Acquisto on Estay Stange (2014)


Estay Stange, Verónica. Sens et musicalité: les voix secrètes du symbolisme. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014. Pp. 567. ISBN: 978-2-8124-2548-6

Joseph Acquisto, University of Vermont

This wide-ranging study covers far more ground than its title suggests, providing an extended account of German Romanticism’s theoretical engagement with music as a model of thought as well as a thorough exploration of the way French Symbolism takes up and transforms that engagement. The author aims to illuminate these particular periods but also to make a more general point about the relations between the work of art and “une certaine approche de la ‘musique’ tendant vers la généralisation du phénomène musical à partir de la transposition de ses qualités fondamentales à des domaines autres que celui de l’art musical proprement dit” (15), a theoretical impetus that comes down to us through the paradigm first established by the Romantics. While many of the figures the author considers were both poets and theorists, this study is concerned primarily with the theoretical developments in these two periods, with only passing reference to, and analysis of, particular poems or other works of art.

The major claim is that what Romanticism accomplished and Symbolism continued was a musicalization of all the arts. For the Romantics, this took the guise of a cosmology—music as a model of the universe—whereas for the Symbolists the discussion of musicality was more narrowly focused on art. What the two movements have in common, and the concept that unifies this study, is the notion of correspondences, which the author considers by a detour through the thought of Claude Lévi-Strauss that links myth to music by the category of analogy. Via analogy, music could be said to be a generator of epistemological claims for the Romantics, insofar as it yields notions such as universal harmony or “la musique du monde” (89).

Estay Stange proposes four topoï generated by the Romantic conception of musicalization and associates each of them with a type of correspondence. There is “l’âme du monde,” associated with “correspondances horizontales,” “la révélation naturelle,” associated with “correspondances verticales,” “l’homme imago mundi,” associated with “correspondances enchâssées,” and “la chute et la rédemption,” linked to “correspondances obliques” (224), all of which manifest themselves in thematic and scientific developments in the Romantic period.

With the Symbolists comes a move from absolute to pure music and a concomitant reduction of the focus of musicalization to the domain of the arts themselves. Estay Stange considers the way musicality informs debates over complementary colors in the visual arts, the status of the alexandrine in poetry, and tonality in music. While music continues to serve as a paradigm for aesthetic production and perception, the more wide-ranging epistemological claims of Romanticism are gradually rejected on account of a crisis in both belief and will that Estay Stange traces in the late nineteenth century. She identifies three ruptures between Romantic and Symbolist theorizing of musicality: “une rupture concernant les ‘contenus’ associés à la musique, une autre qui relève du syncrétisme musique-parole, et une dernière qui s’adresse au lien de la musique avec la nature. Dérivées du principe d’immanence, ces trois ruptures sont corrélées à trois modes d’autonomie, respectivement sémantique, sémiotique et ontique” (427). Music in the Symbolist period attains its autonomy both theoretically and in practice, as a new paradigm emerges “dont la puissance consiste [...] à révéler à chaque art particulier une dimension spécifique de lui-même, qui constitue sa musicalité” (453). Estay Stange links this new paradigm to the emergence of formalism in music theorists such as Eduard Hanslick, which leads gradually both to the emergence of “pure” music and poetry and to renewed attempts to link the arts through variations on the theme of correspondences. In the final sections of her study, Estay Stange considers less-remembered theorists such as Jean d’Udine and Maurice Griveau, who offer philosophies of inter-art correspondences, Charles Beauquier, who establishes a theory of vibration as an important source of commonality among the arts, and theorist-practitioners such as Paul-Napoléon Roinard and René Ghil, who push to the limits the theoretical and practical applications of direct correspondences between the senses, resulting in artworks that attempt to merge and blur the boundaries between the arts and the senses to which they typically correspond.

Estay Stange’s own theoretical approach is semiotic. The long second section of the book appeals frequently to A. J. Greimas to ground the observations about Romanticism and Symbolism that form the core of the first and third parts of the book, respectively. This approach generates some of the analytical vocabulary which Estay Stange employs, most notably in her characterization of Symbolist thought as the “désiconisation” of Romantic discourse (361). At times the overlay of semiotic terminology seems unnecessary, given the straightforward claims of the book about points of continuity and rupture between German Romanticism and French Symbolism. While the study sometimes retraces very familiar ground in terms of scholarly work on Symbolism, the wealth of cited passages from a varied and often underrepresented selection of theorists, deftly woven into a chronological and theoretical narrative by the author, makes the study valuable. Estay Stange engagingly retraces the possibilities and limits of music as a particularly privileged point of aspiration for theorists of the arts at the turn of the twentieth century, in light of what they inherited, and sometimes implicitly or explicitly rejected, from their Romantic precursors.