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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

As all these Russian quotes suggest, much of the opposition to the New German School came from outside the German-speaking lands, many foreign musicians suspecting nationalistic designs behind the School's universalist pretensions. And yet the opposition's most famous single salvo came from the Austrian critic and music historian Eduard Hanslick (1825–1904), who in 1854 authored a tract called “On the Musically Beautiful” (Vom musikalisch-Schönen) that went through many editions (ten within the author's lifetime) and is still in print. It is difficult today to appreciate the polemical force of the title; but at the time, for a German critic to insist on beauty looked to many like virtual treason.

Unsurprisingly, Hanslick located the beautiful in music not in its freight of meaning, but in its sheer patterning (“arabesques”) of sound. The object of derisive caricature from the beginning, his views are often misunderstood. Contrary to what his critics have alleged, he did not deny the emotional effects of music, nor did he deny its power to embody and convey poetic subject matter. What he did deny was the essentially musical nature of such a task (that is, its relevance to the true aims and tasks of music as an art), and hence the ultimate musical value of those effects and that embodiment.

“The Representation of Feeling,” reads the title of the crucial second chapter, “Is Not the Content of Music.” Needless to say, everything hinges on how the word “content” is defined, and on whether it is to be distinguished from “form” (another protean concept). The New German position cast feeling and form in opposition; the Hanslickian stance melded them. Hanslick's very definition of musical content (which became a famous and notoriously untranslatable slogan) was tönend bewegte Form—something like “form put in motion by sound” or “sounding form in motion.”

Although his antagonists tried to brand him a reactionary, and while he himself (like any contender in a war of ideas) tried to portray his ideas as age-old verities, Hanslick's ideas were in fact new. By asserting that there were timeless musical values that took precedence over the Kunstidee des Producenten and the Ohren des Consumenten alike, Hanslick and his followers introduced a new faction to what was fast becoming a struggle over the right to inherit and define the elite literate tradition of European music. To the extreme romantic view that privileged the producer, and the old aristocratic view that privileged the consumer, was now added a “Classical” or classicizing view that privileged Art itself and its so-called inviolable laws over the designs or wishes of its ephemeral practitioners and patrons. The real privilege, of course, was enjoyed by whoever could successfully claim the right to assert the law. These were the true stakes of the game. It is arguable that Hanslick, one of whose biographers proclaimed him the “Dalai Lama of music,” emerged the big winner.

And that is because more than any other nineteenth-century academic, Hanslick was a forerunner of today's musicology. His side, in other words, was the one that got to tell the story of nineteenth-century music in the twentieth century. Indeed, a more revealing and less tendentious name for his tendency would be academic rather than “classical,” since the academy has been its main home and breeding ground. It is the very opposite of an accident that Hanslick, its chief early formulator, was hired two years after the publication of his famous treatise by the University of Vienna as an adjunct lecturer, later as a full-time professor.

He spent forty years at the university, lecturing on what we would now call music appreciation. He was the first musician ever to occupy a German university chair; hence he was the first academic musicologist in the modern sense of the word. His formalist esthetic is the one that has underwritten the concept of classical music ever since his time. His neo-Kantian “art for art's sake” views have been the (sometimes tacit) mainstay not only of music appreciation but of practically all university music study until at least the middle of the twentieth century.

By presuming to draw a hard and fast distinction between what was “musical” and what was not in the work of his contemporaries; by insisting that the musical must be identified with the beautiful (rather than the spiritual or the expressive or the sublime or the true); and by so effectively propagating his views in the teeth of formidable opposition, Hanslick set the terms of an unsettleable (perhaps misconceived) debate that continues into our own time. Its terms would probably have been altogether unintelligible to musicians of the early nineteenth century and before; so in this sense, too, the middle of the nineteenth century marks the beginning of the musical world we have inherited and inhabit today.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008007.xml