Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation by Roger Scruton - review by Alexander Waugh

Alexander Waugh

Richer Sounds

Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation

By

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‘Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, psychological mood, etc … If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality.’ These famous lines from Stravinsky’s An Autobiography (1936) caused a great fuss when they were first published. Only a few critics seemed to understand that Stravinsky was not attacking music for its shortcomings but challenging the boundaries of what can or cannot be said about it. A quarter of a century later, while standing by his original point, he sheepishly changed the wording to ‘music expresses itself’. 

At the heart of Stravinsky’s argument lies the same point that Wittgenstein had made in the last line of his Tractatus fifteen years earlier: ‘That which we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’ I suppose it is pretty philistine of me to suggest that we

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