‘Watt’: Music, Tuning and Tonality


 Heath Lees



Literary critics have been understandably diffident when dealing with the references to music which abound in Beckett’s work and have wrongly supposed that Beckett, often described as a ‘competent amateur musician’, manifests a correspondingly amateur knowledge of music and musical matters in his writing. Such a diffidence, and such a misappre­hension, are especially to be regretted in the case of the novel which most requires one to confront technical issues: Watt. There have, it is true, been two attempts to make good this deficiency: Susan Field Senneff’s ‘Song and music in Samuel Beckett’s Watt’1 and Eric Park’s ‘Fundamental sounds’,2 each of which addresses the problem combat­ively. But Senneff makes some musical errors and miscalculations, while Park oscillates nervously between a technical and a metaphoric usage of a few very important musical terms. And both writers fall into the trap of crediting Beckett (or themselves) with only a limited understanding of music and thus fail to appreciate how strongly and pervasively the musical themes are exploited in the novel. The imagery of tuning and untuning, for example, has been virtually ignored thus far, despite the fact that it is exploited throughout the novel. It offers a musical parallel to the oft-quoted existence of the ladder, and is, as I hope to show, a penetrating commentary on music itself as a unique modality. It is the purpose of this essay to explore these issues fully for perhaps the first time.3



All the available evidence, properly interpreted, suggests that had Watt learned to respond to the non-literal language of music his mental catas­trophe might have been avoided. By embedding specifically musical material in the novel, Beckett subtly demonstrates that Watt is exposed to musical stimuli which exert a diminishing influence upon him. Musically speaking, indeed, the novel might be described as a diminuendo al niente - a fading into nothing - and symptomatic of Watt’s failure to achieve what Murphy too fails to achieve, Attunement.


Watt’s existence, it is clear, depends on the properties of reason - the ability to enumerate, to codify, to order and compare; in sum, to provide a framework of ‘meaning’ for his perceptions. And for this ‘meaning’ to exist it must for him be expressible in words, indeed his world collapses when events are no longer fully accounted for in words (The Galls) or when words see ino longer to fit objects (pot, man) and finally when his own words become distorted and incoherent (nilb, mun, mud). But against this obsessive equation of words with meaning, the novel investigates the possibility of musical experience as a no less significant mode of per­ception, a purely musical universe unsullied by the ordinary linguistic fidgeting with significance, systematisation and sense, and yet one which carries its own meaning within its own specifically musical framework.


As James Acheson has shown,4 Beckett was deeply and permanently influenced by the writings of Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer writes challengingly, if fancifully, on the subject of music, nowhere more so than in a passage quoted by Acheson:


[Music] is perceived . . . in and through time alone, with absolute exclusion of space, and also apart from the influence of the know­ledge of causality . . .; for the tones make the aesthetic impression as effect, . . . without obliging us to go back to their cause.


Such a description corresponds well with Beckett’s own description of Proust’s ‘impressionism’. ‘By his impressionism’, says Beckett, ‘I mean his non-logical statement of phenomena, in the order and exactitude of their perception, before they have been distorted into intelligibility in order to be forced into a chain of cause and effect’.5


In Watt music is presented as having precisely this ‘impressionistic’ potential, - the promise of distortion. Watt’s increasing inability to form an aesthetic relationship with music is indicative of his refusal to surrender the Cartesian chain which binds him to a view of the world in terms of cause and effect. Whereas Watt’s existence depends on re-tracing the ordered series of causes, music, in Schopenhauer’s view, makes its own effect ‘without obliging us to go back to their causes’. Watt gradually proves himself quite unable to come to terms with music, and in time his ears become deaf to the invitation which music seems to offer.

Schopenhauer’s description of the ranges of musical voices or parts in a composition is of particular interest in connection with Watt:


Those musical parts nearer to the bass are the lower of these grades, the still unorganised, but yet manifold phenomenal things; the higher represent to me the world of plants and beasts. The definite intervals of the scale are parallel to the definite grades of the objectification of will, the definite species in nature. The departure from the arithmetical correctness of the intervals, through some temperament, or produced by the key selected, is analogous to the departure of the individual from the type of the species .6


As I propose to show, the theme of tuning (Schopenhauer’s ‘temperament’) and tonality (‘the key selected’) is fundamental to the understanding of Watt. But the very relationship which Schopenhauer proposes between music and the world of ‘unorganised but yet manifold phenomenal things’ on the one hand and of ‘plants and beasts’ on the other, also leaves its mark on the novel. The Threne (p. 33),7 for example, has a disorganised, rumbling-and-grunting bass, with inexplicable interjections of a blas­phemous or coarse nature, while the soprano is clearly heard, and even given some fully written-out music in the Addenda.8


For Schopenhauer, the realm of plant life shares with music the immedi­acy of the ‘aesthetic impression’:

The plant reveals its whole being at the first glance, and with complete innocence, which does not suffer from the fact that it carries its organs of generation exposed on its upper surface . . .9


In Waft, we may recall, before the singing of the Threne, there are parallel intimations of the secret vibrancy of Nature and Watt’s ‘bed of wild long grass, the foxgloves, the hyssop, the pretty nettles, the high pouting hemlock’ (p. 33). A much smaller - and less poisonous - catalogue of flowers precedes the Frog Song (p. 135) and later still, only desultory mention is made of shrubs and trees at the point where the Descant Song is adumbrated but fails to appear (p. 223). Watt’s perceptions of plants and of music are presented as parallel experiences, whose significance is not to be extracted by ‘sweet reasonableness’ but rather, in Bergson’s phrase, to be ‘entered into’. Watt is faced with a series of invitations to aesthetic encounter; but the invitations themselves gradually lose their already tenuous hold on Watt as the novel progresses. The brief survey of his ever-diminishing response to music which now follows is also intended to serve as a reminder of the main musical occurrences in the novel. For reasons of space, some of the interesting but minor references have been omitted.


At the appearance of the Threne (p. 33) Watt waits, Belacqua-like, in the ditch and hears a choir either inside of himself or outside, he is not sure; but he senses a reality of relationship between himself and the music. At the close of the song the narrator notes: ‘Of these two verses Watt thought he preferred the former’. The reason given for his preference is grounded in the primacy of ‘meaning’ over aesthetic effect, though at this stage Watt’s thoughts do admit a halting possibility of some correlation: ‘Bun is such a sad word, is it not? And man is not much better’.


The next musical encounter - the Frog Song (pp. 137-8) - appears much more detached from Watt’s experience, firstly because it is not an actual event but a recollected one, and secondly because Watt seems to be aware only of the principle of order which underpins it. It is also worthy of note that whereas some composed music is given for the Threne (even if it is relegated to the Addenda) the Frog Song is given as a mere pattern of words. It seems significant in this connection that Beckett himself should not actually use the term ‘song’ to describe the incident nor ever state that the frogs actually ‘sing’. I have retained the desig­nation Frog Song in order to demonstrate later that there is an element of specially musical significance in the passage - indeed the Frog Song, in a musical context, is crucial to the process of Watt’s ‘untuning’. But it is obvious that the words of the frogs, only minimally musical in themselves, are not subjected to any type of musical dynamic by way of barring or phrasing, and that the silent beats are represented by dashes rather than by rests. Insofar as it appears as a musical experience at all, the Frog Song unquestionably takes place outside of Watt. There is, surely symptomatically, no linking phrase in the manner of ‘he heard’. The man and the song are not related, merely juxtaposed.


The third song is referred to in the Addenda simply as ‘Descant heard by Watt on way to station’ and in brackets the numeral IV is added, pre­sumably to prevent the reader from confusing it with the Threne in chapter I, also heard ‘on [the] way to [the] station’. The single line of introduction given in the Addenda is the narrator’s only attempt to fix the song in time and space since perusal of Chapter IV reveals that the song does not in fact appear in the text of that chapter. The implication, I take it, is that the song is sung, but that Watt, now so out of tune with his environment, does not hear it, despite the information given in the Addenda. Page 223 contains the obvious juncture for this song; the root and branch of Nature appears again, ‘not unpleasant’, reference is made to ‘the place’, the bough drags backwards and forwards despite the fact that there is no wind, and Watt is again overtaken by weakness. ‘But it passed, and he pursued his way, towards the railway-station’. Here, it would seem, Watt’s musical awareness has finally failed him. Like the conniving caricature that passes for Mr Louit, Watt too has now ‘no ear for music’.


As for the music and the plants, so too for the ‘voices that Watt hears’, voices that act as premonitions of music, playing out their gradual diminuendo al niente. They sound first before the Threne (p. 29) while Mr. Spiro is waxing eloquent. Though unintelligible, the character of these voices can at least be elicited. They sing, cry, state and murmur, and Watt’s attempt to construe meaning from them consists of simply framing their mode of expression in mathematical permutations - though even that fails as an ordered system.10 But the voices are there, Watt can hear them, and can attribute some element of tone to them.


A less clear ‘little voice’ is heard by Watt (p. 91) after the exposition of the ‘twelve possibilities’ entertained by him in connection with the problem of  Mr Knott’s food. This voice is dimmer, more enigmatic, almost mocking. It uses something of the incremental technique found in folk song, allied with a knockabout, music-hall type of lyric, of a kind which Beckett has admitted he far prefers to opera since Vat least inaugurates the comedy of an exhaustive enumeration’.11 Watt is unable, however, to tell whether this ‘little voice’ is joking or serious. And by the time Watt is on the point of leaving Mr. Knott’s house, sound has diminished still further: ‘the pleasant voice of poor Micks . . . was lost, in the soundless tumult of the inner lamentation’ (p. 217). In the railway station waiting room, having recently passed ‘the place’ where the Descant Song may conceivably have been sung, Watt’s voice return momentarily (p. 232):


He lay on the seat, without thought or sensation, except for a slight feeling of chill in one foot. In his skull the voices whispering their canon were like a patter of mice, a flurry of little grey paws in the dust. This was very likely a sensation also, strictly speaking.


The closing silence following Mr. Case’s departing footfalls is described as ‘a music of which Watt was particularly fond’, and but for one whispering voice which Watt ascribes to a woman he once knew, the last references to music are all less than tangential to Watt’s experience, including Mr. Case’s book, ironically entitled ‘Songs By The Way’ which, we are told, he had forgotten to leave behind. The final scenario to include a sound is of the goat dragging its (Cartesian) chain and ‘pale’ - the ‘pale music of innocence’ (p. 174)? - into the distance, with the fading clatter forming the al niente of the inevitable diminuendo.


The novel’s treatment of the voices, of the experience of music and of the encounter with Nature all suggest that if Watt had accepted the invitations offered by music all might have been well - or at least for the best possible. But increasingly he ignores it and Attunement for Watt proves as impossible as it had been for Murphy. Murphy’s strained crescendo of failure in ‘music, MUSIC, MUSIC’ has now become a diminuendo of failure from MUSIC to an empty, fading clatter.


But in Watt the failure goes deeper, for Beckett contrives in a variety of ways to demonstrate that not even music is the ideal, purely musical language, intelligible yet undistorted. On the contrary, says Beckett, music itself is distorted and incomplete and, like language, forced to surrender its natural life on Western man’s altar of systematic reason.


To understand the musical context in which Beckett makes this clear it is necessary to look at the unpublished draft (B) of Watt where the following passage appears:

In what month this was he could not tell. It was when the yew was green, dark green, almost black. It was on a morning white and soft, promising sunshine, threatening rain. It was to the sound of bells, of church bells, of chapel bells, ringing deep and slow, ringing high and swift, in commemoration of some memorable occasion in the life of their Lord, or of His family, or of His numerous followers. Deep and slow, high and swift, so that for every three peals of the former there were no fewer than five of the latter, and that the third and fifth, the sixth and tenth, the ninth and fifteenth, the twelfth and twentieth, etcetera, strokes, on the one hand of the reformed, on the other of the aboriginal clapper, produced a chord, a charming chord, a charming charming second a comma sharp, a charming charming third a comma flat, assuming that the bell-ringers began to ring their bells at precisely the same moment, and that they continued to ring them at intervals in each case identical with the initial interval, and that Quin’s [Knott’s] residence was precisely equidistant from the two (space) . . . of worship, a combination of circumstances seldom united. and it was on a morning that the milk-boy came singing to the door, in his shrill voice to the door his [‘tuneless’ scored out] harsh song, and went singing away, having poured out the milk, from his can into the jug, with his usual generosity. The strange man’s name was Phelps. He resembled Arsene in structure. (Draft (B), p. 241)


The image of the yew suggests the farthermost edge of winter, before the expected bright green of the new growth. Watt, too, may reasonably expect that the arrival of Phelps (Arthur) signals a change in the present darkness of his own Winterreise through Mr. Knott’s world. Even if the dawning day hardly betokens ‘the unsoiled light of the new day . . . the day without precedent at last’ (p. 64) still there is a feeling of promise, a suggestion of hopefulness. Is not that something?, as Watt’s narrator would say. The printed text reads:


He did not know when this was. It was when the yew was dark green, almost black. It was on a morning white and soft, and the earth seemed dressed for the grave. It was to the sound of bells, of chapel bells, of church bells. It was on a morning that the milkboy came singing to the door, shrilly to the door his tuneless song, and went singing away, having measured out the milk, from his can, to the jug, with all his usual liberality.

The strange man resembled Arsene and Erskine, in build. He gave his name as Arthur. Arthur.


The relative optimism of the draft has been decisively altered here; the ‘charming’ peal of bells’12 is now placed in a context which reminds us that the earth is being ‘dressed for the grave’. The fascination with the bells and their interfering series seems to have disappeared in the printed text, but if we turn to the Frog Song we can see that the actual intervals re­appear there, since the lower two frogs sing at a distance of five and three, numbers whose addition gives the interval with the top frog -eight.13


Commentators have experienced difficulty in assigning any really musical meaning to the song, Susan Senneff, for example, concluding that it is little more than ‘a humourous interlude of noise’. Certainly the song can be related to its environment in ways other than musical ones. There is an oblique numerical relationship between the earlier permu­tations of Tom, Dick and Harry and the permutations of the three croaks of the song. The numbers used for the servants’ coming and going - 2 years and 10 years - yield the numbers 8 and 5 and hence 3 when subjected to the reductive processes of division and subtraction. The song begins on a coincidence of the three frogs and ends (or begins again?) on another such coincidence. The song can, therefore, be inter­preted as an agent of transition between the inevitability of separateness (the individuation of Tom, Dick and Harry) and the possibility of meeting (the meeting of Watt and the fisherwoman). One cannot help here but recall that the meeting in Murphy between Murphy and Celia is described in the continuous musical transition from serenade to nocturne and finally albada.


Yet this line of enquiry leaves one feeling dissatisfied. The inexorable coherence of the song seems somehow illusory much as the soul-mating between Watt and the fisherwoman seems illusory. Arithmetically the song appears to be completely worked out; one writer has even described it as ‘computerized’ .14 Yet Beckett may well be teasing the reader when he puts the all-important exclamation point after each of the terms ‘Krak!’ ‘Krek!’ and ‘Krik!’ A mathematician would see the exclamation point as a factorial sign and would quickly become aware of the unfinished effect which Beckett achieves 3! = 3 x 2 x 1:4! = 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 etc). The terms of the series seem to be fully and logically worked out, yet the factorial sign suggests that further reductions in respect of each term have yet to be made. In other words, the linear logic is followed impec­cably, but the implied harmonic depth of the terms themselves remains unexplored. Attunement eludes the grasp again.


If the song is shifted from the mathematical to the musical context and combined with a reading of the quoted section from the typescript draft (B), a wholly new possibility which is merely hinted at in the mathematical context becomes apparent in the musical dimension. Beckett chooses to conceal this dimension by dropping two technical terms in the final version. The first of these terms is the word ‘interval’.


In musical practice, intervals are counted by including both the outer, framing notes in the calculation. On the paradigmatic scale of C major, the interval of a third from the tonic produces the note E; the fifth is G; and the 8th (octave) is of course the higher C. The acoustic relationship within the octave from top C to bottom C is 2/1 i.e. the upper C has exactly twice as many vibrations as the lower C. All the C’s on, for example, a piano are fixed from bottom to top in this constantly doubled relationship. But this Western division of the octave is actually only a convenience, arising out of centuries of musical experiment and, as will be seen from what follows, is out of accord with acoustic fact.


This lack of accord can be examined more clearly when we turn our attention to the second ‘technical’ term in Beckett’s typescript, the seemingly innocent word which implies a metaphor but which is a proper musical designation - the word ‘comma’. It would not be overstating the case to say that only two groups of people use this word in music. The first - very small - group is those musicians whose work takes them into the theory of acoustics. The second - much larger - group (and here Watt comes swimming back into our ken) is piano-tuners. For the art of piano-tuning lies in the ability to reconcile the mathematical reality of acoustics with the musical necessity of an equally-partitioned octave, repeatable at any pitch. To achieve this, the notes have to be tampered with (the Western scale is called a ‘tempered’ scale) and the notes that are most tampered with in the octave are the third and fifth, the ones that Beckett supplies for the bells and then transposes in a spatial context to the frogs. The comma - its full designation is the ‘Pythagorean comma’ - is the difference between tuning twelve perfect fifths as opposed to tuning seven perfect octaves. If one were to start at the bottom note of the piano (A) and tune the whole series in fifths in the correct mathe­matical ratio (3/2) one would arrive at a top note considerably sharper -`a comma sharp’ - than would be obtained by beginning on the same note and tuning upwards for each A in the correct octave ratio of 2/1. (see fig.)


Circle of fifths

F- C" G’~ Dr A’r

A E B G6 D6 A6 E~ B6 F C G D A7


A At A2 A3 A4 A5 A6 A~

Tempered scale in octaves Pythagorean Comma



To reconcile this anomaly of musical nature, much discussed by the Greeks in their experiments with one sounding string, the mathematical ‘degrees’ have to be put aside and the string’s natural sounding modes have to be slightly distorted, with the consequent out-of-tune-ness being spread as imperceptibly as possible over other notes within the octaves. The present systematic division of the octave into twelve notes (i.e. including black notes) means that from the bottom of the keyboard each fifth note has to be ‘plotted’ as an almost perfect fifth so that after twelve of these (the circle of fifths) the system can coincide on the starting note, seven octaves above.


Just as the fifth has to be ‘tempered’ within the octave, so too the third has to be tempered within the fifth, necessitating other tiny adjustments in the notes round about; but once the intervals of 3rd, 5th and 8th have been established from any given pitch, the basic (though slightly distorted) concord of the key has been set into the pattern known as doh-me-soh-­doh. Without this slight distortion of natural sound, the seven-times repeated notes which make up a piano keyboard would not be possible. To quote from Grove’s dictionary of music and musicians: ‘ It so happens that if from any given note we try to tune three series of notes . . . one in octave, one in fifths and one in thirds, we shall never reach a unison again between the notes of any two of the series’.15


This information is marshaled here in an attempt to suggest that, far from being just a symbol to the effect that ‘physical events . . . do not interact but coincide’ (Kenner) or even a ‘literary anti-romantic mockery’ (Senneff), the Frog Song is crucial to the understanding of the inevitability of Watt’s failure. Against the background of acoustic theory, the song becomes an ironic sign of the fact that even in music itself Attunment is more illusory than real. The intervals of 3rd, 5th and 8th, the very basis of Western tonal concord, will never cohere unless fixed in a pre-distorted musical system. Musical ‘order’ demands a continuous tinkering with natural sound to make the tonal system repeatable and therefore amenable to the form of series - the triumph of ratio over musical matter. Western music relies for its effect of discord resolving into concord not on musical truth but on musical compromise, the kind of compromise which is to be found in a pre-established, sleight-of-ear system that piano tuners, for example, are paid to create. Watt’s ear for music fails him not just because sensibility is overwhelmed by sense, but because the Western musical system of tonality is based on a distortion in order to achieve that system. It is, so to speak, a trick. In Wattian terms, Art is Con; tuner, piano and pianist are all doomed.


It will be observed that thus far I have ignored the ‘incident of note’ in which the Galls arrive at Knott’s house to ‘choon the piano.’16 But I think it is clear from the above discussion that temperament (in the musical sense, as the word is used by Schopenhauer) demands a much more important place in the interpretation of the novel than it has yet been accorded. As will be seen, the Galls loom quite as large in relation to musical theory as they do in relation to Watt’s own un-tuning - the beginning of what Arsene would call his ‘existence off the ladder’.


Specific musical references in the narration of this incident can now be studied more closely and their proper importance gauged. The most obvious references are to do with the apparatus of the piano, but two other musical objects are mentioned in the description of the music room into which the Galls are conducted: a bust of Buxtehude and a ravanastron. In the early handwritten draft (A) these two objects appear as part of the description of the second picture of Erskine’s room, the picture ‘represent­ing gentleman seated at piano’, and it seems likely that in Beckett’s mind this picture would have been painted in Mr. Knott’s music room. In the draft it is actually made clear that the picture is of Mr. Knott’s father, who, amongst other things, holds a degree of Bachelor of Music (Kentucky).


Both the bust of Buxtehude and the ravanastron have perplexed critics, and the reasons offered for their appearance have been at best half­hearted. Coetzee17 finds only this to say of Buxtehude: ‘ . . . the bust of divine Buxtehude, to hear whom Bach walked two hundred miles’. The ravanastron defeats him entirely. ‘Perhaps we are supposed to find it funny, but we cannot be sure we have caught the joke until we know what a ravanastron is (and the N.E.D. will not tell us)’. Coetzee goes on to suggest that the two objects are simply the recondite, slightly pathetic props of an ‘insignificant retired musician’. That Beckett intends this as an overtone is easily acknowledged, but by this time we may be wary of accepting any of Beckett’s musical allusions in Watt as being ‘simply’ one thing or the other.


Dietrich Buxtehude was born in 1637 and died in 1707. Coetzee is right to draw attention to his influence on Bach (1685-1750) since Bach did embark on the pilgrimage to Lubeck to attend the famous concerts in the Abendmusik series held there on Sundays. But Buxtehude was not the only organist who influenced Bach - he made it his business to hear other famous virtuosi organists of that earlier generation, notably Reinken. The important thing for this discussion is that Buxtehude was the most famous of the pre-J.S. Bach school of North-German organists whose virtuosi fame was made possible by their development and exploitation of the tempered scale. Buxtehude is in fact the best-known representative of the composers who, at the turn of the seventeenth century, were moving the musical centre of gravity away from the modes of the old vocal music to the newly worked-out tunings, scales and keys of instru­mental music. The musical achievement of J.S. Bach’s Well-tempered clavier - the 48 Preludes and Fugues written in the major and minor forms of two of each of the twelve divisions of the octave - was made possible by the daring experiments of the earlier keyboard composers, particularly the earlier generation of organ composers in Gemany, of whom Buxtehude is the best-known exponent. Bearing in mind Becktt’s apparent concern in Watt with the way the tuning system of Western instrumental tonality has been altered by a ruse (‘ruse a by’, as Watt would say) one is not surprised to find Buxtehude laid low in the early manuscript (A), where the bust is described as being ‘under the piano, on its side’.


The ravanastron is representative of a much older non-Western musical tradition. Beckett’s minimal description of it is dirge-like: ‘A ravanastron hung, on the wall, from a nail, like a plover’ (p. 71). With its long neck from which a tuning peg extends downwards at an angle, and at the other end a rounded sounding-board, the instrument has the appearance of one of the spike-beaked, limicoline family of birds. The nail reminds us that this bird can no longer fly or sing. It may be that Beckett is here referring to the symbolic death of music as a source of tribal dynamism, and he has used this image before when he described Mr. Ticklepenny in Murphy (p. 86) as having ‘hung up his lyre’. Certainly the ravanastron is crucified onto a wall, by means of ‘a red nail’ in draft (A) (p. 50) and a rejected, unnumbered page describes it as ‘a scarlet nail’.


Coetzee is correct to claim that the ravanastron cannot be found in the N.E.D., but it can easily be traced in dictionaries of old instruments. In Grove’s dictionary it appears in the entry for the banjo family - not such a surprising link, perhaps, when it is recalled that Mr. Knott’s father graduated from a university in Kentucky, where the banjo tradition still flourishes. The relevant sentences read:


It is known that in India an instrument called the Ravanastron has been in use during the whole of the Christian era and for a thousand years or more before it. This was an instrument with one string stretched over a long wooden arm or neck, at the end of which the string was fixed, being fastened at its other end to a peg, or key for the purpose of tuning. At the end where the string was immovably fixed the arm had fastened to it a sort of circular wooden frame, over which was stretched parchment or vellum vibrating so as to reinforce the resonating power of the string when the latter was set in motion.18


The writer goes on to assert that similar instruments were known in Africa, Asia and Egypt, but one of his most interesting observations appears slightly earlier, when he comments that the existence of such an instrument testifies to the expertise of ‘those who knew how to stretch strings over sounding-boards of whatever kind and how to determine the required intervals by varying the required lengths of the string’. One may be at liberty, therefore, to conclude that the ravanastron, or something much resembling it, was the basis for the Pythagorean experiments in tuning. Perhaps it was with such an instrument that the mathematical relationships of sound, their conflict with musical actuality and the existence of the ‘Pythagorean comma’ were first discovered. At any rate, Beckett has succeeded in bringing us back to the distortion of the Western musical system, by his juxtaposition of the pioneering Buxte­hude on the one hand, with his famous technique made possible by the equal tempered scale, and the rudimentary sound-string of the ravanastron on the other. Though centuries apart, both represent stages in ‘the tale of man’s effort to resolve the irremediably discordant’.19


Against this background of acoustic theory and musical history, the Galls’ ‘incident of note’ works in a typically Beckettian Chinese-box type of series. The objects in the music-room are connected with stages in man’s acoustic exploration. The tuners represent the ability to impose an acoustic system upon natural sound, yet the state of the piano renders this impossible, and the incident itself throws out an insuperable challenge to Watt’s systematically-grounded powers of reasoning. Watt is as defeated in trying to tune the Galls into his concept of meaning as the Galls themselves are in trying to tune the piano into the tempered acoustic system. Galls and Frogs are connected, we may say, not just by the obvious Roman pun and the Anglo-Saxon jibe but also by the ruse of the Western tonal system.


But the incident of the Galls is in many ways an inversion of the Frog Song. For the Galls have a handful of notes (terms) which cannot be tuned to the series, while the frogs have a meticulously cogent series which is, in its musical implications, at variance with the order of the terms. In this connection Beckett’s choice of nine notes remaining for the piano-tuners is an interesting one, since musical inversion is made possible by the interval of a ninth. The inversion of a 2nd is a 7th, of a 3rd is a 6th and so on. The main musical resource of a piano with only nine notes remaining could be the ability to turn things upside-down. This would certainly be in accord, if one may be pardoned the phrase, with other elements in the novel. And yet in the narration of the incident of the Galls it is implied that an element of tuning has gone on, that some work has actually been done on the piano:


While Watt looked round, for a place to set down his tray, Mr. Gall Junior brought his work to a close. He reassembled the piano case, put back his tools in their bag, and stood up. (p. 72)


Furthermore, on two slightly later occasions, Watt recalls acutal tuning happening: ‘ . . . of two men, come to tune a piano, and tuning it . . .’ (p. 74). And again: ‘. . . and of the piano they had come all the way from town to tune, and of their tuning it . . .’ (p. 77).


Aside from mere contradiction, two choices are possible: (1) That the hammers and dampers do in fact coincide to give a recognizable series of nine notes. This seems unlikely in view of the exchange between father and son:


‘Nine dampers remain . . . and an equal number of hammers’.

‘Not corresponding I hope . . .’

‘In one case’.


But it could be argued that there is actually a pun here, and that the ‘case’ refers to the piano case which has been mentioned in the preceding sentences and that the only correspondence the hammers and dampers possess is that they are part of the seven-octave compass of the piano. And if the nine notes do sound, and if the tuning undertaken were that of producing a diatonic series, then the process of tuning over one octave (C - C plus an extra note) would produce the beginning of a Pythagorean comma, or a Pythagorean comma divided by seven. The ratio of the Pythagorean comma is measured in acoustics by the numbers 53441 / 524288, and the theoretical process of working out a division by seven would include the calculation of 524288 divided by 7, which would yield 74898.285714 . . . with the division of 2 by 7 producing the inexorable rolling decimals that also appear in the words to the Threne.


A second, and admittedly more likely solution is the normally accepted one, that only one note can be sounded (‘in one case’) and that any tuning by the Galls was in order to determine an absolute pitch rather than any relative pitch. But in music, just as relative pitch contains discords that have been tampered with, so too absolute pitch is really only a notional concept, carrying with it an element of discord and ambiguity which requires the Western system of tonality to resolve it.


In the final pages of this essay I intend to align the notional concept of absolute pitch with the Threne, and the discordant effect of it with the second picture in Erskine’s room; these are the two remaining mainly musical references in the novel. (The Descant song may, for all practical purposes, be omitted since my discussion is concerned primarily with Watt’s experience of music or musically-related incidents, and Watt does not really hear the ‘exile air’ which constitutes that song and which theoretically appears in Chapter IV).


In the late 1930s there was much discussion over the setting of a universally accepted standard of pitch. In 1939 an international conference established standard pitch as middle-A equal to 440 cycles per second. The tradition in England and America has tended to a higher pitch while in France there was a slightly lower standard, set by decree in 1859 at 870 vibrations (435 cycles) per second. The Beckett reader will remember that the infant Murphy, slightly at variance with historical fact in 1938, does not sing ‘the proper A of International Concert Pitch, with 435 double variations per second, but the double flat of this’ (i.e. a tone lower).


It might be thought that with the establishment of standard pitch and the perfecting of the tuners’ convention of the tempered scale the system became unambiguous. But absolute pitch can be made, as it were, to sound higher or lower, to ‘feel’ different depending on the context of the scale or key in which it appears. This phenomenon goes back to the instrumental tuning of a scale, where the slightly distorted notes produce the double function referred to by musicians as enharmonic change. Every note serves two purposes and may be described in two ways: G-sharp is also A-flat; A-sharp is B-flat, and so on. It is worth noting that the enharmonic change from one note-name to its alternative was referred to in the 17th-century as ‘breaking the circle’ (of fifths). Singers and string players are not so limited by the fixity of the notes as keyboard players are, and will tend to make an A-flat sound a little lower than a G-sharp, as implied, not by an absolute pitch, but by the tonality or underpinning key-system obtaining at the time. In short, there is really no steadily maintained absolute pitch in Western musical performance, but rather a series of small adjustments to changing tonalities in the course of a piece of music.


To a musical ear the key of C-sharp major sounds brighter, more buoyant than the key of D-flat major, though on the piano the notes C-sharp and D-flat are forced in equal temperament to coincide on the one note. That Beckett was fully aware of this particular aspect of musical ambiguity is clear from the handwritten draft (A) of Watt, where the music of the Threne is described:


‘Watt heard the music in D-flat minor but it was probably in C-sharp minor for Watt was inclined to hear a with a

flat’. (Draft (A), p. 228).


The implication is that like Murphy - indeed like most people - Watt is unable to focus his ear clearly towards an absolute pitch since for Watt that absolute pitch, to make ‘sense’, would need to be clarified by the enveloping musical system of key.


This predicament and its link with Murphy is further evinced in the Addenda where the music to the Threne appears. This naturally invites comparison with the fragment of melody which Beckett sketches in the early handwritten draft (A). The key signature of the early version is represented by five flats, which corresponds with the tonality of D-flat (major, however, not minor). But in the music as given in the Addenda (Grove Press text) the tonality is clearly B-minor, i.e. a tone lower, which according to the evidence is how Murphy would have pitched it. Characters in early Beckett tend to inherit Murphy’s musical infirmity: Arsene has to break off his rendering of ‘Now The Day is Over’ because his opening pitch was misjudged (‘haw! I began a little low perhaps’) (p. 57).


Musical theory, then, leads us to the conclusion that relative pitch (the division into scale) depends on systematic distortion, and that even absolute pitch is distorted in our perception, since these perceptions are coloured by the same system of key and changing tonality. Even the possibility of being in tune with one theoretical, absolute note is doomed to fail in musical practice. Interestingly the only solution left, that of the best possible compromise between absolute and relative pitch, is denied by Beckett’s Threne. If the music were to be at least cogent and con­sistent with respect to scale and the implications of a tonally-conditioned pitch, would not that at least be something? Alas, we find that Beckett distorts even the pitch-identifying feature of the key-signature, as Senneff has noted, with E-sharp and C-sharp, which is very nearly correct, but not quite: the E-sharp should be one degree higher, to become F-sharp.20 Similarly, the unpublished manuscript sketch in the handwritten draft (A) uses the key signature for the correct pitch mentioned there - D-flat -but not for the correct key-mode since five flats import the major tonality and Beckett has specified minor. Adding insult to musical injury, he makes some of the flats appear wrongly disposed: three a little too sharp, one a little too flat.


The music of the Threne, not surprisingly against such a background, also tends to avoid any sense of key and key-note. Every phrase falls to what the key-signature implies will be the tonic-the note B-except for the last phrase, which is an implied (but not strictly accurate) inversion of the main phrase, and then careers off onto the leading note of the key, setting up a contradictory effect of expectancy on what should be the final cadence, and so ‘according to the caprice of its taking place’ destroying the validity of the notional governing pitch.


I turn finally to the description of the second picture in Erskine’s room, which supplies further insight into Beckett’s knowledge of acoustics. The chord which the figure (Mr Knott’s father) is taking such physical pains to sustain with his right hand is ‘that of C Major in its second inversion’ (p. 250) and Watt has ‘no difficulty in identifying’ it as such. In the earliest manuscript version Beckett scored out the words ‘of C major in its first inversion’ and substituted second (my italics). The first inversion would be the notes E, G and C, which in the scale of C major would be notes 3, 5 and 8, forming the intervals with bottom C that I have already discussed with respect to the Frog Song. But the use of the second inversion has the effect of transposing the E an octave higher, the notes appearing in the order G, C, E. Apart from the technicality of octave displacement the intervals remain unchanged in relation to the bottom note, but the order of the notes shows that Mr Knott Senior is concentrating hard on discerning the notes of the harmonic series, or overtones.


Any fundamental note (one can hardly help here but recall Beckett’s description of his writing as a matter of making ‘fundamental sounds . . . as fully as possible’) generates a series of overtones appearing in a certain mathematical relationship. Using the note C as a fundamental note, and playing an octave in the left hand, a pianist will naturally generate the overtones G, C, E, G, (B-flat), C . . . . of which the first three are being sustained in the right hand by Mr. Knott Senior who has removed his left hand to cup his left ear towards the sound source. I have placed the B-flat in the series in brackets since it is slightly out of tune with the other notes in the relationship and there are other, similarly flawed, notes farther up in the series. The sound that is being heard is the gradual dying away of the concord of C major, and the figure is paying close attention to the gradual appearance of the enharmonic overtones of which B-flat is the least remote. This provides the acoustic context in which to set Beckett’s description of the ‘extraordinary effect on musical nature by faint cacophony of remote harmonics stealing over dying accord’. (p. 251)


Less well-known is the fact that the ‘faint cacophony’ sounds most clearly when the sounding medium is of the attack-and-decay type like a piano (or even a bell!), or a string plucked rather than bowed. When a note is struck on a piano, it is instantly consigned to history. Short of actual repetition, it cannot be continuously maintained in time. The string of the piano reverberates in decreasing function, and dies. Friction, acting between the air and the vibration through the air, exercises a natural diminuendo al niente, and as the diminuendo is taking place, the gradually distorting, colouring effects of the out-of-tune overtones may be per­ceived - hence the element of discord which so-called ‘absolute pitch’ inevitably contains.


However, the process of bowing a string or blowing a wind instrument largely overcomes this decaying, distorted effect, since the player supplies more than enough energy to sustain the note and so overcomes the action of friction on the vibration. The note sounded by a piano cannot be continuously sustained in this way, notwithstanding the monumental force that Mr. Knott Senior is exercising at the keyboard. Increased resonance can certainly be imparted to a piano string by removing the dampers over the string, that is, by depressing the right-hand-side pedal, and this Mr. Knott Senior is doing, using all his might, the weight of his body and both his feet. But try as he might, all his efforts to overcome the element of disharmony are doomed (as the Galls could have told him) to fail. He would have been better to have tried to bow the string of his ravanastron; the ravanastron is not, however, a bowed instrument but a plucked one, so the problem would remain. Besides, in the face of the constantly-evolving Western musical systematisation, the ravanastron has long since ceased to sing.


Throughout Watt’s music, the quest begun in Murphy for Apmonia or Attunement is thwarted. The notion of true pitch is thrown into confusion; the coherence of an underlying key-system is denied and the patterns of scales themselves are revealed as a manipulation of acoustic fact - a mere expedience wrought at the hands and ears of Western musicians in league with the tuners. The experience of Western musical composition does not after all offer a real solution to the problem of `intelligibility without distortion’. The diminuendo al niente of Watt (and of Watt) is inevitable not just because Watt is what he is, but also because Western music is what it is.







1 Susan Field Senneff, ‘Song and music in Samuel Beckett’s Watt,’ Modern fiction studies, 10, Summer 1964, 137-150.


2 Eric Park, ‘Fundamental sounds: music in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Watt,’ Modern fiction studies, 21, Summer 1975, 157-171.


3 I have been greatly aided in my examination of the music in Watt by access to the early drafts of the novel, thanks to the generous co-operation of the Humanities Research Centre, the University of Texas at Austin, and of course to Mr Beckett himself who kindly authorized that access, and granted permission to quote certain passages from those drafts. The drafts are three in number, the first (A) in holograph form, a second (B) in edited typed version, and a third (C) which includes substantial parts of (B) along with another 163 pages of handwritten material.


4 James Acheson, ‘Beckett, Proust and Schopenhauer’, Contemporary literature, 19, Spring 1978, 175-6.


5 Samuel Beckett, Proust, New York: Grove Press, 1931, 66.


6 Schopenhauer, The world as will and idea, trans. R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trbbner 8 Co., 1909, III, 334.


7 Samuel Beckett Watt, New York: Grove Press, 1959. All succeeding references to the novel are to this edition.


8 The appearance of the music in the Addenda is itself tortuous. Some editions present the complete sentence of introduction with the music (Olympia, Grove and Italian). Others retain the introductory sentence but omit the music (Calder, Swedish and Spanish) while the Minuit and German editions both omit both. The Norwegian translation contains both, and the music is re-written in another hand, innocently ‘correcting the mistakes’ of key and time-signature.


9 Schopenhauer, op. cit., I, 204.


10 See John J. Mood, ‘The personal system - Samuel Beckett’s Watt,’ PMLA, 86 March 1971, 255-65, for a survey of the distortions and incompleteness of Watt’s permutations.


11 Samuel Beckett, Proust, 71.


12 The bells in the draft are important not merely for their contribution to the seductively optimistic tone of the passage, but also for the additional imagery they provide of a circle with moving centre, an image which recurs in one form or another throughout the book proper. The music in the Threne with its seemingly aimless repeats has something of the character of a peal of six, imperfectly rung.


13 The actual intervals have been confused thanks to a mixture of inclusive and exclusive counting. Senneff (p. 142) counts the top series correctly to give 8, but then counts only the dashes, to arrive at the figures for the two lower frogs as 4 and 2. In Samuel Beckett, a critical study, London: John Calder, 1961, p. 86, Hugh Kenner falls into the opposite trap by counting both croaks twice to give a figure of 9, 6 and 4. Yet both give the 360 figure for the total - a total arrived at by including the first term and excluding the recurrent term; the musical system of counting bars rather than intervals is to be adopted, giving figures of 8, 5 and 3, and 360 total. Park (p. 170) gives the correct figures for the series.


14 H. Porter Abbott, The fiction of Samuel Beckett: form and effect, Berkeley ;and California: University of California Press, 1973, 59. The frogs are erroneously

ascribed to Murphy and the exclamation points omitted.


15 Grove’s dictionary of music and musicians ed. Blom, 5th ed. London: Macmillan, 1954, vol. VIII, 374. The New Grove, 1980, has a much shorter - and, for our purposes, less obviously relevant section - on the subject of tuning. The acoustic facts of the varied temperings of octaves remain unchanged of course, and the articles on Temperament and Interval repeat the prime importance of manipulating the octave, fifth and third in the Western system of tuning.


16 John Pilling has offered the welcome suggestion that the sudden appearance of Dublin accent on the word "choon" is more than a colourful music-hall overtone but an inital clue to this very process of tuning and untuning. It would seem very typical of Beckett to tune the word ‘tune’.


17 J.M. Coetzee, ‘The manuscript revisions of Beckett’s Watt’, Journal of modern literature, 2, November 1972, 474-5.


18 Grove’s Dictionary (5th ed.) vol. I, 402. The New Grove omits references to the ravanastron.


19 Park, op. cot., p. 162.


20 It is interesting to observe that the symbolist painter Joan Mirb, in a fragment of music in the painting Carnival of harlequin (1924-5), has one dislocated sharp in the ‘key-signature’ and this is again an E-sharp, as in the Threne. The three notes included in the painting are very similar to the first three notes of the Threne (is there another play here, this time on the word threne itself?) Beckett would no doubt have seen Mird’s painting but a discussion of the symbolists’ ideas on music in the context of Beckett’s sources lies outside the scope of this present essay. Dougald McMillan’s essay ‘Samuel Beckett and the visual arts’, in Samuel Beckett: a collection of criticism, New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1975, provides illumination on many of Beckett’s various incorporations from the visual arts.