Collecting Cooke (II)

The Language of Music / Deryck Cooke (top of title page) ; M824.c.95.6

The Language of Music / Deryck Cooke (top of title page) ; M824.c.95.6

Deryck Cooke’s book The Language of Music (O.U.P., 1959) has become such an icon of post-WW2 British musicology that one can easily forget that there was a time when it was brand-new – and readers up and down the country pored over pristine copies for the first time, wrestling with the 270 pages of dense argumentation and thought-provoking music examples. This experience is vividly conjured up by a recent donation to the UL: the copiously annotated copy of the book owned by Cooke’s friend, the composer Terry Dwyer (b. 1922).

When the book was published, Dwyer bought it at once (his copy is dated ‘January, 1960’) and read it eagerly. What he found, of course, was a work of striking ambitiousness. It aimed ‘to show that the conception of music as a language capable of expressing certain very definite things is not a romantic aberration, but has been the common unconscious assumption of composers for the past five-and-a-half centuries at least.’ (p. xi)

In addition, Cooke was attempting ‘to pinpoint the inherent emotional characters of the various notes of the major, minor, and chromatic scales, and of certain basic melodic patterns which have been used persistently throughout our musical history.’ (p. xii)

The Language of Music, Cooke, p. 35 with written annotations by Cooke and Dwyer

The Language of Music, Cooke, p. 35 with written annotations by Cooke and Dwyer

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Dwyer had finished the book he went back to the beginning and read it a second time. He jotted various thoughts and observations in the margins, and then posted it off to Cooke – who took the trouble to pencil in his responses before returning it. And thanks to Dwyer’s gift, we can now see this exchange for ourselves.

Dwyer’s enthusiastic engagement with Cooke’s thought is apparent from the way he supplements the printed examples by adding convincing instances of his own. For example, in Chapter 3 (‘Some Basic Terms of Musical Vocabulary’), Cooke includes among his ‘basic terms’ the succession of scale-degrees 1 – (2) – (3) – (4) – 5 – 6 – 5 (MAJOR). This, Cooke argues, is ‘almost always employed to express the innocence and purity of angels and children, or some natural phenomenon which possesses the same qualities in the eyes of men’ (pp.151, 154); it is a shape ‘set aside for states of pure blessedness’ (p. 154). To Cooke’s tally of some two dozen examples featuring this melodic pattern – including ‘In dulci jubilo’ and the St Matthew Passion’s ‘O Lamm Gottes unschuldig’) – Dwyer is able to add two more: ‘Wachet Auf’, and ‘Brother James’s Air’ by J. L. Macbeth Bain (on p. 152).

The Language of Music, Cooke, p. 152, example d

The Language of Music, Cooke, p. 152.

In such a context, Dwyer’s questions and objections are bound to be of interest; and one useful example occurs at the end of Chapter 2 (where Dwyer has collated and listed for himself all of the ‘basic terms’ examined in Cooke’s text). Cooke ends the chapter with the assertion that ‘the sixteen terms dealt with above are undoubtedly the really basic ones’ (p. 167) – and Dwyer queries the ‘undoubtedly’ with a ‘Why?’ Cooke’s answer is disarmingly frank: ‘Overstatement, of course. I omitted 5 – 6 – 7 – 8, for example’ (on p. 167).

Of course, nothing less than a full-length article could do justice to this book’s pencilled ‘conversation’ between two musically trained friends; but one of Cooke’s longer responses can perhaps be included here.

In the section on ‘The Creative Imagination as Harmony’ that forms part of Chapter 4 (‘The Process of Musical Communication’), Cooke’s discussion turns to the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1854–9) – and in particular the harmonic progression featuring the famous ‘Tristan chord’, of which Cooke submits a novel analysis based on tonal and intervallic tensions (Dwyer, by contrast, is satisfied with the traditional categorisation of the sonority as ‘Ordinary French 6th in A min[or] with appogg[iatura] G#’ [on p. 191]).

Opening of "Tristan und Isolde" / Wagner, Breitkopf und Härtel, vocal score (1914?), UL @ M260.b.90.569

Opening of “Tristan und Isolde” / Wagner, Breitkopf und Härtel, vocal score (1914?), UL @ M260.b.90.569

Speaking of the work’s opening three notes (A – F – E), Cooke’s text refers to ‘that well-worn basic term, the arched minor 5 – 3 – 2 – 1, in D minor, disappointed of its natural conclusion on the tonic’ (p. 188). ‘Surely A minor? (1 6 5)’, asks Dwyer (on p. 188). Cooke’s answer repays consideration (in spite of a seeming slip of the pencil):

So many people have said this. But in the 1850s, no composer could
have opened a melody in A minor with an unaccented A followed by an
accented F, unless he harmonised the two notes – at least, not at this speed. At least, I can’t think of an example. Anyway, there’s the analogy of the second + third phrases – E ma (A min) -–> C ma; G ma (C ma) -–> B mi [sic]. This means surely that the first phrase also modulates. I feel one senses a modulation. (on pp. 188–9)

All in all, Terry Dwyer’s kind donation of this annotated volume allows us to see a fascinating ‘snapshot’ of a vigorous period in Britain’s musical life – and a glimpse into the minds of two members of a highly gifted generation whose contribution to our contemporary world deserves to be celebrated. It also reminds us of the sheer quantity of intellectual and historical treasure from this post-war period – the annotated books, the letters, the tape-recordings, the collections of programmes and clippings – that must still be out there, in private hands, uncatalogued and uncollected. . .

So, let me ask: do you know of any such material. . . ?

If so, please contact me!



About Mark Doran

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One Response to Collecting Cooke (II)

  1. Mark Doran says:

    Anyone who’s intrigued by the idea of a ‘D minor’ implication at the very opening of ‘Tristan’ might be pleased to see than there is a Schenkerian analyst who explicitly agrees with Cooke’s (published) discussion…


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