Benson on the Elusive “Work Itself”

Continuing his discussion of the “ergon within the energia,” Benson introduces Ingarden’s position. Ingarden’s fundamental assumption is that there is an essential (not simply an accidental) separation between a work and its written and aural expressions (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 126). Ingarden is concerned to preserve a kind of superhistorical ergon that remains untouched by the energia of actual music performance through the course of time. However, Ingarden himself is aware of this tension, which makes his contribution highly instructive. First, Ingarden begins by asking as to the relation between the work and the score. According to Ingarden, the score preserves the work and helps to maintain its identity (Ibid., p 127). Yet, Ingarden admits that the score does not exhaust the work and merely relates aspects of the work—the score functions as a kind of “schema.” By acknowledging both that the score maintains the identity of the work in some sense and yet the score does fully circumscribe the work, we are pressed to ask, what then is (ontologically speaking) the “something more” that the score fails to capture?

Ingarden’s position is more or less a kind of Platonism when it comes to the role of performances. That is, for Ingarden, a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” and is “in a sense inherently complete” (Ibid., p. 128). In essence, over time the various performers of a work are not adding anything new, rather they are discovering the latent possibilities already “embedded” in the work and that simply need to be actualized. Thus, the work does not really change over time but merely “appears” to change. However, as Benson observes, “the problem with this view is that—practically—these possibilities seem not to come merely from within but also from without: for they arise—at least partly—by way of performance traditions, which are themselves developing” (Ibid., p. 128). But, being a good phenomenologist, Ingarden does not totally ignore the fact that the work seems to go beyond the intentions of the composer due to Unbestimmtheitsstellen—“places of indeterminacy” that are born with every work—some of which are only made determinate through a live performance.

Contra a Platonist-type understanding of a work, Benson argues for a kind of mediating way that acknowledges that a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” that constitutes it, yet those possibilities are supplemented by additional possibilities that arise over the course of time and as a result of evolving musical traditions. “Thus, we could say that Bach had intentions for the St. Matthew Passion that were complex and specific. But the performance by Mendelssohn did not merely bring out those possibilities (even though it did that too). Rather, it also created certain possibilities—possibilities that truly did not exist before” (p. 129).

In light of the “interconnectedness of work and performance,” Benson ends the section by suggesting that instead of “work” which seems to suggest a “finished” product, we should return to the denomination “piece.” Piece implies a more fragmentary and on-going character—something “inherently incomplete, for the musical context in which it exists is in flux” (pp. 132-33).