests that the act of interpretation itself, the assimilation of a tonal system into
its sphere of practice, is what gives the system its soundness and relevance. Which,
again, is to suggest that the interpretation of the system itself, the life it has as a coherent
system, is determined by its use—a kind of meta-language, if you will, of practice. Such
remarks refer back to "New Humanity and Old Objectivity," where here the centerpiece
of Krenek's discussion is that of the present state of music. In suggesting that there is no
"music of the age," he puts the onus of a lack of a coherent musical tradition on
contemporary western composers, as well as their potential and actual audiences. In so
doing he presents a picture in which the present culture is in a state of infantile groping
for something musically coherent, something human, and so suggests that if a work of art
is to enter a culture "there must be a living convention, something the great cultural
epochs of the past had in a very high degree," but which apparently we (us moderns)
cannot claim to have. We might say this is a case in which, to use Cavell's phrase again,
a whole society has "stupefied" itself--given itself over to a kind of inanity. Or, if you
will, it harkens back to a Hegelian tradition that has proclaimed art, in some very real and
fundamental sense, dead.
As in his earlier essay "Who Is Musical?" Krenek points to the need for agreed
upon definitions--criteria for judgment--as a necessary condition for understanding a
musical idiom. Such criteria, for calling this "the dominant" or for pointing to a work and
saying "this is a variation of the third measure," etc., these are established in practice,
which is to say they are established in rehearsal, publicly. "No composer creates in a
vacuum," he says, "[H]e uses a certain sound language which can be defined by
unmistakably recognizable criteria."24 And this begs us to take the counterfactual
scenario, one in which the composer uses a sound language to which no unmistakably
Ernst Krenek, "Music and Mathematics," 207.
Ernst Krenek, "Who Is Musical?" 18.
recognizable criteria can be brought to bear, one in which we have, to use another of
Cavell's phrases, "nothing to go on." In this case, Krenek leads us to say, we have
encountered an alien language or no language at all. Or, the sound system has as of yet
no meaning--it isn't anything to us.
But there remains Krenek's constant worry over the new music, specifically the
music of atonality absent any twelve-tone systematization. We don't want to say that
modern music lacks all recognizable criteria. We want to do a kind of violence to an
audience, which, by the late 1930‟s, has become comfortably robotic in their upper-
middle-class lifestyles, a kind of violence that might move them to question an entire
system, even a culture‟s values. And yet this would require them to understand their own
sense of discomfort, even if that understanding is little more than a registering of outrage.
Certainly the language of atonality retains elements of the prior language.
Though the basic triad disappears, and with it three-part consonances, there still remain
two-part dissonances; and though in the more developed atonal writing the tonal "center"
disappears completely, the resulting chromaticism is intensified, and as such is retained.
But this, as Krenek observes, is, if not beside the point, then only part of the point, for the
fact is that by 1924 audiences and critics are beginning to puzzle over (to put it mildly),
and shake their heads in disbelief at, what they are hearing. The resulting "I have nothing
to go on" reaction Krenek takes seriously, and insofar as he takes both the reaction and
the atonal system seriously, he must reconcile them--he must show that the atonal system
is every bit as musically coherent as the tonal, and yet also show that what the atonal
system offers is a radical rethinking of one‟s world. That is, he must show both to be
languages in the sense I have mentioned. What is at stake is art itself, insofar as it
communicates something in a way both immediate and unique to itself. (Also at stake, of
course, is Krenek‟s, or any composers‟, career as a composer.)
The need for reconciliation here may lead to Krenek's oscillation between the
kind of conventionalist schema outlined above and a more intentionalist one. The
disjunctive, rupturing effect of the atonal idiom, when held up to Krenek's necessary
condition that the sound-language, to be coherent, be systematized or ordered in some
way, even minutely familiar, threatens a conclusion that is unacceptable: though perhaps
interesting and novel, atonal systems are not yet languages, i.e., they are not yet
meaning-bearing, and therefore lack the necessary force or violence intended to be
wrought upon an otherwise complacent audience. Thus we get a move from Krenek that
is made to spare us this conclusion--that the musical thought, the composer's pre-verbal
intention is what gives the sound-language its meaning, i.e., the function of the sound-
language is to convey a musical thought, and though the system of tones itself may be
based on recognizable criteria, the musical thought is "sovereign." By "musical thought"
I take Krenek to mean something like (though in a more general way) a Fregian sense, a
kind of pre-verbal 'picture' to which musical phrases refer--"the 'musical thought' is to the
verbal thought… as the original of immediacy is to its concrete definitions in the logical
sphere."25 Given this way of seeing things, the sound-language is determined by a set of
intentions (the intentions are realized in a sound language appropriate to them.) So long
as the composer's intentions are realized coherently, he has willy-nilly created a new
language--a legitimate language whose criterion of coherence is its own internal
consistency. Hence, we get remarks such as the following:
Ernst Krenek, "Basic Principles for a New Theory of Musical Aesthetics," 139.
But as little as thought can be entertained without the medium of language,
just as little can the language exist without the thought. For it is only the
thought behind it that gives language its content and meaning.26
Such remarks direct Krenek to say of his previous remarks on convention that:
Partly because the artists of any one age, any one geographical
community, tend to have thoughts of a similar kind, and partly
because one specially strong mind will give a lead to the thinking of
many others, one particular tone-language will become valid for
considerable periods and areas.27
This is to think of musical conventions which may coherently be changed or not,
depending on the composer's intention, as "tyrannical," or, as Krenek would prefer,
"sovereign." Nonetheless, we can pull out two, contradictory statements in Krenek on the
determinants of musical meaning:
1) for a musical utterance to be meaningful it must be internally consistent,
where internal consistency is governed by accepted norms or conventions.
2) for a musical utterance to be meaningful it must be internally consistent, i.e.,
it must simply and only express a musical thought.
And this makes it seem like there are two musical meanings--the composer's and that
which the audience creates. The latter is something like variable interpretations governed
by established criteria for judgment, whereas the former appears to be a gesture towards a
kind of private language. When Krenek says at the end of "Basic Principles of a New
Theory of Musical Aesthetics" that "one specially strong mind" might sufficiently
impress upon others the coherence of his invented sound-language, the question arises as
to how the composer is to interpret the sound-language prior to its use, and whether any
extra-artistic power struggle must necessarily take place for a piece to bloom into
something meaningfully and actually disruptive. (The question mirrors the later
Wittgenstein's famous private language argument: "But could we also imagine a language
in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences--his
feelings, moods, and the rest--for his private use?… So another person cannot understand
the language.")28 Krenek's answer forms a worry, which seems to be: well yes, and no.
2.3 Sense and Freedom
I don't think there is any way to reconcile these two accounts of interpretation, yet
that there is an inconsistency to be found in Krenek shows a kind of dialectic that, later,
Ernst Krenek, "Basic Principles," 144-5.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1937), 241.
Adorno and others would expand upon and wrestle with. What is interesting is that the
inconsistency points to a broader tension in both the composer's writings and in his
operas. The tension is between the wish for musical freedom (hence extra-musical
freedom) on the one hand, and musical intelligibility (hence extra-musical intelligibility)
on the other. This tension has been explored by critics as one between the composer's
competing desires for aesthetic integrity and public assimilation. But that is a very
surface way to position the problem, as what is at stake is not only art and the future of
art, whatever that may be, but the economics of production. (Here Adorno will step in
and argue forcefully that this tension is an outgrowth of the way in which art, once
commodified, is sold down-river as a curiosity, fetishized from within.)
In "Self Analysis,” Krenek writes, "I feel that I am directed by two forces which
in their tangible effects frequently are at variance… I have been attracted by the idea of
pure, uncompromising creation, independent from the trends of the day… at the same
time I was constantly tempted by the achievement of practical results in terms of „this
world‟ whose current problems were a permanent challenge to me."29 Krenek states later
in the same essay that, "I decided that the tenets which I had followed so far in writing
„modern music‟ were totally wrong. Music according to my new philosophy had to fit
the well-defined demands of the community for which it was written; it had to be useful,
To take these remarks in isolation is to mistakenly place him amongst the musical
functionalists of his period, those whom in other places he derides as making art too
"easy," i.e., for making works that do not stand in a "dynamic relation to man," the kind
of artists who, for different reasons, Schoenberg and Adorno scorned. "If every
ignoramus could play the work of a contemporary writer because he had climbed down to
the level of ignorance," Krenek tells us elsewhere, "this level would become a
permanency, and the ignoramuses would take great care that nothing better should
emerge, because they would already feel part of the whole thing, without having to make
any mental effort."31 His concern, rather than one about public acceptance, is about the
limits of musical sense, and the ability to affect change through art in a society quickly
spiraling into complacence, and eventually, fascism. How far can the composer go in
stretching accepted norms, he asks, before what is presented as public material fails to
stand precisely in that "dynamic relation"? If musical meaning arises from the musical
negotiations of an epoch, in what relation does the new music--divorced from the tonal
strictures of a former era--stand? At base this is a tension between intelligibility and
freedom, whether "freedom" is to be properly understood as emancipation from tradition,
or whether it consists in something else, some other kind of relation. And the community
which the composer may or may not be able to isolate himself from is not the "public" of
the present, but seems rather to be the critics and artists of the western tonal tradition--the
"old, true" amateurs in which Krenek places himself. I want to end here by use of an
example, by exploring this tension as it plays out in Krenek's early opera, Jonny Spielt
Ernst Krenek, “Self Analysis,” 7.
Ernst Krenek, "New Humanity and Old Objectivity," p. 33.
At this point I want to make a methodological point. It might be charged that by reading the opera in the
light of its composer's remarks I am guilty of the intentional fallacy. That by giving the composer some
As one of the early Zeitopern, Jonny has been characterized musically as a step
towards entertainment, and therefore on its more serious side, with Gebrauchmusik. Its
infusion of jazz elements, dominant seventh chords and blue notes, as well as Puccini-
esque tropes and other citations of the western canon, combine with its contemporary
setting and use of modern technologies to give the opera not only a newness, but a prima
facie lightness. The action, with its farcical elements of mistaken identities, its torrid and
hapless plot reminiscent of the Key Stone Cops (or, perhaps more appropriately,
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), has also led to its characterization of lightness and comedy.
This general characterization begins around 1927 with articles like Alfred Rosensweig's
"Die Revuetechnik in Operette und Oper,"33 and continues to be emphasized presently.
Alongside the characterization of lightness in the music and libretto is the traditional
reading of theme: Jonny is about the possibility of freedom, where one of the central
characters, Max, is a veiled version of the composer himself. Max's attainment of
freedom—here emancipation from the rest of society, a self-imposed exile—by means of
the locomotive (freedom's monstrous, though effective symbol), is juxtaposed with the
opera‟s other central character, Jonny, where Jonny himself embodies the freedom
sought. "Freedom" is read to be, for the characters of the opera, the "jazzy" and "joyous"
America (Stewart, 81), where its opposite is the confining and isolated world of European
intellectualism. Hence the opera is a happy one--it rushes in the possibility of a bright
future, or it shows us a possible route out of confinement, conformity, and isolation.
Along these lines we get readings such as Stewart's:
Krenek uses three primary symbols to explicate his theme of escaping
into freedom: the glacier, which…represents dehumanized, life-denying,
excessive intellectualism; the violin, which represents life-affirming
sensuality, even in the hands of the corrupt Daniello; and the train,
which represents liberation.34 (Krenek's Early Operas, Stewart, p. 83)
And also Cook's:
Krenek sets up a dichotomy… between two prevailing views of the artist's
role in modern society. Jonny, the hero or to many the antihero,
authority over his work, I am giving him unwarranted authority, full stop. Why should Krenek's remarks
dictate how I read the opera itself? What can he tell me that is vital to understanding the formal contents of
the opera? But it seems to me that whenever someone shouts "intentional fallacy!" these days, it's an
indication that the accused has brought a multitude of voices to bear on a public object, one of which may
happen to be the individual who gave the object its artistic shaping. In these cases it appears that the critic
looking high and low for intentionalist readings in order to shout them out, is himself guilty of the
intentional fallacy, guilty insofar as he's giving the composer a special status in the whole game of criticism
at the very get-go. There is a difference between reading artworks as though there is a matter of fact about
what they say, or what they can say, and reading them critically. In the latter case one is holding two forms
up to the light--the artistic product and an individual theory--in order that one may shed light on the other,
full stop. In this case, we can pretend that Krenek's theory isn't Krenek's at all--that it is somebody else's--
and still come out with the results unaltered.
Cook, “Opera for a New Republic,” 35. "Jonny…shared the aim of these popular entertainments: to
provide direct links between modern life and the audience."
represents Krenek's French model where artist and society are in harmony,
and the artist's role is to serve the public. Max, Jonny's antithesis, represents
the Central European studio composer.
At a glance, Stewart‟s remarks seem to encapsulate the dramatic events of the
opera. The curtain opens with Max wallowing in a world of icy solitude, amidst the
glacier that "calms" him. Anita, the opera singer, having wandered away (very far away)
from her hotel, is lost, encounters the composer, and together they sing in Bach-like
counterpoint, clearly falling in love. After living together for a time Anita informs Max
that she must leave for Paris. By scene three Anita is in Paris, where she encounters
Jonny, the black American jazz singer. During Jonny's failed (and brutish) attempt to
court Anita, we meet Daniello, the suave violinist, who rescues her. They spend the night
together, and during this night Jonny, who had been plotting to steal the virtuoso's violin,
Meanwhile, Daniello had been plotting to keep Anita, and by use of trickery with
Anita's ring, informs Max of his love's unfaithfulness, and so the composer once more
goes back to his glacier in order that he may forget everything. While Max is at his
glacier, Jonny is running from Daniello and the cops--with Jonny‟s girl‟s (Yvonne‟s) not-
so-enthusiastic help. But in scene 8, while at the glacier, Max hears Anita's voice--a
recording of the song he wrote for her over the radio--and this summons him back to
"life," particularly to Anita. The dramatic events culminate at the train station,
whereupon Max has unwittingly come into possession of the stolen violin, is ushered by
police wagon to the train station, Daniello is run over by a train, Jonny gets the violin
back, Max finds Anita at the last second as the train is departing, and the opera ends with
Jonny standing on a globe, playing the violin to a cheering chorus.
So, on the surface things look neatly scripted. Jonny and Max are set up as a clear
dichotomy, and their spheres, though so close in physical proximity, never collide (the
two never meet.) Max seems to be the brooding European life-denying intellectual, the
glacier seems to symbolize death and isolation, Anita and Daniello are closer to humanity
than Max but distanced nonetheless, while Jonny is a free man, both musically and
morally--he ushers in the new music, a music which stands in a "dynamic relation to
man," a music free of intellectual pretensions. Max, on the other hand, has boarded the
train "to life" with Anita, and he is presumably heading to France (America), where
freedom rings, where life is affirmed, and where Jonny was born and bred.
But the problem with this reading is that it fails to resolve subtle tensions not only
within the story, but between the libretto and the score. First, we may question whether
Max, as has often been said, is really at the glacier in silence. Rather, as Cook points out
(84), the glacier is an embodiment of Max's musical productivity--only such productivity
seems only to fall back on itself, to have no effect--like an engine idling. The silence
which Max opens with, his getting away from his life, his "work," is contrasted with the
musical elements of dissonance resolving into consonance and back again, and the
contrapuntal measures which develop from the lines that he sings with Anita at the point
of their meeting. The libretto, too, suggests that Max is in a state of composing, that he
as at work. "Today I conquer you," he says of the mountain peak in his midst, as though
it were a master score in his head. And later: "I see there a symbol of form, and of nature
controlled, and of ordered life." And Anita's responses, by connecting her role as singer
to Max's desire to conquer the mountain--"Explain to me the power of the glacier/and
about your work/perhaps again I'll have a chance to sing a part in another op'ra"--further
indicate that Max is composing, but that nobody is listening, or understanding. So, rather
than being holed up in silence, the whole of the first scene suggests to us that Max is
speaking, but speaking to nobody. Perhaps in a language that cannot be deciphered?
And so we open in a gelid, open place--an isolated world. One gets the sense, as
the voices bend into dissonance and then climb back out again, that something has
happened, that something has died. That Max is walking, musically as well, towards the
edges of the social frame, that either the world has stopped listening, or that it has
stopped understanding (which is a kind of death). This is to be contrasted immediately in
scene three with Jonny. Suddenly we are in Paris, and Jonny is moving, as though held
up by invisible wires, smoothly and quietly through every setting. He speaks in short,
punctuated musical gestures, adapting cunningly to all situations (six rising half-notes,
the last two of which frame the tonic triad V-I-II-IV-III-V). But I get the sense that
Jonny is filling spaces, that he is there to fill the void after this death. What he fills it
with is immediate, accessible dance tunes. Music that is familiar to its audiences. But
though it is accessible it isn't clear that it has depth, any responsibility to development,
ordered transgression, or that it seeks in any way to challenge the complacency of its
audience. It is an accessible chaos, a mirror of the world, not a language. Thus it is
unclear that what the members of the chorus hear is anything but the chaos of the world.
This is the new order, the order that appropriates the old instrument of language--the
violin. As if the poem had not only lost its verse and gone free form but has become
sappy and dumb.
And so the violin, its importance for Jonny, for Daniello, for the movement of the
opera, is contained in its mechanism--it is the instrument that is neutral on how it is used.
Jonny's seizure of it is made possible as much by his context, the circumstances
surrounding him, as the seeming inevitability that Daniello will loose it.
If it is possible to see Max not as the life-denying German intellectual, but the
artist seeking expressive freedom, and if it is possible to see Jonny not as the opera's hero
ushering in a new form of life, but as the status quo, the "popular," the mirror of a chaos,
then we might ask where Max is going when, after Anita's voice summons him, he boards
the train and sets off. Or again, if it is the case that Jonny is ushering in an era of
freedom, and if it is the case that that is what Max seeks, then why is he not a part of the
chorus singing Jonny's praise at the end of the opera? Where is Max going? This is to
ask what "life" here means. I sense that the peculiar ending of the opera is not a
triumphant one. It ends not on a triumphant note, but a melancholy solo by Jonny. A
mood of unease offsets the exuberance of the chorus just before the solo, turning the
If the opera is asking a question, that of where to go next (musically), then
contained in that question is a nagging worry about Max's desire for freedom. Two
alternatives are presented. A life at the glacier, composing works in a language which
due to its privacy, threatens to empty itself of meaning, of life-affirming relevance--to
"stupefy" itself. Or to strike up with Jonny, with the volk--to speak so conventionally, so
immediately, that the very desire for autonomy disappears and is replaced by the
appearance of autonomy. Neither alternative seems to give Max what he seeks. This is
to say, neither is an alternative which grants freedom, insofar as freedom is conceived as
a meaningful, or, even political, emancipation. And so where is Max going? I take it that
he denies the validity of either sphere, since the alternatives come down to
unintelligibility and conformity. Instead, singing in Bach-like counterpoint with Anita's
voice over the radio (a return to polyphony and tonality?) he sings that he will return to
"life," where the second part of his line begs to be taken quite literally--"to her, to her, to
her."35 In answer to where he is going, I thus take Max to be choosing the only kind of
musical freedom possible at that present moment: silence. (A musical death here is a kind
of living.) We come back to Krenek's remark that things may not be what they seem:
Nevertheless, music has much to do with "liberty"… but exactly where
the fanfares blare most proudly and where the chorus is most vociferous
in its praise of liberty, there we often find the least musical liberty and so
the least real liberty.36
We might say of the opera that where the chorus is "most vociferous in its praise
of liberty," its praise is tempered by an open question as to whether such a notion can be
applied here, or whether it is intelligible at all. We are left only with the opera itself, in
answer to the question "Intelligible to who?"
Adorno, T. Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, Verso, 1993 (1963).
Cavell, S. "Music Discomposed," in Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge, 1976.
Cavell, S. "Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy," in Must We Mean What We
Say, Cambridge, 1976.
Cavell, S. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy,
Oxford U Press, 1979.
Cook, S. Opera for a New Republic, n. pub., n. date.
Gasset, J.O. The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and
Literature, Princeton U. Press, 1968.
Kaes ed., The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, n. pub., n. date.
Krenek, E., Shenfield and Skelton trans. Exploring Music, October House, 1958.
Krenek, E. Music Here and Now, New York: Norton, 1939.
Krenek, E. Horizons Circled: Reflections On My Music, U of C Press, 1974.
Krenek, E. Self-Analysis, California, 1952.
Schoenberg, A. Style and Idea, U of C Press, 1975.
Stewart, J. Ernst Krenek, U of California, n. date.
Wittgenstein, L., Anscombe E. trans. Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, 1997.
Note that in an ironic twist, it is music that spurs Max into action, where the action can be taken as a kind
of silence--which would suggest that it is music which turns against itself.
Ernst Krenek, "Who Is Musical?" 20.