Mark Evan Bonds’ book Absolute Music: the History of an Idea deals with the most fundamental question in musicology. There are many music lovers for whom the subject is meaningless but some music lovers, including me, like to reflect on these matters. These days, music appreciation courses routinely teach the distinction between absolute music and program music. The latter paints a picture (say, a lake) in tones or tells a story (such as in Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”) The former doesn’t refer to anything beyond itself. The basic question, though, is whether or not music is its own isolated world, manipulating tones with no reference to anything else at all, or is related to the world in some way. This latter possibility could suggest that, say Schubert piano sonatas express emotions even if they are hard to define in words.
The title might lead a potential reader to think that Bonds is defending absolute music. That is not the case. Bonds is studying the history of this idea and along the way leaves us with an argument that a commonsense position that music is its own world but connects with phenomena elsewhere in the world. Central to this study is Edward Hanslick whose book Von Musikalischer-Schöne is pivotal to the debates it touched off, although Hansklick was neither the first by a long shot nor the last to make the argument he made (which Bonds examines at length.) (Sorry, the German title is hard to translate; it means something like “the musically beautiful.) Hanslick’s book did have the merit of being lucidly written in a field of thought that produced turgid and obscure tomes. Hanslick’s arch-enemy was Richard Wagner who lampooned Hanslick in the character of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.
Bonds’ own writing is very lucid and a great pleasure to read. One does not need to have technical knowledge of music to read this book. The key terms are clearly defined to help the reader understand the debate. There is also much about the characters of the principal debaters of what became the most intense musical debate in Europe for several decades in the 19th century. What the personal element shows is that the heat of debate distorts clear thinking and leads to exaggerated positions that get derailed from common sense and the evidence. More important, the debaters simply failed to understand accurately what their opponents were saying. Bonds traces the debate to the point where some reconciliation (for the time anyway) took place and even shows evidence of softening on the parts of Hanslick and Wagner. And yet neither could get over their personal animosities enough to admit publicly the changes in their positions, let alone reconcile with a hated adversary.
The personal elements in this debate interest me as my study of the thinking of René Girard and his colleagues has given me a keen interest in the phenomenon of what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.” In light of Girard’s thinking, another personal element stands out for me. Hanslick began writing his book in the wake of the revolutions of 1848-9. This turmoil, climaxed for him by witnessing crowd violence that killed a hapless victim, motivated Hanslick (in Bond’s judgment as well as mine) to find in music a pure refuge from such human turmoil. This shows up in Hanslick’s insistence on the purity (reinlichkeit) of music. This same thing happened in the twentieth century. During and after World War I, there was a strong movement to absolutize music, to isolate it from human affairs. Igor Stravinsky was a ringleader here. That is ironic. His ballet The Rite of Spring (premiered in 1913) can be seen a prophecy of the sacrificial bloodshed about to tear Europe apart. After the war, Stravinsky insisted that it was an abstract symphonic poem. This same kind of thing happened after World War II with another wave of insistent manifestos that tried to tuck music into isolated boxes.
As for me, a Schubert piano sonata is a world with its own beautiful musical argument that spills out into the worlds of real human hearts. Maybe this is a bit fanciful, but there are times when I think Schubert was subtly undermining the Austrian Empire in his dramatic shifts of keys and the uncertainty of which end was sometimes up.