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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 8 Midcentury

The New German School; Liszt's Symphonic Poems; Harmonic Explorations

CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Historians generally, and musicologists in particular, are seldom associated with the avant-garde. Their contemplative lifestyle and their antiquarian scholarly interests lend them an air, in uninitiated eyes, of conservatism. But historians of a certain type—or rather, adherents to a certain theory of history—have conspicuously allied themselves with avant-garde movements, seeing themselves not only as passive recorders of events but as active participants in their making. This type of activist historian, the product of a somewhat improbable union of Enlightened and romantic thought, reached a peak of prestige and authority in mid-nineteenth-century Germany, just as German music was reaching its own peak of prestige and authority, and when it was widely believed (not only by musicians) that “music is the sovereign art of the present.”1 The history of that country and that century, and particularly of that music, cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the history of history.

As a historical method “historicism” has largely died out, victimized by the extremes of distortion and abuse to which its tenets were subjected in the twentieth century. Therefore, the name of its main musical protagonist will probably be new to most readers of this book: Karl Franz Brendel (1811–68), from whom the impressive quotation in the previous paragraph was taken. He may be forgotten today, but his memory is worth reviving. There was no more important figure in the world of German music at midcentury than this man, a doctor of philosophy with only a casual musical education (mainly piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann's father), who neither composed nor performed. His impact derived from the nature of his voluminous writings, and the social and political activism through which he put his precepts into practice.

Chapter 8 Midcentury

fig. 8-1 Franz Brendel, music historian, editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, and organizer of the Allgemeiner deutscher Musikverein.

Brendel's great achievement was to write his century's most widely disseminated “universal” and “scientific” history of music: Geschichte der Musik in Italien, Deutschland und Frankreich von den ersten christlichen Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart (“History of Music in Italy, Germany and France from the Earliest Christian Times to the Present”). First published in 1852, by 1906 it had gone through nine editions. The words put in quotes in this paragraph's first sentence constitute the book's inheritance from the Enlightenment. It aspired to say everything that was important, and to say it in a way that put all facts into an overriding system that gave them meaning. The reasons for putting the words in quotes constitute the book's inheritance from romanticism. The limitation, despite the claim of universality, to the richest and most powerful countries of Western Europe is already evidence of the author's commitment to a view of history cast in terms of the progressive realization of an essential European spirit of which those countries were collectively the protagonist. And the science that gave his work system was the one worked out by the romantic (or “idealist”) philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). It was known as the “dialectic.”

In its broadest terms, the Hegelian dialectic has long been a cliché: human history develops according to a process in which one concept (thesis) inevitably gives rise to its opposite (antithesis), which then interacts with the thesis to produce a resolution (synthesis) that in turn becomes the thesis for a new “triad.” Thus nothing is static or immutable. The hypothetical or axiomatic first triad that sets history in motion—Being reacting with Negation to produce Becoming—stipulates that all of history must be conceived as a constant state of flux.

Chapter 8 Midcentury

fig. 8-2 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, lithograph after a lost painting by Julius Ludwig Sebbers.

So far the theory is irrefutable: the first thing one notices in this or any study of history is that things change under the impact of other things. Everything that can be observed can be described either as a cause or as an effect, hence everything is both cause and effect in an endless chain. This much is not a theory of history but simply a description—or rather, a tautological definition—of how things happen. What sets the Hegelian dialectic apart from other interpretations of the great chain, such as Darwin's theory of biological evolution (first set forth in 1859 and immediately reinterpreted or misinterpreted in light of the dialectic), is that it purports to show not merely that things change or how things change, but why things change. The stipulation that change has purpose turns random process into law.

The law of history, as Hegel first postulated it in lectures at the University of Berlin that his pupils reconstructed from their notes and published as Lectures on the Philosophy of History in 1837, was this: “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom.” That is the first sentence of the book, and the notion from which the entire subsequent argument and demonstration is drawn. According to it, all meaningfully or significantly “historical” change (all change, in other words, that is worthy of representation in the dialectic) has contributed to this progress in the realization of human freedom, which Hegel called the progress of the “world soul.” If it has not contributed to this progress, then, change has not been historically significant (or, in Hegelian terms, not “historical”).

The doctrine remains a tautology, of course. While more specific than the baldly axiomatic statement of the dialectic, it still harbors a confusion of explanation with definition. And it obviously left a lot of things undefined—beginning with “Freedom,” which many who called themselves Hegelians interpreted in ways Hegel never would have countenanced. But it was enormously attractive in its optimism, appearing as it did “between the revolutions.” And it enabled its followers to believe, in the words of Karl Popper (one of historicism's most implacable foes), “that by contemplating history we may discover the secret, the essence of human destiny.”2 It offered, in sum, the authority of science and consolations of religion; and it was believed in, and defended, not only as history but as prophecy.

The Hegelian dialectic was infinitely adaptable to other philosophies of process. Its great virtue was its power to lend any such process the aspect of systematic logic in support of a purpose (or anything deemed good, true, or beautiful). It was especially fruitful in conjunction with romantic ideas of “organic” growth toward diversification within a higher unity, and here is where it made its greatest impact on the histories of art and politics, and provided a means for yoking the two together.

As the first self-consciously Hegelian historian of music, Brendel cast his narrative in terms of successive emancipations, both of musicians and of the art itself. Before the sixteenth century all was primitive, mere “prehistory,” because in Brendel's ears (and here he did not differ from his contemporaries) such music did not intelligibly express the ideas or feelings of individual creators. All musicians were slaves to the mechanical rules of counterpoint, as people generally were enslaved by the dogmas of the medieval Church.

The first great composer, in Brendel's reckoning, was Palestrina, who, reflecting the romantic interpretation of the Renaissance, broke through to true spiritual expressivity. What he expressed, however, was not yet a personal sensibility but rather the collectively held beliefs of his religious community. His art was “sublime” rather than “beautiful,” because it continued to address a higher-than-human plane. But while it still fulfilled prescribed ecclesiastical functions, its euphony and expressive power already showed the way toward artistic autonomy.

The phase of “beauty” was reached when the spiritual, freed from its ecclesiastical bonds, could be expressed in fully human (that is, secular) terms. The rise of opera bore witness to it. And the next stage—the fully-fledged “esthetic”—came with the emancipation of music from words in the instrumental masterpieces of the German classical masters. Their music, now able to realize its own essential spirit, able at last to evolve spontaneously and autonomously (that is, according to its own laws), was effectively a metaphor for the advancement of humanity toward ultimate self-realization. The very autonomy of the new instrumental music (implying freedom from all “extramusical” association or constraint) made it a political symbol—hence re-enmeshing it in extramusical ideas. That is a small example of the dialectic in action.

The value of music could be measured best, in the Hegelian view, in terms of the degree to which it embodied its own epoch's evolutionary synthesis and pointed the way to the next. Composers were valuable (or not) to the degree that their actions advanced the tendencies inherent in the musical materials toward further autonomous evolution. Unsurprisingly, the most advanced, hence most valuable, composers were Germans: Bach and Handel (the latter viewed bizarrely as a church musician), who were the last and most consummate representatives of the sublime epoch, and Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart, who brought to its first full fruition the epoch of the esthetic. Needless to say, Beethoven's popular image as music's emancipator supreme received a resounding confirmation.

But the most provocative chapter of Brendel's History was the last, because of the way the author maintained his account of progressive emancipation even beyond Beethoven, into what was then the present. This was at the time a very unconventional and risky move, since it potentially threatened the status of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven as “classics”—that is, as having set a timeless (and therefore unimprovable) standard. For a German historian, nothing short of the nation's honor was at stake in this historical “fact.” Denying it was unthinkable. Brendel got around the problem in two ways. First, he posited that every age (or stage) had its perfect representatives. Hence Bach was not invalidated by Mozart, nor Mozart by Beethoven, and so Beethoven would never be invalidated either; his status was secure. Second, he obediently gave the chapter concerning the present the title Verfall (decline), in keeping with what was by then an inescapable art historian's obligation.

And yet the chapter's contents roundly belied its title. The music of the man Brendel singled out as the greatest composer then living carried on the torch, advancing both the progressive consciousness of freedom and the progressive attainment of esthetic (or organic) unity. The ostentatiously Hegelian terms in which the author couched his description of that composer's achievement left no doubt that Brendel saw the latter's work as a new synthesis, a new transcendence begetting a new thesis—a new dawn—for music:

It is the unity of the poetic and the musical, and the progress to a new consciousness of this unity, that deserves to be called the essential novelty in the artistic creations under discussion. In earlier phases, but especially with Beethoven, the conscious thought—the sovereignty of the poetic Idea—emerges only along with a soaring of ideals and a gravity of contents, as the end result; but here these factors constitute the point of departure, the foundation of the whole creation. Hence, this conscious side now has a commanding significance. Here we see that earlier process concluded: the summit of thinking, toward which everything strives, has been achieved with precision, and thereby the sovereignty of Idea has been elevated to the status of a governing principle.3

Let identification and exemplification wait for a moment while we savor the rhetoric. The high premium placed on embodied consciousness and precision of thought might seem to contradict the usual romantic emphasis on feeling. But as Carl Dahlhaus pointed out in his history of musical esthetics, what is really accomplished is the final proof of an even more fundamental romantic intuition: namely the superiority of instrumental music to vocal.4 Here Brendel purported to correct not only Beethoven, who in the Ninth Symphony seemed to imply that the incorporation of voices was a breakthrough to a higher unity, but also Hegel himself, who in his own treatise on esthetics had endorsed the eighteenth century's preference for vocal music. Brendel could presume to use the dialectic against its own originator because the system was greater than any person.

That is what gave Brendel's work such enduring prestige and such a lasting influence even among musicians who have never heard of him. As the editor of the book's fifth edition (1875) put it in his Preface, “all contemporary criticism, consciously or unconsciously, is under its sway,” because “for the first time a synthesis [!] appeared of material that formerly had only the exterior unity of an arbitrary narrative, showing the history of music to be a great, self-evolving whole under the control of law.”5 Ever since the appearance of Brendel's History, historicism has been a force not only in the historiography of music but in its actual history as well.

That is, ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been abroad the idea that the history of music (like the history of everything else) has a purpose, and that the primary obligation of musicians is not to their audience but to that purpose—namely, the furthering of the “evolutionary” progress of the art, for the sake of which any sacrifice is justified. Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, in other words, the idea that one is morally bound to serve the impersonal aims of history has been one of the most powerful motivating forces, and one of the most exigent criteria of value, in the history of music. As recently as 1993, in a widely noticed review, a critic sought to discredit a new symphony that had enjoyed unusual audience acclaim by declaring that it did not “add anything to the universe of musical possibility.”6 Such criticism has become common, so common as to seem commonplace, even commonsensical. In fact, it depends entirely on the historicist assumptions that Franz Brendel was the first to introduce into musical criticism.

Brendel's own way of putting it was to say that “the essence of today's art” can no longer be realized in “the old naturalistic way”—that is, instinctively or intuitively by musicians out to please their patrons or their listeners—but only with “the intervention of theory and criticism,” and by “art's presupposing theory and criticism within itself.”7 The age of creative innocence was over; self-conscious theory, based on a high consciousness of purpose and of history, was the only true path to the future. Furthermore, that consciousness of purpose, being the road to self-realization, made the future graspable in the present. The path of destiny was marked out to those in the know. Others did not matter. The self-conscious few, history's self-appointed “advance guard” or avant garde, now saw themselves (following the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous definition of his own calling) as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”8

Perhaps needless to say, these contentions have been among the most controversial ideas of their time, a time that extends right up to the present and shows little sign of abatement. Their advent marks the beginnings of the modern—or modernist—age of music, which has also been the age of revolutionary politics. Both in art and in politics, it has been the age in which (to quote Richard Kostelanetz, a contemporary American theorist of the avant-garde) “an innovative minority makes the leaps that will be adopted by the many”—or that, according to the theory, ought by rights to be adopted. The invidious comparison implicit in this idea—or rather the elitism, to give it its contemporary nom de guerre—has understandably given rise to angry backlashes and counterrevolutions. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the world of classical music has been a world riven with political factions and contentious publicity.

Of these, too, there is no end in sight, for we still live in the age of historical and theoretical self-consciousness whose birth we are now witnessing, and of which this very book is a product. That self-consciousness—together with the obligations it has been seen to impose on its proponents and the fierce conflicts to which it has given rise—will be something to reckon with on virtually every remaining page of this book. From here on we are truly investigating the history of the present.


(1) Franz Brendel, Geschichte der Musik in Italien, und Deutschland Frankreich von den ersten christlichen Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart (5th ed., Leipzig: Verlag von Heinrich Matthes [F. C. Schilde], 1875), p. 594.

(2) Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 269. It is surely not without significance for readers of this book that, according to his autobiography, Popper's insights into the poverty of historicism originated in the context of the “progressivist” theory of music history traced in this very chapter: see Karl Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (LaSalle and London: Open Court, 1982), p. 68ff.

(3) Brendel, Geschichte der Musik (4th ed., Leipzig, 1867), p. 623; quoted in Carl Dahl-haus, Esthetics of Music, trans. William Austin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 57.

(4) Dahlhaus, Esthetics of Music, p. 58.

(5) F. Stade, “Vorwort zur fünften Auflage,” in F. Brendel, Geschichte der Musik (5th ed., Leipzig: Verlag von Heinrich Matthes [F. C. Schilde], 1875), xx–xxi.

(6) Paul Griffiths, “Zwilich in F-Sharp,” The New Yorker, 15 March 1993, p. 116.

(7) Brendel, Geschichte der Musik (4th ed.), p. 624; quoted in Dahlhaus, Esthetics of Music, p. 63.

(8) Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-008.xml