4. Absolute Music
The term ‘absolute music’ denotes not so much an agreed idea as an aesthetic problem. The expression is of German origin, first appearing in the writings of Romantic philosophers and critics such as J. L. Tieck, J. G. Herder, W. H. Wackenroder, Jean Paul (Richter) and E. T. A. Hoffman. It features in the controversies of the nineteenth century – for example, in Hanslick’s spirited defence of absolute Tonkunst againts the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner – and also in the abstractions of twentieth – century musical aesthetics. It names an ideal of msical purity, an ideal from which music has been held to depart in a variety of ways; for example, by being subordinated to words (as in song), to drama(as in opera), to some representational meaning (as in programme music), or even to the vague requirements of emotional expression. Indeed, it has been more usual to give a negative than a positive definition of the absolute in music. the best way to speak of a thing that claims to be ‘absolute’ is to say what it is not.
It is not word-setting. Songs, liturgical music and opera are all denied the status of absolute music. For in word-setting music is thought to depart from the ideal of purity by lending it self to independent methods of expressions. The music has to be understood at least partly in terms of its contribution to the verbal sense. It follows that absolute music must at least be instrumental music (and the human voice may sometimes act as an instrument, as in certain works of Debusyy , Delius and Holst). Liszt and wagner insisted that the absence of words from music didnt entail the absence of meaning. Liszt’t program-musik and Wagners Gesamtkuntwerks both arose from the view that all music was essentially meaningful and no music could be considered more absolute than any other. This view gives rise to a further negative definition of the absolute in music : it is music that has no external reference. So the imitation of nature in music is a departure from an absolut ideal ; vivaldi concertos the four season are less absolute than the art of Fugue. The symphonic poem is also tainted with impurity, as is every other form programme music.
The yearning for the absolurte is not yet satisfied. Having removed representation from the ideal of music of music, critics have sought to remove
Expression as well. No music can be absolute if seeks to be understood in terms of an extra-musical meaning, whether the meaning lies in a reference to external objects or in the expression of the human mind. Absolute music is now made wholly autonomous. It’s raison d’etre lies entirely within itself, it must be understood as an abstract structure bearing only accidental relation to the movement of the human soul. Liszt and Wagner claimed that there could be no absolute music in that sense, it’s posssible that even Hanslick might have agreed with them.
It’s at this point that the concept of absolute music becomes unclear. Certainly it no longer corresponds to what Richter and Hoffman had in mind. Both writer considered the purity of music – its quality as and absolute art – to reside in the nature it’s expressive powers and not in their total absence. For Richter music was absolute in that it expressed a presentiment of the divine in nature, for Hoffman it became absolute trough the attempt to express the infinite in the only from that renders the infinite intelligible to human felling. To borrow the therminology of Hegel: music is absolute because expresses the absolute. ( On that view, liturgical music if absolute of all ).
The notion of the absolute of music has thus become inseparably entangled with the problem of musical expression. It all music expressive, only some none of all? The answer to that question will determine the usage of term absolute in criticism. To define the term negatively leads at once to an intractable philosophical problem. A positive definition has therefore been sought.
An analogy may be drawn with mathematic. Pure mathematics can be defined negatively. It is mathematic which is not applied. But that’s shallow; for what is applied mathematics if not the application of an independent and autonomous structure of thought? One should therefore define pure mathematics in terms of the methods and structures by which it is understood. Similarly, it might be argued that music is absolute when it’s not applied, or when it’s not subjected to any purpose independent of own autonomous movement. Absolute music must be understood as pure form, according to canons that are internal to itself. Unfortunately, such a positive definition of the term raises another philosophical problem. What is meant by understanding music? And can there be a form of art which is understood in terms that are wholly internal to itself?
Attempts by the advocates of absolute music to answer those questions have centered on two ideas: objectivity and structure. Their arguments have been presented in this century most forcefully by the Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker and Stavinsky. Music becomes absolute by being an objective art, and acquires objectivity throught it’s structure. To say of music that it is objective is to say that it is understood as an object
In it self, without recourse to any semantic meaning, external purpose or subjective idea. It becomes objective throught producing appropriate patterns and forms. These forms satisfy us because we have an understanding of the structural relation which they exemplify. The relation are grasped by the ear in an intuitive act of apprehension, but the satisfaction that springs there form is akin to the satisfaction derived for the pursuit of mathematics. It is not a satisfaction that is open to every one. Like mathematics, it depends on understanding, and understandings can be induced only by the establishment of a proper musical culture.
It is such a conception of the absolute in music that has figured most largely in modern discussions. It is in the minds of those who deny that music can be absolute, as of those who insist that it must be. It is has inspired the reaction against Romanticism, and sought exemplification in the works of Hindemith, Stravinsky and the followers of Schoenberg. Indeed, the invention of twelve-note composition seemed to many reveal that music was essentially a structural art , and that all the traditional effects of music could be renewed just so long as the new ‘language’ imitated the complexity of the classical forms. (Schoenberg did not share the enthuaism of his disciples for such a theory : for him music had been, and remained, an essentially expressive medium.)
It should be noted that absolute’ music, so defined, means ore than “abstract music. There are other abstract arts, including architecture and some forms of painting. To call the abstract is to say that they are not representational. It is not to imply that they are to be understood by reference to external purpose and no subjective state of mind. An abstract painting does not have to lack expression. Yet ‘absolute’ music is an ideal that will not allow even that measure of impurity.
As an ideal it certainly excited before the teutonic jargon of its name. under the influence to it , and even zarlino was instrumental music and the development of classical forms saw the temporary disappearance of the absolute ideal. Only after herder and his followers had introduced the word, and wagner (throught his opposition to it) the concept, did the ideal once more find expression in serious aesthetic theories.
The advocacy of absolute music has brought with it aview of musical understanding that is as questionable as anything written by liszt in defence of the symphonic poem. It is of course absurd to suppose that one understandsmetana’s vlatava primarily by understanding what in ‘means’. For that seems to iply the grasp of elody, development, harmony and usical relations are all subordinate to a message that could have been expressed as well in words. But so too is it absurd to suppose
That one has understood a Bach fugue when one has a grasp of all the structural relations that exits among its parts. The understanding listener is not a computer. The logic of Bach’s fugues must be heard: it is understood in experience and not in thought. And why should not the musical experience embrace pleasure, feeling and evocation just as much as pure structured sound? Hearing the chorus ‘Sind Blitze sind Donner’ from the St Matthew Passion may provide a renewed sense of the significance of the Art of Fugue, and that sense may originate in a recognition of the emotional energy that underlies all bach’s fugal writing. Cleary, however ‘absolute’ a piece of music may be, it can retain our interest only if there is something more to understanding it than an appreciation of mere patterns of sound.