Music and Literature in German Romanticism

By Höyng, Peter | Goethe Yearbook, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Music and Literature in German Romanticism


Höyng, Peter, Goethe Yearbook


Siobhan Donovan and Robin Elliott, cds., Music and literature in German Romanticism. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2004. xxix + 233 pp.

The ways and means of conducting scholarship in the humanities are quite anachronistic. They defy the trend toward acceleration observable in the sciences, and natural scientists' seeming ability to build scholarly networks easily. I refer not to the hardware of computers but to their enabling capacity of connecting scholars from around the world in previously unthinkable ways. Depending on your point of view, you might want to resist this acceleration or start wondering why more colleagues in the social and natural sciences don't see us as odd and strange. Perhaps for some interpretations it is simply irrelevant whether they make it into the realm of the printed republic years after having been conceived.

These were my first musings when I opened this overall excellent collection of essays on music and literature in German romanticism.The "Acknowledgement" informs the reader that the thirteen essays that found their way into the volume grew out a conference in Dublin in December 2000. The welcoming note by Harry White, President of the Society of Musicology in Ireland, is dated April 2003; the book appeared in 2005; by the time you read this review no fewer than six years have passed since the gathering of scholars in Dublin. In other words, vetting 32 presentations from the conference to identify the most noteworthy essays, attending to careful editing and book making, is truly a slow process.This is even more striking when considering the speed at which other Wissenschafien convey their professional results. seen in this light, the scholarly book, in and of itself, involuntarily becomes an ever more romantic relic of information storage, no matter how much it has proven to be ideal in many ways. Still, one can't help wonder whether there could not be other, swifter modes of exchanging ideas, especially when, as in my case, one's own research would have benefited from access to the wealth of information and references presented in this book.

As is to be expected, in a collection of essays, the contributions are quite diverse in their scope, methodology and interpretive frameworks. Some authors take conventional, yet enlightening influence-approaches such as, e.g., David Larking, who shows that Liszt's Faust Symphony goes back to Wagner's suggestions for revisions and Wagner's revised version of his Faust Overture in turn is indebted to Liszt's Faust Symphony. Other essays, such as Jeanne Riou's "Music and Non-Verbal Reason in E. T. A. Hoffmann," have a more theoretical approach. However, this essay is also a good example of what happens when theory is fetishized. References to Adorno, Kittler, Foucault and other theoretical figures are supposed to guarantee substantial insights into E.T.A. Hoffmann's writings on and thinking about music. But Riou's theoretical inclinations turn out to be more obfuscating than elucidating. The brevity imposed on each contributor may explain her elaborations on Hoffmann who "is one of the least theoretically motivated of the Romantic authors" but "narrates subjectivity. . . that is primarily acoustic" (43). On the other hand, Riou's conclusions are as correct as they are dense when she observes that "Hoffmann understood that expression and desire were not contained in an idealized identity or an absolute textual base. Romantic transcendence and its path through ambivalence . . . preempts [sic] the psychoanalytic re-thinking of rationality, but also adverts to the less popular and less well understood role of sound in how thought and feeling intertwine. Hoffmann gives this a particular twist in the haunting, music-related themes of his novels and novellas" (53-54).

Other contributors, like James Hodkinson, demonstrate that one can be concise, and still theoretically sound. Hodkinson, who writes on Novalis's conceptualization of music, shows that Novalis progressively adapted "the polyphonic formulation of music as he found it in Jacob Böhme, taking this as the blueprint for a discursive system that is genuinely universal, upholding the rights of all to speak, sing, and play" by "its inclusion of the traditionally marginalized voices of non-Christians and women" (24). …

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