The Symphonic Juncture

A [Symphonist]: "The one who is not afraid to raise the primal force."

- Boris Asafiev (1917)

Speech Intonations (1925): The new face of Musicological Discourse.

Preceding the publication of MFAP* (1930) and Intonation (1947), Asafiev published two Articles discussing music’s intrinsic connection to the self and the factors which impacted the final result of chosen ‘tones and tonalities’ used within the work itself and which, by extension, cultivated within the perceivers as an ‘intonational vocabulary’ which determined taste preferences and its respective socio-cultural acceptance. Of the two Articles, the first, ‘Speech Intonations’, published in 1925 and later included in its own monograph released in 1965 with included musical examples [PDF’s here], is important to intellectually ‘rediscover’, as posited within its borders is a closer examination of what the Musicologist’s role is in deciphering music’s complex network of relational energies, stated as three zones of influence on ‘production’ [sounding body], namely ‘objective’ elements [physical facts (Viljanen 2016), i.e., acoustic and sensory laws], ‘subjective’ elements [personal experiences, i.e., health, personal beliefs, love] and ‘social laws’ [self-reflections of the stated music]. These three points must be considered when ‘studying’ music, as the Formalist studying of the sound's superficial construction can never, despite the erudite Pedagogue's best intentions, transform cogitation on music from ‘crystallized fossil’ which can only ‘see’ the objects to ‘an experience of the epoch’, birthed by actively ‘hearing’ the world. Thus, when Asafiev called for an ‘intonational reformation’, prompted by Soviet Russia’s increasing animosity towards Western, bourgeois infestation [i.e., Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was chastised for its purposeful dissonances and jazz influence which ostensibly only catered to the ‘perverted tastes of formalist aesthetes’ (Brook 2001) ], he was referencing the necessity to infuse ‘Western rationality’ into ‘Eastern intuition’ from a place not of strict dependency, but rather fitted in as a bolster to Russia’s own ‘system of sound relationships’, i.e., the ubiquitous mannerisms in folk music [“flowery monophony and a kind of homophony" (Orlova 1984) ], its singing quality [pesennost, “songful, sang, fluid, lasting” ], and instinctual melodicism [melos, “sounding tension of action with external expression” ].

Returning to the polemical term of ‘bourgeois’, instead of fully catering to the changing tides of Soviet ideologism, he reinterpreted terminology to represent exactly what he wanted them to embody, an example being found in PFSS* (1923) where he defines ‘petty bourgeois’ as a mode of perception rather than intrusive ideology, “with a uniform view...they differentiate one composer from another from an undetermined perspective, because they are not able to cultivate the nature of their musical perspective to be...through a method of hearing [...]”. Through this focus, the argument then boils down to level of cultivated taste, and Taranda (2014) supplies a cogent response to the contemporary dilemma of observational ignorance and anti-intellectualism, “But when it comes to art or science [the counter being appearances], then the acquisition of good taste is the result of hard work on yourself, constant development, together with maintaining skills at the right level [...]”, and reworded, proper discrimination takes real effort, it is not bestowed at birth. How does this then feed into Musicological practice and Institutional methodologies? Asafiev had understood the parallel as, in 1925 when appointed to the former St. Petersburg Conservatory as Professor [then Musicology faculty head], he had quickly ‘democratized’ the classroom and created living ‘workshops’, not passive lectures, which taught the students how to coherently respond to music, in essence ‘how they should think’ not what they should think. If this were to be implemented in America, a methodology following the Dalton Plan’s student-first approach, imagine what impact it would have on the future of critical-thinking.


Specifically for the Musicological field, Asafiev had stated, “The task of a researcher is to examine the interrelation...of form and content in music leads in this way to an analysis of the complicated series of relationships”, the tenants in question being 1) acoustics and auditory sensations [ sound and its effects], 2) musical material and composer(1) [the music as shaped by the composer’s interaction with his environment from both formal and ideological perspectives], 3) composer(2) and work of art(1) [personal perspective with formed taste (вкус) and sound-image based relational observation], and 4) work of art(2) and the listener [the sounding work is received by the environment and those who live within]. Restated for clarity, this sequence starts from identifying the literal manifestation of the soul into the temporal-spatial domain and the attempted reading of its enigmatic characteristics, shifting to the composer and his musical development as conditioned by his epoch, moving to the study of the invocation of realized-self through the ‘art of sounding’, concluding with the work and its ‘heard’ socio-cultural impact. This progression towards the understanding of ‘any closed complex of sounding’ [music] as a organic process starting in the ‘realm of spirituality’, whose literal body [form] is created via an ‘all-embracing process’ of life in its plurality through ‘embodied sound-flows’ not only inhibits the [Western?] Scholar’s proclivity towards stringent laconicism which lacks full-awareness necessary to be with music not around music, but invites further discussion into how Musicologists are indeed going about ‘knowing’ music. As stated P. Bekker (1917) via Hailey (1994), "We must once again learn how to listen to music," concluding with, "and wean ourselves of 'understanding' music, that unfortunate legacy of an anti-musical age,” however the last line is central, “not understanding music but listening to music”, this is to say that to be present to sounding is not enough, you have to be engaged with the ‘musical energetics’ which are flowing quite literally through you, around you, and encased in contextual events unseen but dually felt and fully utilized in the cultivation of the sonic event.

Recounting a personal experience of ineffective hearing to conclude, a couple months prior I attempted to ‘hear’ Shostakovich’s The Nose [Нос] (1928), and in utter displeasure I sat through 1 hour and 40 minutes of music which incorporated absolutely no hummable or even remotely recognizable melodic phrases, despite the performance, Moscow Chamber Opera’s 1979 production, being expertly staged and perfectly sung. Only after completing the opera did I become privy to the cultural impact the opera had in Soviet Russia, and especially Asafiev’s comments, “...will be difficult for the opera buff accustomed to Italian opera, but understandable to the worker.” Praised for the ideal mixture of ‘Proletarian symphonism’ and ‘bytovia opera [every day opera]’, it had captured ‘in the art of sounding’ the real going-on’s of life and of the Proletariat masses who, if nothing else was revealed to them through Shostakovich’s music, could see themselves, better yet hear themselves on stage. Shostakovich had wanted to ‘musicalize the spoken word’, and indeed he accomplished the momentous task. Likewise, as easy as it would be for the modern operatic listener to say ‘I don’t like it because there isn’t any melodic phrases’ [myself shamefully included], the task then would be to return to the music and ‘hear’ the score as it once was societally received, the thought-experiment being to envision yourself a struggling worker who is being ‘trained’ how to hear [while fighting off starvation], and instead of situationally disparate characters gallivanting on a stage, you instead witness real-life right in front of you. Imagine the impact that would have on you. This type of socio-anthropological visualization is needed to REALLY listen, to REALLY hear.


*MFAP: Musical Form as Process (1930)

*PFSS: Process of Formation of Sounding Substances (1923)

Sources [If not hyperlinked]


1. Viljanen, E., 2016. The Problem Of The Modern And Tradition. Hermos Oy, Finland: Acta Semiotica Fennica.

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