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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 reinforcing—but with full deniability—a full array of values and ideas, and of projecting, within its "meaningless" interplay of definiteness and vagueness, phantasmal versions of a re-imagined reality.


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, 326–344. 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): 233–250.

Treitler, Leo. "Mozart and the Idea of Absolute Music." In Treitler, Music and the Historical Imagination, 176–214. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Raymond Knapp

Additional topics

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