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LINGUIST List 24.1075

Sat Mar 02 2013

Review: Text/Corpus Linguistics; Semantics: Tarasti (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 24-Jan-2013
From: Jody Barnes <jodyleebarnesgmail.com>
Subject: Semiotics of Classical Music: How Mozart, Brahms and Wagner Talk to Us
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4170.html

AUTHOR: Eero Tarasti
TITLE: Semiotics of Classical Music
SUBTITLE: How Mozart, Brahms and Wagner Talk to Us
SERIES TITLE: Semiotics, Communication and Cognition [SCC] 10
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jody L Barnes, (personal interest - not currently working at a university)


This volume, part of De Gruyter Mouton's series ''Semiotics, Communication and
Cognition,'' explores the field of semiotics of music, a field which seems to
have grown in popularity over the years, with a number of texts arriving in
the 1990s, by Tarasti himself, Raymond Monelle, and Jean-Jacques Nattiez,
among others. In this volume, Tarasti explores at length what he calls
''existential semiotics,'' a method of investigation equally indebted to the
existential tradition in philosophy as it is to Greimassian semiotics. The
text is divided into four parts composed of multiple chapters, as well as two
''postludes'' consisting of one chapter each, and features a glossary of
terms, bibliography, and index.

While ostensibly a book on semiotics, the text is primarily
existential-musicological in nature. That is, while semiotic theory and
practice are a part of Tarasti's methodology, the overall nature of the text
is that of an existential investigation into specific musical works. Readers
without a background in the philosophy of Hegel and his followers in the
existentialist tradition will find it hard to navigate the often labyrinthine
development of Tarasti's approach. Apart from this, a basic knowledge of the
Peircean and Greimassian traditions of semiotics are sufficient to grasp the
purely semiotic aspect of his arguments.

The Prelude, ''Music - A philosophic-semiotic approach,'' briefly introduces
the methodology used, which Tarasti calls ''existential semiotics.'' This
approach (introduced in Tarasti 2000) is ''a purely Greimassian, Paris-school
methodology'' (p. xi) further elucidated in Chapter 1, ''Introduction to a
Philosophy of Music,'' which covers the basic themes of traditional music
philosophy, particularly the ontology of the musical work. Following this,
Tarasti delves into the existential background to his semiotic theories. His
semiotics is based upon a long line of existential thought, beginning with
Kant's concept of the ''in-itself'' and developing through the years. For
linguists, who may not have a background in existential philosophy (and
indeed, many students of philosophy find it hard to grapple with such a
jargon-filled, complex school of thought), a bit of background on the concepts
which influenced Tarasti's thought are in order.

The first major inspiration for Tarasti is Hegel, who, building upon Kant's
work, introduced the concepts of ''being-in-itself'' (an-sich-sein) and
''being-for-itself (für-sich-sein). For Hegel, being-in-itself is the
potentiality of a being, as opposed to the being's actuality, being-for-itself
(Hegel 1977:17). Being-in-itself, says Tarasti, has ''no overtly
determinational character'' (p. 14). Kierkegaard elaborated on Hegel's
phenomenology, characterizing the in-itself's transformation into the
for-itself as the individual ''becoming a sign to himself, that is, the
emergence of his identity'' (p. 16). Further development of these concepts
was provided by Heidegger (1962), who regarded being-in-itself as fully
realized Being, ''that which must already 'be' before any other ways in which
being is determined'' (Heidegger 1962:124). The final stage of the historical
development of these concepts is Sartre, who declared being-in-itself as a
strictly non-human Being, with no potentiality for transcendence - a
non-conscious Being, (Sartre 1977:xvi), which, upon becoming an observer
itself, changes into being-for-itself, the Being of consciousness (p. lxv).
This transformation is, strictly speaking, transcendence.

Jacques Fontanille, like Tarasti, was a ''Greimassian semiotician'' who was
interested in the concept of transcendence. Instead of being-in-itself and
being-for-itself, Fontanille was concerned with the Moi and the Soi, two
parallel concepts (Fontanille 2005). The human body is ''the sensory-motoric
fulcrum of semiotic experience,'' which supports the Soi. However, ''there is
also the 'body' that constitutes the identity . . . of the physical, fleshly
body. This body is the carrier of [the Moi].'' In true dialectical fashion,
one cannot exist without the other, as the Moi ''is the part of ourselves to
which the Soi refers when establishing itself. . . . We shall consider
anything belonging to the category of mir/mich (me) to concern the subject as
an individual entity, whereas the concept of sich will be reserved for the
social aspect of the subject'' (p. 17). In other words, the former is the Moi,
the latter the Soi.

The Moi and Soi are both contained within what Jacob von Uexküll (1940) calls
the ''Ich-Ton,'' (''I-tone'') a concept denoting ''the identity and
individuality of an organism.'' Within the Ich-Ton, the Moi is an existential
and individual aspect of Being, in which the subject ''appears as such, as a
bundle of sensations,'' whereas the Soi, the social and communal side of
Being, appears only ''as it is observed by others, that is, at is socially
determined,'' (p. 17). Tarasti believes that when Sebeok speaks of the
''semiotic self,'' he is speaking of the self containing the Moi and Soi,
through which transcendence can be reached. In music, Tarasti says, the Soi
is composed of the norms of a particular style and era, whereas the Moi is a
composer's personal style: ''The engine of musical history is driven
primarily by the transformation of the Moi into Soi, or rather, the constant
rebellion of the Moi against the communal world of the Soi,'' (p. 22).

The final piece of the existential semiotic puzzle is the aforementioned
Greimassian semiotic square. This framework, named after its creator, A. J.
Greimas, is a method of visually portraying the opposing structures found in a
semiotic system: ''four terms, seen as two opposed pairs. . . . A is opposed
to B as -A is to -B,'' (Hawkes 1977:88). Tarasti takes the existential terms
just discussed, and situates them on the semiotic square, such that
being-in-itself and its opposition being-for-itself, are seen as negations of
the Soi and Moi, respectively. In Chapter 6, Tarasti introduces what he calls
the “Z” model of the semiotic square, which situates the Hegelian modalities
of Being within the square, and tracks the movements of the individual as it
moves from one modality to the next. The majority of the erstwhile semiotic
investigations in the text utilize this modified Greimassian square to
interpret the works of composers as they relate to transcendence and the true
nature of Being.

Part I, ''The classical style'' begins with Chapter 2, ''Mozart, or the idea
of a continuous avant-garde,'' which attempts to determine whether Mozart
himself can be considered ''avant-garde,'' by examining the Moi and Soi of his
work, through both Schenkerian and narrative analyses. Chapter 3,
''Existential and transcendental analysis of music,'' discusses the semiotic
concepts of pre-sign, post-sign, and trans-sign, as well as the negation and
affirmation of Dasein, and uses these ideas to analyze an extract of
Beethoven. The title of the following chapter, ''Listening to Beethoven:
Universal or national, classical or romantic?'' is fairly self-explanatory,
and also includes a brief digression on Theodor Adorno as ''pre-semiotician''.

Part II, “The Romantic Era,” continues the discussion of specific styles and
composers. In Chapter 5, ''The irony of romanticism,'' Tarasti utilizes
Lucien Goldman's theory of three relations (relation to other people, to
ourselves, and the world), which make up each ''philosophy of life'' (p. 119),
which he posits is composed of three relations. Chapter 6, “‘... ein leiser
Ton gezogen ...’; Robert Schumann's Fantasie in C major (op. 17) in the light
of existential semiotics,” introduces Tarasti's ''Z'' model of the Greimassian
square, which he uses to interpret Schumann's piece. Chapter 7, ''Brahms and
the 'Lyric I': A hermeneutic sign analysis'' looks at Brahms's Lied ''Der
Tod, das ist die Kühle Nacht,'' applying what Tarasti calls ''romantic
semiotics,'' using his modification of the Greimassian semiotic square to
examine first Brahms's text, then music, and finally the interaction of the

Tarasti's extended analyses of the work of Richard Wagner begin in Chapter 8,
''Brünnhilde's Choice; or, a Journey into Wagnerian Semiosis: Intuitions and
Hypotheses.'' He describes Wagner's use of small melodies, ''around which the
whole opera gradually took shape,'' referring to these melodies as ''lexemes''
(p. 190), an explicit nod to traditional semiotics. The semiotic analysis
continues with a discussion of signifiers and signifieds in the music, and
concludes with an examination of musical isotopies in the Ring Der Nibelungen
and an analysis of a scene from Die Walkurie using the modified semiotic
square. Further scrutiny of Wagner's ''lexemes'' follows in Chapter 9, ''Do
Wagner's leitmotifs have a system?'', which begins with a history and critique
of earlier attempts to categorize and document all of the leitmotifs featured
in Wagner's Ring cycle. Tarasti examines the ontology of these leitmotifs,
trying to determine if they have a ''definite form'' (p. 217). Following this,
he develops a new inventory of leitmotifs, categorized according to form and

Part III, “Rhetorics and Synaesthesias,” begins with Chapter 10, ''Proust and
Wagner.'' This chapter continues the analysis of Wagner while at the same
time introducing another of Tarasti's favorite subjects, Marcel Proust. Here,
he examines the possibility that Proust's (1934) magnum opus “À la recherche
du temps perdu” is an ekphrasis of Wagner's Ring, utilizing Proust's writings
on Wagner, both public (the novels themselves) and private (Proust's personal
correspondence). Chapter 11, ''Rhetoric and musical discourse,'' examines the
relationship between classical written discourse and musical form, with
Tarasti calling rhetoric a kind of ''primitive semiotics'' (p. 275).

Chapter 12, ''The semiosis of light in music: from synaesthesias to
narratives,'' begins with a brief survey of literature on the relation between
timbre, light, and color. Tarasti then uses his semiotic square to develop a
''semiotics of light'' (p. 318), before applying this to a discussion of the
portrayal of light in music. Chapter 13, ''The implicit semiotics of Marcel
Proust,'' is a chapter-length semiotic analysis of a section of Proust's
(1923) “La Prisonnière,” which describes a musical performance given at the
salon of one Madame Verdurin, taken section-by-section by Tarasti.

Chapter 14, ''M. K. Ciurlionis and the interrelationships of the arts,''
begins Tarasti's analysis of the relationships between visual arts and music.
Here, he examines composer and painter Ciurlionis's musical works, as compared
to his paintings, which were often given musical titles. This leads into
Chapter 15, ''Ciurlionis, Sibelius, and Nietzsche: Three profiles and
interpretations,'' which continues much in the same vein with Ciurlionis,
before examining synaesthesic elements in the work of Sibelius. This
concludes with a brief note on form in the music of Nietzsche, and the ways in
which it expresses the Moi and Soi.

Part IV, “In the Slavonic World,” begins with Chapter 16, ''An essay on
Russian Music.'' Here, Tarasti considers Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov,
Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich, examining the Moi and Soi in their
respective works, as well as the ''encounter'' between the two. Tarasti's
findings are summarized in a chart at the end of the chapter. In Chapter 17,
''The stylistic development of a composer as a cognition of the musicologist:
Bohuslav Martinu'', Tarasti analyses the works of this ''hitherto unknown''
composer (p. 413), specifically, the Fourth symphony, in terms of Peirce's
categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness; a relatively traditional
semiotic analysis of signs, objects, and interpretants (Peirce 1985:6).

Postlude I, Chapter 18, ''Do Semantic Aspects of Music Have a Notation?''
addresses the question of whether standard musical notation expresses musical
semantics, and investigates the relation of musical semantics to semantics of
language. Postlude II, Chapter 19, ''Music -- Superior Communication,''
discusses the transcendence of music via biosemiotics and the semiotic square.


The first problem with the text is the number of typographical errors and
inconsistencies throughout. These range from the minor (inconsistent
capitalization of chapter titles), to glaring (an entire missing section:
Chapter 2.1 is nowhere to be found.) The organization of chapters also falls
a bit short, as themes are introduced in one chapter, only to be followed by a
chapter with a completely different theme and method of investigation, while
lines of thought abandoned pages ago may again come up unannounced. Where
chapters about the same subject follow one another, the approach used in each
is completely different, and chapters using the same approach are spread
throughout the book haphazardly. In addition to this, many concepts, and
indeed some entire stretches of text are repeated verbatim throughout, as if
the book were merely a text thrown together from previously unpublished
essays. Transitions end up being jarring far too often, and one gets the
feeling that the text could have used a thorough going-over from a more
organized editor.

All surface faults aside, one possible impediment to fully grasping the scope
of Tarasti’s work (as can perhaps be gleaned from the summary above,) is its
reliance on Hegelian existentialism. While this is a very important and
groundbreaking school of philosophical thought, it is also a very difficult,
dense field, relying heavily on terminology not easily accessible to the
layman, or even those who may have a relatively vast knowledge of philosophy
in general, or other philosophical fields. Because of this, this text's
interest to most linguists and semioticists is limited. However, those
interested in existential philosophy or musicology may find it very
illuminating. That being said, Tarasti's work is not completely without merit
in terms of semiotic analysis. Whereas much of the text is idiosyncratic at
best, there are a number of sections which make good use of semiotic analysis.
Among these, Chapter 9, on Wagner's leitmotifs, is a particularly insightful
example. The introductory sections of Chapter 6 on Brahms are also a great
source of semiotic investigation, as one of the more significant (and
readable) applications of existentialism to semiotic investigation.

However, many of the results of the existential investigations appear as no
more than highly subjective readings of the composers and pieces. Much of
this is the standard expressive interpretation of music; certain passages are
happy, or sad, others depict a struggle, etc. Some of Tarasti’s
interpretations, on the other hand, stretch the limits of acceptability. For
example, it is a bit hard to swallow that a twelve-measure sequence is written
to portray “the anecdote about Goethe and Beethoven’s encounter with the Grand
Duke and his spouse on a walk in the gardens at Weimar” (p. 86). The problem
is not just limited to what we might consider traditional attempts at
interpretation, but gets worse when Tarasti attempts to fuse semiotics with
existentialism. While it can be agreed that, for example, Mozart’s highly
personal style, as contrasted with the norms of the day, make him avant-garde
for his time, a Hegelian interpretation of a chapter of a Proust novel is
hardly a musicological investigation, and is of little value to the field of
philosophy of music.

To summarize, then, the text almost surely has more to offer for those
interested in fairly narrow fields of study than it does for the general
reader. This can best be illustrated with a comparison to another text on the
semiotics of music, that of Nattiez (1990). Nattiez’s work, though inspired
by a different strain of semiotics, also begins with an introduction of
methods used, and follows that with applications of those methods to specific
aspects of musicology, and specific musical works. Thus, for the linguist,
semiotician, or musicologist, it is a highly accessible text, with, one would
argue, much to offer in the way of enlightenment. The same cannot be said for
this text, due mostly to the amount of background knowledge necessary to fully
grasp the intricacies and nuances of Tarasti’s arguments. For those without a
background in the Hegelian tradition, Tarasti’s previous book (2000) would
almost certainly make this text easier to comprehend. However, its
applications to the field of linguistics and semiotics remain limited, leaving
it much more appropriate for musicologists and those interested in existential


Fontanille, Jacques. 2005. Semiotique du visible: Formes semiotiques.
Paris: PUF.

Hawkes, Terence. 1977. Structuralism and semiotics. Berkeley and Los
Angeles: University of California Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1977. Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1962. Being and time. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. 1990. Music and discourse: Toward a semiology of
music. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Peirce, Charles S. 1985. Logic as semiotic: The theory of signs. In Robert
E Innis (ed.) Semiotics: An introductory Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.

Proust, Marcel. 1923. La prisonniere. Paris: Editions de la Nouvelle Revue

Proust, marcel. 1934. Remembrance of Things Past. New York: Random House.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1977. Being and nothingness. Secaucus, New Jersey: The
Citadel Press.

Tarasti, Eero. 2000. Existential semiotics. Bloomington and Indianapolis:
Indiana University Press.

von Uexkull, Jakob. 1940. Bedeutungslehre. Leipzig: Barth.


J. L. Barnes is a philosophy and linguistics graduate currently residing in
the Louisville, KY area. Areas of interest include semantics, philosophy of
language, semiotics, and the relationship between music and language.
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