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Can One Speak of Narrativity in Music?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Jean-Jacques Nattiez*
University of Montreal


The question of musical narrativity, while by no means new, is making a comeback as the order of the day in the field of musicological thought. In May 1988 a conference on the theme ‘Music and the Verbal Arts: Interactions’ was held at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. A fortnight later, a group of musicologists and literary theorists was invited to the Universities of Berkeley and Stanford to assess, in the course of four intense round-table discussions, whether it is legitimate to recognize a narrative dimension in music. In November of the same year, the annual conference of the American Musicological Society in Baltimore presented a session entitled ‘Text and Narrative’, chaired by Carolyn Abbate, and, at the instigation of Joseph Kerman, a session devoted to Edward T. Cone's The Composer's Voice. A number of articles deal with the subject in our specialized periodicals: I am thinking in particular of the studies published in 19th-Century Music by Anthony Newcomb – ‘Once More “Between Absolute and Programme Music”: Schumann's Second Symphony’ and ‘Schumann and Late Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies’ – or, on the French-speaking side of musicology, of Marta Grabocz's article ‘La sonate en si mineur de Liszt: une stratégie narrative complexe’ and the essays of the Finnish semiologist Eero Tarasti. No doubt a good many articles will emerge from the above conferences. And we are awaiting the appearance of Carolyn Abbate's book Unsung Voices: Narrative in Nineteenth-Century Music.

Copyright © 1990 Royal Musical Association

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1 I am particularly grateful to Karol Berger and Anthony Newcomb for inviting me to this symposium. Without the list of papers provided for this occasion, and exchanges with the other participants, I would not have been in a position to prepare the present article, of which the first version was the subject of the Keynote Address at the Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association on 7 April 1989 in London. I sent this text personally to Newcomb to obtain some feedback regarding my criticisms of his approach, and I am grateful to him for the kindly and constructive reception which he gave them. My gratitude should also go to Carolyn Abbate, François Delalande and Jean Molino for their pertinent advice The present version takes account of their observationsGoogle Scholar

2 Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1974Google Scholar

3 19th-Century Music, 7 (1984), 233–50Google Scholar

4 Ibid., 11 (1987), 164–74. See also ‘Stratégies narratives et perception de la musique du début du dix-neuvième siècle’, Contrechamps, 10 (1989), 12–24Google Scholar

5 Analyse musicale, 8 (1987), 6470Google Scholar

6 Pour une narratologie de Chopin’, International Review of Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 15 (1984), 5375; ‘Une analyse sémiotique la mise en évidence d'un parcours narratif’, Analyse musicale, 16 (1989), 67–74.Google Scholar

7 Princeton University Press, forthcomingGoogle Scholar

8 Claude Lévi-Strauss, L'homme nu (Paris, 1971), trans. John and Doreen Weightman as The Naked Man (London, 1981), 659–60.Google Scholar

9 Ibid., 666 (my italics)Google Scholar

10 See ‘Situation de la sémiologie musicale’, Musique en jeu, 5 (November 1971), 317, ‘Trois modèles linguistiques pour l'analyse musicale’, ibid., 10 (March 1973), 3–11, and Fondements d'une sémiologie de la musique (Paris, 1975), part II.Google Scholar

11 Ithaca, 1978.Google Scholar

12 Story and Discourse, 113. I do not altogether agree with Chatman's statement because I am not sure that the ‘event’ and the ‘existent’ constitute the minimum ingredients for a narrative He writes: ‘There cannot be events without existents. And though it is true that a text can have existents without events (a portrait, a descriptive essay), no one would think of calling it a narrative’ (p. 113) I am not so sure, for in the description of a person or a landscape there is someone who speaks – the writer – and, among the infinity of things which can be said about this person or landscape, he has made a selection For us, he reconstructs a world and indeed relates to us his own experience of itGoogle Scholar

13 Ibid., 34Google Scholar

14 Ibid., 45Google Scholar

15 Paris, 1983, trans Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer as Time and Narrative, 1 (Chicago, 1984)Google Scholar

16 Ricoeur, Paul, ‘The Model of the Text Meaningful Action Considered as a Text’, Social Research, 38 (1971), 529–62, original French text published in Du texte à l'action, Essais d'herméneutique, 2 (Paris, 1986), 183–211Google Scholar

17 Time and Narrative, i, 74Google Scholar

18 Ibid (my italics)Google Scholar

19 Ibid (my italics)Google Scholar

20 Ibid., 114 (my italics).Google Scholar

21 Qu'est-ce qu'un récit?’, unpublished paper presented to the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Montreal, on 6 March 1975.Google Scholar

22 Robert Francès, La perception de la musique (Paris, 1958), Michel Imberty, Entendre la musique (Paris, 1979) and Les ećritures du temps (Paris, 1981)Google Scholar

23 Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Musicologie générale et sémiologie (Paris, 1987), 155–64 An English translation (Princeton University Press) is forthcomingGoogle Scholar

24 For example, Chatman, Story and Discourse, 9Google Scholar

25 I shall leave aside the question of why the adaptation of a known novel for a film never truly restores all that we have read. I recognize the story, but it is not really the same narrative 26 Unsung Voices, chap. 1Google Scholar

27 Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, ‘Mahler Eine musikalische Physiognomik’, Gesammelte Schriften, xiii, ed Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedmann (Frankfurt, 1971), 149319 (p. 225)Google Scholar

28 Ibid., 209Google Scholar

29 Ibid., 218Google Scholar

30 The Composer's Voice, 164Google Scholar

31 Ibid., 94Google Scholar

32 Ibid., 161Google Scholar

33 Comment on écrit l'histoire (Paris, 1971)Google Scholar

34 White, Hayden, ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality’, On Narrative, ed W J Thomas Mitchell (Chicago, 1981), 123 (p 2)Google Scholar

35 ‘Qu'est-ce qu'un récit?‘Google Scholar

37 Jean-Jacques Nattiez, ‘Y a-t-il une diégèse musicale?’, Musik und Verstehen, ed Peter Faltin and Hans-Peter Reinecke (Cologne, 1973), 247–57Google Scholar

38 Once More “Between Absolute and Programme Music”’, 234.Google Scholar

39 Schumann and Late Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies’, 165Google Scholar

40 Abbate, Unsung Voices; White, ‘The Value of Narrativity’, 911Google Scholar

41 See also his ‘Stratégies narratives et perception de la musique’, 13–15 In a personal communication, Newcomb has indicated to me that he now considers the reference to Propp as erroneous, but, in so far as his conception of musical narrativity still rests on the notion of ‘plot archetype’, we must wait for the further development of his research in order to ascertain exactly what epistemological status he accords to these two notionsGoogle Scholar

42 Paris, 1970.Google Scholar

43 ‘“To Worship that Celestial Sound” Motives for Analysis’, Journal of Musicology, 1 (1982), 153–70, repr in Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), chap 2.Google Scholar

44 Jean Molino and Joelle Tamine, Introduction à l'analyse de la poésie, i (Paris, 1987)Google Scholar

45 Les dix intonations de base du français’, French Review, 40 (1966), 114; ‘La nuance de sens par l'intonation’, ibid., 41 (1967), 326–39, ‘L'intonation par les oppositions’, Le français moderne (December 1969), 6–13Google Scholar

46 The Composer's Voice, 88Google Scholar

47 Ibid., 113.Google Scholar

48 Unsung Voices.Google Scholar

49 Nettl, Bruno, ‘Relaciones entre la lengua y la musica en el folklore’, Folklore Americas, 16 (1956), 111 (p 2)Google Scholar

50 Robert H. Hall, ‘Elgar and the Intonation of British English’, The Gramophone, 31 (1953), 67; Callaghan, Jean, ‘Did Elgar Speak English? Language and National Music Style. Comparative Semiotic Analysis’, unpublished paper presented to the Annual Conference of the Australian Musicological Society, Melbourne, September 1975Google Scholar

51 Elgar and the Intonation of British English’, 6.Google Scholar

52 The Naked Man, 652–3.Google Scholar

53 Ibid., 647Google Scholar

54 Georgiades, Thrasybulos, Musik und Sprache (Heidelberg, 1954)Google Scholar

55 Norton, Richard, Tonality in Western Culture (University Park, PA, 1984).Google Scholar

56 Ibid., 6571Google Scholar

57 Ibid., 202–5Google Scholar

58 Unsung Voices.Google Scholar

59 Once More “Between Absolute and Programme Music”’, 240Google Scholar

60 Stratégies narratives et perception de la musique’, 18Google Scholar

62 Ibid., 20.Google Scholar

63 Boetticher, Wolfgang, Robert Schumann Einfuhrung in Personlichkeit und Werk (Berlin, 1941), 611–13.Google Scholar

64 Carnaval de Schumann (Paris, 1971)Google Scholar

65 Quoted ibid., 31Google Scholar

66 Quoted in Edward A Lippman, ‘Theory and Practice in Schumann's Aesthetics’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 17 (1964), 310–45 (p 318)Google Scholar

67 Ibid., 319Google Scholar

68 Ibid., 323Google Scholar

69 Ibid., 342Google Scholar

70 Le paradoxe du musicien (Paris, 1983), 280Google Scholar

71 Le paradoxe du sociologue (esthétique et perception dans les travaux de P M Menger)’, Contrechamps, 10 (1989), 140–67Google Scholar

72 See, for a specific study of Répons from this standpoint, Nattiez, ‘“Répons” et la crise de la “communication” musicale contemporaine’, Inharmoniques, 2 (1987), 193210Google Scholar