All Together Now?

Article excerpt

All together now? Music, culture and social reform in the age of Wagner James Garratt Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2010); xi, 292pp; £55, $95. isbn 978 0 521 1054 9.

Near the start of this admirable book, James Garratt declares that his 'aim is to explore the complex ways in which autonomous and social aesthetics interacted within musical discourse of this period' - that complexity being one result of the tensions between the 'different strands of thought' which 'animated musical discourse, culture and composition'. 'This period' - that 'age of Wagner' roughly spanning the decades between 1 81 o and 1880 - is now distant enough for Garratt to end his text with a long view backwards that dwells on differences between then and now.

Today, die visions of community on which nineteenthcentury social aesthetics are predicated seem unrealistic or unattractive: the absence of conflict and social antagonism which they envisage perhaps suggests an anaesthetized state more dian an aesthetic one. But at a time when die follies of unconstrained individualism seem ever more apparent, perhaps music - communal music-making - can once again help bridge the gap between individual aspiration and the dream of community.

This move from regretful analysis to pious hope, with its impHed cri de coeur against an entrenched modernity that has (sensibly?) given up on communal ideals, at least as far as art is concerned, comes as a surprise after a study which impresses for its high degree of empathy with the socio-cultural environment of the German states before and after the events of 1848. But maybe an author genuinely needs to believe that what has come since that period does not involve either constrained individualism or the reality rather than the 'dream of community', if he is to locate his discourse as firmly as Garratt does within the everyday social and cultural world. This marks the book out from other recent texts which he does not cite, by authors whom he does cite, and with which it has some things in common: from the world of aesthetics, Andrew Bowie's Music, philosophy, and modernity (Cambridge, 2007), and from the world of Wagner studies, Mark Berry's Treacherous bonds and laughing fire: polines and religion in Wagner's Ring (Aldershot, 2006). One could even argue that Garratt has set himself an even more difficult task than either of these ambitious scholars by seeking to engage with both entertainment and art music, 'pure' philosophy and cultural journalism. That the result is so readable and instructive therefore represents a considerable achievement, something helped by Garratt 's ability to come up with telling citations from his contemporary sources, like the Hamburg Marxist Hermann Wilhelm Haupt who wrote despairingly to the great Karl during the 1848-49 upheavals that 'most workers belong to the workers' societies because they like to take part in singing and gymnastics; with such people, nothing can be accomplished'.

Garratt could well believe that other authors (even Richard Taruskin, whose views on Mendelssohn go unrehearsed) have not done justice to the 19th-century consequences for music of a model of social aesthetics which 'aimed to redress what it perceived as the asociality of art and of the individual under autonomy, seeking to embed them instead within the community'. Nor is the present-day appreciation of such a historical model helped if we equate 19th century takes on autonomy with 'modernist notions of art's social alienation and estrangement', or fail to acknowledge that 'romantic aesthetic theory is characterized by pluralism and volatility'. Such an unstable context seems to have facilitated the creation of hybrid, even eclectic works which Garratt places 'among the period 's most striking exemplars of social art'; both Lortzing's opera Hans Sachs and Mendelssohn's Lobegesang, he declares, 'reflect a shared concern with communicating simultaneously to different social strata'. …