The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview

10
The great composer
JIM SAMSON

On canons and spearheads

A focus on greatness is one of the markers of nineteenth-century culture. Indeed it was the nineteenth century that fostered and nurtured that fetishism of greatness – of the great artist, the great work – so familiar to us today. The language of music criticism in the early nineteenth century tells part of that story, registering a subtle shift from the acknowledgement of excellence to the recognition of greatness. This shading of meaning is worth elaborating. Excellence suggests pre-eminence in an enterprise whose terms of reference have been validated by convention. Greatness, on the other hand, implies an achievement or an aptitude so far beyond the ordinary that it is capable of remaking the conventions – resetting the terms on which future evaluations might be made. Excellence carries with it the sense of an object well made, a task well done. Greatness transcends the making, as also the function. It imposes itself on the world. It goes without saying that the nineteenth century did not initiate the concept of greatness. It flourished in the ancient world, and it was reinvented (partly through the mediation of Islamic culture) for the thinkers and makers of Renaissance humanism. And humanism is to the point, for it is the purely human that is honoured in a project of greatness, that capacity of the exceptional mind to speak for all, to celebrate our potencies, to express our emotions through the mystery of creative genius. It was above all during the Renaissance that creativity took on something of its modern, elevated, sense, not least through a swerve towards secular themes, which proved no less susceptible to the aura of creative genius than their sacred counterparts. For the artist was no mere medium, 'making' to divine specifications. He could bring into being his own world. As Tasso put it (Discourses on Poetic Art): ' the poet … resembling the supreme Creator in his work, partakes of the divinity of God'.1

In this way much of the ground was laid out for a later age of Romanticism in

____________________
1
Torquato Tasso, Prose, ed. Ettore Mazzali (Milan and Naples, 1959), p. 387.

-259-

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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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