Leonard Meyer Remembered
It was standing room only at Riverside Memorial on the Upper West Side of New York as a crowd gathered to mark the passing of Leonard B. Meyer. Assembled were composers from the days of Meyer’s studies with Stefan Wolpe and Aaron Copland, literati from his time in the Saul Bellow orbit at the University of Chicago, musicologists trained by him at Chicago and Penn, music theorists from the “Penn School” (who take him as the founder of listener-oriented music theory), scholars of music cognition (for whom he is one of their patron saints), performers inspired by his books, and of course members of his large and exceptionally talented family.
Literature came to Meyer on his father’s knee. As a child, in lieu of Winnie the Pooh, he was read the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare, remembering them almost word for word for the rest of his life. Music came next through violin and composition. At Columbia he majored in Philosophy and grew fascinated with the ideas of his young tutor, Jacques Barzun. His participation in the New York musical avant-garde was interrupted by “post-graduate” work on the European battlefronts of World War II. After the war a chance reunion with Aaron Copland led to his hiring by the music department at the University of Chicago. Though still thought of as a composer, he did his doctoral work outside the music department, with a committee that included the philosopher Charles Morris. Meyer’s topic was “Emotion and Meaning in Music.” When published, it made him famous.
Like many great books it is important as much for its impact on readers as for its content. Meyer argued persuasively that music takes place within us. Our responses account for both perceived emotion and, ultimately, meaning. Just as a motion picture only moves within our minds (a film is but a long strip of still photographs), so too music happens only as we perceive it. Our expectations of upcoming tones are part of our experience of those tones. Those simple truths were groundbreaking, and they changed how people thought about the art of music. A printed score was no longer an artwork, a type of chord was no longer an aesthetic experience. Only in the real-time interplay among experience, memory, expectation, association, categorization, and evaluation did music happen. Meyer’s world of music included the avant-garde, popular traditions, village musics, exotic courtly ensembles, and music from the distant past. It all interested him because he was interested in all listeners, trained or untrained. Indeed, the greatest of his many talents may have been as an ideal listener.
Meyer went on to pen a long series of important books and articles, his last book of collected writings appearing in 2000. These works still warrant reading because they capture a great mind grappling with great issues of art and cognition. His sharp focus on human expression and communication through tones made him seem insufficiently structural to the structuralists, and insufficiently cultural to the cultural-relativists. Yet while those camps now seem as dated as the Edsel, Meyer’s work from the 1950s onward remains fresh. This is writing that conceals its elegance and sophistication beneath its welcome simplicity and clarity. His erudition, wit, and affinity for wordplay joined forces for a final bon mot on his tombstone. There one can read Hamlet’s dying words: “The rest is silence.”