The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview

12
Music as ideal: the aesthetics of autonomy
MAX PADDISON

By the second half of the nineteenth century music had achieved a central position among the arts, to the extent that, as Walter Pater put it in 1877 in his now celebrated aperçu, 'all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music'.1 This registered a remarkable change in the aesthetic status of music in the hundred years from the 1780s to the 1880s. From an art form regarded as a pleasant but meaningless entertainment without cognitive value, music had come to be viewed as the vehicle of ineffable truths beyond conceptualisation. Although the idea of art music as an autonomous, non-conceptual reflection of inwardness upon itself had remained a constant throughout this period, what had changed was the perception of music by the other arts and the interpretation of this non-conceptuality, particularly in philosophical aesthetics. While the focus in this essay is on music and ideas in the period from 1848, the centrality of the concept of autonomy to the other arts by the late nineteenth century also provides other vantage points from which to view a phenomenon which was to become largely naturalised within music itself. It can be argued, indeed, that for this very reason music calls for awareness of its reflections outside itself, in particular in literature and philosophy, in order for the implications of its autonomy and non-conceptuality to be recognised more fully. An example to illustrate this point is to be found in Joris-Karl Huysmans's infamous novel A Rebours of 1884, a work which takes to its extremes the retreat into the inner world and the rejection of the dominant Realism and Naturalism of its time.

Huysmans's novel has a single character: le Duc Jean des Esseintes, an aristocratic recluse and aesthete modelled on the eccentric and decadent Comte de Montesquiou. Des Esseintes conducts a bizarre and extended experiment: he withdraws from society and sets about a solitary and intensive exploration of each of the senses in turn, which he pursues in a manner that takes to its ultimate extreme the 'art for art's sake' aesthetic of the late nineteenth century, the paradigm for which was music. Within his artificially sealed-off world (he even has his servants wear special costumes, so that their silhouettes cast on the

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1
Walter Pater, 'The School of Giorgione', in Jennifer Uglow (ed. and intro.), Essays on Literature and Art (London, 1973), p. 51.

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The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents vii
  • Notes on Contributors ix
  • Editor's Preface xiii
  • Part One - 1800–1850 1
  • 1 - The Musical Work and Nineteenth-Century History 3
  • Bibliography *
  • 2 - Music and the Rise of Aesthetics 29
  • Bibliography *
  • 3 - The Profession of Music 55
  • Bibliography 85
  • 4 - The Opera Industry 87
  • Bibliography *
  • 5 - The Construction of Beethoven 118
  • Bibliography *
  • 6 - Music and the Poetic 151
  • Bibliography *
  • 7 - The Invention of Tradition 178
  • Bibliography *
  • 8 - Choral Music 213
  • Bibliography *
  • 9 - The Consumption of Music 237
  • Bibliography 258
  • 10 - The Great Composer 259
  • Bibliography 283
  • Part Two - 1850–1900 285
  • 11 - Progress, Modernity and the Concept of an Avant-Garde 287
  • Bibliography *
  • 12 - Music as Ideal: the Aesthetics of Autonomy 318
  • Bibliography *
  • 13 - The Structures of Musical Life 343
  • Bibliography *
  • 14 - Opera and Music Drama 371
  • Bibliography *
  • 15 - Beethoven Reception: the Symphonic Tradition 424
  • Bibliography *
  • 16 - Words and Music in Germany and France 460
  • Bibliography *
  • 17 - Chamber Music and Piano 500
  • Bibliography *
  • 18 - Choral Culture and the Regeneration of the Organ 522
  • Bibliography *
  • 19 - Music and Social Class 544
  • Bibliography *
  • 20 - Nations and Nationalism 568
  • Bibliography *
  • 21 - Styles and Languages Around the Turn of the Century 601
  • Bibliography 620
  • Chronology 621
  • Institutions 659
  • Personalia 689
  • Index 747
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