Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Epic and Tragic Music: The Union of the Arts in the Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Epic and Tragic Music: The Union of the Arts in the Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt


Around 1800 in Weimar, thought on Greek tragedy crystallized around the union of speech, music, and gesture - what Wagner would later call the Gesamtkunstwerk. Friedrich Schiller and Johann Gottfried Herder both found something lacking in modern spoken theater in comparison with ancient tragedy's synthesis of the arts. Schiller's 1803 "Trauerspiel mit Chören," Die Braut von Messina, represents a radical experiment in recreating the ancient union of the arts.1 The Greek tragic chorus, revived in Schiller's drama, becomes the modern locus for this union. In a preface appended to the published version of the play, Schiller writes,

The tragic work of poetry first becomes a whole through its theatrical performance: the poet only gives the words; music and dance must be added as well to enliven them. As long as the chorus lacks this powerful sensory accompaniment, so long will it appear in the economy of a tragedy as an alien element, a foreign body, a retardation.2

Exactly contemporary (and possibly in response), Herder's discussion of drama in his journal Adrastea similarly views the union of the arts in ancient tragedy as a corrective for modern drama:3

A Greek who attended our tragedy [Trauerspiel], used to the musical voice of his own, would have to find in it a sad play [trauriges Spiel]. "How wordy-mute," he would say, "how dull and soundless! Have I stepped into a decorated grave? You shout and sigh and bluster! Move your arms, strain your facial features, reason, declaim; but does your voice and feeling never become song} Do you not miss the strength of this demonic expression? Do your rhythms, your iambs never urge you on to the accents of the true language of the gods?"4

The focus on media distinguishes these Weimar discussions of tragedy both from the Jena aesthetics of the Schlegel brothers and from the Idealist "philosophy of the tragic" already underway in the works of Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel.5 Though both Schiller and Herder are relatively indifferent to dance, their writings reflect strong interests in music.6 Their considerations of tragedy show a close engagement with the sensory experience of drama that is unusual for its time, and has little precedent in Germany.

For Schiller's late poetics, the union of words, music, and gesture is a means of radically dividing the experience of theater from daily life. The tragic chorus "should be for us a living wall, which tragedy sets up around itself in order to close itself off wholly from the real world."7 It "justifies the tragic poet in this raising of tone, which fills the ear, which strains the spirit, which broadens the whole mind."8 Musical speech, Schiller argues, allows for an expression that transcends conventional language and quotidian existence. Schiller had hoped "to let [the choral intermezzos] be recited in the way of song and to accompany them with an instrument," though his wish went unfulfilled in the first, and subsequent performances.9 Yet even after relinquishing the real possibility of a union of the arts in performances of Braut, Schiller upheld it as an ideal in his preface.

Herder is remembered today primarily for his elaboration of an organic historicism, which understands cultural phenomena according to the circumstances of their creation. Yet his concern was more than merely historical; especially in the Adrastea, he continually sought guidance for the present in the events of the past. A contemporary, writing shortly after Herder's death, saw the two orientations, historical and critical, as equally important: investigation of the past was intended as "a didactic or warning image" for his own time.10 The guiding idea of the journal was similarly educative, based on Herder's understanding of Adrastea as a principle of justice and moderation.11 In Herder's thought, as in most writing on ancient literature of the eighteenth century, there is no absolute division between scholarly and critical concerns: the study of ancient works was both an end in itself and a means to the improvement of modern culture. …

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