absolute music

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"Absolute music" is an idea that took root in the writings of early German Romantics such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (17731798), Ludwig Tieck (17731853), and E. T. A. Hoffmann (17761822) beginning at the turn of the nineteenth century, and came to dominate musical aesthetics over much of the next two centuries, frequently invoked to argue for music's elevation to a position above the other arts. The term is often allied with such terms as "abstract music," referring to the separation of music from other considerations, and "formalism," referring to the logic whereby music makes sense without any accompanying words, drama, or dance. It is most often contrasted with "program music," whose full sense and purpose depend on a variety of narrative, literary, pictorial, dramatic, or other explanatory bases. In truth, however, the term is much richer, and historically more significant, than these associations would indicate.

The elevation of music to the highest of the arts entailed a shift in the perceived relationship of art to the world around us. As "art for art's sake" and similar sentiments gained ground in the nineteenth century, music became prized for its very separation from the real world, its lack of precise representational meaning. The symphony became the focal point for a new valorization of music, especially as it developed in the German lands at the hands of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Beyond its presumed purity, music's removal from the here and now made it seem a perfect vehicle for expressing the Romantics' sense of "infinite longing," which Hoffmann, in an 1810 essay on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (1808), called the "essence of Romanticism." Within this formulation, music could be allied with the sublime, the unattainable, the infinite, and the ineffable, while at the same time expressing and probing profound inner states. Through music, one's soul could connect, through "longing" or some other deep feeling, to something beyond the everyday world. In this way, as the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus argues, music could be understood as "absolute" in two senses, both through its purity, its "absolute" separateness from the reality we can see and touch, and through its capacity to connect us to the "absolute" in the philosophical sense, after Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831).

Beethoven and German Influence

The evolution of the concept proceeded in conjunction with the German Idealist philosophical tradition and figured prominently in the development of German nationalism, as well. Immanuel Kant and Hegel provided the underpinnings, and Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), Richard Wagner (18131883), and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) developed a more specifically musico-philosophical edifice. Ironically, however, while it was Wagner who coined the term "absolute music" around mid-century and thereby embedded it securely within Idealist philosophy, he did so in order to argue against its validity, claiming that music, which he equated with "woman" (thus, essentially sensuous and inchoate), could not flourish in isolation, needing the masculine "poet" (by nature seminal and rational) to thrive. Already, Beethoven's works, especially his symphonies, were being touted in the second quarter of the century as both the best representative of pure music and the cornerstone of a German musical tradition that represented the highest expression within the highest of the arts, an emblem and indispensable part of what it meant to be German. This elevation of Beethoven was accomplished largely through the writings of Adolf Bernhard Marx (17951866), who laid much of the groundwork for formal analysis through his descriptions of sonata form, the basic formal principle for not only Beethoven's instrumental music, but also of his immediate forebears and principal descendants.

In his landmark On the Musically Beautiful (1853), Eduard Hanslick (18251904), without using the term "absolute music," attempted to refute Wagner's arguments against pure music, arguing that music's form was identical to its content (thereby effectively divorcing music even from emotion) and claiming for it an eminently masculine rationality based on formalist musical logic. A variety of methods for analyzing music were developed over the century or so following Hanslick's short book, most notably by Hugo Riemann (18491919), an advocate of functional harmonic analysis and phrase-structure analysis; Heinrich Schenker (18681935), who introduced layered reductive voice-leading analysis; and Rudolph Réti (18851957), who relied on motivic analysis. Since all these systems were developed in large part to validate the logic of Beethoven's instrumental music, and since Beethoven had become both the figurehead of German music and a supposed universal, the concept of "absolute music" that these methods helped reinforce consolidated the position of German music as the standard of musical value.

Crosscurrents: Program Music and Modernism

From the beginning, there was much resistance to the idea that music is best understood as separate from what soon became known as the "extramusical." Opera and similar forms, of course, balanced musical logic with and against dramatic necessities (although Wagner argued that Italian opera was essentially "absolute" in its dependence on musical formula). Songs of various types were intimately tied to their texts. Most significantly opposed to the new concept was the idea of "program music"instrumental music that relied on a programmatic explanation to orient an audience to its meaningslaunched by Hector Berlioz (18031869) in the years following Beethoven's death in 1827. The tradition of program music, to some extent also rooted in Beethoven (especially in his Sixth Symphony, known as the "Pastoral" Symphony, 1808), was continued by Franz Liszt (18111886) in his symphonic poems and programmatic symphonies, implicitly dis-avowed by Johannes Brahms (18331897) and Anton Bruckner (18241896), but taken up again by both Gustav Mahler (18601911) in his first symphonies and Richard Strauss (18641949) in his tone poems and programmatic symphonies, beginning in the mid-1880s and continuing through the turn of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, although programmatic music is most readily identified, in musical terms, according to its departures from "musical logic," there is substantial overlap in the two categories as well, so that they should not simply be viewed as opposite types. Thus, even a programmatic work had to make musical sense and could depend on an underlying sense of music's absoluteness, while many "absolute" works conveyed implicit programmatic content through their engagement with familiar musical gestures and topics.

During the twentieth century, especially with the advent of high modernism, music's separateness from other discourses became in some cases more pronounced (by the insistence on sometimes arcane musical logic over what most audiences still perceive as "natural") and in others virtually eliminated (as when programmatic rationales demanded extreme expressive or descriptive modes at the expense of musical logic). While the latter possibility played a large part in the development of musical modernism, it also led at each turn to the development of new "systems," such as the concept of Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color melody) proposed by Arnold Schoenberg (18741951) in 1911 and the twelve-tone system that he created ten years after that (also known as serialism, which was later developed further by applying it to other elements besides pitch, such as rhythm, meter, and dynamics). In consequence, the former possibility, advancing the principle of music's absoluteness, was often seen as more fundamental. Thus, in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, the charge of "formalism" was used against composers such as Dmitry Shostakovich (19061975) when their music was perceived to be too modern. While this charge has been described as little more than a tool for exercising political control, its basis has much in common with Wagner's insistence on music's subordination to an exterior logic, and it is based in part on the premise that musical modernism extends the idea of "absolute" music.

Late Twentieth-and Early Twenty-First-Century Perspectives

The last few decades of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first century have seen renewed and often highly skeptical interest in the claims of music's absoluteness alongside an increasingly entrenched advocacy, the latter reinforced by the growth of musical analysis as a discipline. Carl Dahlhaus has historicized the concept, grounding it in Germanic philosophical and musical thought. Many have argued persuasively that the idea is fundamentally a fiction, that music is always referential to a variety of contexts, some historical and others acquired through reception. Most of these arguments have focused either on a consideration of musical narrative (i.e., the way that music may be understood to tell stories (Anthony Newcomb, Lawrence Kramer, and Susan McClary) or on musical semiotics, of how music has continued to develop an evolving system of referential gestures redolent of the older "doctrine of the affections" (Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Leonard Ratner, and Wye Allanbrook). If "absolute music" has indeed been a fiction, it has been a useful one from many perspectives, helping to enable the experience of music as a uniquely powerful art medium. Under the aegis of its absoluteness, which renders its shapes and gestures officially neutral, music has been capable of reinforcingbut with full deniabilitya full array of values and ideas, and of projecting, within its "meaningless" interplay of definiteness and vagueness, phantasmal versions of a re-imagined reality.

See also Composition, Musical ; Harmony ; Idealism ; Sacred and Profane .


Bent, Ian. Analysis. New York: Norton; Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan Press, 1987.

Dahlhaus, Carl. The Idea of Absolute Music. Translated by Roger Lustig. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Hanslick, Eduard. On the Musically Beautiful: A Contribution towards the Revision of the Aesthetics of Music. Translated and edited by Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1986.

Kramer, Lawrence. Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

McClary, Susan. "Narrative Agendas in 'Absolute' Music: Identity and Difference in Brahms's Third Symphony." In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie, 326344. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

Newcomb, Anthony. "Once More between Absolute and Program Music: Schumann's Second Symphony." 19th-Century Music 7, no. 3 (April 1984): 233250.

Treitler, Leo. "Mozart and the Idea of Absolute Music." In Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination, 176214. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Raymond Knapp

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abstract music. Same as absolute music. As used by Ger. writers (Abstrakte Musik), the term has a different meaning—mus. lacking in sensitivity, ‘dry’ or ‘academic’.

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absolute music. Instr. mus. which exists simply as such, i.e. not ‘programme music’, or in any way illustrative.