Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning

By Daniel K. L. Chua | Go to book overview

1
On history

Glass objects have no 'aura' … glass is the enemy of the secret.

(Benjamin)1

Absolute music has 'no history'.2 It denies that it was ever born. The fact that it emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century was not a birth, it claims, but an emancipation, a discovery unveiled by the German Romantics, as if absolute music had always been there, eternal and absolute. After all, an absolute by definition cannot have a history; God –the absolute absolute–cannot be historically grounded, and neither can the surrogate absolutes of the secular world such as Reason or the Transcendental Ego; they all claim to start from nothing, as a selfsufficient method or metaphysical entity, without genealogy or narrative. Absolutes only have histories when they self-destruct to reveal their false identity. This means that absolute music can only have a history when it is no longer absolute music.

The emergence of absolute music was muttered rather than announced by the early Romantics.3 In fact, the Romantics were so reticent about the subject that they did not even call absolute music 'absolute music'; that task was left to Wagner, who, ironically, was trying to expose its mendacious claims by negating it in his dialectics of music history.4 Absolute music is therefore a murky concept, born without a

____________________
1
Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972–9), 2:217.
2
Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, 'Symphonien', Phantasien über die Kunst für Freunde der Kunst (Hamburg, 1799), in Werke und Briefe von Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder (Berlin: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1938), 255. Tieck added several essays to Wackenroder's Phantasien über die Kunst, including the essay entitled 'Symphonien'; this has raised problematic questions concerning authorship. It is for this reason that I have included Tieck's name in the authorship of the publication.
3
I shall use the term 'Romantic' to refer to the early Romantics only, which include writers such as the Schlegel brothers, Novalis, Tieck, Wackenroder, early Schelling and, to some extent, E. T. A. Hoffmann.
4
See Richard Wagner, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (1850) and Oper und Drama (1851) in Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen (Leipzig, 1911–16), 3:42–177 and 222–320; also see Klaus Kropfinger, Wagner and Beethoven: Richard Wagner's Reception of Beethoven (1974), trans. P. Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 115, Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, trans. R. Lustig (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 18–19, and Thomas S. Grey, Wagner's Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1–2.

-3-

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Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism *
  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations ix
  • Acknowledgements x
  • On the Preface xi
  • Part 1 - The Garden of Eden 1
  • 1 - On History 3
  • 2 - On Modernity 8
  • 3 - On Disenchantment 12
  • 4 - On Division 23
  • 5 - On Opera 29
  • 6 - On Machines 41
  • 7 - On Space 51
  • 8 - On Style 61
  • Part 2 - The Fruit of Knowledge 73
  • 9 - On Being 75
  • 10 - On the Mind 82
  • 11 - On Biology 92
  • 12 - On the Body 98
  • 13 - On the Soul 105
  • 14 - On Morality 114
  • 15 - On Women 126
  • 16 - On Masculinity 136
  • 17 - On Independence 145
  • 18 - On Heroes 150
  • 19 - On Politics 162
  • 20 - On Nothing 167
  • 21 - On God 171
  • 22 - On Infinity 177
  • 23 - On Self-Deification 183
  • 24 - On Invisibility 191
  • 25 - On Conscious Life-Forms 199
  • 26 - On Artificiality 209
  • Part 3 - The Tower of Babel 219
  • 27 - On Death 221
  • 28 - On Absolute Music 224
  • 29 - On the Beautiful and the Sublime 228
  • 30 - On Monuments 235
  • 31 - On the Apocalypse 245
  • 32 - On the End 257
  • 33 - On Suicide 266
  • 34 - On Absolute Drivel 276
  • 35 - On Babel 287
  • Bibliography 291
  • Index 307
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