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— Renaissance Hurdy-Gurdy

Renaissance Hurdy-Gurdy

I am in the process of writing a review of Carl Dalhaus’ (1928-1989) Idea of Absolute Music[1], a difficult task that requires more reflection on my part.

However, the idea came to me that I should first blog about the subject.

My first step will be to quote E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.[2] Hoffmann was so moved by the beauty of the Fifth Symphony that he called it “an intimation of infinity.” One is therefore tempted to associate this statement, first, with the idea of absolute music and, second, with the Romantic metaphysics of the Sublime.


As “an intimation of infinity,” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony can indeed be linked with the Romantic metaphysics of the Sublime. Moreover, the Fifth Symphony is also “absolute music.”  However, although Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is, in my opinion, “an intimation of infinity,” and sublime, because of its choral movement, it is not “absolute music,” a term coined by Richard Wagner (Dalhaus, p. 18).

Absolute music is self-referential instrumental music. Therefore, it excludes Beethoven’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) “Ode to Joy” (“An die Freude”)  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is deemed referential and, consequently, programmatic music, as are the Third Symphony, the “Eroika,” and the Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral.” Also excluded are Mendelssohn’s iconic Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words). The forty-nine short pieces for the piano have titles and pieces of music that have a title are not absolute music. They belong to another category of music called “programme music” or programmatic music, a forerunner to music for films.

The most colourful event in the debate about absolute music is the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, in 1830. Composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) distributed the Symphonie’s programme to members of the audience. The story told by the Fantastique is literally and figuratively “fantastic,” but the programme does not make the music more or less beautiful. Later in the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) wrote a programme for Beethoven’s already programmatic Ninth Symphony.

So, where do I go from now?

I believe that I should first dissociate absolute music from music that is considered sublime or simply beautiful. The term absolute music is a Procrustean bed. Moreover, I should point out, once again, that absolute music is not necessarily more beautiful or less beautiful than programme music. Second, it seems to me that I should address the question of meaning. If Liszt thought that Hector Berlioz’s instrumental Symphonie fantastique could not be understood without its “programme,” he was obviously expressing doubts as to the intelligibility of the language of tones, unexplained and “unrestrained” by a narrative.

The Greeks: ethos

I am using the word “unrestrained” because from the time the Greeks, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) mainly, invented polyphonic music, music was deemed too powerful an art not to be contained. According to Plato’s (424/423 BCE – 348/347 BCE) theory of ethos, such power should be restrained.

Text-setting, Affektenlehrer, Empfindsamkeit

It was. In European music, words came to the rescue of tones. Musicians had to set a text to music. Excellent text-setting is exemplified by Josquin des Prez (c. 14501521). Madrigals (songs in the mother tongue: madre) also required careful text-setting. So did the motet. Besides, it was decided at the Council of Trent (15451563) that, in polyphonic religious music (music combining many voices), words would have to be heard clearly. Palestrina’s music is the culmination of transparent polyphonic music.

There were other attempts to contain music. One was the doctrine of the affections (Affektenlehrer) put forward in such works as Johann Mattheson’s (16811764) Der vollkommene Capellmeister (The Perfect Chapelmaster), 1739. Theorists suggested ways of arousing certain feelings, ethically-acceptable feelings.

I should also mention the empfindsamer Stil[3] (sentimental style) or Empfindsamkeit an “important movement occurring in northern German instrumental music during the mid-18th century and characterized by an emphasis upon the expression of a variety of deeply felt emotions within a musical work.”

DALHAUS: absolute music

I could therefore walk my reader through various opinions on the subject of absolute music, but without profound analysis. A review is a review. However, for the purposes of this blog, I think it may be useful to return to the Greeks and note, as did Plato, that music is an extremely powerful art, except that it does not need to be restrained. It could be that the idea of “absolute music” was yet another attempt, probably a mostly unconscious attempt, to contain purely instrumental music. Could one accept unbridled “intimation[s] of infinity?”

Dalhaus does not discuss programmatic music. His book is about the “idea of absolute music.”

In the nineteenth century, music had been emancipated from words, but I believe that doubt still lingered concerning the acceptability of music without words, hence the lengthy debate about the idea of absolute music, the debate Dalhaus chronicles so accurately and in a most eloquent manner. The finest minds of Germany, including Nietzsche, had something to offer to this debate. But the most influential work was Eduard Hanslick’s Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (On the Beautiful in Music), published in 1854. Hanslick addressed the je-ne-sais-quoi that can make music so beautiful and, by extension, so powerful.

MEANING IN MUSIC: a language above language

Yet, I believe music can be “an intimation of infinity,” although less loftily said.  At any rate, the debate over absolute music has very real merits. For instance, such a debate emphasizes the undeniable and frequently-expressed fact that music is a “language above language,” a language that tells the otherwise ineffable and might therefore be more meaningful than other languages, national languages.

But rare are those who can compose transcendental music and rare are those who can perceive it as such. In his Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (p. 238), E. T. A. Hoffmann writes that “[r]omantic sensibility is rare, and romantic talent even rarer, which is probably why so few are able to strike the lyre that unlocks the wonderful realm of the infinite.”

The debate also emphasizes that music is not a laissez-faire. Music has its grammar: harmony, counterpoint, themes, Berlioz’s idée fixe, phrases, periods, etc. And music also has its forms: the sonata, the concerto, the symphony, the quartet, cantatas, oratorios, operas, hymns, not to mention the humble song, sometimes so haunting and evocative, etc.

As for the distinction between self-referential music, called “absolute music,” and “programme music,” it may be best to look upon it as yet another step in the history of music. The emancipation of music from words was like a mini-revolution; a debate was unavoidable.

Words do not make music more or less beautiful than instrumental music. And if words do at times make it more meaningful, music can be meaningful in its own way and, at times, more meaningful than national languages, with or without words. Music speaks its very own language. Truth be told, the human voice is also an instrument, and one of the finest. What about the Ninth Symphony’s Choral movement, Bach’s Mass in B minor, his many cantatas, all of Mozart, Henry Purcell‘s Dido and Æneas? Each time I hear Dido’s Lament: the “Remember me,” I have to stop and listen.

The “ineffable”

There is more to say, names to name and persons to quote, such as Hanslick, Wackenroder, Tieck, Feuerbach, Wittgenstein, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, but it could be stated that Carl Dalhaus’s Idea of Absolute Music is about that undefinable dimension of music, that undefinable dimension so often called ineffable, an ineffable that stems and touches an infinity-within (the term is mine).

In short, meaning in music does not call for a programme, except for operas. When words are used, words the audience does not understand, the language of tones might require the support of a translation or that of a programme.  Yet, the language of tones has /is its own meaning.

The word ineffable has long been attached to exquisite music, and it would be my opinion that the conversation will continue and may, in fact, never end.


[1] Carl Dalhaus, Roger Lustig, translator, The Idea of Absolute Music (London: the University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[2] David Charlton, ed. and Martin Clarke, translator, E. T. A. Hoffman’s Musical Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 238.

[3] “empfindsamer Stil.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.

Henry Purcell (c. 10 September 1659 – 21 November 1695)
Dido’s Lament (Dido and Æneas) 
Simone Kermes soprano
The New Siberian Singers
Greek vase with muse playing the phorminx, a type of lyre

Greek vase with muse playing the phorminx, a type of lyre

© Micheline Walker
14 October 2011