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Leonard Meyer Remembered
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Leonard Meyer Remembered

Peter Kivy

The American Society for Aesthetics reports, with sadness, the passing of Leonard B. Meyer, on 30 December, 2007, just short of the New Year and his 90th birthday.

Leonard, whom I was privileged to know personally, was not an “official” aesthetician. But he was truly “one of us,” and it is impossible to overestimate his influence on those, like myself, who have aspired, during the past half-century, to bring philosophical analysis to bear on the art of absolute music.

Leonard’s ground-breaking book, Emotion and Meaning in Music, first appeared in 1956, the year I received my undergraduate degree in philosophy. Its effect on me was immediate and lasting. Indeed, it set the standard for clarity and thoroughness of conceptual analysis for anyone who wanted to talk, philosophically, about absolute music, without talking nonsense. Its combination of music theory, information theory, and psychology, was startling in its originality. The book continues to be read, and used, and commented upon, and has never been out of print or out of mind.

Many books of Leonard’s followed Emotion and Meaning in Music – books that marked Leonard out as a man of astonishing learning and intellectual strength: indeed a kind of polymath. But beyond his abilities as a music theorist, his particular strength was the history of ideas, which evinced itself most fully and impressively in his 1989 book, Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology, a book in which Leonard undertook the extremely difficult, some would say impossible task of showing how the change in intellectual climate from Enlightenment to Romanticism effected the change in the pure musical parameters from classical style to the style of the nineteenth century. In effect, it was an attempt to demonstrate the relationship of the history of ideas to the history of pure musical style, sans text or title or program. And whether or not you end up, after reading the book, being convinced, the sheer audacity of the hypothesis, and the detailed stylistic analysis and arguments brought to bear in its defense, will take your breath away. Style and Music, which Leonard used to refer to jokingly as S and M, deserves, in my opinion, far more attention among philosophers than it has been given to date. It is Leonard’s crowning achievement as an intellectual historian and music theorist (in the broadest sense).

Leonard Meyer’s personal presence will be sorely missed in the entire community of arts and letters. But his intellectual presence will never be missed – because it will always be with us.

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