Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven

Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven

Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven

Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven


Before the nineteenth century, instrumental music was considered inferior to vocal music. Kant described wordless music as "more pleasure than culture," and Rousseau dismissed it for its inability to convey concepts. But by the early 1800s, a dramatic shift was under way. Purely instrumental music was now being hailed as a means to knowledge and embraced precisely because of its independence from the limits of language. What had once been perceived as entertainment was heard increasingly as a vehicle of thought. Listening had become a way of knowing.

Music as Thought traces the roots of this fundamental shift in attitudes toward listening in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Focusing on responses to the symphony in the age of Beethoven, Mark Evan Bonds draws on contemporary accounts and a range of sources--philosophical, literary, political, and musical--to reveal how this music was experienced by those who heard it first.

Music as Thought is a fascinating reinterpretation of the causes and effects of a revolution in listening.


While browsing in the philosophy section of a bookstore a few years ago, I noticed a large image of Beethoven on the cover of a book. My first thought was that the item had been misshelved. On closer inspection, I saw that this was indeed a book about philosophy: volume seven of Frederick Copleston's classic History of Philosophy, covering the period “from the Post-Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kirekegaard, and Nietzsche.” But none of those figures was on the cover—it was only Beethoven. What made this all the more puzzling is that Beethoven is never mentioned in the text, not even in passing. He was on the outside of the book, but not on the inside.

Why a composer on the cover of a book about philosophy in which he does not appear? And why Beethoven? Without wishing to put too much weight on the imagination of a book-jacket designer working in the late twentieth century, I believe this image does in fact capture a whole range of connections we routinely make about Beethoven's music and its capacity to say something about ideas, thought, and the pursuit of truth, even without the aid of words. These connections are more easily recognized than articulated, but generations of listeners since the composer's own time have been relating Beethoven's instrumental music—particularly his symphonies, the one genre on which his legacy rests more than any other—with ideas that go beyond the realm of sound.

This perception of instrumental music as a vehicle of ideas did not originate in responses to Beethoven or his symphonies, however. It predates the Ninth Symphony (1824), with its vocal finale about joy and universal brotherhood, and even the Eroica Symphony (1803), with its descriptive title and canceled evocation of Napoleon. The perception of the symphony as a means of thought was already in place by the late 1790s, before Beethoven had even begun to write symphonies at all. By the same token, the change cannot be ascribed to the works of any other composer, including Haydn and Mozart. This change, instead, was driven by a radically new conception of all the arts—including music—that emerged in German-speaking lands toward the end of the eighteenth century. People began to listen to music differently in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, and this change in listening opened up new perceptions toward music itself, particularly instrumental music.

The goal of this book is to trace the process by which purely instrumental music—music without a text and without any suggestion of an exter-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.