On Music and Memory: Some Noncommittal Reflections

Peter Stachel

For M. S.

What could the perspective of cultural research focussing especially on collective forms of memory and commemoration contribute to a deeper understanding of music and the history of music?

When talking about cultural studies, I do not intend to proclaim a new discipline in the field of humanities, but instead point my finger at an ensemble of questions and mostly interdisciplinary theories and methods. These theories include text and intertextuality, gender studies, postcolonial studies, studies of social and cultural space and theories of social and cultural memory. Culture in this sense does not simply mean representative “highbrow” culture, but rather focuses on theories of communication, defining culture as a cachet of symbols, vocabularies and codes, in which individuals and groups communicate in a verbal as well as a non-verbal sense. In other words, methods and means that are used to produce social meaning. Defined in that way, culture is also the field in which identities and differences are negotiated and inclusions and exclusions are determined. Therefore culture is not the opposite of politics (in the sense of political history vs. cultural history), but political actions are understood as acting within cultural contexts of meaning. This also implies that cultural studies is not a replacement for traditional disciplines and their methods, but rather a field of new perspectives.

A main field of research in this context is that of cultural and collective memory. However, this does not mean that collectives have their own memory existing alongside or above individual memories in a distinct ontological sphere. The memories of individuals are not simply a kind of storehouse, in which events that have happened to a single person are precisely filed and stored in their original form in an act of remembrance. Recollection deals with past times, but it always takes place in the present, and it is from the present that it gathers its meaning and importance. What is remembered by a single person, and the way it is remembered, is often not strictly individual. Moreover, it is partly formed by education and social context, by belonging to a specific social or cultural group, or being a citizen of a specific state. Individual memory is not purely individual; it is partly formed by the collectives to which the individual belongs. This allows us to speak of a collective memory that can extend over generations and in which cultural vocabularies are defined by means of acts of commemoration and are often emotionally loaded. Memory is negotiated and very often contested; what becomes a legitimate part of the collective memory is a result of relations of power. Memory does not just simply happen; it is part of identity politics.

In the field of music, canonization could be mentioned as one example. Observing the processes of canonization, it becomes evident that a musicological analysis does not get to the point. Although the quality of music is an important part, it is still only one element among others. Elements such as social acceptance and function might be even more important. For example, compositions that have a clear meaning as symbols of identification for a specific group, such as national anthems, are not evaluated in terms of their musical quality as much as their function as identity markers. It seems evident that this is not strictly a musicological or historical question because these compositions garner their importance and meaning undeniably from non-musical contexts, and this importance cannot just simply be found in the notes.

A piece of music can certainly play a role in individual memory, like Proust’s madeleine – “the cliché cookie; a highbrow reference that’s penetrated pop culture” (Edmund Levin). It can stimulate past situations, atmospheres and emotions. But especially in the field of popular music, it can also function as a kind of generational intercommunity, stimulating a specific feeling that people of more or less the same age have in common and that is part of their collective identity. Of course, musical compositions can also fulfil the task of identity markers for collectives in a more formal and official way, such as the above-mentioned national anthems.

Another perspective could be the monumental character of compositions, understanding them as cultural monuments and components of cultural heritages. When in the nineteenth century musicological editions were started in many European countries, they were clearly based on the idea of identity politics. Two such projects are the Denkmaeler deutscher Tonkunst (Monuments of German Musical Art) and the Denkmaeler der Tonkunst in Oesterreich (Monuments of Musical Art in Austria). Both of them reveal an evident political subtext. Editing musical compositions according to the principles of musicology was certainly a key consideration, but both projects defined the compositions they included as monuments and both were overloaded with collective identity programmes, a fact apparent in the various conflicting debates between the two projects about the national identity of some contested composers. In a way, these projects both tried to line up a kind of musical national team.

But the monumentalisation of musical compositions is not necessarily linked with national identity: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – a piece of music overburdened with symbolic meaning, such as the leitmotif of the chorus now serving as the official anthem of the European Union – was placed on UNESCO’s register of “Cultural Memory of the World” in 2001:

Its influence on the history of music was decisive and intense in the nineteenth and twentieth century and not restricted to the genre of symphonies.... Many orchestras play this work traditionally on New Year’s Eve, stressing the symbolic power of the symphony... After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this symphony took on special importance for people from East and West Germany but also Eastern Europe. This demonstrates the significance of this music in the peoples’ memory and consciousness. (from UNESCO’s explanation)

It is worth noting that, although UNESCO later invented its own register of intangible heritage, not the composition itself became part of that cultural heritage but Beethoven’s autograph (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), which raises the question of whether the specific meaning of that composition is really to be found in the autograph or whether it is produced in every single performance.

A process similar to the monumentalizing of musical compositions is the heroizing of composers, turning them into cultural icons. Beethoven’s importance as a key figure of Western culture cannot be explained simply by the quality of his music; it has been produced by non-musical means and strategies as well, such as monumentalisation, appearances in literature and film, and marketing. The case of Mozart is similar, although – from an Austrian perspective – in his case the general aspects of being a global cultural hero are modified by his importance as a/the key figure of Austrian identity, something which clearly became evident in the activities of the Mozart year 2006. It is worth noting that the specific context of this year of remembrance also turns academic activities such as congresses and publications into acts of collective remembrance, making them part of memory politics. It is not a coincidence that all the books and congresses in question were published and held exactly in 2006.

Austria provides a very good example of how music is used for identity politics in creating the image of “Musikland Oesterreich” (Austria, country of music) or “Musikstadt Wien” (Vienna, city of music). Of course, these images are to a certain extent rooted in reality and Austria’s and Vienna’s contributions to the history of classical music are without any doubt crucial. Nevertheless, it can clearly be shown that the historical facts were instrumentalised to produce an image of collective identity. In doing so, the musical tradition was said to be based on the “cultural character” of the Austrian people, part of what it means to be specifically “Austrian.” The individual steps along this path of functionalization, and what precisely they meant in their individual socio-historical contexts – starting in the second half of the nineteenth century – can be shown and analyzed, as well as the means, such as jubilees of composers, monuments, festivals or even the annual New Year’s Concert. The latter leads us to another important point, namely the commercialization of music for the tourist industry.

Let us return to the first sentence of these noncommittal reflections. What can a perspective focussing on collective forms of memory and commemoration contribute to a deeper understanding of music and the history of music? On the one hand, it offers analytical tools for a broader understanding of the various social and cultural functions of music and its image. On the other hand, it offers an analysis of what researchers are doing, when they are doing research in their special disciplines (e.g. musicology). In other words, for the cultural contexts of that research. Which is why there’s no need to be afraid of cultural studies.

Peter Stachel
Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften
Kommission für Kulturwissenschaften und Theatergeschichte