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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 13 C-Minor Moods
Richard Taruskin
The Music Century

fig. 13-3 House of the music publishing firm of Nikolaus Simrock (Bonn), which issued the first editions of many of Beethoven’s compositions.

But of course there was a Beethoven. And, owing in some large measure to that fact and to the enormous force of his example, the nineteenth century, especially in the German-speaking lands but not only there, was preeminently the music century. It was the century in which music embodied visionary philosophy, provided its audience with a medium in which they could live vicarious emotional lives, and became the object of emulation for all the other arts. It was the century in which composers could become culture heroes and political activists, could become champions of whole nations, could even define nationhood in new and powerful ways.

And that is because it was the century in which the audience for art music increased a hundredfold. As Arnold Hauser, the great social historian of art, would emphasize, from now on the middle class, not the aristocracy, would become the chief consumer of music, and music would become the favorite art of the middle class, “the form in which it could express its emotional life more directly and with less hindrance than in any other.”27 The vastly increasing size and importance of the middle-class public gave rise to a whole new class of public spokesmen and public educators for music. Thus the nineteenth century was also the century in which modern music journalism, music criticism, music scholarship, and music historiography were born. It was the century in which instrumental design and concert-hall construction rose to the challenge of the new mass audience with an unprecedented burst of technological advancement, when parlor pianos became standard middle-class furniture and had to be mass-produced to meet the demand, and when music publishing, benefiting from the industrial revolution, ballooned into a big business. The nineteenth century was the first great century of musical commerce and publicity.

It was also the century in which institutions of standardized professional instruction in music flourished, thanks to the public conservatory system that had originated in revolutionary France and had been exported as a by-product of Napoleon’s conquests. It found its most fertile soil in Germany, whence it spread to outlying regions like Russia and the United States, colonizing them in the name of the newly emancipated art of music. The nineteenth century was the great century of music education. Many of the important composers of the century—Felix Mendelssohn in Germany, Anton Rubinstein in Russia, Luigi Cherubini in France—became conservatory professors, training their pupils in an increasingly rigorous and standard academic discipline of composition. (What we now call “sonata form,” for example, was first described as such by Anton Reicha, a transplanted Bohemian composer, in a classroom textbook devised for the Paris Conservatory and published in 1824.) Yet just as many important composers—Robert Schumann in Germany, Hector Berlioz in France, the lesser known Alexander Serov and César Cui in Russia (just coming into its own as a music-consuming power)—went into public journalism rather than professional instruction. Criticism was an activity made both possible and necessary by the commercial and industrial explosion and its attendant publicity machine, but its practitioners, romantics all, adopted a distinctly “contrarian” position with respect to the institutions that sustained them, leading to a widening rift between the mass audience and the composers it idolized and supported.

Schumann’s activity expressed the contradiction best. For his journalistic purposes, undertaken in response to the growth of public appetite for art, he invented a fictional mouthpiece called the “League of David” (Davidsbund), a band of idealistic musicians (all based on aspects of Schumann’s own personality) that did battle on the one hand with that very public, now branded the “Philistines,” and on the other hand against the “industrialized” routines of academic training, which fostered stylistic uniformity and conservatism.

In seeming paradox, the nineteenth century, the century of burgeoning commerce, technology, industry, and mass education, was also the century in which composers cultivated introspection to the point of near incomprehensibility, defied and rejected their preceptors and predecessors, asserted the claim that they were more important than their patrons and audiences, and (in a pair of closely related, quintessentially romantic terms) purported to emancipate themselves and their art, and to render both their art and themselves autonomous. It was thus the great century of artistic individualism.

The paradox, however, was only on the surface, for individualism and self-expression was also a prime middle-class virtue or ideal. In seeming to oppose their public, musicians were actually imitating it, for emancipation—political, social, economic—was their common goal. Both the composers and their listeners idealized the “self-made man.” Thus the “autonomous” musical work, the work of an “emancipated” creator, although touted as the work of world-transcending, “disinterested” (and therefore apolitical) genius, was equally a potent political symbol.

As Hauser pointed out, as composers were emancipated from the service class (or, as one could also put it, as composers were cut adrift from the secure social structures that had formerly supported them), and their music was no longer written to specific order but created “on spec” (that is, in the expectation of a demand that had to be created), they came to despise the idea of composing as an “official” activity of any kind—which of course does not at all mean that they stopped doing such work, only that (to adopt Hauser’s Marxist vocabulary for a moment) they became “alienated” from the utilitarian aspects of their work. Hauser diagnoses this as a “conflict of conscience and a crisis where in earlier times no antithesis of any kind had been suspected to exist.”28 We have already seen how Beethoven’s forced social alienation (by reason of his deafness) contributed to his prestige. His handicap was read in retrospect as emancipation—as was Mozart’s falling out with his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg. At the time both were experienced as catastrophes; in legend both were transformed into salvation.

These legends were the product and the vehicle of canonization—turning Mozart and Beethoven, with Haydn, into timeless preceptors of art as the standard concert repertory took shape around their works (first, as we have seen, in England, the great commercial empire, but soon thereafter in Germany). All of these nineteenth-century expansions and developments, all these claims and counterclaims, however difficult to reconcile, could find precedent and validation in Mozart and (especially) Beethoven, and therefore no longer needed reconciling.

Thus Beethoven became the authoritative—at times, even, the authoritarian—symbol of the age, the one who in the words of one self-appointed disciple, Richard Wagner, had shown “the only possible way” for music to develop further.29 And in becoming that, Beethoven (as we have seen at the beginning of this chapter) also became the chief butt and target of all who resisted that way and that development. Today more than ever, in fact, artists have felt the need to resist the universalizing or (in a term much favored by resisters) the “hegemonic” claims of romanticism, of aggressive heroism, of philosophical grandiosity—in a word, of Germany.

And here we come to the untold story of musical classicism and musical emancipation. It represented the victory of German art, and so its history was written from the standpoint of the victors. The particular origins of the style and attitude represented by Beethoven were suppressed—even their origin in Beethoven. The origins were displaced to a more mythological time—that of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart, the earliest “canonized” composers—and the style was represented as an “unmarked” or transparent one that was said (in language drawn from the discourse of the Enlightenment) to represent “universal” and therefore timeless human values.

This was the discourse of “classical music,” which, when purveyed by concert-giving and educational institutions in the guise of “music appreciation,” became (for one last paradox) the vehicle for the commercial (and, even more covertly, the political) exploitation of a product that was touted precisely as something above commerce and politics. For an example, here is a description of “Classicism” by Paul Henry Lang, the author of Music in Western Civilization (1941), the most successful music appreciation textbook of the mid-twentieth century:

By the end of the eighteenth century we no longer speak of German music, for this music became the musical language of the world, as in the two previous supreme syntheses the musical language of the Franco-Flemish composers and later of the Neapolitans became the language of the world [in sixteenth-century church music and eighteenth-century opera, respectively]. For in the symphonies of Haydn, as in the works of Mozart and of the other masters of the era, there speaks a musicianship that is universal, timeless, and valid under all circumstances. This music is not one solution or one aspect, nor is it a personal matter; it speaks to all peoples.30

By now it is easy to see that this is not a statement of fact but rather a polemic. (It is quite contradictory, in fact—if the Franco-Flemish and the Neapolitan “syntheses” did not ultimately prove to be “universal, timeless, and valid under all circumstances,” why should we expect the German one to do so?) “There are universal values,” the historian Stanley Hoffman has written, “and they happen to be mine.”31 That is Hoffman’s sardonic definition not of genuine universality, of course, but of ethnocentrism—a single (and therefore partial) viewpoint, asserted on behalf of a powerful nation, that seeks dominance by representing itself as universal and impartial.

The same debasement of Enlightened “universalism” has been used on behalf of many “centrisms.” In American politics, for example, it has found echo whenever defenders of the status quo have tried to discredit legislation on behalf of the civil or economic rights of minorities, of women, of labor, or of the indigent as “special interest” legislation, implying that what favored the interests of rich white men served the interests of all. Ruling out personal decision in favor of an obligatory consensus (as Lang explicitly does on behalf of German “classicism”) is another move that nowadays advertises its political character more obviously than it did before World War II, explicitly a war fought against totalitarianism.

Even Lang, after the war, muted his universal claims for Germany: his last book was a 1966 biography of Handel that zealously represented the composer as an Englishman by choice, against those who emphasized his German birth. There was still, of course, a universalist component in the argument, but now it was advanced on behalf of “cold war” values: the free enterprise, laissez-faire politics, and individual self-definition available on the Western side of the wall that by then divided Germany. It is more obvious than ever that the concept of “classicism,” for music, initially the creation of romanticism, was perennially available for tweaking on behalf of whatever values or interests might be contending at a given time for “universal” dominance.

If historically factual proof of its origins, or of its political nature, is needed, moreover, it can be furnished. The first writer to speak of a “classical period” in music history, comprising the work of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and their lesser contemporaries, was the Leipzig music critic Johann Gottlieb Wendt, who wrote under the Mozartean pen name Amadeus Wendt, Amadeus being a translation of his second given name. He coined the term in a book with the unwieldy but revealing title Über den gegenwärtigen Zustand der Musik besonders in Deutschland und wie er geworden: Eine beurtheilende Schilderung (“On the present state of music, especially in Germany, and how it got that way: A critical sketch”), published in 1836, almost a decade after Beethoven’s death, and more than a quarter century after writers like E. T. A. Hoffmann began describing the three Viennese composers, but particularly Beethoven, as the founders of musical romanticism. Wendt’s title betrays the link between the discourse of classicism as a timeless or universal standard, and the discourse of nationalism: Germany as exemplary music-nation, whose values are (or should be) those of all peoples.

It is easy to see now why Beethoven has always been “the one to beat.” One can sympathize with those who have opposed his authority, and one can do so without any loss of belief in his greatness. The very fact that after two centuries Beethoven is still the standard-bearer of the universalizing claims of classical music, and still receives the brickbats of resisters, is all the evidence we need of his centrality to the musical culture that we have inherited, and that is now ours to modify as we see fit.


(27) Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, trans. Stanley Godman (New York: Vintage, n.d.), Vol. III, p. 82.

(28) Hauser, Social History of Art, Vol. III, p. 82.

(29) Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future, in Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, trans. W. Ashton Ellis, Vol. I (London, 1895), p. 123.

(30) Paul Henry Lang, “Music and History” (1952), in P. H. Lang, Musicology and Performance, ed. Alfred Mann and George Buelow (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 38.

(31) Stanley Hoffman, “Us and Them,” The New Republic, 12 July 1993, p. 32.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-13005.xml