Nineteenth-Century Music Criticism and the Case of James William Davison

By Mann, Joseph Arthur | Musical Times, Autumn 2016 | Go to article overview

Nineteenth-Century Music Criticism and the Case of James William Davison


Mann, Joseph Arthur, Musical Times


The results of the 19 th-century debate between Romantics 1 and classicists2 over the purpose, nature and content of music continue to influence the ways in which many musicians, audiences and scholars perceive and engage with music history. The musicians that the Romantics championed, whether they were themselves Romantics or not, have become the superstars of the 19th century, and the innovations that they championed in the works of those masters are presented in music history texts and in scholarly literature as the great achievements of the century. The way modern performers, scholars and classical music fans venerate Beethoven, for example, for his musical innovations, natural genius, position as a perceived turning point in music history, and personal suffering for his art, which includes his having been misunderstood and misappreciated by society, is both based on and fundamentally identical to the way he was venerated by the Romantics.3

Because scholars, performers and audiences continue to see the 19th century, or the Romantic era as it is tellingly referred to, from a perspective that is fundamentally based on and allied with Romantic aesthetics, scholarly writings and concert programming overwhelmingly favour the Romantics in the way the aesthetic debates, music and musicians of the 19th century are presented and conceptualised. Composers and authors who are considered to have been misappreciated in their own time but who supported some aspect of the Romantic aesthetic or were otherwise aligned with it, such as Hector Berlioz, have been elevated above those composers and authors, such as Auber or Fétis, who were more popular, successful and culturally influential in their own time but were either opposed to the musical progress of the Romantics or simply did not contribute to it.4 Indeed, Berlioz is popularly venerated now in the same way in which he venerated Beethoven in his own time: for his orchestral innovations, original use of form, natural and seemingly unstoppable genius, personification of Romanticism (his status as a great man), and suffering as a misunderstood artist.

This Romantic perspective, while present to a certain degree in every aspect of scholarly approaches to the century - including whom scholars choose to study and how they frame the careers of those individuals, is most powerfully felt in the ways in which scholars engage with the work of music critics and those who wrote about music outside of the press. Those critics who fought against Romantic musical progress, the classicists, have been consistently relegated to a secondary position in current historical narratives of the period in favour of an emphasis on their Romantic opponents, and when the classicists are discussed, their opposition to Romanticism and the fact that they were the losers of the aesthetic debate are often either central points of the discussion or ever-present facets of it.5

James William Davison, Eduard Hanslick and François-Joseph Fétis, for example, were central figures in their respective societies; they composed music, wrote text books, and influenced their musical cultures through their contributions to the musical institutions of their time in addition to their work as music critics. Yet the critical writings of Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner have received more consistent and prominent attention from the scholarly community. Indeed, the average educated musician is expected to know that Schumann, Berlioz and Wagner were active as critics and authors of works about music, and to know something about what they wrote, but they are not expected to know much, if anything, about Davison, Hanslick or Fétis.6 While it is true that Berlioz, Schumann and Wagner were and still are considered prominent composers - in addition to having written music criticism - and that interest in their music certainly led to interest in their writings, that alone does not and should not explain why 20th- and 21st-century scholars have consistently given their criticism more attention than the criticism of more successful, contemporary music critics. …

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