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Sounding the Depths of Depth

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An Overgrown Mineshaft, Carl Gustav Carus, c. 1824

by Holly Watkins

When a friend says to you that she finds a piece of music deeply moving, you might assume she is referring to some intensely personal experience rooted in her unique psychological makeup. What’s more, you may sense that the effect she describes is one she cannot fully spell out, and indeed, the term “deep” often stands in for something that eludes explanation. At the same time, your friend might be tacitly asking for your agreement: yes, you (are expected to) answer, Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” is surely one of the deepest pieces of music ever written.

In responding this way, however, you’ve done a curious thing: you’ve shifted the conversation away from the subjectivity of your friend to the objectivity of the artwork. Metaphors of depth travel across this conceptual boundary with an ease not enjoyed by other terms of aesthetic evaluation. To call an artwork beautiful, for example, does not imply that it beautifies its listeners. But calling a movement of a string quartet or piano sonata “deep” might plausibly morph into an argument that its effect on listeners should be equally profound.

My fascination with the protean quality of depth metaphors in musical discourse resulted in a book entitled Metaphors of Depth in German Musical Thought: From E. T. A. Hoffmann to Arnold Schoenberg. Why German? As I began to explore uses of metaphor in contemporary musicological and music-analytical studies, I found that works in the German tradition were most often singled out for their superior emotional, spiritual or structural depth. To cite some of the most common stereotypes: Beethoven and Bach are deep, while Italian opera is superficial; Schoenberg’s grappling with musical tradition in the twelve-tone works is deep, while Stravinsky’s neoclassicism is superficial. More curious than these crude evaluations was the way in which the demonstration of a work’s structural depth appeared to displace the need to discuss any other claims to profundity—as if structural depth necessarily implied depth in general and with it, aesthetic value.

My study of these rhetorical fixations quickly led me back to the Germanic roots of contemporary music studies. In his study The Roots of Romanticism, intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin posits that the German preoccupation with depth grew out of political frustrations dating back to the Thirty Years’ War. Denied the sovereignty that other nations such as England and France enjoyed, the patchwork of German-speaking communities turned to cultivating the “inner” life of mind and spirit. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Germans had fostered a deep self-image rooted in religious devotion and philosophical integrity. Maintaining that image, not surprisingly, depended on denying other nations a similar status. The witty, aristocratic culture of France, in particular, was singled out by German thinkers (ever dogged by an inferiority complex) as indefensibly shallow.

Music began to play a vital role in these polemics around the turn of the nineteenth century.  Although some German writers on aesthetics followed Martin Luther in praising the “inward” qualities of music, Germany’s greatest Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was all but hostile to the art, conceding its sensuous charm while ridiculing its lack of mental content—its inability to state determinate thoughts.  Moreover, J. S. Bach’s music had fallen into obscurity after the composer’s death, leaving Germans without a very well defined sense of their musical history. Only in the writings of early Romantics such as Ludwig Tieck, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and E. T. A. Hoffmann (and of Bach devotees like the music historian Johann Nicolaus Forkel) did German instrumental music find eloquent defenders able to challenge the aesthetic superiority of French and Italian vocal music. No, these authors admitted, instrumental music could not state determinate thoughts or suggest specific subject matter (unless it resorted to much-maligned techniques of depiction, like those Haydn used his 1801 oratorio The Seasons). But that was precisely what gave music an edge over the textual and visual arts.  Instead of turning the listener’s thoughts to specific ideas or objects, Hoffmann suggested, music inspired thoughts of infinity. Instrumental music enchanted and ravished its listeners without fettering their imaginations, and it thus became the art of choice for Romantic enthusiasts who reveled in intense experiences and in the impossibility of translating them into language. And yet, these fans of music did find words to express the failure of language. The effects of music were deemed ineffable, inexhaustible and impossible to embrace—in a word, deep.

Metaphors of Depth in German Musical Thought traces the fortune of depth metaphors in German music criticism and analysis from the Romantic era to the opening decades of the twentieth century. Unlike cognitive or semiotic studies that seek to explicate metaphor’s role in conceptual thought, my study is concerned with the historical process by which particular metaphors find a privileged place in discourse. Accordingly, I treat depth metaphors as invitations to tease out connections between music and other areas of human inquiry and opinion, such as philosophy, theology, geology, psychology, and nationalism. This strategy allows me to home in on the often obscure connotations of the German word Tiefe (depth), connotations that, thanks to their often nationalistic overtones, were suppressed after World War II by analysts and critics interested only in deep structure or hidden meanings. In short, whereas post-war music studies had turned depth into the site of well-defined meanings and structures, I wanted to recapture a sense of the metaphor’s polyvalence in hopes of stimulating a more critical attitude toward accepted modes of evaluation and interpretation. Recognizing the indeterminacy at the heart of depth metaphors not only highlights the way in which music confounds strict distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, but also opens up avenues of interpretation well suited to music that seemed, to many nineteenth century listeners, to embody the undefinable.

During the period under investigation in my book (roughly 1800 to 1945), depth metaphors possessed a range of meanings whose breadth only increased over time. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, German authors such as Johann Gottfried Herder, Wackenroder and Hoffmann considered music to be a springboard for an anti-French, anti-rationalist aesthetics of interiority. As a metaphor with ties to religious Pietism, mysticism and theories of the sublime, depth appeared to capture perfectly the dimension of music’s significance that lay beyond linguistic description. Hoffmann, a music critic and budding composer before he took up tale-telling, went one step further by suggesting that the deepest works—especially Beethoven’s works—required the critic to penetrate their “inner structure” in search of unity. Considering that late eighteenth-century composition manuals treated music as essentially a linear sequence of phrases, Hoffmann’s approach represents a momentous shift in perspective from the horizontal to the vertical. The depth that Hoffmann attributed to Beethoven’s music, however, was almost immoderately multivalent, evoking meanings ranging from the scientific to the spiritual, the geological to the organic; the rational to the irrational.

Hoffmann’s enthusiasm for what he called “Beethoven’s depths” found an echo in the writings of his admirer and fellow Berliner, the music critic and theorist Adolf Bernhard Marx. Marx interpreted Beethoven’s “spiritual” music as the diametrical opposite of the “sensuous” Italian opera popular in 1820s Berlin. Marx followed the example of Hegel’s Idealist aesthetics by framing this polarity in terms of depth and surface, a move that fused the idea of musical depth with a set of idealized Germanic character traits, among them spirituality, inwardness and seriousness. Marx strengthened the associations between music and subjectivity by suggesting that Beethoven’s music evinces a “psychological logic” underpinning its wealth of competing “impulses.” Indeed, Marx’s analytical language shares certain distinguishing features with the psychologist Johann Friedrich Herbart’s theory of consciousness, giving rise to an analytical discourse that infused musical works with an almost human personality.

The burgeoning discourse of musical depth affected not only those writing about music, but also those writing music. During his youth, Robert Schumann devoured the literary fantasias of Wackenroder and Hoffmann, but under the even greater influence of the novelist Jean Paul, he associated depth primarily with music’s “poetic” capacity—its ability to stir up unpredictable impressions and ideas in the mind of the listener. The mechanics of this mental poetry are virtually identical to those which German thinkers had long attributed to the invention of metaphors. Following Herder, Jean Paul believed that figurative language testified to the interpenetration of body and spirit characteristic of an ancient or primitive mindset, and he elevated such language over the materialist and denotative vocabulary of “trade.” For Schumann as well, depth could only be attained by composers who eschewed the desire for commercial success and associated tactics such as virtuosic display. Compositions like his Nachtstücke, op. 23 for piano can be understood to musically realize Jean Paul’s theory of metaphor in a manner that produces a figurative depth quite different from the depth normally ascribed to Beethovenian formal and motivic procedures.

Like Schumann, Richard Wagner sought refuge from the demands of commerce, at least after his early failure in the operatic market of Paris. But Wagner’s quest for depth extended far beyond music’s assimilation of poetic impulses to culminate in grandiose plans for Germany’s musical and cultural renewal. Multiple strands of depth metaphors inform Wagner’s theory of music drama, from his claim that Germanic myths communicated deeper truths than plots based on history to his nationalist belief that the resilient roots of the German language allowed its people to access their original tribal identity. To mirror the primordial rootedness he ascribed to his fellow Germans (however misguidedly), Wagner implemented a temporal dimension of depth in his operas based on leitmotivic techniques of recollection. The suggestive links between Wagner’s theory of leitmotif and the psychological hypotheses of his fellow Dresdener Carl Gustav Carus suggests that leitmotif unites temporal and subjective dimensions of depth. As a paradigmatic example of Wagnerian subject formation, the first act of Die Walküre musically and textually enacts the triumph of memory. Thanks to the workings of leitmotif, the two main characters (Siegmund and Sieglinde) transcend their barren present and achieve self-renewal through a remembrance of their “deep” familial past.

In the twentieth century, the legacy of depth was taken up most extensively by the influential Austrian music theorist and polemicist Heinrich Schenker. Schenker believed that the greatest works of tonal music possess a deep structure, or background, which guarantees their coherence and, in most cases, German pedigree. For all its apparent formalization, Schenker’s notion of the background is emphatically not just a musical concept. Instead, the background delineates an imaginary space with abundant figurative overtones, including those of nature, God, origin, genius, the soul and Germanness—all by this point conventional associations of depth. Yet Schenker’s theoretical model represents both the culmination and displacement of Romantic notions of depth, in that the background he theorized both resists and reflects the abstraction endemic to modernism. In short, Schenker’s notion of depth should be viewed not simply as a last bastion of aristocratic values against the leveling forces of Americanization and capitalism, as he clearly wished to see it, but as a symptom of a larger tendency toward spatialization his theory shares with the driving cultural and economic mechanisms of the twentieth century.


Adolf Loos, Müller House, Prague, 1930, Via

The book’s final case study considers the music of Arnold Schoenberg in relation to modern threats to German interiority by comparing the composer’s output with that of his friend the architect Adolf Loos. Many accounts of turn-of-the-century Vienna view Schoenberg’s atonal works and Loos’s early polemics as expressions of similar anti-ornamental principles. But the calm appearance of Loos’s buildings, whose denuded facades shielded plush yet refined interiors, is hard to reconcile with Schoenberg’s radically dissonant and expressive music circa 1910. This divergence can be understood in terms of divergent responses to urban modernity. Loos’s architecture facilitated a retreat inward, while Schoenberg’s release of unconscious impulses into the compositional process mimicked a psychological breakdown in which inner and outer realms were no longer distinguishable—a breakdown that the sociologist Georg Simmel believed to imperil denizens of the modern metropolis. Later in his career, however, Schoenberg adopted some of Loos’s protective techniques in his invention of the twelve-tone method of composition. By incorporating the principle of concealment into the very fabric of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg took an inward turn resembling Loos’s architectural efforts to safeguard subjectivity from needless exposure.

Perhaps it is only fitting that a study of the eminently versatile metaphor of depth should make use of an eclectic array of methodologies. Over the course of my book, I try to stake out territory where intellectual history, hermeneutics and musical analysis may cross and overlap. While I often take a critical attitude toward the cultural values transmitted by depth metaphors, I also seek to harness their allusive power in order to suggest how music might have conveyed impressions of depth to its listeners (and composers). The book’s interpretations of musical works by Schumann, Wagner and Schoenberg unfold within the horizon of lesser-known contexts and connotations of depth and interiority circulating at the time of composition. My goal is not so much to advocate interpretative historicism as to illustrate the multiplicity of musical depth and to suggest ways to account for impressions of depth that depart from the rather ossified options available today (indeed, one sometimes wonders if dutiful references to the depth of “great works” are just another manifestation of postmodern depthlessness, to borrow a phrase from Fredric Jameson). I undertake this last task with due caution, fully aware of just how instrumental depth metaphors have been in the history of German nationalism. No single context, however, can determine the fate of metaphors whose nature is flexible and mobile. A critique that merely seeks to destroy its object takes few risks; a critique that dares its object to live again poses a more interesting and potentially more rewarding challenge. At the very least, inaugurating new rhetorical adventures for the metaphor of depth seems preferable to either expelling it from criticism outright or allowing it to deteriorate into a hollow encomium.


About the Author:

Holly Watkins is Associate Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she teaches courses on music from the nineteenth century to the present. Her book Metaphors of Depth in German Musical Thought: From E. T. A. Hoffmann to Arnold Schoenberg was recently published in Cambridge University Press’s series New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. Watkins’s research interests center on the aesthetics and philosophy of music.