Absolute music

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Absolute music (sometimes abstract music) is music that is not explicitly "about" anything; in contrast to program music, it is non-representational. [1] The idea of absolute music developed at the end of the 18th century in the writings of authors of early German Romanticism, such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann but the term was not coined until 1846 where it was first used by Richard Wagner in a programme to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. [1] [2]

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The aesthetic ideas underlying the absolute music derive from debates over the relative value of what were known in the early years of aesthetic theory as the fine arts. Kant, in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment , dismissed music as "more enjoyment than culture" because of its lack of conceptual content, thus treating as a deficit the very feature of music that others celebrated. Johann Gottfried Herder, in contrast, regarded music as the highest of the arts because of its spirituality, which Herder attributed to the invisibility of sound. The ensuing arguments among musicians, composers, music historians and critics have, in effect, never stopped.

Spiritualist debate

A group of Romantics consisting of Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann gave rise to the idea of what can be labeled as "spiritual absolutism". In this respect, instrumental music transcends other arts and languages to become the discourse of a 'higher realm' – rooted greatly in Hoffmann’s famous review of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, published in 1810. These protagonists believed that music could be more emotionally powerful and stimulating without words. According to Richter, music would eventually 'outlast' the word.

Formalist debate

Formalism is the concept of music for music's sake and refers to instrumental music. In this respect, music has no extra-musical meaning at all and is enjoyed by appreciation of its formal structure and technical construction. The 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick argued that music could be enjoyed as pure sound and form, that it needed no connotation of extra-musical elements to warrant its existence. He argued that in fact, these extra-musical ideas and images detracted from the beauty of the music. The Absolute, in this case, is the purity of the art.

Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.

Eduard Hanslick [3]

Formalism therefore rejected genres such as opera, song and tone poems as they conveyed explicit meanings or programmatic imagery. Symphonic forms were considered more aesthetically pure. (The choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, as well as the programmatic Sixth Symphony, became problematic to formalist critics who had championed the composer as a pioneer of the Absolute, especially with the late Beethoven string quartets).

Carl Dahlhaus describes absolute music as music without a "concept, object, and purpose". [4]

Opposition and objections to absolute music

The majority of opposition to the idea of instrumental music being 'absolute' came from Richard Wagner. It seemed ludicrous to him that art could exist without meaning; for him it had no right to exist.

Wagner considered the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to be the proof that music works better with words, famously saying: "Where music can go no further, there comes the word ... the word stands higher than the tone." [5]

Wagner also called Beethoven's Ninth Symphony the death knell of the symphony, for he was far more interested in combining all forms of art with his Gesamtkunstwerk .

Contemporary views

Today, the debate continues over whether music has meaning or not. However, most contemporary views, reflecting ideas emerging from views of subjectivity in linguistic meaning arising in cognitive linguistics, as well as Kuhn's work on cultural biases in science and other ideas on meaning and aesthetics (e.g. Wittgenstein on cultural constructions in thought and language [6] ), appear to be moving towards a consensus that music provides at least some signification or meaning, in terms of which it is understood.

The cultural bases of musical understanding have been highlighted in Philip Bohlman's work, who considers music as a form of cultural communication:

There are those who believe that music represents nothing other than itself. I argue that we are constantly giving it new and different abilities to represent who we are. [7]

Bohlman has gone on to argue that the use of music, e.g. among the Jewish diaspora, was in fact a form of identity building.

Susan McClary has criticised the notion of 'absolute music', arguing that all music, whether explicitly programmatic or not, contains implicit programs that reflect the tastes, politics, aesthetic philosophies and social attitudes of the composer and their historical situation. Such scholars would argue that classical music is rarely about nothing, but reflects aesthetic tastes that are themselves influenced by culture, politics and philosophy. Composers are often bound up in a web of tradition and influence, in which they strive to consciously situate themselves in relation to other composers and styles. Lawrence Kramer, on the other hand, believes music has no means to reserve a "specific layer or pocket for meaning. Once it has been brought into sustainable connection with a structure of prejudgment, music simply becomes meaningful."

Music which appears to demand an interpretation, but is abstract enough to warrant objectivity (e.g. Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony), is what Lydia Goehr refers to as 'double-sided autonomy'. This happens when the formalist properties of music became attractive to composers because, having no meaning to speak of, music could be used to envision an alternative cultural and/or political order, while escaping the scrutiny of the censor (particularly common in Shostakovich, most notably the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies).

Linguistic meaning

On the topic of musical meaning, Wittgenstein, at several points in his late diary Culture and Value, [8] ascribes meaning to music, for instance, that in the finale, a conclusion is being drawn, e.g.:

[One] can point to particular places in a tune by Schubert and say: look, that is the point of the tune, this is where the thought comes to a head.

Jerrold Levinson has drawn extensively on Wittgenstein to comment:

Intelligible music stands to literal thinking in precisely the same relation as does intelligible verbal discourse. If that relation be not exemplification but instead, say, expression, then music and language are, at any rate, in the same, and quite comfortable, boat. [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

Romantic music is a stylistic movement in Western classical music associated with the period spanning the nineteenth century, commonly referred to as the Romantic era. It is closely related to the broader concept of Romanticism—the intellectual, artistic and literary movement that became prominent in Europe from approximately 1800 until 1910.

Symphony extended musical composition

A symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written by composers for orchestra. Although the term has had many meanings from its origins in the ancient Greek era, by the late 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections or movements, often four, with the first movement in sonata form. Symphonies are almost always scored for an orchestra consisting of a string section, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments which altogether number about 30 to 100 musicians. Symphonies are notated in a musical score, which contains all the instrument parts. Orchestral musicians play from parts which contain just the notated music for their own instrument. Some symphonies also contain vocal parts.

A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous movement, which illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source. The German term Tondichtung appears to have been first used by the composer Carl Loewe in 1828. The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt first applied the term Symphonische Dichtung to his 13 works in this vein.

Program music or programme music is a type of instrumental art music that attempts to render an extra-musical narrative musically. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience through the piece's title, or in the form of programme notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music. A classic example is Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, an instrumental works which relates a series of morbid fantasies concerning the unrequited love of a sensitive poet involving murder, execution, and the torments of Hell.

Eduard Hanslick austrian musician and musicologist

Eduard Hanslick was a German Bohemian music critic.

Susan Kaye McClary is a musicologist associated with the "New Musicology". Noted for her work combining musicology with feminist music criticism, McClary is Professor of Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

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Music criticism

The Oxford Companion to Music defines music criticism as 'the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres'. In this sense, it is a branch of musical aesthetics. With the concurrent expansion of interest in music and information media over the past century, the term has come to acquire the conventional meaning of journalistic reporting on musical performances.

In music theory and especially in the branch of study called the aesthetics of music, formalism is the concept that a composition's meaning is entirely determined by its form.

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Aesthetic emotions are emotions that are felt during aesthetic activity or appreciation. These emotions may be of the everyday variety or may be specific to aesthetic contexts. Examples of the latter include the sublime, the beautiful, and the kitsch. In each of these respects, the emotion usually constitutes only a part of the overall aesthetic experience, but may play a more or less definitive function for that state.

Choral symphony musical composition for orchestra and choir

A choral symphony is a musical composition for orchestra, choir, and sometimes solo vocalists that, in its internal workings and overall musical architecture, adheres broadly to symphonic musical form. The term "choral symphony" in this context was coined by Hector Berlioz when he described his Roméo et Juliette as such in his five-paragraph introduction to that work. The direct antecedent for the choral symphony is Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven's Ninth incorporates part of the Ode an die Freude, a poem by Friedrich Schiller, with text sung by soloists and chorus in the last movement. It is the first example of a major composer's use of the human voice on the same level as instruments in a symphony.

Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University. Rehding is a music theorist and musicologist with a focus on intellectual history and media theory, known for innovative interdisciplinary work. His publications explore music in a wide range of contexts from Ancient Greek music to the Eurovision Song Contest—and even in outer space. His research has contributed to Riemannian theory, the history of music theory, sound studies, and media archaeology, reaching into the digital humanities and ecomusicology.

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Lawrence Kramer is an American musicologist and composer. His academic work is closely associated with the humanistic, culturally oriented New Musicology, now more often referred to as cultural or critical musicology. Writing in 2001, Alastair Williams described Kramer as a pioneering figure in the disciplinary change that brought musicology, formerly an outlier, into the broader fold of the humanities.

Marion Diederichs-Lafite is an Austrian music journalist.

References

  1. 1 2 M. C. Horowitz (ed.), New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ISBN   0-684-31377-4, vol.1, p. 5
  2. Dahlhaus, Carl (1991). The Idea of Absolute Music. University of Chicago Press. p. 18.
  3. Quoted in the liner notes to the Juilliard String Quartet's Intimate Letters. Sony Classical SK 66840.
  4. Bacci, Francesca; Melcher, David (2011). Art and the Senses. Oxford University Press. p. 253. ISBN   9780199230600.
  5. Goehr, Lydia (1998). The Quest for Voice: On Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy: the 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. University of California Press. ISBN   9780520214125.
  6. Béla Szabados (Fall 2004). "Wittgenstein the Musical: Notes toward an Appreciation". AE: Canadian Aesthetics Journal / Revue canadienne d'esthétique: Volume 10.
  7. Shula Neuman (April 2, 1998). "The Meaning of Music". The University of Chicago Chronicle: Vol. 17, No. 13.
  8. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1944). Vermischte Bemerkungen[ Culture and Value ]. Translated by Peter Winch. p. 47.
  9. Musical Thinking (Fall 2003). "Jerrold Levinson". Journal of Music and Meaning: vol. 1, section 2.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)

Further reading