Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Magic Wand of the Wagnerians: Musik Als Ausdruck*

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Magic Wand of the Wagnerians: Musik Als Ausdruck*

Article excerpt

Throughout most of the nineteenth century the defence of Wagner's music was not undertaken on the same grounds on which it was attacked. Critics such as Ludwig Bischoff and Eduard Hanslick attacked Wagner's music for its alleged "formlessness" and harmonic illogicalities, while Wagner's partisans countered with appeals to different criteria of beauty and dramatic truthfulness, couched generally in leitmotivic terms, and often focusing on the so-called "symphonic web" of Wagner's late works.1

One particular defence is encapsulated by the phrase "Musik als Ausdruck" - music as expression - which forms the basis for a number of later nineteenthand early twentieth-century monographs and articles about Wagner's works. Musical gestures were held to encode a particular emotional state and to reawaken that state in the listener, who would intuit the "meaning" of the gesture instinctively; within such an aesthetic music was held to represent the essence of phenomenon, the "thing-in-itself." I want to touch briefly on the dual foundations of this aesthetic paradigm in philosophy and science, as manifested by Schopenhauer and Friedrich von Hausegger respectively, and offer two examples of it in use, in writings by Hans von Wolzogen and Curt Mey. The following is intended as an introduction to the expressive aesthetic position as it relates primarily to Wagner and the reception of his works in the decades immediately following his death in 1883. It makes no attempt to assess the evolution of this aesthetic position in lhe latter half of the century, or its impact on others such as Liszt, Berlioz, or Brendel, who are generally counted with Wagner as the musical "progressives."

The Philosophical Foundation: Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer's principal work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1818), follows in the tradition of Kantian (and ultimately Platonic) idealism which postulates two levels of reality for all things, that of "appearance" or "phenomena" and that of "essence" or "noumena." Appearance is held to be deceptive, revealing only the exterior form of things, and leaving the "thing-in-itself" [Ding an sich] untouched. His philosophy may be termed idealistic, as it holds the mind and spiritual values to be primary. It is also highly subjective, as the first sentence of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung reveals: "The world is my idea."2 Through reason - active perception, ordering, and synthesising of fragmentary bits of experience -1 create my own representation or idea of the world (the German word Vorstellung can mean both); that is, the world only exists as I understand it. Put another way, all perceived phenomena are merely various grades of objectification of the "thing-in-itself."

Schopenhauer's main departure from Kant is his notion that the primary force in the world, the principal "thing-in-itself ' is not a real but rather an irrational, insatiable drive known as the will. It is objectified (i.e. made visible, present) in all phenomena of the world. The ceaseless striving of the will is held to be the root of all problems and suffering in the world; life is seen as an endless, meaningless round of striving and suffering, with pleasure only the momentary release from pain. True freedom results from one's resignation from life and desire: one must simply stop wanting.

Schopenhauer's treatment of music comes as the culmination of his consideration of the fine arts, each of which are said to embody various grades of the objectification of the will. AH of the arts except music are understood as a reflection or copy of the "Platonic Ideas" behind all phenomena. Music, however

stands alone, quite cut off from all the other arts. In it we do not recognise the copy or repetition of any Idea of existence in the world .., p]t is such a great and exceedingly noble art, its effect on the inmost nature of man is so powerful, and it is so entirely and deeply understood by him in his inmost consciousness as a perfectly universal language, the distinctness of which surpasses even that of the perceptible world itself. …

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