Who’s ‘I’ in Music?

The Arioso dolente from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 110 (which I discussed earlier) is an example of instrumental music that imitates a vocal genre. It is the pianist’s task to conjure an imaginary vocal-dramatic, but wordless monologue, the expression of the thoughts and feelings of some nameless and otherwise unidentified human being.

Presumably these thoughts and feelings are of a highly subjective and intimate nature: we may conclude this from such factors as the soft dynamics and high level of nuance. The well-formed sentences in which sorrow is here expressed suggest a deliberate pondering of what is expressed, by a subject capable of self-reflection, an ‘I’.

Who is this ‘I’?

We may approach the problem by drawing an analogy with literature. A literary (fictional, poetic) work has an author, but it is not the author who asserts that he is to be called Ishmael, that a well-to-do bachelor needs a wife, that the clocks were striking thirteen, or that all which isn’t singing is mere talking. The authors have put those lines into the mouth of an imaginary speaker, who may be a narrator with or without a name, with or without a part in the action, or merely a nameless and rather abstract ‘voice’. Particularly for speakers of the last type the term ‘persona’ has been used, meaning ‘mask’, an empty mask, that simply stands for whoever-is-speaking.

If a persona is found in music, it will nearly always be such an abstract entity. The answer to the question who’s speaking? is therefore less interesting than the fact that the question makes sense. For some critics that is too little to make the ‘musical persona’ a viable concept. But in fact it is already a lot. The feeling we may have that ‘someone is speaking’ is highly significant. It means that we acknowledge a human presence, have a reason to be attentive, and have certain expectations, even without any thought of the speaker’s identity. We will approach the music with different expectations than when it is a kind of autonomous, abstract process (which it may also be). In particular, it allows us to look for psychological complexity, a locus where seemingly disconnected ideas and feelings may occur and cohere.

Such considerations, I think, are hugely interesting as an exploration of the borders of what music can be and can do, and therefore, of the structure of human cognition.

But in the midst of a global ecological, ideological, and social catastrophe, maybe all this has become futile.

This is a modified excerpt from my Who’s ‘I’ in Music?: Unmasking the Musical Persona