The Song above Catastrophe: Kenneth Burke on Music

Jeffrey Carroll, University of Hawaii at Manoa


ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11TH, 2001, a giant of modern music heard the towers fall only seven blocks away from his apartment. On September 12, 2001 he took to the stairs of his apartment. He walked down thirty-nine stories to get to the front door of his building; he had spent the night of the 11th without electricity, alone. He was 71 years old. When he evacuated the building on the 12th he carried a briefcase, a bag of clothes, and one more thing in his arms: his tenor saxophone.

Four days later Sonny Rollins played a gig in Boston.

Nearly seventy-five years earlier, Kenneth Burke—the subject of this small book—began his brief career as a music critic by writing monthly columns for The Dial, by many accounts the foremost literary magazine of its time; his first words, as published, are “Decidedly, it is with misgivings”: an indication, perhaps, that this new role was unsuited to him. But almost a year later, in late 1928, he describes his hopes, with perhaps a side of irony, for the role of music in all our lives:

Music, we had decided, would be the song above catastrophe—something like the court of a great Lewis before the patter of rain has become the trampling of many feet. How long could it last? No answer! Perhaps it would grow firmer, and spread even to those dark and fetid regions. The vast enterprise of music. That art which has charms to make the soothed breast savage, and which tends as naturally towards the grandiloquent as literature tends toward laundry lists. (“Musical Chronicle” [9] 529)

Burke continues with a defense of art that might apply not only to Sonny Rollins heading for Boston but for all those who, Burke tells us, “are nameless in their effects”; they are nameless, of course, because art is such an integral part of our lives that we tend not to “authorize” art unless, as Burke asserts, it emanates from the true “metaphysicians” among us. Burke then delivers a heady assertion that defies easy refutation, despite there being something peculiarly radical about it: “A complex social organization is maintained by a state of mind, and that state of mind is constructed out of art” (“Musical Chronicle” [9] 529).

A glimpse, perhaps, into that day in the life of Sonny Rollins, and into all of our days.

Introduction: Scales and Chords

This book concerns itself with texts on music in the work of Kenneth Burke––buried, with few exceptions, among other texts many times analyzed, many times multiplied and asserted, revised and created––with the aim of finding their concordance, their sense together, even though the verbal texts outweigh the tonal to such a degree that Kenneth Burke’s writing on music has been largely ignored. Such are the consequences of the masterpieces being largely absent of music save for occasional illustrative incidents. This book will concern itself primarily with Burke’s two stints as music critic for The Dial from 1928 to 1929 and The Nation from 1933 to 1936. Burke’s novel, Towards a Better Life (1931) and short stories, from The Collected White Oxen (1968) will also yield, among greater non-music content in these texts, some of Burke’s thinking about music; his grasp of the subject is broad, his interest a subject of this small book.

Our connections to music seem infinite, and of these several will be explored in this book. As for another connection, between me and Kenneth Burke, there is the very common one: I have read Burke, thought about Burke, talked about Burke, written about Burke.  I was introduced to him, or rather his work, in 1985 by Anne Ruggles Gere, who assigned her class the “Lexicon Rhetoricae” from Counter-Statement. At the time, I was balancing literature and creative writing upon the scales of my doctoral studies. I can’t claim that Burke made the world over again, but the text was so lusciously dense, so literarily off-hand while at the same time almost frighteningly assertive—that I knew the day had come to change. He blew everyone off the stage that quarter.

And, to think, he was still alive. He had the original power of an Aristotle, I thought; my bit of a swoon for the big text, the systematic and anti-systematic, the hints of the big picture, the dissolution of having to try to be that ambitious: the cool of the offhand of genius. One doesn’t need to belong to any kind of cult of personality, or hero, to appreciate living in the moment of something important, somebody important. Aristotle was not here, nor was Quintilian, but Burke was. Of books and conversation—the kinds of ideas that could help sustain my commitment to the field of teaching and writing about rhetoric.

Narrowed very quickly to music, the work of Kenneth Burke would appear to be only glancingly relevant, an obscure handful of footnotes or a quick chapter in something larger, more tuned to those matters that have always come up in discussions about Burke’s work. If we look at three fine, representative full-length works on Burke, we find how little attention has been given his writing on music, or writing with music: William Rueckert asserts on his first page of Kenneth Burke and the Drama of Human Relations that “I have not discussed Burke as a music critic or the possible effect of this activity on his literary theory and critical practice”(3); Ross Wolin in The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke digs deeply into Burke’s years in New York, and especially his early tenure at The Dial, but does not discuss any of Burke’s music criticism, which appeared late in Burke’s time there; Jack Selzer’s  Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village, a vivid account of the critic’s formative years in New York, only reports that the critical pieces were “surveys of serious modern musical performances”(135); only in Robert Wess’s Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric, Subjectivity, Postmodernism is there a key point made about Burke’s early interest in music criticism. Wess argues, although very briefly, that “music is the ideal artistic medium, the one in which the elements making for permanence display themselves most readily” (45); Wess argues, however, from Counter-Statement, and does not go to Burke’s music criticism, as we might expect (or wish) him to do.

The slight attention is, realistically, about right, if one looks at the attention given so far to the whole corpus of Burke’s career; in short, the masterpieces abound (there are surely more than one), and prevent hardly more than a glance at the apparent margins—or the occasional use of music and musicality within those masterpieces. But there is a more obvious reason, intellectually oriented, that prevents there being much said about music in Burke’s criticism: there is no unitary relation between it and the rest. If one were to be found, then readers would still be confronted with a massively incongruous pair: a gathering of footnotes and a many-storied work of philosophy, sociology, rhetoric, and literary theory.  In formal terms, they can’t illuminate each other, except by perhaps a tiny glare of footlights cast upon the giant edifice or, conversely, a light so blindingly cast down that the smaller object disappears in the solar field.

Given, too, the hundreds of works on Burke over the years, it cannot be accidental, or only unfortunate, that there is no sustained analysis of the subject-matter of music in Burke; anecdotes seem to abound more freely about his private life as a  musician than the meaning of music in his publications. This is somewhat odd—that his personality, or life’s narrative, appears of more interest—but perhaps not when viewed over the long span of his career.  In this view we even see what appears to be an almost perfect drying up of music—or better, “on-music”: a steady diminuendo over the decades, so that what begins as a young man’s ardent love of the form is pushed aside by the rigorous demands of a new calling, more grand, yet, in this case, more exclusive in a career that still seems spectacularly inclusive.

The same case can be made for Burke’s art of fiction-writing—short or long—and poetry too. What seems to be a multi-directional intelligence, with a wide array of persuasive channels at his call, is eventually honed, but I will argue in this book that there is more than a kind of unconscious career-choice at work here. Or even a choice of preferred forms, or discourses, at work. I don’t intend to go to the life for answers, as I suggest above; I hope to stay in public histories for the most part and, by far as predominant, Burke’s own published work.  It is there that music and musicality and “on-music” reside (or play) in quite plentiful amounts and occurrences, and it is there that I hope to argue convincingly for the importance of Burke in, and on, music.

I want to show that Burke was formally more than competent at the time (that is, from about 1920 to 1936) working in several distinct forms; I also want to respond to contemporary expectations of our century, where there are still rooms of distinct design, formal situations that demand rules, expectations, and effects. Thus, the chronology of this book, though moving generally forward, is clustered by formal restraints early on—and by Burke’s early submersion in the Modernist aesthetic of New York that tended to look for analogical situations across a broad range of aesthetic experiences.

Working also against the setting up of a kind of narrative of encounters is Burke’s love of the addendum, the postscript, the revision, the foreword, the second foreword, the third foreword, the fourth foreword, the retrospect—all of those add-ons that Rueckert cannot resist calling “Burke’s disease” finally, and which of course speak to the author’s enduring engagement with his subject-matter, and also his ruthless self-examination and self-commentary. Thus, the short stories of the 1920s are supplemented by one in 1952; the novel, published in 1931, is partially explicated by detailed chapter headings 25 years later, and the canonical books of theory and criticism are repeatedly “revised” by these strategies of form by which Burke can do as little as adjust the meaning of a word, or respond to a critic. More importantly, as in his “Criticum Curriculum” to the last edition of Counter-Statement, he provides an overview of the whole career (to that point). Burke looked for the both/and, wholeness, for the sense of that greater sense of the parts brought together. Given the productiveness of his career, this was a new book in itself, a new work on the “curriculum” that, of course, points to the easy perception of a career fraught with sensitivity to particular times and places.

The books, chapters, essays, articles, stories, and commentaries, then, tend to swirl in somewhat of a dance among or with one another. Linearity is a fiction, resisted.

But the presence of music in that process, or arc, can be seen as erratically explicit and implicit—as even Burke works at it early on, as “music” and “musicality”––a continuum of varying volume, I hope to show, of the fictional character “getting up from her Grieg” to the unvoiced and voiced plosives and fricatives of a speech in Shakespeare to the informationlessness of music to the power of repetition as rhythm. I think that it is through music that Burke was arguing for the dignity of mankind as somehow formulated, yearned for, and grasped through the power of music. The “dignity of mankind” is my phrase, but it is one that I have adjusted or revised from Burke’s variations on the ground of motives in his work: equipment for living, “towards a better life,” “the song above catastrophe”: these are formulations of a basic motive underlying the act of communication, itself symbolized in the steady movement of Burke’s explorations of the human condition through language and the critical uses of language. His own, that is: beginning with stories and reviews and critical pieces, interspersed with the more canonical pieces collected in Counter-Statement and then of course beyond to the creative critical peak of A Rhetoric of Motives. Taken as a multi-act drama the career of Burke, not so much as a biographical fact but an unstoppable excrescence of writing and speech, is the symbolic act of moving towards (or aiming for, reaching, grasping) a better life.

What this seems to have meant for him was, in part as he looks in retrospect, what he eventually recognizes as a version of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. There are surface similarities in the work: an early interest in music, then diminution, a predilection for aphoristic texts, for creative forms and malforms, for multi-generic grasps of ideas and realities. These similarities in themselves are not interesting to this study except to suggest that Nietzsche, acknowledged early and late in Burke’s life as having had the right idea about “big” things, suggests that Burke was, at heart, as radical thinker as Nietzsche while living in the tempering environment of New York. Exciting and experimental as the work being done there, it was thoroughly grounded in a heavily-networked elite of artists and politicians, artist-politicians, and business people, who were firm believers in their ability to change social conditions. Burke searched for that instrument, finding it in rhetoric; Nietzsche carried out no such sustained rational search, instead finding in the dance of his own genius the answers and counter-answers to the human condition. The better life is recognizably Western, recognizably American, in fact, a politically liberal but hardly radicalized view of how society was systematically understood and run through hierarchy, power relations differentiated (in his time) most obviously by class.

How does one associate this approach to “better living”that is, an approach through being able to negotiate the “barnyard” of modern life through knowing how to communicate more effectively––to music? Isn’t music meaningless––or, when programmed to history, a hopelessly reduced representation, blame or tribute? Its absoluteness, its purity as sheer “tone” or “shaking air” would seem the antithesis to rhetoric, with rhetoric’s intentional, narrowed meanings its situatedness, its specified audiences, its timeliness.  A contemporary understanding of rhetoric as the interestedness of language––coming into focus during Burke’s time, and in part because of Burke himself––does not account for the effective, intentional presence of music in Burke’s work, especially the early texts.

Yet, the idea of the nobility, of the dignity of man persists through Kenneth Burke’s entire oeuvre. It is old-fashioned, yet Burke seems to have continued to search for it with the endless resourcefulness of his mind and thought so that it returns, even as the overall force of the later arguments would look at these old ideals as quaint, inadequate, or reductive. The very length of his career, spanning nearly the entire 20th century, mediates against our reaching simple conclusions about it, and does suggest that there will be inner contradictions produced over time. Indeed, Burke recognized these tensions, if not contradictions, in his endless self-commentaries, his self-revisions I mentioned above. It wasn’t just the need to get things precisely right, it was the need to get them precisely right twice, even three times—as their audience changed, as space and circumstance shifted beneath them.

I will argue in this book that Burke was looking for ways to ensure the dignity of each of us—as only he could, but in such a way as to show us that each of us can so argue for ourselves and others. Besides dignity, many other words continue to appear in Burke over the decades, veritable clusters like those that his own dramatistic method underscored for discovery (and which was brilliantly foreshadowed in the music criticism): piety, nobility, humility, perfection. The meanings of these words do shift, as we know, yet they indicate what Burke’s contemporary, William Faulkner, called “the old virtues”: those ideals he was trying to rediscover, to enact and to enable, to recuperate and place in fruitful tension with changed circumstances, the changed field of the human condition.

So too, Burke: in all phases of his career interested in the ways we understand “human relations” to take form—and how communication energizes, or makes possible an aural reality, those forms in everyday display and deployment that are at once in tension with human conditions like unity and division, and which must trend, Burke believed, in an increasingly serious confrontation with fascist or life-destroying forces. Thus, I choose dignity from the first page of his novel Towards a Better Life as a watch-word for the glimmering project of music in Burke’s critical theories. Why, then, does music seem to grow, then wither, in Burke? Is it only a footnote to the larger project, which I have dared to whittle down to a single term after denying that we should try it? A movement that failed? An aesthetic conceit of the author? Or a sub-text like a river running underground?

Chapter One: Theme, or “Inventory”

By the time Kenneth Burke began his music criticism for The Dial late in 1927 he had already done seven years’ worth of varied work for the journal. Besides editing, Burke had published in several distinct genres: he had done translations of, among others, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, and Arthur Schnitzler; he had reviewed books by, among others, Virginia Woolf, Oswald Spengler, and Gertrude Stein; he had published a story, “The Soul of Kajn Tafha,” and would publish a set of poems, “From Outside,” during his tenure as music critic. The clear signs are of a voracious reader, a thinker, a responder, and a creative artist who, in quick rotation, or as a many-headed beast, was open to the world of art as it was being channeled into the offices of The Dial in Greenwich Village in the 1920s. The purview was not solely The Dial’s either, of course; Burke had already published his collection of short stories in 1924, and was appearing in journals like Bookman and The Little Review.

It is a wonder, in fact, that it took Burke seven years to turn to music as a subject for published criticism; Selzer tells us, however, that Burke was “a full participant, a central participant in the written and oral and artistic exchanges that comprised the modernist dialogue”(60),  a dialogue by which American culture was examined not only in its foregrounded expressions, but those of the less obvious, those that were not primarily reproduced (and brought home as signature of the newly bourgeois 1920s wage-earner, no matter how progressive her politics): those that required a night out, or a day out at the museum (although here it is that the last lacuna of this critic—painting and sculpture—remains). Music, dance, theatre: the art of the gathered audience, the ceremonies of civilized thought and feeling, those that were only now edging fatefully into the arts of reproduction. (Burke will later review recorded music.)

Into this realm of the performance Burke enters in the pages of The Dial in 1928, “decidedly,” with:

misgivings. And one’s resolve to learn docent is an inadequate apology to others. Nevertheless, Mr Rosenfeld having called for a sabbatical year and Mr Gilman having at the last found it impossible to take his place, we enter by a non-sequitur, thought never for a moment forgetting our office as makeshift. (“Musical Chronicle” [1] 536)

The voice is familiarly energetic and somewhat distanced, formal in its defensiveness. This is the regular Burke of The Dial, the familiar performer, stepping into a new ring by making that step seem somehow unexplainable, a “non-sequitur” of events, and clearly temporary. The move, our taking the first words of Burke as a fair signpost, is fairly essential Burke: the voice that takes up a new position, declares itself in fact a familiar voice, then proceeds to offer, in spite of this, confident guidance.

Burke then drops the apologetic tone (and here forward I offer fairly copious quotations from the first chronicle, since it is not readily accessible, and has not been reprinted in full) and jumps into the business of taking on the phenomenon, the challenge of understanding music:

But to the Inventory. Music as a substitute for religion, a secular mysticism, belief without theology . . . . Music as orgy––or music as a mechanism. . . .  Music elements do conflict and later submit. Minor disputes become reconciled in larger entities. Themes, first introduced tentatively, may grow powerful and assertive as the whelp ripens to lionhood. Their character, from phase to phase, may be transformed . . . .In the weldings and modifications, there is even the record of revision—and thus the result is all the more like a process of creation. (536)

Besides the sensitivity to process, or a narrative of converging positions, or “weldings,” a suggested dialectic, is the stepping-off point for these early observations as his first line of “inventory”: “The greatest of composers, it seems, have been given to describing the mentality or inspiration of their works, and have not hesitated to use for this purpose the vocabulary of heroism” (536). We can be sure that Burke will consider the texts, even the performances, of music as driven by, or starting from, the composer. The modernist impulse, as complex as it will become in Burke’s view, is here in the first chronicle posed as singular and derived from the work of a unitary consciousness.  Indeed: “This we should take into account. Yet to an extent they may have been handling a technical phenomenon in a lyrical nomenclature” (536).

“Music as orgy.”  Perhaps, since he moves from the “mystical” sense of this phenomenon, its “heroic” or lyrical indescribability, to the other path: “to analyse a work technically. Note how the theme of the first movement reappears with a difference in the third!” Burke continues, making explicit one of the difficulties of writing about music as “talking about the emotion-machine with the vocabulary of suffering and salvation reduced to a minimum.”  Burke apologizes for this approach, this “anti-orgy” that will certainly not work for him: “Analyzing a work technically, one would (a) become quickly aware of one’s own lacunae in musical knowledge, and (b) attempt a task in which ignominy would be in direct proportion to efficiency.”  The foreshadowing of his warnings about scientistic discourse might be discoverable here, but, more importantly, it shows Burke’s predilection for the synthetic. Having set up these “only two possible alternatives” for the critic, he jokes that “with both of them eliminated, the wise critic will choose what is left.”

Which is . . . ? Perhaps not being a critic at all?  Sort of because, “one must turn to the music itself for the sterling experiencing of those moments wherein the medium of tones is most skillfully and magnanimously exemplified” (536). In short, there is no substitute. This can be read, too, as suggesting that “art for art’s sake” is an indirect way of suggesting the same thing: the aesthetic experience is in itself unduplicatable, in fact unsayable, and the burden of the “docent” is to guide. Nonetheless, Burke does not give in to this sort of ecstatic despair of the young critic, and adds, “We categorically refuse to be depressed at least in this, our failure to regive in another medium the equivalent of these wholly musical events.”

Burke has anticipated a commonplace thought, at least by Thelonious Monk’s time, who has had famously attributed to him the remark that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”; it is the less interesting of two responses Burke makes as critic. The second one—“failure to regive”­­­—can be seized upon as an admission of the parasitic role that criticism was, and is, assigned in relation to the art “itself.” But Burke anticipates this takeaway too and argues that instead of taking the third way as “silence” or “despair” one sees the way between the orgy and the anti-orgy as a synthetic middle way of a “second reading,” a “study”, a “pedantry” that follows “the pot aboiling”: “to expect of an audience a sustained emotional tension is to ask for nothing short of pathology” (537).

Burke sets out to produce a pedantic role for the critic, one that will create a meditative or reflective state in the listener: criticism becomes a part of “the class of the useful” by extending and transforming the aesthetic experience, from one primarily unreflective, emotional, filled with tension, into one of recollection and consideration.  Burke in this section employs an amusing anecdote:

I know an individual who, the first time he heard the Sacre, wept, choked, and suffered acute convulsions of the chest muscles at each irruption of the rhythm. On second hearing he was an old man, and sat motionless, stonily suffering the concert like an Indian scanning the horizon. He voted that it had failed—but perhaps it was this second man for whom Strawinsky was writing. (537)

Burke has moved the position of the critic into the encounter itself, so that it occurs after a first hearing, but during the second hearing. As Burke moves on, one is left with the impression that he has settled his identity comfortably within the circle of the artist and listener. There is no distance in time: tone and reading are simultaneous if not initially intertwined.

He moves into his second and third points of this highly engaged “Inventory” of his musical views. The first of these two: He disposes of the popular sense of there being a “classical-modern dichotomy” in short order. As a common issue of the 1920s in the arts or, more generally posed as a modern-traditional divide, Burke doesn’t so much deny the dichotomy as reduce it, a logical chronology of change, of understandable evolution over time that is only understandable in terms of its “pastness,” its having in its vocabulary the meanings of yesterday now penetrated by the percussion, the shock of the new word: “The values of a neologism depend upon the values of a language to which it is added”(538); the linguistical illustration is unavoidable, the tonal/verbal dichotomy perhaps one that Burke will never transcend or solve in this period of his criticism.

He extends the analogy: “Music is a vocabulary, and all vocabulary is subject to disruption into dialect. It is not the result of an aesthetic property, but purely through error in codification, that music has been thought of as “universal.’”  He explains that the lack of instructions in music (as heard, and which he will exploit a little later in The Philosophy of Literary Form) make the experience of music “irrefutable” and thus seemingly “universal” in its appeal. Taking the example of the idiomatic or dialectal within language, Burke sees music as a less audience-driven medium than verbal language:

The average musician seems to be much more of a Mallarmé than the average literator. But to an extent this dual purpose has always figured in art, the artist asking first that the audience divine his idiom and then, divining it, be influenced by it and obey its exhortations. And if this is so, if much of the work now being done is turned upon the development of the medium itself, then in these cases there must be more importance attachable to the creation of the idiom than to its subsequent exploitation for emotive purposes. (538)

Modern music would aspire to poetry, the self-reflexive, the idiomatic, local, blind to the audience. The “emotive purposes” of classical music have become recessive, its rhetorical force somewhat leveled out by the “sterile” inventions of the artists and musicians.

Burke pauses here before his final item of inventory to take a long view, to avoid condemning what seems to be an increasingly “trivial” pursuit of musical idiom, and firmly anchors the music that he has been listening to—and which he is about to critique in over a dozen pieces—as perhaps only “the vogue of the age” having only “a certain temporary importance” (537; 538). Coupled with his linguistical illustration of the dialectal and the idiomatic, Burke is of course displaying the unavoidable literary, metaphorical realm of this thinking about “the tonal” while not despairing about the subject’s refusal to stay centered—and also working an audience expectation that The Dial recognized: a growing sense of an American seriousness about its culture and its cultural events, its ceremonial aspect, its rhetorical force as an emerging ritual of cultural independence. Scanning the names of The Dial’s roster produces a list in British, Continental, and American art as the world opened up (before it abruptly crashed down on Burke and The Dial in a matter of months) to ideological and richly diverse literary conversation. It’s no wonder that Kenneth Burke, immersed in this conversation, would draw a line somewhere mid-way, as if to say, “This but not this, that but not that,” and, like Vygotsky, “This is only new in relation to the old, which we leave within.”

The last of his three inventory notes, before the leap into “specific concert criticism”, is the problem of pure music.  Another issue, more for the theorists, critics, and musicologists than for a general audience, was whether or not music had anything to do with telling a story, or with anything we associate with story: plot, characters, place, time, or the representation of those things or elements. Of course, vocal music raised no such question, and was now clearly diminished to a kind of crypto-secular concert event for the general populace, the province of popular and folk song, both ignored in The Dial except for a negative tone in dealing with George Gershwin. More interesting was the rise of interest in opera: a fully-realized narrative, fully integrated with not only vocal and instrumental music—but orchestral music as well.

Burke poses a common ideological conflict, most famously captured in Eduard Hanslick’s essay “On the Musically Beautiful” in 1854: how does music carry information, or can it at all, and if so, can it be put to specific use? Hanslick himself was of the “purist” camp, which saw itself as formalists who considered music a separate aesthetic, without tether or bond to language or its formal constraints. Orchestral music in particular, having no allegiance to church or court, could exist outside the constraints of representative tonal constructions. As Burke puts it in his first Dial piece: “Tone seems to share the pudency of pigment at telling a story, or at least at avowedly doing so” (539). Just so: like visual art, music’s force lay outside having to subject itself to the verbal. Burke’s qualifier “avowedly” reminds us that we can always say that a piece of music “reminds” us of something, or “seems to represent” something. But its intentionality is, according to those in the purist camp, anti-intentional––that is, without explicit reference to the pre-existing real.

The popularity of opera, on the other hand—which Hanslick did not like, especially as Wagner made it—suggested to critics that the programmatic in orchestral music was unavoidable, and that the opera simply made this representational power more explicit, dramatic, brought it to the fore, and unapologetically used vocal music to underscore the power of the tonal to meld with the verbal to make great, lasting art. Burke in this last item of the Inventory takes a long view, working first from the obvious example of Beethoven and the 18th Century composers who

seem to have depicted their storms and furies literally; and though the results are highly conventionalized, much closer to minuets than to a ride of the Walkyrie, and perversely neither so loud nor so discordant as they easily could be, they are none the less “programmatic.” Beethoven’s sixth and seventh symphonies are clearly on the edge, if not of the literal, then of the metaphorical. (539)

Burke was about to write pieces on Hindemith, Schonberg, Harris—but also Copland, Stravinsky, Gershwin.  What to do with a perceived binary that Burke saw opening in this heated cultural and critical discussion about the ontology of music?

One response would have been that of Nietzsche’s, expressed only forty years earlier (and then complicated twenty years after with the German philosopher’s attack on Wagner): Nietzsche writes, in The Birth of Tragedy, of “something never before experienced struggles for utterance,” of “the emotional power of the tone, the uniform flow of the melody, and the utterly incomparable world of harmony” (40). Burke may have found here an expression of the autonomous distance that music inhabits, and which now presented itself to him as one path for the music critic.

But Burke was not sure of the lines between this pure music and the other, the “impure.” Burke invokes “the operatic aspect,” music’s ability to tell a story, to be literal, and quotes Roger Fry, that “In all music lurks the opera” an apology for those who will find story where there is “less obvious” literality:

So the ambition to write pure music might mean one of two things: to give us either pieces which recommend themselves as embodied treatises on musical method, or those in which the operatic aspect is a little less obvious than it was heretofore. The usual result probably contains something of both: the original representative (or realistic; or impressionist!) element being present, but subjected to a purely musical destiny. (539)

The position Burke takes up here is for engagement: there is no such performed purity, given that the composer works in the conditions of the everyday, except that a “treatise” is “sterile,” a mere experiment in musical theory. What takes front and center on the popular stage is an array of music that can be variously placed upon a continuum of representation––a “more or less” in its obviousness to suggestion, indication, intention––but which, over time, becomes less so, less situated or indicative, and more “pure” as the listener encounters the music in more distant times and places from the time and place of its creation.

And so Burke embarks on his first sustained critical voyage into music. Fourteen short pieces follow, and then cross the many-scored wall of the crash of 1929. In his “Curriculum Criticum” of 1967, Burke begins his self-overview, in terms of publications, with Counter-Statement (with which “Curriculum Criticum” was re-published in 1968), first published only two years after the last “Musical Chronicle”:

Counter-Statement shows signs of its emergence out of adolescent fears and posturings, into problems of early manhood (problems morbidly intensified by the market crash of ’29). The role, or persona of the author seems not that of father, or even of brother, but of conscientiously wayward son (whom the Great Depression compelled to laugh on the other side of his face). (213)

These “adolescent fears and posturings” are perhaps on best display in Burke’s neat Inventory of three issues that he decides to pose and fix in his first four-page work on music. Music as new religion, music as modern, and music as pure are pretty bonbons, or deadly provocations, tossed in the air for a typically cutting quick treatment by the “wayward son” (so self-labeled, and suggestive of the intellectually rebellious spirit he was associated with for decades).

But Burke continues and, characteristically, jumps with conscious incongruity to the opposite shore, where he criticizes this neat description of his role: “. . . he soon came to see that any such orderly unfolding of the past into the present would be greatly complicated, if not made irrelevant and even impossible, by the urgencies and abruptnesses of social upheaval” (213). While not referring directly to his first attempt at a theory of music, I think we can include its “orderly” inventorying of a history of musical development, and a half-handful of issues, as falling under that reference; and we can also see how “social upheaval” shakes the critical core of the young Burke—not to drive him away from the project, to make it “irrelevant” or “impossible,” but “greatly complicated” (213).

A month later, he tackles Bach and Stravinsky.

Chapter Two: Encounters at The Dial

“The hazard of specific concert criticism” is Burke’s phrase for describing what he will face on a monthly basis for The Dial. His inventory has come to a close, and like the clerk who has surveyed his store room and taken down numbers, he is ready to move into the market.

We don’t have a promise of music criticism, just concert criticism. This is a significant choice, favoring performance, event, encounter, process, the appreciable, manifest audience—over what might have been construed, if posed as “music criticism,” to be the reading of sheet music, the work in suspension, the dry and technical over the drama of the happening—its features, it players, the exigencies of a rainy night, or the beauties or shortcomings of a venue. Polo Grounds. Carnegie Hall.

“To analyze a work technically” as he has offered as one choice in the inventory is to miss all that, particularly if one is, as Burke insists he himself is, unable to handle the discourse. Instead, Burke synthesizes as he anticipates: “the music itself  . . . the sterling experiencing of those moments wherein the medium of tones is most skillfully and magnanimously exemplified” (537). Of course, what Burke is describing here is not the music itself, but the music encountered. Burke is trying to create a sense of music as “itself” only in its performance, a willful sort of paradox that can be understood best as the result of not only an unwillingness to talk of “technicalities” but also the willingness to see music as embedded in contexts that are inseparable from its nature. That is, “music itself” requires human eyes, ears, and hands for it to be music made; anything less is a field of abstracted symbols. And so the encounter with music is the music itself: we are part of it in so intimate a way as to blur the sound as having any source other than our own sensitivities before, during, and after the event itself.

The audience is called “the voice of God itself”: Burke will resort to hyperbole at times to underscore the power of the concert to judge not only musicians but music and listeners as well, but it is in the fashion of getting at the importance of history, of music come and gone, that he hints at the power of identity in our first encounters:

Unless some fresh and greater glow can be contrived which does not too much endanger the style, any previous enthusiasms must be felt to invalidate the present one. The sole possible procedure is lame, but necessary: first to insist that the earlier praises arose, to some extend, faute de mieux; to abjure, then become a new man. (“Musical Chronicle” [6] 445)

Or, is this mere fashion? After all, he is speaking of Strawinsky (a spelling he eventually adjusts). Stravinsky is the dominant figure in Burke’s music criticism, and by the tone of Burke’s music criticism the dominant figure of the new music, a new ceremony of sound. Stravinsky, by this time of late 1928, is past the Sacre du Printemps. To be past that titanic work, considered by many critics to be a sort of apocalyptic end to music, where could he go? Burke wonders aloud in the passage above: if one has the Sacre in him, what can anything beyond it mean?

It is merely the Oedipus Rex this time, the Boston Symphony in New York, and in a moment Burke creates an identification between the audience and the artist in what could possibly be motive: we have a “weedy plenty” against which “People presumably still search for some mechanism—Freudian, gymnastic, or anaesthetic—to loosen their utterance” against the standard of the Sacre and other landmarks of new music. Oedipus is suddenly “hushed” with “that sense of the impending, of overhanging fate” that might be “the constant admonition which the author had imposed upon his own methods” (446).

Burke, in some despair of the weight of this recent history upon his critical back, asks, rhetorically, “Who has found a metaphor, a new toot, that can proudly go and sit with all the other metaphors, the other toots?” (446)

In hindsight, the burden that Burke writes of is comical, but at the same time indicative of his immersion in the importance, the need to hear “the voice of God” at such a time as it would seem that a voice had gone, too soon “thwarted” (446). One can accuse Burke of sampling the evidence—of considering concerts the end-all of music, even as recorded music was gaining everyday popularity (he would later review recordings)—and also of looking too quickly into the oppositions between a great work and its antecedents. The latter case is painfully true in the works of literary critics, of course, which have to somehow deal with the career of writers who, after producing a masterwork or one thought to be, create something far lesser. How does one then deal with the earlier work? Do we have to revise opinions with the enlargement of the horizon? With the diminution, somehow, of the artist’s vision?

And so the “voice of God,” the audience’s response in immediate communion with the performance of the work, is commingled with the “toots” of performance, each one looking to “sit with” the others. Besides the mixing of metaphors, there is here the interesting reversal of rhetorical perspective: God speaks back to the “toot” of a Stravinsky.  If nothing else, the passage suggests that Burke is as much interested in responses to art as he is in their production.

Indeed, in his evaluation of George Gershwin, Burke suggests that the “toot” of the composer may entirely deflate the audience’s expectations for the power of the work to be art, to have specific characteristics that separate it from (if not alienate it from) the everyday. In an early chronicle (his term for his reviews, a suggestion of an everyday jotting or recording of events), Burke balances aesthetics with economy, and finds Gershwin to carry “artistic economy” “to its farthest limits—to economy of musical excellence” (“Musical Chronicle” [11] 177). He needs a reason to go to a concert that transcends the cheerful, the humble, the coquettish—all terms for Gershwin’s economy of expression. Burke will privilege, at this stage, the grandiloquent, or what he calls in his Inventory “a secular mysticism.” (535). Gershwin would seem to evince or evoke only a squandered awareness of the street or the sound of the folk, the “familiar”:    

An American in Paris was not good modern music watered—it was bad modern music improved. It represented the bringing of considerable thought to the sort of thing that comes up the airshaft. Thus we may find an element of wholesomeness in the recognition that was accorded it. (“Musical Chronicle” [11]177).

The music “that comes up the airshaft” is casually, unavoidably heard music, not listened to, only noted and put aside, in the background, in the underground of one’s consciousness. This cannot be great music if it is encountered so casually, as he believes Gershwin has so constructed it. (But this is not an anti-American-music stance; Burke will praise Copland, Harris, Sessions, and Ives.)

It is not good to be casual about one’s Art, or the performance of it. Not only can one avoid the “airshaft” as a place of encounter, one may actually find that the audience can be “separated from [the performer] by a wall of sound-proof glass, so that her problems and her triumphs could be observed as a purely mimetic event, without the production of any tones whatever” (176). The encounter of audience and performer, or performance, must be a fully realized one of full consciousness, of eventfulness, of the ceremony of which Burke writes is “indigenous to music” (“Musical Chronicle” [1] 537).  Burke invokes God again, this time in reference to Delius’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra: “The work, like the Deity, has been praised in terms of negatives; and thus we have, for our admiration, the formlessness, the absence of climax, the lack of excitement, all of which can be found without going to concerts at the Philharmonic” (“Musical Chronicle” [11] 176).  Besides the churchly metaphor of the Philharmonic being a sacred space that validates the negatives, Burke’s words contain here a real sense of the ceremonial power of “going to.”  Recordings of classical music were relatively new in 1928; for only a year or so were they being sold and circulated. That particular power—of having the music “coming to” you­­­––was yet to be a counter-thrill among the masses. Instead, the “going to” was part of an expectation of clearly bounded creativity (in one’s presence), for which the invoking of God or the godlike would not only be in naming the audience, and the work, but the performer himself.

In these first fourteen pieces of music criticism, the performing star is Arturo Toscanini above the rest, or he who would shine brightest in the New York music scene for Burke.  He is mentioned several times, and enjoys a particularly grand entrance in late 1928: “It was on the two thousand, two hundred and seventy-second concert of the Philharmonic that Toscanini, having found in the course of his season certain pieces which had delighted beyond the others, played them all on the one evening” (356). In those performances, or conducting of those performances, Toscanini manages to “telescope” the natural and the mechanical—a summer’s day and a locomotive—so that the latter is “as lyrical as the summer’s day, presenting an anthology of the most erudite utterances of which a locomotive is capable—and there is nothing here to suggest the irritability underlying the Sacre” (357).

If one must compare, compare to the Sacre! And in Respighi‘s Pines of Rome, Burke attributes the effectiveness of the crescendo as “indebted” less “to the imaginativeness of the composer than to the tact of the conductor’ (357). It is Toscanini’s “rheostat” that can make the music remind Burke of “the death-bed scene in drama” (“Musical Chronicle” [5] 357).  The composer here takes a kind of inferior position to the “reader” figure of Toscanini—albeit a mechanical engineer who “reads” with a masterful tact—who brings the work to fruition.

A month later, Toscanini is Burke’s primary figure again, under whose performance Beethoven’s Sixth “loveliness” is made “magnificent,” “disclos[ing] a wealth of effects which it would be disquieting to hear happen and vanish so quickly did we not have the naïve assurance that the same sequence could be repeated” (“Musical Chronicle” [6] 447). The next year, 1929, Toscanini has seemingly grown into the God-like figure that cleaves one’s tongue to the roof of the mouth—“we found Toscanini again present, found ourselves inarticulate at the splendour of his Mozart”—but who suddenly has cause to make Burke “aggressively diffident” at Respighi, so that Burke can only despair at these “two major aspects of being a professional” (356). He ponders the meaning of this swing, these opposites of the critical enterprise creating in him not only “girlish hopefulness” but a longing “for confirmed silence” (356). His answer, always only tentative, is that “if music has a purpose, that purpose is to give us the opposite” of “multiplication” (“Musical Chronicle” [13] 356).

There are other stars, gods in his encounters, though somewhat lesser than Toscanini.  In many passages Burke describes not only the physicality of music and its production, but a sense of Modernist embrace of the spiritual in the same moment, the negative of complexity found in the singularity of the master, at times Koussevitsky, who also achieves this subtraction of effects so that the rhetorical consequence is rather less of musicality than verbal gesture:

By Koussevitsky the ideation was subtracted; one saw merely the emergence of the composer’s subject from among a host of knowingly handled themes; the Independence Day riot was totally eliminated, and in its place we were allowed to watch a skilful musician at work. The result was a much deeper tribute. (357)

The passage, from a mid-1929 review of Ernst Bloch’s America, is a comparative evaluation of two performances, the latter, Koussevitsky’s, having far less emotion or attention-grabbing flamboyance, than the earlier performance by Walter Damrosch. The “deeper tribute” is evidently the result of the conductor’s refusal to play to emotion, eliminating the “riot” episode in favor of more reflective passages. Burke returns to his theme of music as more than emotional response, of a recurring though evanescent patterning of joy or sorrow—so that what results, instead, is a consecutive response of the heart and mind. The second listening, in the hands of a great musician like Toscanini or Koussevitsky, is indeed folded into the first, its consecutiveness creating in the moment a “deeper tribute” that has as its dignified trace the “religion” of music that is not reduced to the “emotion-machine” he discusses in his first piece, the “Inventory.” Rather, Burke describes, in the same review as the Koussevitsky triumph, the Modernist composer Roy Harris, who is “scrupulous in take no theoretic step which he does not duplicate by the imagination,” in which music “is readily adjusted to formal and emotional variety, a variety which still permits us to feel the consistency of the whole” (“Musical Chronicle” [13] 357).

What Robert Wess calls Burke’s “aesthetic humanism” of this period is on full display in the music criticism for The Dial. The work needs “wholeness,” it needs both logical and emotional power, it needs to arise from a distinctive imagination entwined in an intelligence that transcends its abilities to construct a performance of mere “enthusiasm” into something that recalls a tradition, even as it extends the narrative of that tradition into the new, into a dialect that furthers the tradition’s filiations.

In the “Inventory”, Burke likens a symphony to “somewhat a book of genesis,” a “triumph over chaos.” This is the artist deified again, bringing light into the dark, order into the mess of modern life, making its sensible, sensual to the audience who is also somehow speaking in the storm of the performance with the “voice of God.” The discourse appears to be meaningful, but meaningless as well: a ritual of voices, raised, transcendent, but speaking of nothing in particular, only making sound.  What is this voice of God, then?

In his last review for The Dial, Burke still wrestles, with words and gestures, this duality of the theoretic and the imaginative, the large and small, the neat and thick, the emotional and the logical, with words and gestures. The passage is worth quoting in full, in part because it concerns Wagner, in this case in relation to Debussy. Wagner was one of Burke’s subjects later in the career here he appears as the seed of Burke’s emerging ethic of dignity against (or upon) his aesthetic:

Opera is naturally a semaphoric thing—its plot should be signaled to the audience, whose participation is not constant, but momentarily overcomes their sense of aloofness. Perhaps Debussy went much farther than Wagner in eliminating this tragic distance, for despite the exceptional emotions which he invokes, his effects are intimate. He does not confront us; he surrounds or permeates us, utilizing for his appeal a fluctuant method that relies more upon our sensibility than upon analysis.

It is, perhaps, the logical conclusion of opera—the progression from wooden conventionalizations to fluidity, from the stressing of aesthetic propriety to the stressing of emotional effectiveness. Yet I should not venture far beyond the assertion that our recent contemporaries have vilified aesthetic propriety with over-glibness, forgetting that if we define art in terms of emotional reality, the scantest life is superior to the fullest masterpiece. Which it is, but not as art. We have liked in music its inevitable stylization, the fact that it simply cannot speak without posturing— (“Musical Chronicles” [15] 538)

The dualities noted in the “Inventory” find some convergence in opera, naturally, in its cohabitation of lyric, melody, and narrative. It would seem to take center place later in Burke’s music writing, if only (always) briefly. Opera is plotted in human terms, not in the theoretic terms of music, and has lyrics, and symphonic riches. It would seem, as it seemed for Nietzsche, to have a mastery of many forms, to have the potential for a masterful form of visual, linguistical, and musical arts. Burke seems in this passage to be arguing for the appeal of opera to be based on its artifice and on its naturalness: the aloofness of the audience is overcome by the emotive content, the ability of the opera to overcome the aesthetic distance the artifice of the constructed narrative, its agreed upon conventions, wooden in their mechanical consecutiveness.

Yet, the opera has the formlessness of pure music; too, it’s freeing passages of symphonic “fluidity.” Burke argues that, between Wagner and Debussy, we have two artists on a continuum of musical art, one trending to the theoretic or analytical, the other immersed in the emotive. Together, they stake out the powers of music to ponder and to dream.

Nevertheless, if Debussy is ascendant here, the immersion of dream, and the power of emotion to define reality in terms of feelings, of intuition—then Burke distrusts this power at once, and warns that to seek this result in the encounter with art is simply unethical, becomes mere escape from a reality. In the world of late 1929, it is succinctly put as that of the “scantest life”: the body under the wheel, the rag in the mud.  This “scantest life is superior to the fullest masterpiece.” Here the future sociology of art as subject or frame for Burke takes at least a practice flight. He elaborates on that life as understood as mere feeling, as if pity or sympathy are present in the street, in every scant life but almost wholly uncapturable by art as art. We save that understanding, in other words, for the work of every day.

Instead, the work of Art at that time is to acknowledge its relation to “life” as affording life a place to become not devalued but re-shaped, formed, through “stylization” into a medium of posture. This posture, in turn, stands for the attitude (literally, if thought of as the inclination of the body, either standing or in repose) of the artist toward his subject. The “masterpiece” is not seen, then, as something superior to the ‘scantest life” but as comprising both life and posture: two lives, no longer scant and full, but speaking with the power of their reality merged.

The formula flies quickly over a sense of the “inevitable” rhetoric that would suffuse language theory in the 100 years to come. Burke is only suggesting here what would become explicit: To posture is to be.

Chapter Three: Story and Summation

Almost all of Burke’s short stories were published in the 1920s; the standard collection is still The Complete White Oxen: Collected Short Fiction of Kenneth Burke, published in 1968, which has the original 15 White Oxen stories and three more, two of which are earlier pieces and the third that was written much later and published in 1957 as “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell.” Any attempt at chronology, either within or among the author’s overall production of work in or about music will be frustrated by formal considerations, as well as by publishing histories.  In general, however, the stories were written before the first music criticism began to appear in The Dial, although some overlap is most likely. The stories appear far in advance of the later criticism that appeared in the Nation in 1934 through 1936. While this study has already violated a natural chronology by working first with the full-blown music criticism of The Dial, it declares a second violation by jumping to the last story published as a part of the collection revised in the 1960s.

The rationale of this forward view (with backward glance) is that only “The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell” has anything profound to say about music, as opposed to the allusive content of music in the earlier stories, in which music appears sometimes as illustration or as part of the scenic or ecological content. The early stories instrumentalize music but don’t analyze it as central to the scene, as do the critical pieces. A second important reason for this jump is that Burke, by the 1950s, has very little to say about music as music; indeed, the near-disappearance of the subject is a part of the mystery the current volume hopes to offer and perhaps understand.

Yet this “final” story (in the collection, if not in fact) offers an analysis of music’s function as both dream-stuff and the creative consciousness and as sustained as anything in the early criticism. One cannot make a generalization about “return” here, but it might be that Burke’s isolated creative work here (creative by genre, not thought) recalled the early critical work as well, or the whole creative fervor of the 1920s in which he played such a wide-set part.

“The Anaesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell” is the object itself of critical examination by the author in the later edition of the complete stories. Burke lays out a “’schematism’ (to use a deliberately unwieldy word)” by which he tries to summarize much of his early work in story form, in which the physical realm is “attendant” to the non-physical realm, with the “symbolic emerging as a bridge or blurred potential between the two—and, finally, in which the plot demands of a story are meant through the return of the scapegoat.” So much for the “scheme” which is, according to Burke, influenced by the German erziehungroman, named as the dialectic of Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Pater’s “moody treatment of ideas” and, for later Burke, Hesse’s Bead Game.  In all, Burke sees “Herone Liddell” as his way to “extricate a plot out of aphorism” (Complete White Oxen, xvi).

There is nothing here that suggests the role of music in storytelling, but the reference to The Magic Mountain may recall the uses of music to conjure ghosts, literal and figural, from the minds and memories of the inhabitants of the sanitarium. In The Magic Mountain, music is a medial bridge between the man-made phenomenon of the reproduced sound and the recalled lives of others, ghosts that arise out of thin air like the wavering tinny sound of a Chopin nocturne on an early wax cylinder.

But that is our only clue, extrinsic to the story but supplied by the author, that there may be music in it and, as Burke calls it in Counter-Statement, purely formal in its ability to remain informationless and for all that, perfect in its clearing the treetops and floating beyond human care, if not human need. Liddell, in the hospital for an operation—to fix a hernia––is beset by revelations of mind-and-body dialectic as he moves into and out of his anaesthetic, one evidently of pure feeling, one of pure language: he looks for a Perfection of the two, a dialectical convergence of one with the other in such a way as to erase the hyphenate of mind-body:

Were there certain resources of language, driving us towards a purely linguistic fulfillment, as though towards the origin of everything? A terminology had certain logical conclusions implicit in it, certain possibilities, or “perfection”—and for a symbol-using species maybe these can form as real a kind of ultimate purpose as any congeries of material things and physical sensations. (281)

Burke also mines the familiar—though by the time of his writing the story, quite retrospective—of the pun, the attitudes, and the material embodiment of identifications within “socio-political communities.”  But Liddell is most concerned with developing a “transcendence of these parts of understanding,” “a kind of ‘transcendent entitlement,’ since its unifying function is in effect an addition to the elements it unifies” (291). The use of “in effect” does not mean “approximately” but the rhetorical effect of the act: the produced results of this “fusion or transcendent elements creating a bigger thing that still comprises all thee previous elements.”

What could this bigger thing be? Some new form, but still a form to be recognized, but such a form as to impress upon the maker and the viewer that in the form are the possibilities of the not-quite-present. Burke significantly turns to music in an extended analogy, produced here in full:

Suppose you are a musician—and of a sudden, a likely them occurs to you. You awaken—and there it is. And somehow it is like an unopened bundle of possibilities.

Maybe this theme appeals to you because of its hidden relations to some other theme—a theme that you may have actually heard, or all-but-heard, many years ago, in some situation that then seemed to you vaguely laden with some such futurity as you now experience clearly. The theme thus looks back to an earlier time when you were vaguely looking forward (in effect fumbling with the beginnings of a word, a class name which you would need later, when you came to classify this later actualizing experience under the same head as the earlier potential experience).

Next, you proceed to develop variations on your theme. Successively, you make it brisk, playful, plaintive, pensive, solemn, grandiose, nostalgic, muscularly ingenious, and the like.

On the surface, at the very least you have produced a form by carrying a principle of consistency into an area that threatened it with disintegration (disintegration insofar as the principle of consistency risked becoming lost in the variety). But insofar as you have succeeded, you have unified this variety.

And have you not done still more? For insofar as your theme originally welled up from a secret personal relationship to situations that, however tinged by symbolism, were themselves largely outside the realm of symbolism (as the thing tree is outside the realm of the word “tree”), you have saturated this whole range of the symbolic and the non-symbolic with a single personal motive, summed up in the attitude-of-attitudes that was implicit in your theme (which would be the musical equivalent of a title-of-titles).

Thereby you have had, in effect, an immediate vision of an ultimate oneness (thanks to symbolic manipulations that have brought many disparate things together). You have had the direct feeling of this principle. You have “got the idea.” (291-292)

There are, of course, many echoes of the “Lexicon Rhetoricae” here, of consistency and variety, of pattern and disparity. And it is in Counter-Statement that Burke has made his first aesthetic principles clear.  He later argues that the stories are pre-Counter-Statement in their working out the “oneness” of the invention of art as it brings together the mind (psychology), the word (eloquence), and form (appetite).

But why music at this critical juncture of this late story, in which the hero presses for “oneness”? For “perfection” (with which we are rotten, given a later codicil)? For a contradictory brake on this will to perfect, out of which comes imbalance, even a ecological disaster, empire-building: the mere over-reach of the superabundant ego?

Liddell looks to poetry and the poet, to John Keats in particular, for answers to this unanswerable question about the human condition (or infinitely answered, but for Liddell, in essence, the deflation, the solution through the scapegoating of one who would find himself having to ask the questions in the first place). Keats allows Liddell to understand the world as Coleridge does as the place where “extremes meet” (299). The dialectic of Gallantry and Ecology—of the one and the many—finds a formal sense of unity.

Kenneth Burke can refer to the 1920s in Counter-Statement as the time when he was a young man, thinking young thoughts, and creating the somewhat rebellious words of Counter-Statement in response to the conventional statement. Even in this outline there is a counter positioning, of course, of a gallantry as posed against an orthodox (however new, but sung by a chorus of young aesthetes). It could, in fact, be the schema of Burke’s entire life of encounters with orthodoxy and his constant pushing back, pushing away, and reformulating traditional thoughts with the new, creating thereby an ecology of extremes. This ecology will never hold and, in Burke fashion, constantly undergoing revision, re-examination, restatement, counter-statement.

Seemingly buried in this metaphysical last story of the collected stories is the sustained analogy of the musician and his music. How better, for Burke, than to recall Stravinsky, Barber, Debussy—those whom he experienced in his youth—as the masters of both dream and technique, of “possibilities” and manipulation that prefigures the ultimate revelation of Herone Liddell?  The dying Keats may serve as the chosen illustration of the “gallant” scapegoat, but it is the unnamed musician and his music that creates for Burke and his reader the full sense of process, of a lifetime experience of “theme and variation” that recalls the music criticism of thirty years earlier in tone, but goes beyond in marrying it to Burke’s later meditations on the relation between the human and the natural.

The “single personal motive” still exists for Burke in 1957: the “single personal motive” that is so extremely contrastive, as he argues Coleridge would have it, as it exists in the figure of Toscanini at the Polo Grounds, unproblematized then, attacking the score, pulling emotion up out of notes on a page, and horsehair on strings, and fingers on keys. Like a dream, the 1920s swirls dark and wet, and rather dismal around the critic; “Catastrophe” somehow small in the weather of a bad day or as prophetic of economic collapse. Still, the masterful figure, gallant, stands forth with the force of a religious figure, taking ritual into the realm of the emotional.

In 1957, however the single personal motive exists for Burke, the music is no longer the revelatory explosion it was when hearing Stravinsky for the first time—or even the second time as he relays the anecdote of the friend who barely nods the second time through Sacre du Printemps.  Instead, “To think words by the seaside is like hearing music from a distance. (Even a trivial tune, floating at night across waters, seems a bit fate-laden).” Herone Liddell is reminding himself that, for all its symbolic power, language gives way to death and its agents of physiology and ecology: death here broadly understood perhaps as being struck wordless by the meaningless language of other species, other spheres. In this passage, music has not lost its meaning—it never had one, which was its power—but it has lost its immediacy, its ability to surprise and galvanize as the concerts of Koussevitsky and Toscanini did in the mid-20s.

But Burke is making the point through its parallel to language, which here too seems to be fading as the dying poet fades into the sounds of nature, the seaside. The story ends in the form of a letter from Herone, in which he “lay awake listening to the bluster of the climate. The rain slapped loudly, as it fell from the roof to the cement floor of the porch.” The sounds are not quite musical nor are they exactly without meaning: they inspire “some rhymes slightly deflected.”  Finally, in a further P.P.S., the scene changes: “To reach this front of sand-topped ridge, we drove over a sunny clop-clop bridge” (310). The rhymes give way to rhythm again, the interior language of pattern, whether by horse or car undesignated, but still recalling the young Burke’s initial excitement at there being some such pattern above all else—but now implicated into an ecology of rhyme and rain.

Before this summation of a life, the stories themselves from The Complete White Oxen, published between 1919 and 1924, show a modest range of interest in music—from the character of certain composers and composition to the music itself as engendering certain responses in audiences to the characters themselves who have intimate knowledge of music. It would be unwise to argue, however, that there is any great import, or critical weight, in these stories to think that we are really witnessing a foreshadowing of the critical work to come in just a couple years after their first publication in 1924. One can find, for example, a far greater interest in music in two of Burke’s pantheon, Nietzsche and Mann. Yet neither of these authors could be called music critics as it is fair to call Burke, not once but twice in his residencies at The Dial and the Nation.

Do these stories display a rhetoric of music, as do the critical pieces to follow only a few years later? I think that they do, if only sketchily, and only with the kind of hindsight that Burke used generously to understand the narrative of his own varied career as a thinker and writer—and only if we read the musical content as poorly-prefigured “ideas” placed in the way of a narrative movement as stones are on a path: to dimensionalize, to deepen, to slow down the walk, to give roundness to what were narratives of which Burke was not so interested in as stories but as vessels for other kinds of discourse. One was the nature and meaning of music.

In the title story, music is used as a tool of seduction of one man by another, Lucia di Lammermoor’s voices being used by the seducer to “reach [Matthew] out of the darkness” (31) and Carmen, which makes Matthew “vaguely happy” (32) as if music has the spell of magic, a not untypical understanding of the emotional reach of music, its formal powers arousing the appetite—but for what? In several of these stories it is the vague yearning for change, for something more. In “A Man of Forethought,” music is the opposite of lust or will: it is the quieting of those appetites, a cathartic pause of nerves, in which “there is a soft little thing of Debussy’s . . . . There is a lovely little minuet in Beethoven’s sonatas” (53).  Here, the classical piece cannot only be butchered into sections, bereft of its original form; it can also be the lull of a sleeping potion for him who is in love. John Carter is one of several musicians in the collection; he himself doesn’t write “gentle” music, but it is gentle music that will make him gentle, or so he believes.

Siegfried, in “Mrs. Maecenas,” is another pianist brought under the influence of the title character, who eventually throws him over for being too young, but who can listen to Siegfried play the “Moonlight Sonata” and warns in the story’s only long piece of dialogue,                                  

“No, Siegfried, you can say what you like about the beauty of asceticism; but after you have perverted and twisted and beautified to your heart’s content, at bottom the original thing remains.  . . . For your art’s sake, for America’s sake, you must get up and move. . . . The Muse is a woman, Siegfried, and the formula is that the worse you treat a woman the more she loves you. You may find that if you forget art long enough to live, your art may be all the stronger for it afterwards.” (74)

Music, in the story, serves as an emblem of the desiccated operations of the mind, as a thing that can serve as a withdrawal. Music is separate, even a kind of ruse in this story. A third musician, also a keyboard player, is the music instructor J. J. Beck of “Olympians,” who suffers a similar fate to Siegfried’s in that he associates music with the power to communicate in simple and clear terms, and yet is devastated when the student he is teaching receives no such message as he has intended—so brilliant, so “neat and white.” Beck believes the message to be loving and chaste, and Dorothy can only say, “How fine it was” and that is all. “He must annihilate Dorothy from his head” (91). If there is a rhetoric of music being advanced in these stories, it is the limitation that the form must place upon its performers.

One story, “My Dear Mrs. Wurtelbach,” Burke ascribes to a bet he made with Malcolm Cowley to do something “formally” different than the average story and writes in the introduction to the collection, “would somewhat proceed like the movements of a symphony” (xii). He refers to “qualitative breaks from one part to the next”; as we read today, these are stylistically clear as to a kind of a variation in register, or a Ciceronian scope of plain, middle, and grand. More interesting is the intention, not imbedded in the desire of a character to hypnotize or anesthetize using music instrumentally, but in a meta-fictive use as a structural device. Only here do we see a fair suggestion of the moments in “Herone Liddell” in which the gallantry of the artist—here Burke­­––is posed as potentially consubstantial with the ecological world. In “Wurtelbach” Burke hopes to unify the story with the symphony, not as opera might, and not as jazz might (which appears to be savaged in part 3 as the blindly-driven drivel of half-hearted musicians playing for people who are eating (140-141)) but as the artist’s rhetorical grasp might allow: a gesture of, according to Burke in the same introductory essay, “that disjointed kind of form” (xii). He self-deflates the gesture by referring to it as “neo-classical” a moment later, but the point, it seems, is clear even now: by invoking musical form, Burke is arguing for its rhetorical estrangement from that of the literary and/or the communicative, while asserting, nevertheless, that such a rhetoric was there, potent and present.

Chapter Four: The Novel and the Nation

Contrary to the sense of music that emerges in The Dial—a power apart from contemporary scene, but being molded anew by masterful figures for the immediate and emotional reception by a select and undifferentiated audience—the short stories (except for “Herone Liddell”), written prior to The Dial pieces, seem to view music in a different light. Music is never the subject, yet it becomes an agency of separation and anxiety, of nervous excitement. While not drawing too fine a line between two rather small samples of Burke’s overall output, the contrast suggests not so much a chronological shift in thinking as a more likely reflection of Burke’s pluralistic thinking on the function of art or the relation of art to society and its members.

The zeitgeist of the 1920s and New York City in particular seems to have been one of an almost ecstatic immersion in the heightened life experience—wherever that might lead: alcohol, drugs, art, the foreign, the exotic, the Other. Burke seems to have been himself thoroughly immersed in parts of this mood, yet with the doubled consciousness of the critic that could pull back and scratch his head at some moments and wonder if this immersion were merely a submersion of the intelligence in favor of some unwilled appetite.

I think it is most interesting that the critical pieces in The Dial are most uncritical of this mood or zeitgeist, this ethos of the moment, the punch of sound over the spaciousness of silence. It is in The Dial pieces that there is an enraptured entanglement with the classical composers, their profound and familiar harmonies, and excitement too with the emerging modern masters like Barber and Stravinsky, and above all a certain wonderment at the musicians and conductors themselves, who have somehow found a single direction in the rich wilderness of American culture in the 1920s. Conversely, the short stories manage to be critical of these tendencies to elevate music above the fray, to imagine that one could find “the song above catastrophe” in one’s daily experiences. We have, then, a kind of neurosis associated with music in which characters in the stories are disabused of their music, find it emptied of potency, find it an illusion of a community’s worth, or find it only an agent of deception. Only in “Herone Liddell,” written 30 years later, does music seem to find a dialectical comfort in Burke’s fiction.

We might hazard to conclude that The Dial criticism was less reflective, more immediate, more a journalistic enterprise for Burke, a series of quick and easy responses to another night at concerts and events like Toscanini at the Polo Grounds. How else to respond but wholeheartedly? Add a disclaimer about the stodginess of one movement or piece, and the critical ear presumably emerges. Overall, however, you have the highly intellectualized musings of a music fan deflected through the focus of the encounter with art itself.  On the other hand, we can conclude perhaps that the fiction is more suited for Burke’s Modernist leanings: that art is a problematical phenomenon in which its creator or adherent is simultaneously victimized and privileged by his or her proximity to it. We might also hazard that both forms are autobiographical in that they show Burke’s abilities to be almost comically identified with the music, in the criticism, and parsimoniously self-questioning in the fiction.

But of an underlying theme, dignity:  Burke’s only novel Toward a Better Life, written over a period of several years, from the mid-1920s and published in 1931, written during the same period he was writing music criticism, and written by chance so as to embrace the stock market crash at approximately the mid-point—Burke’s only novel is, I argue now, very much about dignity, a theme only glimmering in the short stories and music criticism.

Sorting through these three distinct forms—short fiction, criticism, and mainly the novel, all roiling about in their creation and revision during this period—is the subject first of this chapter before we move to his second body of music criticism, this time for the Nation.

The form of the novel seems least well suited to Burke’s intentions as at least stated in the preface to the second edition of Towards a Better Life, to situate the plot as emerging “from a background of aphorism, lamentation, invective, and other such rhetorical modes” (vi). The pastiche already overwhelms this novel’s articulated plot into the “anti-novel” that Burke also thinks it to be. As a plot, TBL is likened to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, as “the end of the line” leading not to suicide but to, in Burke’s case, “the best possible of worlds” in which “the Comic Muse [is] its tutelary deity.”  While this reader has difficulty finding “plot” in TBL beyond the somewhat too-imaginary turns in the narrator’s mental state, what is more at odds with the novel form is the intention to display rhetorical modes in the process.

If this is what makes the novel “anti” to those of its time, then it succeeds minimally as a display of rhetorical power. But, as Burke admits in the same preface, “In the last analysis, a work of art is justified only insofar as it can give pleasure” (vii), then the novel is hardly a reading experience at all, but an artifact of a personal ritual of purification whereby Burke, through Neal, casts off ideas and desire through the power of his own articulateness, or facility, to a point where the mode of fiction is nearly washed away in the author’s career as well.

What is left for Neal, at least, is the question that the artist, facing the void, can utter if the distancing of rhetorical power allows it:

what voices would one hear were the mind to be plunged into total silence? Were he to say nothing, not even in his thoughts—were he to live in the stillness of a void—could he hear the cells of his body speaking? Might he distinguish the songs of the myriad little tenants in his blood, as we can contemplate the pulsing sound of frogs rising above a marsh? (218)

What are being heard, perhaps, aren’t other artifices or art, but the sounds of nature. Neal asserts earlier “there comes a time when one must abandon his vocabulary. For the rigidness of words, by discovering a little, prevents from discovering more” (216). The aphoristic section that concludes the novel is an appropriate form, especially given the rhetorical forms like invective that have preceded it and evidently driven Neal from the stage of his own plotting. This fragmentation of language—at least of its prosiness, the luxuriant abstractions of the early chapters that do at least attempt to plot Neal through a series of difficulties—is purposeful in displaying Neal’s withdrawal, and is captured better in the novel’s last sustained passage about music’s relation to the everyday, poised upon a razor’s edge of sensation and meaning:

How pleasant, after the strained hours I had spent recently in the coercing of my story, to place myself at the disposal of a master, to let him dictate when there should be risings and when subsidences. I assisted him—and together we mounted to assertion, capped by kettledrums. And as another evidence of my cunning, I left the theatre before the close of the performance, I went away while the violins were repeating a design in unison, ever more softly, and the stage gradually darkened, suggesting the submerged castle of a fish bowl and the mighty distances discoverable there by peering. I left before the end that I might carry away the sense of the opera’s continuing—and for several hours afterwards it seemed as though that vast battle were still in progress. I went from opera sounds to street sounds, but the imperiousness of the music was still strong in me, and every casual noise was translated into the perfect note most like it. Thus the city sang melodically and contrapuntally. (180)
Neal expresses some guilt at the marriage of these sounds, but does not withdraw them.

The role of the artist and his art is problematic in this passage, as it is in the musical chronicles he wrote for The Dial: on the one hand, music has its masters and its over-riding rhythms to sooth or to make savage, but on the other hand it must always give way to its situation, to a greater rhetorical field, whose noises are just as melodic as music, and whose discords are as powerfully contrapuntal to the aesthetic object encircled or perhaps left behind.

Burke captures this inevitable embrace of the mundane-after-art in the words of an anonymous scholar who visits Neal and wonders “if the day will come” when love joins us, as “speech, or happiness, or music” divide us: “people are set apart by art or happiness, just as one interrupts for a moment his exaltation in a concert hall to glance with scorn at a restless neighbor” (82). The scholar changes his mind in mid-speech, and disappoints Neal through his “aridity”, as if this ambiguity is not something to weep about—as the scholar does—but to take in, to inhale, as Kenneth Burke seems to do, as the contrapuntal fact of life that must be dealt with comically and with dignity.

This fact of life is earlier expressed by Neal in the coldest term of the both/and:

As the building of vocabulary admitted me to new fields of enquiry, even the work of the philosophers became an ill-poised and unclean thing. Art, letters, the subtleties of affection and longing, the sole factors by which some whit of dignity might have been made accessible, were surely the foremost causes of my decay. I openly identified myself with literature, and thus identified disgrace with literature. (35)

The scope of Neal’s quest for the pure form is only temporarily solved with his meeting  music in the great noisy city of New York; it seems to push him beyond “vocabulary” or documents or facts or philosophy in the form of Bach’s Passion, a part of the city’s “regiving of great music” so that “out of fear, malice, rivalry, and ill-natured interruptions, is drawn forth the denial of all uncleanness, a broad flowing river of assertion, its parts united in one purpose as it moves steadily toward seas of the mind which lie in a vague remoteness, surging imperatively for this exceptional hour” (137-138).

It is such an exceptional hour that later the interrupted opera and, even later, the aphoristic retreat into the music of nature would seem to signal an end to categorical statements about art and society, about music and the hearer—about there being any happy binaries like lover and lover, husband and wife at all.  One could ponder the glimmer of a post-structural Burke here, in which the initial separation of art from its obvious situatedness—for Burke—in the city is swiftly dealt with in Toward a Better Life: first, as a consolatory separateness, then as a site of conflict, and finally of irrelevance as the sounds of both street and melody become indistinguishable somewhere beyond the sounds of nature, “the songs of the myriad little tenants in his blood” (218).

Dignity is better served if sought elsewhere, not in the vocabularies, not in the city, not in the shrug of a fellow auditor at the opera, but to “Choose rather the dignity of a savage chieftain, which coexists with vermin” (200-201). Much like the protagonists of his short stories that find Art a prisoning of the self, its ecstatic belief in the power of the right choice grinding to a halt that very power of choice, Neal seems to look for dignity in the Ur-society of nature, among myriad beasts and creatures as the novel winds toward its aphoristic conclusion (and written post-Crash), that he “die as a mangled wasp dies—its body hunched, its wings futile, but its sting groping viciously for its tormenter” (201).

Burke is making clear that such a retreat into the primitive isn’t without consequence, of course: dignity is a coexistence with the lowest, perhaps, not the highest, and that dignity does not suffer the powerlessness of the man who cannot choose: there is the choice of the “vicious” seeking of the problem, in which there is “some ghastly decency” (201).  The novel ends in silence, as all novels do, but in TBL silence is an especially potent counterpoint to melody: the two converge in a dialectic of eventual convergence that might serve, at this point in Burke’s career, as a perfect synecdoche of the man’s mind as it turns this way and that, seeking purchase in a handful of genres that, at times must have seemed to rush together into one. In Towards a Better Life we are left with a grounded, though fluid, language: “the torrent” (219).

The first Nation column, in November 1933, begins with the faintly self-referential sentence about the music at hand, Schonberg. “In the first of this season’s concerts by the league of Composers, an all-Schonberg”: an announcement of Burke’s re-voicing the basic program of The Dial reviews: he will begin as the music begins, he will be aware of processes and programs, and he will be attending concerts, he will again attend to the great names (“Schonberg” 633).  These outlines are not unlike The Dial reviews, and would seem to suggest that Burke after four years has not altered his approach to writing about music culture, about its events and consequences for the discerning audience who, one imagines, sit down and read the review weeks later and—if having attended might say—“This recalls that event very well, and Mr. Burke has illuminated some of its features for me.”

Indeed, the “docent in retrospect” role of the critic has not changed. The vocabulary has changed, however, even in this first piece and reflects a historical shift and a personal rhetorical shift in Burke as well. Class consciousness is obviously on Burke’s mind as he denies that Schonberg can speak to “proletarian” expectations of “bluntness,” nor can he even provide “vanishing ‘bourgeois’ comforts,” but has become ‘introspective” in his (Schonberg’s) “marvels” (633).  One would not expect quite this simple dicing of the audience’s economic allegiances (or ideological labeling) in a piece six years earlier. Burke’s perspective has now become class-situated. Burke, here, is developing his earlier theme of the modern music versus the classical, finding a thread that locates them situated in history, but pushing this composer beyond the tradition into the ream of the new, even the future:

He moved to the next adjoining step, the conclusion that one might permit the same dissonances when the melodic characters were slightly less pronounced—and so on, step by step dissolving each objection by a cautious, rational extension, until the progressions by slight quantitative degrees had mounted up to produce a new musical idiom, qualitatively distinct. (633)

Technique can push content.  And so: “It is music of the future, to be sure, but the present would pass it by.”  He saves his parting comments on Schonberg, and whatever class allegiances Burke thinks that the music must entail for some of his most withering fire—earlier trained on Gershwin, a populist voice in the 1920s to Schonberg here, a voice of the preterit of the same decade. Burke first grumbles that the earlier work, the Opus 10, makes nods to the classical tradition, but this only compounds the composer’s error of making reference to “a line” and “older architectural patterns”:

I have heard more joyous kinds of fun. Alas! The rollicking tune was sick, it was dying, and it departed with a groan . . . .We go into thinner air—but what is more, we have been made willing, we are now fit for this attenuated region inhabited by moony beings which, if they speak at all, must speak with stringlike voices, and discuss disturbances we are still content to leave unnamed. It is an alternative world, but of a kind we should not care to see the real world duplicate. (634)

Even in this first piece, Burke sounds more conservative, yet in a way that places him not with some higher discourse of music theory—but with those who would judge music by its accessibility to the present audience, its esthetic response perhaps qualitatively affected by social situation, one that must hear a continuity of content, particularly of “real world” emotion, to respond, as Burke said it would, as “the voice of God.” There is no validity to being not of this world any longer—this seems in the first piece after years of absence, but of history, a real change in Burke’s aesthetics.  It’s no longer an achievement to be of that other world, to be separate, somehow universalized by patterns or rhythms; now there is, instead, a sense of imposed distance from the place that really matters: this place, the everyday.

Two months later, in January 1934, he accuses much of contemporary music of recalling, or re-constructing, the 19th century “Poesque” aesthetic of the “spell,” to “provide no ‘formal release’ for undoing what it had done to us. It would give us a realm of purgatorial moodiness to which there is a “way ‘in’ but no ‘way out,’ much as though one were to hypnotize a man and leave it at that, relying on his own natural resistance for the restoration of his non-hypnotic temper” (“Orpheus in New York” 53).  Again, there is a strange crossing of times and intentions here, suggesting to me that Burke is dissatisfied both with legacy and future: the contemporaries are recasting old, dissatisfying forms. In this case, the forms are such that the audience, again foregrounded as inhabiting Burke’s own sensitivities, is put under an unhealthy spell of no little duration. Burke laments this new “melancholy, an almost too Orphic ‘invitation,’ which can make us understand why even so musical writer as Plato would have banished the softnesses of music from his Republic” (53). In this second column of The Nation series, Burke reserves his praise for Bela Bartok, who shows great “authoritativeness,” who “finds many ways of keeping all his instruments going steadily about their business, all asserting themselves and not merely ‘helping out.’ One felt here the work of a skilled rhetorician, who could embark upon varied kinds of discourse with confidence” (54).

So much for softness; give us assertiveness, variety, confidence: some sort of rhetoric.

What sort of rhetoric—in music? One finds in his next column a partial answer, perhaps, as Burke mulls over an opera based on Gertrude Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts,” with music by Virgil Thomson. Opera is exerting its influence, as usual, but here it allows Burke to expound further on the tonal/verbal binary he discussed in The Dial columns: what meaning can there be in the tonal?  He answered, then, with the unavoidable metaphorical bridging of the tonal to the verbal. Given its performance in some situation, and for some audience, the tonal will always “recall” emotions as well as provoke them, and will anchor those emotional responses in the individual experiences of the audience members—or perhaps, now, several years later, their collective experiences.

Stein gives Burke the best of possible worlds, if the unavoidable operatic aspect is a part of the experience of music: the words will be nonsense at the same moment they are recognizable language: “Stein’s nonsense, as reinforced by Thomson, has established its great musicality. Even as nonsense it sings well; indeed, its very ambiguity may have prodded the composer to express its quality as utterance; it what was said was vague, en revanche it was said with extreme mobility of emphasis” (257). “Mobility of emphasis” is the re-individuation of a form—the expectation of sense—to such a degree that it loses its verbal form and becomes musical instead, mere morphemic sound that does not presage meanings through words any longer. The alchemy of words into music becomes, then, a demonstration, by absence as it were, the power of words as they have been vacated here: no sense, then no words, just sound.

In what sounds like mock celebration of becoming part of the growing audience for musical entertainment, Burke concludes by saluting how the Stein/Thomson collaborations work rhetorically on this fun-seeking audience:

as a piece of ingratiation—and all art in the end must ingratiate itself—I believe that “Four Saints” prevails [over a companion piece by Stokes and Hanson]. Perhaps it is one kind of light entertainment which all the world will some day care for, when a new day has imposed the privileges and problems of leisure upon all, and the wealthy patrons of this bounteous performance will have been generously admitted into the ranks of the spectacle-loving masses. (258)

A dig at the call for a re-distribution of wealth? Perhaps, but Burke is not calling for or against such thing—but merely envisioning what the future ‘spectacle” will be: massive in both audience and performance.

From his use of “proletarian” in the first column for the Nation, Burke has shown that the “social upheaval” referred to in the “Curriculum Criticum” has indeed infected the simplicity of The Dial columns in such a way as to re-position Burke’s rhetoric.  The first columns in The Nation show a clear awareness of historical conditions that were beginning to undermine the elitist tone of the earlier concert reviews, composer profiles, and theorizing on the “Inventory” topics. Now the audience is uppermost import, whether hypnotized or amused or baffled, positively entertained or knocked over by spectacle; it has become more visible, dominating Burke’s position or point of view. The audience is not only the “voice of God” as Burke maintained seven years earlier, it is also the arbiter of the encounter’s success, its rhetorical uptake—not only the aesthetic double-consciousness of emotion and emotion-recollected as the two-step critical view of The Dial pieces. Here, Burke shows awareness about changed expectations, about audiences growing in power and size, of the audience personality more than the composter personality, less about the venue—the Polo Grounds versus Carnegie Hall—as the state of the audience’s backbone. The Great Divide of the decades has been crossed, and now, as Burke writes Permanence and Change, there is less art and more sociology, less emotion and more consequence.  Thus, in the next column, for example in April 1934, he breaks from the concert regime of all of his previous columns and reviews two books, both having to do, Burke argues, with the state of popular culture in America.

Both books, Howard’s Stephen Foster, America’s Troubadour and Marks’s They All Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallee, are for Burke a way to take on the commodification of song in America: “The art song, no matter how great its pretentions, falls clearly in the category of ‘business’” (484). Anyone searching the works of Kenneth Burke will be forgiven for regarding this passage as a kind of “Aha! The smoking gun!” of the case that argues Burke as an elitist, pompous apologist for all that was (and may still be) wrong about the high/low divide in American culture. The attitude suggests why Burke hardly ever wrote of popular music, and when, he did, the case against, for example, George Gershwin arises. But that was the 1920s—here in the 1930s Burke would still seem to be holding out for a high positioning against even the art song which he subdivides using Foster as a “purveyor of pleasant melancholy to millions” via the folk song, and Tin Pan Alley as doing the same, but in endless repetition: “An endless procession of agitated and unstable bohemians who quickly manufactured the raw materials of sentiment into salable objects” (485) whose “one aim . . . was to turn out a commercially useful product” (485).

The echo of Theodor Adorno’s charge of “pseudo-individualizations” is almost preternatural here. Burke reveals that originality is still a touchstone of great music, which the popular composers of the era do not have: “Any work that caught the public fancy was immediately followed by an avalanche of imitators, each of whom attempted to abstract the factor he considered most responsible for the success of the piece, and to put together a commodity which would exemplify this factor still more intensively” (485).

Popular songs would seem to feed the masses’ need for repeated pleasures of the same kind, and the folk song, which Burke sees lodged in Foster’s legacy, has to do with “things far away and long ago” (485).  Thus, the fountainhead of Foster and his degraded Tin Pan Alley dwellers are both caught in pandering to a mass demand for repetition and nostalgia.  The present has no movement, no mystery; the future is not interesting, not even real. What Burke has decided the masses have are the near-hypnotic delights of popular song, an atrophied form whose rhetoric is sickly, nostalgic longing for something past.

One can see, even at this stage of his career, that Burke is not moving so obviously in his perspectives from high aesthetic to one somewhat lower that he cannot take on, what he sees as the commodification of art for purely business ends; what occurred so often in aesthetic discussions of the 1930s—the sentimentalized heroism of the proletarian hero and his “art song”––will not be at all the same fare for Burke. He has a much more complex set of allegiances to forge. In his October 1934 column he argues that Hindemith is as much a function of Hindemith’s nation’s contemporary “psyche” as he is a musician or artist without boundaries or allegiances. He is something more; he is, in this time of a growing threat, an “integrative function” that art can perform upon its artists. This integrative function has to do with drawing together parts or features of a whole—Germany—that otherwise should not be brought together since the nation is now considered, as it is, dangerous. The threat will increase if there is a consequential art: one that seems rhetorically operable upon audiences beyond mere emotional or impressionistic grounds.

Burke, after praising Hindemith’s abilities, warns:

I might add my belief that great art always will be found to base its appeal  upon such a synthetic, or “coordinating” capacity, and that this function is regrettable only at times when psychological fusions serve to conceal economic division.  In other words, Germany is not now entitled to have a musician as capable as Hindemith, whose abilities can help to integrate a political attitude which requires disintegration. When there is need of revolution it is not until the revolution has occurred that the integrative function of art can fully operate without tending to obscure issues and alignments that should be sharpened. (“Hindemith Does His Part” 488)

The audience is being confronted, in other words, with a bigger picture than mere tonal content: the audience is being brought under the banner of nation as if the music is a synecdoche of nationhood. In certain times, this is good; other times, no. And when that nation is veering toward fascism, any consequence of art that would appear to coalesce with that spirit in tonal language is a synthesis of politics and art that—as rhetoric—should be not “entitled.”

What has caused this alarm in Burke?  Audience reaction, as God-like, in which a passage in Hindemith’s “Matthias de Maler”, “released the explosions of applause among the composer’s countrymen, whose appetite is for the “archaic,” “devotional,” “militaristic”: “the requirements of the German psyche at the moment” (488).

Burke expresses no doubt that music is the trigger of these nationalistic outbursts of applause, not the music as “pure” but the music tainted, in this case, with a national furor, a nationalistic disease or psychosis that the rhetorical art of music can alone synthesize and perform. Such now is the function of music, in ways alike to Cicero’s good orator and good man: not so willingly judged as a technical phenomenon but as a device of the moment to capture the spirit not of the composer’s mind, not of the form’s own capacities, but of the dreams and wishes of the audience.

So, three paths seem to emerge for Burke in the wilderness of the mid-1930s as he fights to articulate his own position on the role of art in politics. We might call them the podium, product, and purpose, suggesting the artist, text, and audience triangle of the communication triangle, but here enacted somewhat more freely and eventfully in the music. Burke is perfectly willing to work, as he did in The Dial columns, on each separately, but the balance has certainly shifted from the first and second to the third. We might imagine a flow chart, initially valorizing the “heroic” posture of the composer and conductor—the enactor of the music, inhabitant of the podium, who can be brilliantly interpreted by Burke as the tonal form emerges in performance—to the eventual uptake in the audience, the purpose of this no longer residing in the form itself as having been brought to the day by “modernizing” genius of its practitioners. Rather, the story reaches its more effectual conclusion in the way audiences think and feel about the “product,” whether that product be the mere folk song of a Foster warped into an obvious cookie cutter commodity by Tin Pan Alley or by the grand scaling of a Hindemith somehow metamorphosing elements of a national character into the ancient and militaristic blaring of horns. High and low, the “voice of God” is the response of the audience, until then mute in the regard or posture of the listener who, perhaps, receives the prayers of the tonal priests. The audience, situated in a web of specific historical conditions affecting all such discourse of the mid-1930s, must answer, Burke argues, as citizens.

Burke fights Hindemith and his “Hitlerite orthodoxy” with Roy Harris’s “A Song for Occupation” in Burke’s next column in December on “A Most Useful Composition.” In contrast to Hindemith’s “ominous trinity—hymn, lullaby, and military march” (719), Burke (via Harris) counters with Walt Whitman: “Musically accentuating the tonalities and rhythms of Whitman’s ecstatically conversational prose, the record of men busied with their tasks” (719). Burke explicitly counters Hindemith’s fascist synthesis of counterpoint with the “rhythms of speech”, “stressing the constructive non-competitive, communicative aspect of work” (719) [Burke’s emphasis].

No questions remain about the communicative power of music, its ability to verbalize, in this case the plain American rhythms of speech, and of speech arising out of work, that homeliest and most common of daily activity.

Burke leaps at the response of the audience to Harris’s Whitman in a passage that is surely a declaration of the purposiveness of this tonal language:

The response of the audience was gratifying. There was none of that deadly amuse-me-or-off-with your-head attitude of the usual concert-going public, who receive their entertainers with the weary passiveness of some fabulously jaded Oriental potentate wile the performing virtuoso in desperation rips at the keyboard like a tornado or turns somersaults on a slack wire fifty feet above the stage. There are doubtless many important steps to be taken before we have completely thrown off this state of musicological corruption wherein people consider music with the casual curiosity of an uninformed idler killing an extra hour among the fossils in a museum of natural history. Our whole philosophy and methodology of living must be remade before this ominous element has been eliminated and something of that cultural hunger which seems to animate the audiences of contemporary Russja can again prevail. But Harris’s new work goes far toward restoring the participant function of audiences as distinct from a merely receptive one. (720)
Equipment for living, indeed: a “musical equivalent of pragmatism, the philosophy of a people who would discover poetry in jobs” (720).

This sense of having settled on a somewhat less complicated view of the functioning of music—satisfying the cultural hunger of peoples or nations—seems to have allowed Burke in his final five columns of The Nation—his final columns in his lifetime on the music scene in America, to disperse his attention across a far more broad array of cultural phenomena that are, in some cases, only tangential to the music “event” that was almost the sole focus of his music writing to that point.

Beginning with the February 1935 number, Burke wrote a book review, a performance of a Shostakovich piece (though unnoted as to where and when, unusual in its unspecified details), an essay on ballet, a review of records, and a final piece that is as much about music criticism as it is about music.  No sure pattern arises from this final procession of columns. The record review, ballet and conference report are unique to The Dial and The Nation pieces, and the book review only once repeated. The obvious conclusion one can make from this dispersion of interest is a lessening of interest as well: the eventfulness of the concert was somehow less important as Burke hit mid-decade, or was better understood in a finer array of encounters with American culture as it struggled against economic conditions and those extra-national events, particularly in Europe, that Burke saw as metonymically present in America as musical compositions and their reception.

One can pull back even further and see that, in the longer narrative arc of the career, these two sustained streaks of music criticism are hardly streaks at all, more like spots of particular color upon that arc, and are traces of a now-diminishing interest in the aesthetic conceits of the 1920s; we have already seen how The Nation columns appear to have audience and economics soldered into them, wedged in with a somewhat graceless crowbar at times. The highly partisan The Nation could not stand quite the acontextual musings of The Dial Burke. The latter pieces have forced Burke to come down to a more collective consciousness of the cheap seats and without the privileged, narrow interests of only classical music or even its modern counterpart. Instead, that privilege now must extend to the masses. Burke, as unhappy as he is with popular music for those same masses, must still acknowledge it and its rhetorical power.

And it is not only the music itself, or its wise docents, that will shape audience response. A full volume of cultural observation by Constance Lambert called Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline is just the sort of perspective that Burke sympathizes with; thus Burke sets forth not only to agree but to disagree as well. Lambert takes a perspective similar to Burke’s Dial: “The one great drawback of Lambert’s study, from my point of view, is that it shows too little sympathy for the aesthetic behind the new collectivist trends in art” (“A Pleasant View of Decay”). He finds Lambert too simplistic in her objections to the collective spirit: “The artist who is one of a group . . . writes for that group alone, whereas the artist who expresses personal experience may in the end reach universal experience” (201).  Lambert’s prime example is Jean Sibelius, whom Burke characterizes as “the lonely Finn”, an amusing turn on the separation of the artist from his society that, in the past, has seemed to be a little more expressive of genius than only “lonely.”

The review underscores an earlier point: the triangle of composer, text, and audience has been reapportioned by this collectivist spirit in Burke’s Nation columns; what is collective, or cumulative perhaps, is not only the audience’s judgment and its powers to affect great movements among popular culture, but also the composers themselves who, like Roy Harris, find ways to make explicit connections to American culture, to poets like Walt Whitman who, in perpetuity, stand for the common voice and collective spirit of America and the American experience.

Burke ends the review with a provocative formula for the rhetorical functioning of music in the mid-thirties, after rejecting Lambert’s tilt toward the artist. Burke writes, “It is a problem in the coordination of production and consumption” (201), a systemic challenge, in other words, in a time and place that requires a collectivist spirit to dominate and, eventually, to overcome historical conditions that threaten this spirit.

Burke’s next column, “What Shostakovich Adds”, extends this debate of the aesthetic contra the political into a particular case, the composer’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk.” Characteristic of much of Burke’s career, in this column he looks for the compounding of alternative solutions rather than a singular response to a problem that excludes one or the other. The audience at this performance is again “engrossed” at the composer’s “confidence” and the orchestra’s “authoritativeness” (230). The opera is “topical” yet still artful:

we heard here and there the customary complaints about the intrusion of propaganda into art, and the unfeasibility of same, it might be relevant to remember that the French master [Flaubert] of “pure art” wrote books practically all of which were redoubted at the time of their appearance for their sharp political implications. (230)

“Redoubted” is an interesting word for interpreted—the audience again becomes the judge of whether we do, in fact, have a mingling of art and politics. Of course, we do, Burke says, and he expresses a personal slight:

as one who is still disgruntled at the memory of how unfairly the radical critics in America treated the “aesthetic” movement when the first zest of  political criticism was on, I was pleased to see a contemporary Soviet composer following the patterns of anti-bourgeois thought quite as Flaubert had laid them down. (231)

Whether Katerina, the opera’s central figure who plunges to her death in the icy waters of Siberia, is a truly tragic figure or is the object of the composer’s irony, this is the open question that stimulates Burke’s thinking about the rhetorical device of the orchestra within the performance. As modern Greek chorus whose ‘voices” can signal a kind of Wagnerian leit-motif of coloring or hinted-at interpretation, this interior device of judgment suggests that the orchestra itself can make the rhetorical force of the politics suggested in the opera somewhat clearer. An internal audience is created—rather like the Greek chorus—so that there is a narrowing of interpretive possibilities. The work becomes more focused, more functional as political commentary upon the explicit features of the story—in this particular case, the bourgeois life of the central character and her pitiful (perhaps tragic) end.

The column is the last of Burke’s on a single composer, as if the hero still recedes amongst the collectivist identity of the 1930s. Burke underscores this greater embrace of the “author” in the column’s closing sentence, in which he argues that this device of the interpretive orchestra is “a kind of ‘rational’ trend which need not, like a trick, be confined to one man but could be developed by operatic composers of many different hues” (231).

Burke will not ascribe the invention of this device to either the Greeks or Wagner or Shostakovich; rather it remains a kind of mutable device available to all: its core the collective voice of a classical aesthetic convention of the drama, returning now at a moment when American culture was itself struggling to find or invent such a collective voice that it could call, in the face of international and national challenges of economic and political revolution, American.

In his next and penultimate columns for The Nation in, March and December 1935, respectively, Burke retreats comfortably again into the role of the average audience member who is innocently looking for some kind of comfort, some vicarious thrill in the face of changing economic conditions, or even more simply the phenomenon of the aging physical body. In his column on “The Problems of Ballet”, he begins by asserting that the dance is “vicarious atonement” for our being lethargic; besides the comic overtones, the address to the common complaint of “too many months of winter” suggests a search not for the meaning of life, for instance, but the meaning of aches and pains: thus the “spectacular kind of art” like the Roman circus (343). Here the satiric creeps back into Burke’s language again, a little bit of a sneer, directed of course at himself as well as others, over the reasons for our going to events in the first place: cultural “atonement” having been the pre-judgment of a culture that languishes in the spectator arts of the dance, sport, and physical display for vicarious enjoyment.

His penultimate column, “Recent Records,” is initially a meditation on the erasure of difference among audience types’ access to art, a variation on the preceding argument: one may now become a part of a larger group, the purchaser of art, through the wonders of reproductions of art, and thus elide the economic privileges of attending concerts at prices beyond mere mortals.  Indeed, Burke invokes the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the ultimate purchase:

Historians of ancient Egypt tell us that at first the privileges of immortality were restricted to the Pharaohs; later, an ever-widening circle of priests and royal followers acquired the same benefits; and eventually, as the ‘democratization of Osirianism’ progressed, it became possible for even very humble men to purchase a few magic scrips by which they might safeguard their destiny after death. (692)

Burke amusingly conjoins this with the buying of records; what are immortal are the great orchestras now, captured on discs, their “expert performers” at one’s service at the drop of a needle, or the drop of one’s money. Access is extended, and the commodity of the record is quickly dispensed with in favor of brief discussions of the recordings, as if they were, upon being played, as magically re-vivified as the spirits of those ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.

We read only that the Sibelius Second Symphony by Kouusevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra is contained on eleven discs. Other than that daunting detail, we have brief review of Ormandy’s Beethoven, Mahler, and Honegger discs. Sharing the printed page of this December 1935 column is an advertisement by victor for a recent batch of recordings, notable for RCA Victor’s own rhetoric of “Burke’s Pharaoh”:

music is essentially a part of everyone’s life. It gives you the pleasure of passing on to a friend some particular musical preference of your own. . . and gives the recipient the opportunity of sharing a type of entertainment that is especially dear to his heart. Above all, it permits hearing at will the best music performed by solo artists and orchestra of great reputation. (693)

The unproblematic dissemination of art to the masses, when reduced to what has been given the imprimatur of industry—RCA Victor, for example—is of no consequence to Burke except when he is in his mode of capturing all humanity in its need for “atonement.” He believes that “we may at times profit by a partial democratization of spiritual goods” (692), partial perhaps in their distribution and consumption, if not their production.

The production of great art Burke reserves for his final column for The Nation, “A Bright Evening, with Musicians.” Published on the first day of 1936, the column manages to synthesize much of what Burke was interested in as he surveyed the music scene in late 1935, and recounted in such a way that a slim narrative emerges.  The occasion is a combined concert and symposium sponsored by the New Music Society. Aaron Copland speaks first, and Burke is sympathetic to Copland’s melancholic recounting of the dilemma facing composers who are looking for a niche in the contemporary scene; Burke quotes Copland as saying that the composer need write something “that is somehow an expression of the times”––or face anonymity. Burke ascribes to Copland the laying out of a continuum that is familiar to Burke’s readers, since Burke himself has proposed it in so many words: the more contemporarily popular the work, the more it will trend toward being perceived, or heard, as entertainment; and, the more technically recondite it is, the more it will be appreciated only by that small band of trained listeners, the musicians themselves, and the rare critic.

Burke calls this “the problem of the expert,” for which Burke doubts “there will ever be a final answer . . . . It is an irreconcilable dualism inherent in our complex social structure” (27). The “dualism” is a kind of collapsed continuum of reception, in which communication is more or less a function of the non-specialist. In other words, the artist, whose medium is some sort of language, faces rejection as he works more and more on the nature of the medium itself, since he will be pushing that medium, or use of that medium, away from the received procedures.

But Burke lets fly with a very brief comment that would seem to undercut his own refusal to answer or solve this dilemma, and at the same time he pushes the debate into a rhetorical solution of sorts: Copland “did not discuss the ways in which a work is or is not contemporary” (27). While elaborating briefly on this remark having to do with how continuous we consider the threads of history to be, the remark may indicate the situational response that Burke has been working from all along: the music in itself has no effect, but its performance here or there does. Not only could a composer like Toscanini make a nineteenth century composer more “contemporary’ in the performance of his symphony at the Polo Grounds, the demographics of the audience would affect its ontology as well.  In short, the contemporariness of a work is no longer inherent in the work itself—but in the reception of it, as Burke has demonstrated in both The Dial and the Nation columns on the eventfulness of the musical event.

The review of the evening continues, with the significant example of Charles Ives, who at the time had very little standing in the critical community and certainly not in popular music circles; Burke illustrates the “specialist problem” with Ives, whom he says hardly thought of the performability of his work, Ives being “so far from the tests of production”(27). Burke pairs the overly-expert Ives with the critical perspective of a speaker named Eisler, who falls heavily on the propaganda side, or music made entertaining for the sake of an explicit message, preferably political. Burke disposes with the either/or “simplification” of the man with an amusing response: “Some would call ‘let us be on the side of the angels’ poetry and ‘let us be on the side of the party’ prose; in so far as you agree, you will tend to resist Eisler” (27).

Burke ends his career at The Nation’s music desk with a characteristically comic, though earnest, evaluation of just what it means to confound and compound the problems implicit in any criticism of art in his time: “Perhaps, all told, nothing was permanently ‘solved.’ But for one evening, at least, much of the composer’s plight was solved. Astute people who stayed away weren’t so astute either. I have been to no other concert of new music that elicited so much zeal from the audience” (27). He manages to fold composer, music, audience, and occasion into one natural formfullness, optimistic in its outcomes, selective in its uptake, dramatic in its choices and emotions, and representing as always a peak experience for the author, who, in 1935, was working on texts that had everything to do with his own future as a great voice of the twentieth century—as these small columns of brilliance did not.

Chapter Five: Final Notes

The rest, of course, is not quite silence. To use the renewable voice of the novel, comes now the torrent. With Permanence and Change, Attitudes toward History, and The Philosophy of Form all appearing within five years of his last Nation column, and with Auscultation, Creation, and Revision written just prior to and during the Nation columns, Burke releases a torrent of words upon his audiences, and the ephemera of his music writing seemed to disappear like sound into a passing cloud.

There are the occasional uses of music as metaphor, or musicality as a feature of poetry, the occasional reference to opera, and discussions of music and musicians that occur in the letters to friends and acquaintances—yet there is no sustained attention to music in the remaining half-century of Burke’s life with the  exception of the short story “The Anesthetic Revelation of Herone Liddell” from 1957 and a later essay to be discussed in this chapter; the short story has been placed early in this book’s consideration of Burke on music because it does not cap or summarize—more, it recalls the earlier work, the inventive power of music to revive the “mintage” Burke describes as the coin of the creative and the critical (Auscultation, in Chesebro 144).

So we are left with crumbs that seem to have been tossed carelessly into the masterpieces for mainly illustrative purposes. Music, in short, ceases to be; it does, however continue to function, but as a rhetorical tool in order to underpin arguments about the verbal world. What has been given up is music’s absoluteness, its sovereignty, and its aesthetic of presence against the silence of non-regard and against the noise of the modern world; it has, by virtue of its expedience, become a part of that noise, the undifferentiated voice of the worker, for example. What may stand out occasionally is the remarkable achievement of a nineteenth-century composer, Wagner, whose opera has a richness of narrative content that permits it to become a part of an array of discussed texts as if it were now, finally, only on a par with the novel.

Of course, the perspective was never this: a great shift from some angle of the music critic to one of society, literature, language, and rhetoric. The work on music was always sedentary, backgrounded, minor. No one reading Burke at the time could have felt, in other words, that something significant had happened to Burke’s critical gaze: a slight, turn, perhaps, but certainly not a swerve or disruption, a mysterious elision. Better to put one in that reading position and think, “Hmm, Burke’s music column used to run here.” Shrug. The sharp cone of brilliant light cast upon the concert would be replaced by the great floodlamps trained upon society at large. Enough of the limited frame of the concert, or even the recording: give him the human concert, the conversation.

So what was never really dominant becomes further recessive, and it is not the point of this little book to try to illuminate what would follow the work on music. There are the interesting tonal/verbal dichotomy discussions, of course, and the metaphorical uses—certainly to be read as “illuminations”—but the subject of this book remains his work on music as work on music and not on symbolicity or rhetoric. Rather than attaching the remaining musical references, as scattered as they are, to some masterpiece of the time, in which they are embedded, I will go through the most stimulating as forming a kind of conceptual coda over the decades to the concentrated work of The Dial and The Nation columns.

Dignity. I choose the term carefully, cognizant that it may hardly serve—as symbol or piety or aesthetic or rhetoric also do not—as a watch term, a crowning ultimate term for Burke’s achievement.  For its consubstantiality with music, however, I will make the case, a perspective of congruity with those greater perspectives that Burke turned to when he, in his final column, saluted composer, audience, and sound in one small but grandly synthetic gesture.

The chord/arpeggio binary presented in The Philosophy of Literary Form is a perfect example of the way earlier thought informed Burke, how he would reach for an earlier perspective in order to illuminate a new one: “. . . if A is in the same chordal structure with B and C, its kindred membership must be revealed by narrative arpeggios. That is, its function as an associate will be revealed by associational progressions in the work itself” (58-59). The chord in music is, of course, two or more tones sounded simultaneously in order to create a fullness, an at-onceness of sound that can in itself be harmonically conventional or not, can serve as a creative explosion in the middle of one-note lines, or simply to underscore a moment with the beauty or terror of many sounds at once.  In PLF, Burke uses the chord as a kind of backhanded entry into narrative and the consecutiveness of the reading experience—or, if at that time he was still as much text-driven as audience-aware, the way authors can construct a “chordal” effect over time, i.e. with the arpeggio structure. The arpeggio is the drawn out chord, or the unstacked chord, so that each part of the chord is sounded separately. Visually, Burke might have referred to the way the eye casts itself over an image: the image does not move, the eye does, and in so doing picks out an infinite number of “tones” in constructing out of this arpeggiation, a sense of the image’s chordal power.

But does the use of this metaphor of the chord say anything at all about Burke’s rhetoric of music?  Probably not. In fact, music now seems in servile usage to literature, the easy effectiveness of the metaphor. It does, however, suggest that, in his choice of figures, Burke returns to the well of earlier inspiration: not architecture, not painting or sculpture, or nature, but music.

Perhaps more interesting in PLF is his brief discussion of musicality and verse, presented as a rough transcript of a portion of a course on Coleridge he gave at the University of Chicago in 1938.  Burke’s conclusion is as interesting as his discussion beforehand: he makes no attempt to draw any connection whatsoever between sound and meaning, “I have here been offering coordinates for the analysis of musicality pure and simple, without concern for the possible expressionistic relation between certain types of tonal gesturing and certain types of attitude” (378).  “Tonal gesturing” is his term for peppering a poem with many gutturals, for examples, or a regular display of plosives; and he is careful not to draw some simple association between those sounds and any determined meaning or attitude toward them. If one refers to music alone, one can say, for example, that the trilling of a flute is recognizable in its repetitions, but not exactly what it must mean: speculative stabs can be made at that trill, or the hammer strokes of tympani, but Burke is not to be trapped by tonal similarities in written language, or “musicality,” with the relatively closed game of meaning in the close reading of texts.  Nevertheless, there is something in literature that is “musical,” a purity of sound that would seem to simply move the language along with an added expressiveness, an implied emotional content that floats above or under a delimited meaning.

This undefined relation between music and literature, or language, can be seen as an ongoing question that arose in Burke’s youthful idealism. In his letters to Malcolm Cowley, Burke displays the kind of positive ambivalence that would be a hallmark of his mature writing: a celebration of both/and over either/or, a working out of the compound, sometimes contradictory solution over the too-narrow simplicities of a single answer. While still a teenager, Burke tells Cowley:

Think of it, Mal, to have two mediums! Perhaps I shall be able to set free verse to music? Hein? That would be fine. And the music is so much more satisfactory than literature anyway. It is an exquisite enjoyment just to play chords, just to tantalize oneself with dissonances, and then resolve them. Music awakens more reactions in us, and reactions which are of a more organic nature . . . (24)

Music wins this one, although in spirit only perhaps, as having some superior seat in the welling of emotions. “Reactions” are an interesting point in this letter, suggesting that reading, even at this age, has become a more analytical or intellectualized activity for Burke than might be expected; music, on the other hand, is “organic,” seated deeply in some pre-linguistic zone.

Cowley, for his part, denies that Burke should choose allegiance to music, thinks that the music people he knows “are not interesting” and that Burke should find a way to do both: “A little broadness as well as a little concentration” (26). Burke seems to have followed this formula very well. Almost 30 years later in 1944 Burke is still displaying the both/and of literature and music to Cowley—at this point, though, the music going private, while literature, here Dostoevsky and the modern crime novel as focus, is more typical of what the published Burke will look like:

I have gone on now, for a couple of years, partly by theory, partly by trial and error, contriving some new sounds, with progressions from one to another, and so on to the next, etc. They are a kind of reversion to the days of my short stories, except that they aim at that sort of thing this time sans paroles. I gravitate between two styles, which I have labeled “faiblesses” and “sournoiseries.” The sournoiseries threaten to become odd and sullen; the faiblesses threaten to become so sweet that I sometimes don’t even write them down. But there’re some faiblesses sournoises and vice versa—and these I have eternized. So usually for several hours a week, I pound away at these, thus indirectly repeating, “I am I,” until I wonder who am I . . .  (262)

As in the letter from his teen years, the music is somehow deeper, more private, recessed in a psychology that has as its top layer language and literature and those relations. Burke suggests that his loyalty to the piano is echoing the years in the twenties when he wrote short fiction: a young man continues to manifest itself in Burke’s creative output, but he is hidden by the relative sophistication of the literary critic. Even in the musical output there are the attacks on categorization at the same moment they are thrown up in structures of the fable and the sournoise: they dance apart and together, and serve best of all to show that their composer still believes that in the creative act there is something to be “eternized.”

Cowley, significantly, says nothing in his response about his friend’s composing, only the need to write on the crime novel. Thirty years has passed, and Cowley must see the red herring for what it is: Burke’s lament for what is only one life to live and its inevitable identification with literature, which will be the subject of individual essays to the end.  Music, on the other hand, disappears; even a substantial essay like “the Thinking of the Body” from 1963, promises a sub-section on Wagner’s Ring, but after its label as an “opera” it is treated as a text, with terms like problem, battle, dramas, plays, and letters and not a single musicological term. In the posthumous collection On Human Nature, Wagner is again involved in a conference paper from 1982. Here, Wagner serves as an example of anticipatory analogy, a sign of “the nature of our times variously anticipated in earlier times”:

The tremendous amount of organization in a Wagnerian opera, for instance, when at fortissimo moments it blares and blasts and pounds as on a battlefield in obedience to the commands of an authoritarian “leader,” is enough to give me the feel at times that the Hitlerite Blitzkrieg was but the transference of the same powers from one set of terms to the another (a feeling which Hitler himself seems to have shared). (110)

One remembers the music columns that paint Toscanini and Koussevitsky in a heroic light. Now, the “leader” is cast more darkly, as an “authority” that resembles the leader of armies and nations. A collapse of boundaries—not only temporal but also aesthetic and rhetorical—and what is left is “blares and blasts,” as unmusical as musical terms can be.

One is left rather like the reporters in Citizen Kane who, when presented with a mountain of evidence of the title character’s larger-than-life vitality, search for the essential key to Kane’s life in a single phrase, “Rosebud,” that must offer itself to them as a victim of the man’s multiplicities and at the same time suggest a salvation for anyone who must look for one answer among many. This reader of the Burke oeuvre has suffered a similar intuitive search, since it is simultaneously fine and terrible to essentialize 60 years of work, fine for its romanticism, its search for the grain of sand, and terrible for it says about the organizational needs of the human mind.

But there it is: a final piece upon which to conclude this discussion of Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric of music.  It appears in 1977 in Critical Inquiry as part of a series that the journal was publishing called “Artists on Art.” The series title is interesting in itself, suggesting that Burke, and Critical Inquiry, was willing to grant the discussion as emanating from not a critic or a philosopher or an analyst, but an artist, in this case in the throes of creating art. “Post-Poesque Derivation of a Terministic Cluster” does not answer any of the current issue-related squabbles of the time, as were many of his essays directed at individuals like Fredric Jameson, or B. F. Skinner or René Wellek. Instead, Burke invokes Edgar Allan Poe assertion that Poe’s poem “The Raven,” as Burke quotes Poe, “proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequences of a mathematical problem.”

Burke has no more use for Poe except to touch and then separate himself from him: “My aim is not to show how certain interrelated commonplaces were deduced. Rather, I would offer a rationale whereby they would be deducible” (215). In other words, Burke wishes to aim higher than a mere poem for what he intends to argue: the relation of body to language, or speechlessness to speech. His object is not a mere self-analysis in the mode of Poe, although Burke will begin the piece with a text of his own. His tool, or his “terministic bridge” for this argument, is music.

As with the late texts that seem to invoke music, like the one that discusses Wagner above, there is not any real musicological analysis, no discussion of “pitch” or “melody” or “harmony” or “technique” as fill The Dial columns, no particular attention to emotive content or performance.  Instead, the emphasis is on the words, or lyrics, of the musical text.  But it is in the processional gaps between “my quite orthodox tune” and “the hand-to-mouth job of writing words” for his “Chorale Omega” that Burke struggles, in spectacular and complex fashion, to find what it is that music might finally be, what its rhetoric is in that gap between what Burke calls “this life as sheerly physiological organisms” (216) and “our public acts as citizens” (219).

Burke sees our lives as finding ways to close the gap between these two realities; he believes, however that this dissonant pair is “our role as divided natures (half-dumb bodies, half-involved with symbol systems such as tribal languages) moves us far from the state of inarticulate physiological motion” (216).  In shorter notation, Burke is working out the body/language divide, the motion/action divide, the speechlessness speech divide, the sound/sense divide.  He is working it out in such a way as to suggest, as he would remark, as a true believer of the trinity, or better in communicative terms, a dialectic that yields a new product, a third form that has transcended both ingredients or progenitors.

The transcendental instrument is discussed briefly in an essay form the 1960s, “I EYE AY” in which Emerson provides Burke with a solution to the insolvency of distinct realms that must understand each other. Burke’s answer is a “terministic bridge” that somehow does not erase but comprises the two.  In the current essay, there is no explicit mention of this terministic bridge, for reasons discussed below, but what I call the “processional gaps” above is in fact this third entity, described in experiential terms for Burke as, “the whole a tangle that culminated in this clear emergence” (217).

The divide between body and language, or physiology and speech, confounds with its apples-and-oranges feel. One might more readily say that the two are often present together, but are distinct in their function. But Burke is after two kinds of “sound” that arise from these two things: expressions of supplication and the communication of ideas. Now the bridge is clearer, and the entities divided are not so much different as consecutive phenomena of the human life-span. After discussing the actual cries and prayers of the human, Burke describes this development of meaning: “a hymn is for a less extreme form of address—and whereas ‘cry’ is on the purely physiological side of our beginnings, ‘call’ is the counterpoint where considerations of verbal address are in order, as is a verse-form of the sort we are here concerned with” (216). We learn to call, with intention, when our infancy shows us the unintentional effects of the cry, which are the same. One is made with consciousness, the other not.

Both, however, are heard.  In a follow up essay a year later, also in Critical Inquiry, Burke invokes Jung and Freud in order to illustrate the difficulties of handling the motion/action phenomenon in a consistent way:

There is a kind of “synchronic” relationship between the realm of symbolic action and its grounding in the sensations made possible by the physiology of nonsymbolic motion. Such would seem to be at the roots of Jung’s concern (almost nostalgic concern?) with the “polar” problem inherent in his ideal of an overall nomenclature to be formed in the name of Unus Mundus.

Freud’s concern with the temporally prior would be on the “diachronic” side, having to do with the fact that the human animal develops from speechlessness (nonsymbolic infancy) through successive stages in the ways of symbolicity . . . . In any case, both of such concerns (Jung’s and Freud’s) require us to track down the ultimate implications of what it is to be the kind of animal who relations between its Self (as an individual) and its Culture (its society) is infused (“inspirited”) with the genius (for better or worse) of its symbols systems, which it learns to manipulate and by which it gets correspondingly manipulated. (“(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action” 164-165).

In this later piece Burke is less interested in a transcendence of these warring paradigms of growth, seeing now that any closing of the gap is an aesthetic manipulation of difference so that, with examples of Keats and Yeats, “the realm of symbolic action take[s] over, in terms of images that stand for things (materials) themselves symbolic” 165).

And so the tantalizing offer of transcendence seems withdrawn, but the offer remains: “all is symbol” if the thing is or the self is nothing until named, which is the moment of symbolizing. Or, as Burke writes in the later essay, “Even if we don’t know a thing’s name, it exists for us only as we think of it as potentially nameable” (165).

Where does this leave us with the “Chorale Omega”? Burke has extended his own experience with the musical form to illustrate this deducible, and irreducible, fact about human relations: we begin in speechlessness, find voice, and thus learn to petition audiences, who will hear our prayers, broadly or narrowly understood. In an echo of his Dial assertion that the audience is “the voice of God” the “petitioned” is powerful, the petitioner weak. Burke again outlines the human story in terms of symbol systems: “the more absolute the power, the greater the impulse to make fear of a helpful power and praise of that power into convertible terms” (217).

“Convertible terms,” “public acts,” “purely physiological motion”: caught in this web of pre-conditions, of ineluctable forward movement, of synchronic or diachronic action, we are to see the composer of the “Chorale Omega,” and, for example, Richard Wagner, Mozart, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ellington, Cole Porter, and Lennon/McCartney with their “tribal language”, a system of symbols (nevertheless dialectal in their relation to one another) creating some sort of rhetorical force in the world.

Yet the discussion seems to turn textual, or linguistic again; the musical content has dropped away as Burke works through his own composing process, and deals more generally with the relation of poet to poem, about the effects and causes of disease among the creative soul, and how these may or may not manifest in the work. The last half of the essay has nothing to say about music or its features, and we are left again with the intimation that when Burke speaks of “fiction” or any “dramatic ‘imitation’” he would seem to be embedding music in this creative universe, especially since he has begun this discussion of the creative act with his own musical composition. (Another published musical composition, the song “One Light in a Dark Valley,” is subtitled an “Imitation Spiritual,” and published in Collected Poems with musical notation; Burke calls it “feeble-minded,” and in the same letter refers to “Post-Poesque Derivation of a Terministic Cluster” as “a theory of ‘commonplaces’ in my words, to match the commonplaces of the music” (Burke, Letters 408); his grandson, the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, will record the song for Dance Band on the Titanic).

The self-deprecating tone of Burke’s remarks about his own forays into music and musical composition aside, the elision of music as a stand-alone symbol system continues.  While the sense of music as “tribal” or “dialectal,” the latter as he refers to music in an early Dial column, has survived some 50 years in Burke’s career. The easy brilliance of Burke’s “Inventory” has not, in which music seems to stand as a magnificent “song above catastrophe,” or at least above a darkening mood, and which is identified with the sounds of the city, a crafted noise that the country can only counter with Nature.  That easy opposition of Art against Nature is no longer present in this late essay; instead, Burke falls into a double-sided consideration of the simultaneous and consecutive existence in symbols. The either/or, which Burke would counter endlessly with both/and, the trinary coup that might transcend choice and confirm an embrace of both in their individual and cultural manifestations, is called a “possibility” in this essay but, when paired with “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/ (Symbolic) Action” seems not terribly persuasive or, at best, a trick of the eye and mind contemplating a universe in which every perceived thing has, by virtue of its thingness, a meaning.

The dualism abides. And as Burke reads his own art, the verbal world emerges from a physiological one, symbols out of needs. Sound, finally, is a current upon which words eventually “cry,” “call,” and depart from, a medium in itself no longer complete for analysis––of fear and terror, yes, but of a kind that Burke quotes Aristotle as calling “tragic pleasure” (219), to distinguish from the real. Or, as Burke once more dances backward from any privileging of the non-aesthetic, the “real.”

Coda: Without a Song

Four days after the towers fell, Sonny Rollins performs in concert at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.  When the applause gives way to Rollins’s announcement of the first tune, the audience hears that the band will “start out” with something that Rollins knew “when I was growing up.” Rollins adds that “it’s very appropriate at this time” and that “everybody feels this way” (Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert).

In this manner Rollins captures the life of song at a moment without song.

To many of those in the hall, the words are indeed heard, silently sounded under the jazz of Rollins and his band: “Without a song the day would never end / Without a song the road would never bend / When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend / Without a song . . . .”

* Jeffrey Carroll is a Professor of English in the Department of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, Hawaii.  He can be reached via email at

Works Cited


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----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (January 1928): 84-88.

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----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (March 1928): 265-267.

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----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 84 (June 1928): 536-538.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 85 (July 1928): 85-88.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 85 (December 1928): 529-532.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (January 1929): 87-89.

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----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (March 1929): 242-243.

----. "Musical Chronicle." The Dial 86 (April 1929): 356-358.

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----. "Schönberg." The Nation 137 (November 1933): 633-643.

----. "Orpheus in New York." The Nation 138 (January 1934): 52-54.

----. "Two Brands of Piety." The Nation 138 (February 1934): 256-258. 

----. "The End and Origin of a Movement." The Nation 138 (April 1934): 422-424.

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----. "Hindemith Does His Part." The Nation 139 (October 1934): 487-488.

----. "A Most Useful Composition." The Nation 139 (December 1934): 719-720.

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----. "The 'Problems' of the Ballet." The Nation 140 (March 1935): 343-344.

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Burke, Kenneth. “Curriculum Criticum.” Counter-Statement. Rev. ed.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

----. “Post-Poesque Derivation of a Terministic Cluster.” Critical Inquiry 4 (Winter 1977): 215-220.

----. “(Nonsymbolic) Motion/(Symbolic) Action.” Critical Inquiry 4 (Summer 1978): 809-838. In Burke, On Human Nature, 139-171.

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Company, 1932; 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

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Chesebro, James, ed. Extensions of the Burkeian System. Tuscaloosa: University of  Alabama Press, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friederich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.

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Ro Rollins, Sonny. Without A Song: The 9/11 Concert. Milestone 2005.

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The Song above Catastrophe: Kenneth Burke on Music by Jeffrey Carroll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0. Based on a work at