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Absolute Music

Beethoven And German Influence, Crosscurrents: Program Music And Modernism, Late Twentieth-and Early Twenty-first-century Perspectives

"Absolute music" is an idea that took root in the writings of early German Romantics such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (1773–1798), Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), and E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) 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 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concept of absolute music—exemplified by the works of composers such as Beethoven—played an important role in the development of a nationalistic movement in Germany. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 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 (1770–1831).

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