Measured Malice

Music can be obnoxious. Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (whose life took large shares of two centuries: 1657-1757) is mostly remembered, by music historians at least, for fending off obtrusive sonatas: his Sonate que me veux-tu reaps 39,700 Google hits. He was right in assuming that sonatas ‘wanted’ something. In his age music was supposed to be communicative.

Fontenelle’s unanswered question (transmitted at second hand) also seems to imply that instrumental music (“sonata”) differs in some crucial respect from vocal music. Most 18th century authorities however agree that instrumental music derives much of its expressive power from the prosody of speech. Instrumental music too has ‘sentences’. We may sing a tune, hum it, whistle it, or play it on an instrument – this makes little difference to its nature qua music.

Maybe those 18th century critics who considered instrumental music mere agreeable or disagreeable noise were unwilling or unable to recognize a tune when it was whistled. Some of them may even have been tone-deaf.

The writer Charles Lamb suffered from this handicap. Music struck him as “measured malice” (1560 hits). Living around the next turn-of-the-century (1775-1834), he made his career during the romantic age, which as he put it, was “constituted to the quick and critical perception of all harmonious combinations […] beyond all preceding ages, since Jubal stumbled upon the gamut”. He therefore made his inability to sit through a concert of “empty instrumental music” a matter of humorous confession, rather than aesthetic criticism.

One doesn’t have to be tone-deaf to experience certain kinds of music as malice. I imagine that the Eroica finale would have sounded to Lamb as house music sounds to me.

Musicality is a very complex phenomenon. Lamb still recognized his toneless torture as measured (which made it all the more malicious). And emotionally he did respond to simple songs. Which suggests that he was susceptible to their prosodic and poetic qualities.

(Lamb: A Chapter on Ears, in Essays of Elia, 1823).