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Absolute MusicThe History of an Idea$

Mark Evan Bonds

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199343638

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199343638.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Absolute Music

Mark Evan Bonds

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

What is music and why does it move us? From antiquity to the present, writers have answered these questions in many ways, but they have almost always treated them in tandem, for how we identify the essence of music—what it is—inevitably shapes our accounts of its effect—what it does—and vice versa. We cannot, after all, explain how music works without first establishing its identity, which is to say, without first conceiving of it in isolation, apart from all else, consisting only of itself....

What is music and why does it move us? From antiquity to the present, writers have answered these questions in many ways, but they have almost always treated them in tandem, for how we identify the essence of music—what it is—inevitably shapes our accounts of its effect—what it does—and vice versa. We cannot, after all, explain how music works without first establishing its identity, which is to say, without first conceiving of it in isolation, apart from all else, consisting only of itself.

This book traces the history of the idea of music’s essence as autonomous, self-contained, and wholly self-referential. “Absolute music” is the most common of several terms used to convey this conception, which manifests itself most clearly in compositions that have no text to be sung and no titles or accompanying descriptive terms that might in some way suggest what a particular work might be “about.”

By this definition, the concept of absolute music might seem straightforward enough. We can readily distinguish between the nature of a piano sonata by Mozart and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, with its elaborate prose program describing an “episode in the life of an artist,” or between a two-part invention by Bach and Dukas’s L’apprenti sorcier, whose title compels us to recall the tale of the magician-in-training who oversteps his bounds. Yet the idea of absolute music has proven to be a flashpoint of musical aesthetics, particularly since the middle of the nineteenth century. Some have rejected the premise that music can function exclusively within its own sphere, while others have insisted that it can do nothing more. Few concepts in the aesthetics of music have evoked such polarizing reactions.

The polemics erupted shortly after the term “absolute music” itself first appeared. This was no mere coincidence, for the term was purposefully burdened with ideological baggage from the start. It was coined in 1846 by none other than Richard Wagner, who used it as a pejorative in his efforts to expose the limitations of purely instrumental music, thereby providing a justification for his own theory of opera.1 To Wagner’s mind, a self-contained art of pure form could serve no useful purpose in society: it was “absolute” in the sense that it was isolated, sterile, and irrelevant to life. Within a few years, Wagner was calling into question the plausibility of his own neologism, dismissing the (p.2) idea of an “absolute artwork” as a “non-thing,” a “specter of aesthetic fantasy,” a “hobgoblin in the brain of our aesthetic critics.”2 The notion of an artwork wholly unconnected to the world around it, Wagner declared, was quite literally inconceivable.

In an ironic twist, those who considered music to be autonomous and entirely self-referential appropriated the very term Wagner had used to denigrate that conception of the art. The most important figure on this side of the debate was the Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick, who in his brief treatise Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (On the Musically Beautiful, 1854) celebrated precisely those qualities of abstraction and isolation so repugnant to Wagner.

The controversy that ensued transcended the narrow world of musical aesthetics because it went to the heart of two long-standing issues about the nature of all the arts. The first concerned the relationship between form and content. As the least material and most inherently abstract of all the arts, music had long been acknowledged as different in kind. Unlike a poem, a drama, a novel, a painting, or a sculpture, a work of purely instrumental music did not have to be about anything at all. (If a composer happened to provide some verbal clue as to a work’s import, as for example in the case of Dukas’s L’apprenti sorcier, that information was not actually heard in performance and could therefore be considered as standing apart from the work itself.) And while philosophers and critics had always acknowledged the importance of form as an aesthetic category, the idea of an art consisting entirely and exclusively of form, without representational content of any kind, posed a conceptual challenge. At a time when the term “abstract art” did not yet exist, only music offered the possibility of an art of pure form. But commentators were slow to accept the implications of such a high degree of abstraction. They responded to music in a variety of ways: some remained content to treat it simply as an exception, which often meant marginalizing it, while most attempted to rationalize its place within the broader spectrum of all the arts by downplaying its abstract nature and emphasizing its capacity to represent human passions. This necessarily entailed a distinction between the form of a work and its content, which could be an object, an event, an idea, or an emotion. It was not until the early years of the nineteenth century that any significant number of critics began to argue that that music’s form is its content. The proponents of absolute music eventually advanced to the forefront of those who saw the identity of form and content as the highest aesthetic ideal. (p.3) By 1877, the novelist and literary critic Walter Pater could famously declare that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”3

Vom Musikalisch-Schönen also spoke to the central issue of art’s role in society. Because of its wholly self-contained essence, Hanslick argued, music in its purest form could not engage with the vicissitudes of life; this in turn allowed it to function as a refuge of pure beauty from the realm of the mundane. Hanslick’s motives were at least in part political: writing in the wake of the Revolutions of 1848–49, he wanted to provide a theoretical justification for insulating music from the turmoil of social and political change. In this respect, his attitude toward music was actually far more radical than that of Wagner, who considered music (and art in general) as a means of revolution. Wagner’s idea was scarcely novel: the socially disruptive potential of music had been recognized long before by Socrates, who in Plato’s Republic declares that “the guardians of the state must beware of changing to a new form of music, since it threatens the whole system.... The musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws.”4 Hanslick’s view of music as a wholly self-contained art, by contrast, would figure prominently in several currents of modernist aesthetics in the early twentieth century. Serial composition and the aesthetics of “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit), both of which emerged in the 1920s, owed much to the premise of music as an art of pure form, even if figures like Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Hindemith had no desire to be associated with a critic from a previous generation whose reputation was that of a hard-boiled reactionary. By the middle decades of the twentieth century, critics were routinely interpreting abstract painting and sculpture as the visual counterparts of absolute music. Formalism would become a particularly contested issue on the Cold War’s cultural front: the East denounced it as an aesthetic that promoted the production of artworks lacking in social value, even as the West endorsed it for precisely the same reason. Seen from a distance, then, it is Hanslick and not Wagner who emerges as the more forward-looking of the two, though not in ways that Hanslick himself could have anticipated. As Jean-Jacques Nattiez has rightly noted, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen is a text “fundamental to musical modernity.”5

The notion of “the music itself”—a phrase often invoked in the context of music analysis—and the related constructs of “purity” and “autonomy” continue (p.4) to function as ideals in discussions about music. These concepts are deeply problematic, however, for they imply that we can somehow hear, contemplate, and discuss music entirely on its own terms. As Richard Taruskin has pointed out on many occasions, such claims isolate music from the humans who write, perform, and listen to it and who never do these things—and never could do these things—in a sphere somehow cordoned off from everyday existence.6 The claims of purity and autonomy, qualities closely associated with absolute music, frequently mask their own ideological premises. We always listen to or think about music within a specific historical moment and cultural context, and the idea of “pure” music is itself an abstraction, for the “purely musical experience” is never purely musical. Ethnomusicologists have developed an entire discipline based on this premise.

Indeed, every work of music inevitably reflects its historical and cultural context to at least some degree, no matter how “absolute” it might seem. Bach’s inventions and Mozart’s sonatas, to return to our earlier examples, are what they are for reasons that go beyond purely musical considerations. We know that one of Bach’s purposes in writing his two- and three-part inventions was pedagogical: this is evident in the order and increasing contrapuntal sophistication of these works in the collection of inventions he composed for members of his family and for what he called “amateurs of the keyboard.” In the prefatory note to a manuscript set of these pieces, assembled in 1723, Bach described these inventions as works of “straightforward instruction” for composing as well as performing, first in two voices, then in three, by means of which those who applied themselves diligently might arrive “above all...at a cantabile manner in playing, all the while acquiring a strong foretaste of composition.”7 And we know from Mozart’s correspondence that the style of at least one of his late piano sonatas owes much to personal and economic circumstances. When he asked his friend and fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg for a loan in the summer (p.5) of 1789, Mozart assured him that he was already in the process of doing all he could to earn the money to repay the loan, including writing a set of six “easy” (leichte) sonatas to be published and sold to the market of musical amateurs in Vienna.8 In the end, Mozart wrote only one of these, the Sonata in D Major, K. 576, and this work does in fact stand out for its unusually modest demands on the performer. When we listen to these compositions by Bach and Mozart, we can choose to hear them as autonomous and self-contained works of art, or we can choose to hear them as manifestations of specific personal, institutional, political, and economic circumstances; we are most likely to hear them as some combination of the two. But that is a choice we make and not a quality inherent in the works themselves. Neither mode of listening is superior to the other, and the notion that we can hear them in exclusively one way or the other is in any case deeply suspect.

The purpose of this book, then, is not to argue for or against the legitimacy of the idea of absolute music, but rather to trace the history of this idea and its consequences. This account goes up to but does not incorporate the recent lively philosophical debate about music’s connections (or lack thereof) to the world around it. In many respects, contemporary philosophers like Lydia Goehr, Peter Kivy, Jerrold Levinson, Jenefer Robinson, Kendall Walton, and Nick Zangwill are addressing the same questions that exercised Wagner and Hanslick more than 150 years ago: Is music by itself capable of expressing emotions or ideas? If so, how? If not, what—if anything—does music express?9 This debate often draws on historical sources, to be sure: Kivy and Zangwell, in particular, have offered important insights into Hanslick’s arguments in Vom Musikalisch-Schönen to support their own (divergent) views about what music can and cannot express. I have largely avoided engaging with these more recent lines of discussion, in part to keep the present study within manageable bounds, and in part because my purpose is not to advocate any particular philosophical point of view but rather (p.6) to examine how others in the past have used the construct of absolute music to promote their own ideas about what music is and how it works. Philosophers of art both past and present have tended to treat absolute music as a constitutive concept, a quality or set of qualities that are (or are not) inherent within music and that we may (or may not) perceive in listening to music; I prefer to approach absolute music as a regulative concept, a premise that can be neither proven nor disproven but that provides a framework for discussing other ideas, most important among them the relationship between music’s perceived essence and its effect. In practice, constitutive and regulative constructs can overlap considerably, and regulative constructs used in the past can enrich current thinking about the essence of music, even if the reverse is not always the case.

If we approach absolute music as a regulative construct, we can move outside the framework in which its history is conventionally cast. Almost every account to date presents it as an aesthetic concept that emerged toward the end of the eighteenth century, even while acknowledging that it did not acquire its own distinctive term until the middle of the nineteenth.10 For the most part, however, these narratives perpetuate the terminology and conceptual framework laid down in the polemics between Wagner and Hanslick in the middle of the nineteenth century. Surprising as it may seem, the two agreed about the nature of absolute music; they differed only on its value. Or to put this another way: they agreed on its essence but disagreed about its effect. Wagner equated absolute music with sterility, Hanslick with purity, but its “absoluteness” in the sense of its separation from all other realms of art and of life, was never in dispute. The two also constructed remarkably similar narratives to explain its origins in the instrumental repertory of what we now think of as the “Classical” era, which reached its high point in the music of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven. Wagner praised these composers for having elevated purely instrumental music to its fullest potential, but he regarded that potential as necessarily limited. For Wagner, instrumental music was a historically superseded mode of expression. He pointed to the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a harbinger of the future: it was here that even Beethoven, the great symphonist, had recognized the limitations of purely musical expression and had dared to incorporate words into what until that time (1824) had been an otherwise purely instrumental genre. Hanslick, by contrast, equated instrumental music with the essence of music itself: the legacy (p.7) of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven was something to be preserved and extended. He considered the Ninth an anomaly in Beethoven’s output, a one-time experiment. As a critic, Hanslick embraced vocal music enthusiastically, but as a philosopher, he insisted that music, without the aid of a sung text or verbal cues, was entirely self-sufficient.

The polemics between Wagner and Hanslick and their surrogates extended across the remainder of the nineteenth century. Music became a cultural battlefield that pitted defenders of the past—Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, or at least the Beethoven of the first eight symphonies—against the advocates of the “Music of the Future,” who hailed the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth as the fountainhead of the new music of Wagner and Liszt. The direct critical response to Vom Musikalisch-Schönen was both intense and protracted. (The more significant early reviews and commentaries are discussed in chapter 11; see also the Appendix.) Each new edition of the treatise through the eighth (1891) provoked reactions from supporters and detractors alike. By the time of the last authorial edition (the tenth, 1901), it had been translated and published in Spanish (1865), French (1877), Italian (1883), Danish (1885), Russian (twice: 1885 and 1895), English (1891), and Dutch (1892). The text gave opponents of Wagner, Liszt, and self-styled “progressives” a philosophical basis by which to justify their resistance to the “Music of the Future” on something more than merely personal dislike of this new music or an aversion to change in general. By the same token, Zukunftsmusiker, the “Musicians of the Future,” could now attack their opponents on grounds that went beyond the charge of garden-variety conservatism. Hanslick’s treatise claimed philosophical standing in the world of ideas and as such provided a useful target of opportunity. Nor did these two sides talk past each other, for they agreed, as noted, on the basic terms of the debate. Wagner had good reason to coin a new term (“absolute music”) when he did, and Hanslick had good reason to accept Wagner’s understanding of what it meant. Their self-serving yet oddly congruent arguments will be examined in detail in chapters 8 and 9; for the moment, suffice it to say that their mutually reinforcing accounts of the nature and history of absolute music (or “pure” music—reine Musik—as Hanslick preferred to call it) established the framework in which scholars have examined this idea from the middle of the nineteenth century down to the present day.

From a historical perspective, this framework is hopelessly myopic. Both Wagner and Hanslick all but ignored a long tradition of debate about the essence of music, and to the extent that they took account of this earlier discourse at all, they distorted it to their own ends. Their narratives of music history are based on the premise that music is a wordless language that had managed to “emancipate” itself from conventional language toward the end of the eighteenth century. But the idea of “pure” music is far older than this. It has occupied a central position in commentary on the art since antiquity and dates back to the time of Pythagoras, (p.8) that quasi-mythical figure of the sixth century BCE who is said to have discovered the arithmetic ratios of musical intervals and who considered music to be the audible manifestation of number. This connection of sound to number carried implications far beyond the measurement of music, for it demonstrated an even more fundamental connection between the realms of the visible and invisible, between the world of the senses and the world of the mind. Small wonder, then, that Pythagorean thought exercised such a profound influence two centuries later on Plato, who identified Pythagorean proportions as the basis of that which harmonizes the universe and everything in it.11 For Plato, no other human endeavor is as deeply embedded in the construction of the universe as music, the most abstract and pure of all the arts, lacking in tangible substance. By this line of thought, the physical senses cannot be trusted: the ear can hear music as sound, but only the mind can penetrate its true essence as number. This Pythagorean-Platonic conception of music would be transmitted to the Middle Ages through the writings of Boethius (ca. 480-ca. 524), who classified music as one of the arts of number in the quadrivium, along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

This belief in a relationship between the essence of music and the essence of the cosmos never disappeared entirely. Hanslick himself would invoke it at the very end of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, without actually citing Pythagoras by name:

It is not merely and absolutely through its own intrinsic beauty that music affects the listener, but rather at the same time as a sounding image of the great motions of the universe. Through profound and secret connections to nature, the meaning of tones elevates itself high above the tones themselves, allowing us to feel at the same time the infinite in works of human talent. Just as the elements of music—sound, tone, rhythm, loudness, softness—are found throughout the entire universe, so does one find anew in music the entire universe.12

(p.9) The concepts and the language are unmistakably Pythagorean: music is an audible microcosm, a “sounding image” of the “great motions of the universe” through which we can perceive that which is infinite, inaccessible, and ultimately beyond human comprehension. Hanslick would delete this final paragraph in later editions of his treatise for reasons to be considered in detail in chapter 9. What is important to recognize for the moment is that the roots of his thought are to be found in an intellectual tradition that reaches back long before his time.

The first edition of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen(1854) marks a pivotal moment in the history of the idea of absolute music. It articulates an aesthetic of autonomy that looks forward to the twentieth century, yet its conclusion looks backward to the much older traditions of antiquity that had endowed music with cosmic significance, both literally and figuratively. Hanslick’s subsequent decision to delete these cryptic final sentences reflects his eventual turn toward a more austere variety of autonomy that would enjoy its greatest aesthetic and philosophical prestige in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

The original closing paragraph nevertheless offers a window on what would remain the central questions of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen through all its ten authorial editions: What is the essence of music, and how does this essence relate to its effect? Hanslick subtitled his treatise “A Contribution toward a Revision of the Aesthetics of Music,” and what needed revising, he maintained, was the “decayed aesthetics of feeling.”13 For Hanslick, the essence of music had nothing to do with its effect and everything to do with the quality of what he called “specifically musical beauty,” a kind of beauty to be found in music and in no other art. The perception of musical beauty, in turn, demanded a detached, contemplative mode of attention. Music that affected only the emotions and not the intellect was in this sense not really music at all. Hanslick acknowledged music’s ability to generate emotional responses, but he characterized these effects as mere by-products of the aesthetic experience and not as constitutive of the art itself. Individual responses to music, he maintained, were in any case too variable to figure into any account of the true—which is to say, pure and immutable—essence of music.

It is this insistence on a strict separation between essence and effect that was genuinely radical in Hanslick’s thought. At no point in the earlier history of aesthetics had anyone ever thought to cordon off the two so profoundly. We cannot grasp the radical nature of the concept of absolute music as it emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century without considering in some detail the long history of thought leading up to this categorical distinction between music’s essence and effect.

(p.10) The structure of the present book reflects three broad stages in the history of this relationship. Part One (“Essence as Effect”) surveys the period from antiquity through the middle of the sixteenth century when music’s essence was understood as the direct cause of its effect. This relationship is exemplified by the complementary and at times overlapping figures of Orpheus and Pythagoras. The latter was credited with having discovered the essence of music—what it is—while the former was hailed as the supreme practitioner of the art, demonstrating the full extent of its magical hold over humans, beasts, objects and even gods—in short, what music does. Orpheus was the paradigmatic musician who used his art to tame animals, move stones, and even cross back and forth between the realms of the living and dead. Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides, Apollonius Rhodius, Virgil, and Ovid, among others, describe these miracles in many different ways, but not one of them questions or explains the mechanism of how Orpheus’s music could overwhelm all within its range, from sirens to the guardians of the underworld, from wild beasts to inanimate objects. For all these writers, the power of music lay in its very essence: a skilled musician could tap into the inner structure of the universe, both animate and inanimate, and Orpheus was the most skilled of all musicians. Pythagoras was no musician, Orpheus no philosopher, yet their perspectives on music complement each other, even while reflecting fault lines that run the entire length of the history of music: theory vs. practice, being versus doing, contemplation versus action, mind versus body, the immutable versus the contingent, abstraction versus sensation. It is all the more remarkable, then, that throughout the immense lore and commentary surrounding both of these figures, their perspectives on music were never perceived as contradictory in any way. Quite the opposite: as we shall see in chapter 2, many ancient accounts link these two and relate Pythagoras’s abstractions to the miraculous powers exercised by Orpheus. At times in fact the two figures become virtually indistinguishable, for the perceived essence of music—the arithmetically harmonic proportions of the cosmos—was understood to be the source of its effect.

When the Pythagorean-Platonic conception of the cosmos began to lose its hold around the middle of the sixteenth century, writers sought alternative models to explain the correlation between music’s nature and its power. Part Two (“Essence and Effect”) traces these efforts in the period between roughly 1550 and 1850. Orpheus’s miracles, though still recounted, no longer enjoyed the status of literal truth, and empirical science had revealed that Pythagoras’s reputed calculations relating sound to number did not in fact square with the harmonies actually produced. The ear, along with the senses in general, began to challenge the mind as a source of knowledge.

For humanists of the sixteenth century, Plato’s definition of melos in The Republic offered a more attractive starting point for discussions about the nature of music than his speculations on the order and nature of the universe in Timaeus. In (p.11) Marsilio Ficino’s widely used Latin translation, first published in Venice in 1491, the key passage in The Republic (398d) reads: “music consists of three things: oration, harmony, and rhythm” (melodiam ex tribus constare, oratione, harmonia, rhythmus), with the admonition that “the harmony and rhythm must conform to the oration” (atqui harmonia et rhythmus orationem sequi debent), which is to say, to the words and their delivery. This alliance of music and speech allowed writers to explain music’s power by conceiving of it as an essentially expressive art, without the necessity of recourse to theories of cosmic harmony or the World Soul.

The principle of expression did not altogether supplant the Pythagorean principle of number, which, with its emphasis on structure, would eventually come to be thought of as form. Indeed, many of the best minds of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from Leibniz to Rameau, used concepts based on number and form to explain the innermost nature of music. Over the course of the eighteenth century, beauty emerged as yet another quality by which to explain music’s effect: it became the sine qua non of what were coming to be known as the fine arts or the “arts of beauty,” as they were called in French and German (les beaux-arts, die schönen Künste). Still another group of Enlightenment writers gave central prominence to music’s autonomy, pointing to its self-sufficiency as its defining feature among the arts, operating entirely within its own circumscribed sphere and on its own terms. And with the rise of idealist thought toward the end of the eighteenth century, a growing number of authors conceived of music primarily in terms of its capacity to reveal higher truths that would otherwise remain unknowable. This perceived quality of disclosiveness shaped the increasingly widespread conception of music as an art of transcendence, a means of insight into a higher realm.From the middle of the sixteenth century until the middle of the nineteenth, commentators on music generally perceived these various qualities—expression, form, beauty, autonomy, disclosiveness—as mutually reinforcing. Individual writers might well emphasize the significance of one or two of these qualities in their accounts of music’s essence but in so doing felt no need to disprove or deny the validity of any of the others. And while some of these qualities enjoyed greater prestige at different times and in different places, each of them contributed to an understanding of the nature of music and the arts in general. Beauty, for example, had played a role in discussions about the arts from Plato onward, but it did not begin to assume central importance as a defining criterion of art in the minds of most critics until the eighteenth century. And the capacity of music to disclose truths about the structure of the universe, although implicit in Pythagorean thought, did not assume widespread significance until the early nineteenth century. To single out any one of these qualities as the central criterion behind the concept of absolute music would be to ignore the multiple sources of the idea.

The terms of the debate changed sharply around the middle of the nineteenth century when Hanslick decoupled the essence of music from its effect. He (p.12) acknowledged that music could produce a powerful response in listeners, but he considered this response unrelated to the fundamental nature of the art. In this respect, he was an essentialist: his treatise is an attempt to define what music is without regard to what it does, deeming the latter irrelevant to the former. At no point did Hanslick ever assert the aesthetic superiority of purely instrumental music: he even conceded that the union of music and poetry “extends the power of music,” but he insisted that this union does not extend the “boundaries” of the art.14 Hanslick’s purpose, then, was to define the limits of music and valorize the art within those carefully circumscribed limits. Wagner’s purpose, by contrast, was to lay out a blueprint by which a composer—Wagner—could maximize music’s effect by uniting it with the “fertilizing seed” of the word.15 Franz Liszt’s 1855 neologism of “program music” polarized the discussion more strongly still by positing absolute and program music as mutually exclusive categories of instrumental music.

Part Three (“Essence or Effect”) outlines the course of this debate from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. Wagner, Hanslick, and Liszt—especially Hanslick—receive more scrutiny than any other figures, for together they established a new discursive practice (to use Foucault’s term): their terminology, perspectives, and rhetorical strategies became so deeply embedded in everday parlance that they were eventually no longer associated with their original authors.16 By aligning the age-old idea of “pure” music with a specific repertory—instrumental, non-programmatic music—these three figures together changed the framework of the debate about the relationship between music’s essence and effect. Hanslick, in particular, made purity the hallmark of “true” music and considered its effect a mere by-product of its essence, not an inescapable consequence.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, absolute music was a new term applied to old music; by the early decades of the twentieth century, it had become an old term more likely to be associated with new music, its aesthetics evident in the compositions and commentaries of such diverse modernists as Schoenberg, Webern, Busoni, and Stravinsky. Yet not one of these composers aligned himself with Hanslick. They adopted his central ideas and even elements of his terminology but never mentioned him once by name, even in passing. The line from Hanslick to the aesthetics of early modernism was circuitous: much of it, as outlined in chapter 13, passed through discourse about the visual arts in the (p.13) last quarter of the nineteenth century. The notion that a painting might consist largely or even solely of line and color—form—with little or no regard to its object of representation helped pave the way for a profound change in attitudes toward the role of form in music. The abstract nature of music, long acknowledged but rarely celebrated, was now the central element of its prestige.

Both as an idea and as a repertory, absolute music enjoyed its greatest esteem in the middle decades of the twentieth century, particularly in the West during the era of the Cold War. As recently as 1993, Susan McClary could open her influential essay “Narrative Agendas in ‘Absolute’ Music: Identity and Difference in Brahms’s Third Symphony” with the observation that “of all the sacrosanct preserves of art music today, the most prestigious, the most carefully protected is a domain known as ‘Absolute Music’: music purported to operate on the basis of pure configurations, untainted by words, stories, or even affect.”17 Though no one would make such a claim today, the statement was true enough at the time. In the second half of the twentieth century, absolute music was such a widely accepted—and therefore generally unspoken—premise of high art music that it resists isolation as a topic of discourse. It was foundational to mainstream of European-American musical aesthetics, and to trace its history in these years would be to survey the era’s musical aesthetics in general. For this reason, my survey of the idea ends around the middle of the twentieth century. Its more recent fortunes must await a separate study.

* * *

For all its importance in the musical aesthetics, the history of the idea of absolute music has never been adequately documented. The most important study to date is Carl Dahlhaus’s Die Idee der absoluten Musik, first published in 1978 and issued in an outstanding English translation in 1989.18 Dahlhaus begins his brief monograph by rightly distinguishing between absolute music as an intellectual construct—an idea, as his title makes clear—and as a type of music. The “idea of ‘absolute music’...consists of the conviction that instrumental music purely and clearly expresses the true nature of music by its very lack of concept, object, and purpose.” Two sentences later, however, this idea, this conviction, becomes a repertory with its own agency and immanent qualities: “Detached from the affections and feelings of the real world,” absolute music “forms a ‘separate world for itself’.”19 In conflating an idea and an object, Dahlhaus commits the fallacy of reification, (p.14) or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called it in another context, the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness,” the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.”20 This tendency to turn “ideas into objects” is what Richard Taruskin has identified as the “essential modernist fallacy.”21 Dahlhaus was neither the first nor the last to fall into this trap. Wagner applied his own self-invented term inconsistently, and in the latest edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Roger Scruton similarly blurs concept and object: he begins his entry on absolute music by identifying it as an idea but in the middle of second paragraph shifts, without notice, to treating it as a specific type of music. This failure to distinguish between the older idea of absolute (or “pure”) music as a concept and the later idea of it as a repertory has led to seriously flawed readings of the historical record, readings that ascribe an unwarranted degree of stability to a protean concept.

Dahlhaus, moreover, based his arguments on a highly selective range of historical sources, ignoring many relevant commentaries both within and beyond writings devoted to music.22 Two subsequent studies have since addressed this shortcoming to at least some extent: John Neubauer’s The Emancipation of Music from Language (1986) and Anselm Gerhard’s London und der Klassizmus in der Musik (2002), both of which survey an impressive array of authors from a variety of fields.23 Neubauer’s study is especially valuable for its emphasis on the continuing importance of Pythagorean thought in the eighteenth century and the ongoing friction between verbal (semantic) and mathematical (syntactic) conceptions of music. His account of the aesthetics of musical autonomy in the eighteenth century is rather less satisfactory. He argues that the “inversion” in the hierarchical relationship between language and music at that time was “induced by the emergence of classical instrumental music.” This “new music”—a repertory of sonatas, symphonies, and chamber music—“forced an aesthetic revaluation of major import, whose implications went well beyond the confines of music proper.”24 Just how or why the instrumental music of this era might (p.15) have altered opinions about the nature of music in general remains unclear (its quality? quantity? style?). The writers of the time most frequently called upon to testify about changing attitudes toward the art—Kant, Schiller, Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Novalis, Wackenroder, and Tieck—are in any case frustratingly vague or silent about the specific repertories of music they might have had in mind.25 Neubauer’s study, in any event, stops at 1800 and makes no attempt to connect eighteenth-century debates with the positions of later writers like Wagner and Hanslick. Gerhard, in turn, rightly emphasizes the contributions of English-language philosophers and aestheticians to the nascent conception of instrumental music as an autonomous art, and he uses aesthetics to remind us that musical “classicism” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was by no means centered on Vienna in the persons of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.26 Implicit in this position, however, is the problematic premise that aesthetic autonomy can manifest itself as an audible feature of a musical style.

Daniel Chua, in his provocative Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (1999), mixes historical observations with philosophical arguments, at times offering contradictory hypotheses in the spirit of the Romantic irony that figures so prominently in his account. In a series of brief and largely self-contained chapters, he emphasizes the paradoxes inherent in the concept itself. Absolute music, he asserts, has no history, “for an absolute by definition cannot have a history”: it has always been there. “To write a history of absolute music is to write against it.”27 Chua of course recognizes that the idea has a history, but his mosaic-like approach obscures issues of chronology and important changes in attitudes toward the nature of “pure” music over time. Like Dahlhaus, he tends to treat absolute music as a monolithic concept, minimizing the profound differences between the aesthetics of 1800 and 1850.

It is only in the last twenty years or so that scholars have begun to expose the social, political, economic, and ideological implications of absolute music. James Hepokoski, Susan McClary, Anne Shreffler, and Richard Taruskin, among others, have revealed the value-laden premises that for so long contributed to its prestige.28 The need to trace the changing historical attitudes toward the idea (p.16) thus becomes all the more pressing. As Taruskin points out about regulative concepts in general, “What is important and distinctive is not the thing or the concept itself, but the value placed on it, and its status as a regulative ideal,” to which he adds: “Our modern concept of ‘absolute music’ is not completely or even accurately defined if we do not emphasize the supreme value placed on it as an art-experience, since the nineteenth century, by musicians who have inherited the German Romantic aesthetic.”29

In spite of its declining prestige in recent decades, the idea of absolute music remains an unavoidable and in many respects still useful construct. Those who deny its existence evoke it as a foil by which to explicate the socially constructed parameters in which music is produced and consumed. And as Leo Treitler has pointed out, even the most contextually sensitive interpreters of a given composition must at some point come to terms with the notes on the page and at least temporarily entertain the isolated—absolute—conception of music they might otherwise reject.30 In this sense, the idea of absolute music reflects the enduring Western tendency to juxtapose mind and body, reason and emotion, the spiritual and the material. “What truly organizes music in the West,” as McClary observes, “is the tension between the inescapable body and the...deep-seated need to control or transcend that body through intellectual idealism.”31

In the end, absolute music stands as one of the most influential concepts in the history of Western musical aesthetics. From Pythagoras to the present, it has shaped basic conceptions of what music is and how we respond to it. For some, it captures the very essence of the art. For others, it isolates music in ways that ignore the art’s inescapable power. Absolute Music: The History of an Idea outlines the history of this contested construct.


(1) . Richard Wagner, “Programm zur 9. Symphonie von Beethoven” (1846), GSD, 2:61; PW, 7:252. On the early history of the term and its cognates, see Sanna Pederson, “Defining the Term ‘Absolute Music’ Historically,” M&L 90 (2009): 240–62.

(2) . Wagner, Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (1851), GSD, 4:234, 235: “Das absolute Kunstwerk...ist ein vollständiges Unding, ein Schattenbild ästhetischer Gedankenphantasie...das Spukgebild im Hirne unserer ästhetischen Kritiker.” Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own. Additional citations to William Ashton Ellis’s English-language edition of Wagner’s Prose Works (PW) are offered throughout to facilitate comparison to a different translation; in this case, see PW, 1:274, 275.

(3) . Walter Pater, “The School of Giorgione,” Fortnightly Review 22 (October 1877): 528. Pater would later incorporate this essay, with some revisions, into the third edition of Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1888). For further commentary on Pater’s dictum, see p. 271–73.

(4) RepublicPlato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 1056

(5) Jean-Jacques Nattiez, “Hanslick: The Contradictions of Immanence,” in Nattiez, The Battle of Chronos and Orpheus: Essays in Applied Musical Semiology, trans. Jonathan Dunsby (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 105

(6) . See Richard Taruskin, “A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and ‘The Music Itself,’” Modernism/Modernity 2 (1995): 1–26, republished in Taruskin, Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 360–88; Taruskin, “Is There a Baby in the Bathwater?” AfMw 63 (2006): 163–85, 309–27; Taruskin, “Back to Whom? Neoclassicism as Ideology,” in Taruskin, The Danger of Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 382–405; and Taruskin, “Afterword: Nicht blutbefleckt?,” JM 26 (2009): 274–84. Susan McClary has also argued this point on more than one occasion; see her “Narrative Agendas in ‘Absolute’ Music: Identity and Difference in Brahms’s Third Symphony,” in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth Solie (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 326–44; and Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).

(7) . Johann Sebastian Bach, title page to a manuscript collection of inventions (1723), in Schriftstücke von der Hand Johann Sebastian Bachs, ed. Werner Neumann and Hans-Joachim Schulze (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1963), 220–21: “Auffrichtige Anleitung, wormit denen Liebhabern des Clavires...gezeiget wird...mit 2 Stimmen reine spielen zu lernen...[und] mit dreyen obligaten Partien richtig und wohl zu verfahren, anbey auch zugelich gute inventions...zu bekommen,...am allermeisten aber eine cantable [sic] art im Spielen zu erlangen, und darneben einen starcken Vorschmack von der Composition zu überkommen.” Translation from Laurence Dreyfus, Bach and the Patterns of Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 1.

(8) . Letter of 12 July 1789 to Michael Puchberg in Mozart, Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, 7 vols., ed. Wilhelm A. Bauer and Otto Erich Deutsch (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1962–75), 4:93; English version in The Letters of Mozart and his Family, ed. and trans. Emily Anderson (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 930.

(9) The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of PhilosophyMusic Alone: Reflections on the Purely Musical ExperienceAntithetical Arts: On the Ancient Quarrel between Literature and MusicMusic, Art, and Metaphysics: Essays in Philosophical AestheticsDeeper than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and ArtJAAC46JAAC52The Metaphysics of BeautyZangwill, “Against Emotion: Hanslick Was Right about Music,” British Journal of Aesthetics 44 (2004): 29–43

(10) . See, for example, Hugo Riemann, Die Elemente der musikalischen Aesthetik (Berlin and Stuttgart: W. Spemann, 1901), 204–05; Carl Dahlhaus, Die Idee der absoluten Musik (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978); Daniel K. L. Chua, Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Roger Scruton, “Absolute Music,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., 29 vols. (London: Macmillan, 2000); Wilhelm Seidel, “Absolute Musik,” in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 2nd ed., 27 vols. (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1994–2008); and Ruth Katz, A Language of Its Own: Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 166, 187, 208 and passim.

(11) . Plato, Timaeus, 35b–36b, trans. Donald J. Zeyl, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. Cooper, 1239. See Francis Macdonald Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato (London: Kegan Paul, 1937); Ernest G. McClain, The Pythagorean Plato: Prelude to the Song Itself (Stony Brook, NY: N. Hays, 1978); and Francesco Pelosi, Plato on Music, Soul and Body, trans. Sophie Henderson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(12) . Eduard Hanslick, VMS, 1:171: “Ihm wirkt die Musik nicht blos und absolut durch ihre eigenste Schönheit, sondern zugleich als tönendes Abbild der großen Bewegungen im Weltall. Durch tiefe und geheime Naturbeziehungen steigert sich die Bedeutung der Töne hoch über sie selbst hinaus und läßt uns in dem Werke menschlichen Talents immer zugleich das Unendliche fühlen. Da die Elemente der Musik: Schall, Ton, Rhythmus, Stärke, Schwäche im ganzen Universum sich finden, so findet der Mensch wieder in der Musik das ganze Universum.” Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from VMS are taken from the first edition (1854). This passage does not appear in the translations by Cohen or Payzant (OMB), which are based on the seventh (1885) and eighth (1891) editions, respectively.

(13) . VMS, 1:9: “verrottete Gefühlsästhetik.” This passage, from the preface to the first edition, does not appear in OMB.

(14) . VMS, 1:53: “Die Vereinigung mit der Dichtkunst erweitert die Macht der Musik, aber nicht ihre Gränzen.” For a different translation, see OMB, 15.

(15) Oper und Drama, GSDPWThomas S. Grey, Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 141–43, 264

(16) Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 154

(18) . Dahlhaus, Die Idee der absoluten Musik (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978), translated by Roger Lustig as The Idea of Absolute Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

(19) . Dahlhaus, Die Idee der absoluten Musik, 13; translation from Idea of Absolute Music, 7. The internal quotation is from Ludwig Tieck’s essay “Die Töne,” in Phantasien über die Kunst, für Freunde der Kunst, ed. Ludwig Tieck (Hamburg: Heinrich Perthes, 1799), 241: “eine abgesonderte Welt für sich selbst.” A modern edition is available in Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Silvio Vietta and Richard Littlejohns, 2 vols. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1991), 1:236. On the authorship of the individual essays in this collaborative volume, see the commentary to Wackenroder’s Sämtliche Werke, 1:368–72.

(20) Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 74–75

(21) Richard Taruskin, Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 24

(22) Dahlhaus’s Die Idee der absoluten MusikUlrich Tadday, Das schöne Unendliche: Ästhetik, Kritik, Geschichte der romantischen Musikanschauung (Stuttgart and Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 1999), 122–24Sanna Pederson, in “Defining the Term ‘Absolute Music’ Historically,”

(23) John Neubauer, The Emancipation of Music from Language: Departure from Mimesis in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986); and Anselm Gerhard, London und der Klassizismus in der Musik: Die Idee der “absoluten” Musik und Muzio Clementis Klavierwerk (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2002)

(25) Mark Evan Bonds, Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 23

(26) . Gerhard, London und der Klassizismus in der Musik; see especially 123–50 and 297–331. In Gerhard, “Leonhard Euler, die Französische Gemeinde zu Berlin und die ästhetische Grundlegung der ‘absoluten Musik,’” Schweizer Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft, neue Folge 17 (1997): 15–28, Gerhard also makes a case for Berlin as a center of thought that laid the groundwork for the concept of absolute music.

(28) . James Hepokoski, “The Dahlhaus Project and Its Extra-musicological Sources,” 19CM 14 (1991): 221–46; McClary, “Narrative Agendas”; Anne Shreffler, “Berlin Walls: Dahlhaus, Knepler, and Ideologies of Music History,” JM 20 (2003): 498–525. On Taruskin’s contributions, see n. 6.

(30) . Leo Treitler, “The Historiography of Music: Issues of Past and Present,” in Rethinking Music, ed. Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 370. For a spirited defense of “purely musical” analysis, see Giles Hooper, “An Incomplete Project: Modernism, Formalism and the ‘Music Itself,’” Music Analysis 23 (2004): 311–29.

(31) Susan McClary, “Music, the Pythagoreans, and the Body,” in Choreographing History, ed. Susan Leigh Foster (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 83. See also Carolyn Abbate, “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 505–36