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Absolute Music

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 (1788–1860), Richard Wagner (1813–1883), and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) 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 (1795–1866), 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 (1825–1904), 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 (1849–1919), an advocate of functional harmonic analysis and phrase-structure analysis; Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935), who introduced layered reductive voice-leading analysis; and Rudolph Réti (1885–1957), 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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: 1,2-dibromoethane to AdrenergicAbsolute Music - Beethoven And German Influence, Crosscurrents: Program Music And Modernism, Late Twentieth-and Early Twenty-first-century Perspectives