Surviving Context

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some people are sticklers for context. They are hypersensitive about how words are handled and hyper-protective of original sources. For any statement, speech, painting, essay, song, novel or other cultural artifact to have legitimate meaning, it must be appreciated in, and only in, its native confines. Removing an idea from a specific discussion or an object from its historical period damages the intent and invalidates later applications. In the extreme of this view, ancient scriptures have no lasting relevance, reports on an event cannot describe anything else, and artistic creations from different periods or locations cannot be properly reproduced. Timeless wisdom becomes time-bound information. Ageless beauty becomes situational aesthetics.

It is fair to say that the extreme position is rarely (if ever) taken. Even sticklers treasure an occasional proverb or a piece of Classical music, though both were contrived for foreign audiences long ago deceased. Where the issue becomes problematic is when a comment is given wider relevance than the author intended. This is especially frowned upon in the guarded field of musical analysis, where fidelity to context is almost a maxim. True, ink spilled in the examination of one composer or piece of music is necessarily distorted when applied to a different work, let alone something more general; and egregious distortions can and do occur. But to insist that every musical insight be understood only in its document of origin restricts its potential readership and potential to enlighten.

If staunch contextualism were to prevail, then popular books like A Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Croften and Fraser) and Music: A Book of Quotations (Galewitz)—as well as specialized books like my own Quotations on Jewish Sacred Music—would lose much or all of their value. However, most of us recognize that words written on a particular situation or creation frequently retain and accrue beneficial meanings when expanded to larger contexts.

An example is composer-musicologist Hubert Parry’s warning, “Look out for this man’s music; he has something to say and knows how to say it.” Parry wrote this after attending the premiere of Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899), but it could be describing any sincere and competent musician. Similarly, Beethoven unknowingly wrote on behalf of many composers when he included this statement in a letter to Louis Schlösser (1823): “You will ask where my ideas come from. I cannot say for certain. They come uncalled, sometimes independently, sometimes in association with other things.”

The governing ideal of a remark may reside within specific borders, but unconditional truths can still be happened upon. Indeed, various and sundry quotations find their way into anthologies precisely because their usefulness survives their context.

Part of this durability owes to the fact that observations made about any one thing take place within a grander sweep of experiences. No phenomenon exists in isolation and no reflection on a phenomenon is without underpinnings in a larger reality. In this sense, the constricted setting of a given quote already exists in a wider context, and the sagacity it possesses can speak to a wider context still. For instance, words about a Romantic composition may capture the essence of Romantic music, or elucidate music composition in general.

Of course, we should always be sensitive to the original target and meaning of a statement, and be habitual citers of sources. It is also obvious that not everything brilliant is applicable outside of the page it is printed on. But when it is, we should be free to adopt it as wisdom to think by.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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