Stanley Cavell's 1967 essay “Music Discomposed” claims that twentieth-century musical modernism incorporates the constant possibility of “fraudulence,” thus provoking the Philistine objection: why can't we write like Mozart any more? For Cavell the question is preeminently a matter of fact: not that no one can write like Mozart any more but that no one does. The question of why remains unanswered.

My own essay proposes an answer. On historical grounds it shifts the question from Mozart to Beethoven to focus on a specific composition. When my students listen to Beethoven's “Kreutzer” sonata in connection with Tolstoy's infamous novella of the same name, they readily hear the passion and eroticism that Tolstoy imputed to the music. But the sonata dates from 1803; no one would write it today to evoke fatal attraction. Why should that be so? Must it be, and if so, why again? The answer—inevitably equivocal—is to be found not in the shopworn trope that imparts a sovereign irreversibility to the history of form or style, but in the historicality of subjectivity on one hand and of musical meaning on the other.

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