I was reading some Roland Barthes the other day, you know, for fun, and came across his short essay: Musica Practica. In it Barthes sketches out what he calls a practical music and why that music began to die out with Beethoven. And like so many of Barthes’ essays, it suffers from the same set of problems. In one sense, Barthes is incapable of making his essays accessible to the average person. He nearly requires of the reader that they become him, Roland Barthes, in order to comprehend certain references or vague assertions. Further more, his wording is overly obtuse and his conclusions stated with unfounded certainty. In other words, Barthes was an elitist when it came to writing. Is not the measure of a person’s intellect not only that he can understand the truths that define our universe but also their ability to express those findings, to effectively promulgate the fruits of their work among the people?
Below I have given my best interpretation of Barthes’ essay. Though there are still some sections that I feel Barthes purposely keeps opaque, and therefore unexplainable except by the author himself. Though for the most part I found Musica Practica interesting.
There are two musics (at least so I have always thought): the music one listens to, the music one plays. These two musics are two totally different, arts, each with its own history, its own sociology, its own aesthetics, its own erotic; the same composer can be minor if you listen to him, tremendous if you play him (even badly) – such is Schumann. The music one plays comes from an activity that is very little auditory, being above all manual (and thus in a way much more sensual).(omission) This musica has disappeared; it lapsed into an insipid social rite with the coming of the democracy of the bourgeoisie (omission) and then faded out altogether. To find practical music in the West, one has now to look to another public, another repertoire, another instrument ( the young generation, vocal music, the guitar). Concurrently, passive, receptive music, sound music, is become the music (that of convert, festival, record, radio): playing has ceased to exist; musical activity is no longer manual, muscular, kneadingly physical, but merely liquid, effusive, ‘lubrificating’, to take up a word from Balzac.
Reading this section, I think about how often music is just playing in the background for me, at the supermarket, while I am studying, in the elevator, wherever I go there is music ‘lubrificating’ an otherwise dull experience. And while Bartes certainly is an elitist in tone, he does not shy away from looking at popular culture, he just refrains from writing about it in depth.
So too has the performer changed. The amateur, a role defined much more by a style than by a technical imperfection, is no longer anywhere to be found; the professionals, pure specialists whose training remains entirely esoteric for the public (omission) never offer that style of the perfect amateur, (omission) touching off in us not satisfaction but desire, the desire to make that music. (omission)
Though I wouldn’t be able to put this in my own words I really feel that Barthes distinction between the Amateur and the professional as being in the formers ability to awake in the listener ‘the desire to make’ is well stated.
The work of Beethoven seems to me bound up with this historical problem (omission); an ambiguity which is that of Beethoven’s two historical roles: the mythical Role which he was made to play by the whole of the nineteenth century and the modern role which our own century is beginning to accord him (omission).
(With Beethoven) The artist is in search of his ‘truth’ and this quest forms an order in itself, a message that can be read, in spite of the variations in its content, over all the work or, at least, whose readability feeds on a sort of totality of the artist: his career, his loves, his ideas, his character, his words become traits of meaning; (omission) the shattering of the melody, taken as the symbol of restlessness and the seething agitation of creativeness, the emphatic redundancy of moments of excitement and termination (a naive image of fate dealing its blows), the experience of limits (the abolition or the inversion of the traditional parts of musical speech), the production of musical chimera (the voice rising out of the symphony) – and all this, which could easily be transformed metaphorically into pseudo-philosophical values, nonetheless musically acceptable since always deployed under the authority of the fundamental code of the West, tonality. (omission)
To me what Barthes is trying to say here is that Beethoven’s life and his music are so intertwined that one looks even at the structure and the sound of the music as artistic expressions of the living artist’s own ideas and character. In a sense, what I think Barthes is trying to say is that the romantic view of Beethoven is to view his music as a kind of autobiography. As the artist grows we expect the music to reflect that growth.
Further, this romantic image (omission) creates a problem of performance: to want to play beethoven is to see oneself as the conductor of an orchestra (omission). Beethoven’s work forsakes the amateur and seems, in an initial moment, to call on the new Romantic deity, the interpreter. (omission)
I feel like here Barthes started to say one thing and ended up saying another. Even now when I read his essay I feel like he is about to say that the performer cannot play Beethoven adequately because the music could only every be adequately performed by Beethoven himself. Instead he talks about the physical logistics of playing the music. That Beethoven chose to write his music for the symphony means that one must resign themselves to a role, the violin the oboe. I feel like Barthes did this to set the essay up for the next point, to show that the individual can actually perform, in a sense, Beethovens orchestral pieces.
The truth is perhaps that Beethoven’s music has in it something inaudible and this brings us to the second Beethoven. Beethoven’s deafness designates the lack wherein resides ll signification; it appeals to a music that is not abstract or inward, but that is endowed, if one may but it like this, with a tangible intelligibility, with the intelligible as tangible. (omission) The operation by which we can grasp this Beethoven (omission) can no longer be either performance or hearing, but reading. (omission) Just as the reading of the modern text consists not in receiving, in knowing or in feeling that text, but in writing it anew, in crossing its writing with a fresh inscription, so too reading this Beethoven is to operate his music, to draw it into an unknown praxis.
The second sentence of this section baffles me, and I feel like Barthes worded it this way because he himself wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. That said perhaps he is trying express though “tangible intelligibility” the experience of Beethoven himself. Because Beethoven could not hear his own music at the end of his life it was in a sense intelligible. But since it was written, it was tangible, he could read his music and hear the performance of it in his head. The second part of this second is equally baffling to me. In Barthes essay Death of the Author, he talks about how the role of the reader is to ‘focus’ the various aspects of a work and through this process give meaning to it. In other words, each reader kind of constructs their own version of a work by means of reading it; a work means something different, has different significance to each reader. Is this what he is trying to say about reading Beethoven? That to read Beethoven is to give new meaning, new life to it? I do not know.
In this way may be rediscovered (omission) a certain musica practica. The modern location for music is (omission) the stage on which the musicians pass, in what is often dazzling display, from one source of sound to another. (omission) But one can imagine the concert – later on? – as exclusively a workshop, from which nothing spills over – no dream, no imaginary, in short, no ‘soul’ and where all the musical art is absorbed in a praxis with no remainder. Such is the utopia that a certain Beethoven, who is not played, teaches us to formulate – which is why it is possible now to feel in him a musician with a future.
Again here in this final section I find problems with Barthes conclusion. What does he mean by ‘a workshop’? or that ‘musical art is absorbed in a praxis with no remainder’? Does he mean to say that a performance on stage does not, like the amateur, inspire the listener to make music of his own? to participate in his own performance, to take part in a practical music? Or does he mean that modern performance exhausts the performed piece of any interpretive value? That what is performed is the just a literal transcription of printed note to strummed/blown/harped sound? Finally, what does Barthes mean by a musica practica? At the beginning of the essay he seems to suggest that the sensual element of practical music is its defining elements, but were that so, how is reading, listening to the imaginary performance at all similar? Barthes does say in a section I did not include that to compose something means to give someone something to do. Perhaps it is merely a question of audience participation that defines practical music, I do not know.
A final note on my omissions. Most of the omitted parts are Barthes’ examples or his attempts at being poetically clever. The reason I cut them is because his examples need more explaining that I am able or probably then they are worth and his poetics are smug rubbish.