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Absolute music (sometimes abstract music) is music that is not explicitly "about" anything; in contrast to program music, it is non-representational. The idea of absolute music developed at the end of the 18th century in the writings of authors of early German Romanticism, such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann but the term was not coined until 1846 where it was first used by Richard Wagner in a programme to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
The aesthetic ideas underlying the absolute music derive from debates over the relative value of what were known in the early years of aesthetic theory as the fine arts. Kant, in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, dismissed music as "more enjoyment than culture" because of its lack of conceptual content, thus taking as a negative the very feature of music that others celebrated. Johann Gottfried Herder, in contrast, regarded music as the highest of the arts because of its spirituality, which Herder linked to the invisibility of sound. The ensuing arguments among musicians, composers, music historians and critics have, in effect, never stopped.
The Spiritualist debate
A group of Romantics consisting of Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Jean Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann gave rise to the idea of what can be labeled as "spiritual absolutism". In this respect, instrumental music transcends other arts and languages to become the discourse of a ‘higher realm’ — rooted greatly in Hoffmann’s famous review of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, published in 1810. These protagonists believed that music could be more emotionally powerful and stimulating without words. According to Richter, music would eventually ‘outlast’ the word.
The Formalist debate
‘Formalism’ is the concept of ‘music for music’s sake’ and refers to instrumental music. In this respect, music has no meaning at all and is enjoyed by appreciation of its ‘formal’ structure and technical construction. The 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick argued that music could be enjoyed as pure sound and form, that it needed no connotation of extra-musical elements to warrant its existence. In fact, these extra-musical ideas detracted from the beauty of the music. The 'Absolute', in this case, is the ‘purity’ of the art.
- “Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” — Eduard Hanslick 
Formalism therefore rejected genres such as opera, song and tone poems as they conveyed explicit meanings or programmatic imagery. Symphonic forms were considered more aesthetically pure. (The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as the programmatic Sixth Symphony, became problematic to formalist critics who had championed the composer as a pioneer of the ‘Absolute’, especially with the late quartets).
Opposition and objections to absolute music
The majority of opposition to the idea of instrumental music being ‘absolute’ came from Richard Wagner. It seemed ludicrous to him that art could exist without meaning; for him it had no right to exist.
Wagner considered the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be the proof that music works better with words, famously saying: “Where music can go no further, there comes the word… the word stands higher than the tone.”.
Wagner also called Beethoven's Ninth Symphony the death knell of the Symphony, for he was far more interested in combining all forms of art with his Gesamtkunstwerk.
Today, the debate continues over whether music has meaning or not. However, most contemporary views, reflecting ideas emerging from views of subjectivity in linguistic meaning arising in cognitive linguistics, as well as Kuhn's work on cultural biases in science and other ideas on meaning and aesthetics (e.g. Wittgenstein on cultural constructions in thought and language), appear to be moving towards a consensus that music provides at least some signification or meaning, in terms of which it is understood.
The cultural bases of musical understanding have been highlighted in Philip Bohlman's work, who considers music as a form of cultural communication:
- There are those who believe that music represents nothing other than itself. I argue that we are constantly giving it new and different abilities to represent who we are.
Bohlman has gone on to argue that the use of music, e.g. among the Jewish diaspora, was in fact a form of identity building.
Susan McClary has critiqued the notion of ‘absolute music’, arguing that all music, whether explicitly programmatic or not, contains implicit programs that reflect the tastes, politics, aesthetic philosophies and social attitudes of the composer and their historical situation. Such scholars would argue that classical music is rarely about ‘nothing’, but reflects aesthetic tastes that are themselves influenced by culture, politics and philosophy. Composers are often bound up in a web of tradition and influence, in which they strive to consciously situate themselves in relation to other composers and styles. Lawrence Kramer, on the other hand, believes music has no means to reserve a “specific layer or pocket for meaning. Once it has been brought into sustainable connection with a structure of prejudgment, music simply becomes meaningful.”
Music which appears to demand an interpretation, but is abstract enough to warrant objectivity (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony), is what Lydia Goehr refers to as ‘double-sided autonomy.’ This happens when the formalist properties of music became attractive to composers because, having ‘no meaning to speak of’, music could be used to envision an alternative cultural and/or political order, while escaping the scrutiny of the censor (particularly common in Shostakovich, most notably the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies).
On the topic of musical meaning, Wittgenstein, at several points in his late diary Culture and Value, ascribes meaning to music, for instance, that in the finale, a conclusion is being ‘drawn’, e.g.:
- “[one] can point to particular places in a tune by Schubert and say: look, that is the point of the tune, this is where the thought comes to a head.” (p.47)
Recently, Jerrold Levinson has drawn extensively on Wittgenstein to comment, in the Journal of Music and Meaning:
- Intelligible music stands to literal thinking in precisely the same relation as does intelligible verbal discourse. If that relation be not exemplification but instead, say, expression, then music and language are, at any rate, in the same, and quite comfortable, boat.
- M. C. Horowitz (ed.), New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-684-31377-4, vol.1, p. 5
- Dahlhaus, Carl (1991). The Idea of Absolute Music. University of Chicago Press. p. 18.
- Quoted in the liner notes to the Juilliard String Quartet's Intimate Letters. Sony Classical SK 66840.
- Bacci, Francesca; Melcher, David (2011). Art and the Senses. Oxford University Press. p. 253. ISBN 9780199230600.
- Goehr, Lydia (1998). The Quest for Voice: On Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy : the 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520214125.
- Béla Szabados (Fall 2004). "Wittgenstein the Musical: Notes toward an Appreciation". AE: Canadian Aesthetics Journal / Revue canadienne d'esthétique: Volume 10.
- Shula Neuman (April 2, 1998). "The Meaning of Music". The University of Chicago Chronicle: Vol. 17, No. 13.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein tr. Peter Winch 1984 (1944). Culture and Value (German: Vermischte Bemerkungen).
- Musical Thinking (Fall 2003). "Jerrold Levinson". Journal of Music and Meaning: vol. 1, section 2.
- Chua, Daniel Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
- Cook, Nicholas Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1998)
- Dahlhaus, Carl The Idea of Absolute Music trans. by Roger Lustig (Chicago/London 1989; orig. Kassel, 1978)
- Goehr, Lydia The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992)
- Kivy, Peter ‘Absolute Music’ and the ‘New Musicology’ in Musicology and Sister Disciplines. Past, Present, Future. Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of the International Musicological Society, London 1997 ed. D. Greer, I. Rumbold and J. King (Oxford, 2000)
- Kramer, Lawrence Subjectivity Rampant! Music, Hermeneutics, and History in The Cultural Study of Music. A Critical Introduction ed. M. Clayton, T. Herbert and R. Middleton (New York and London, 2003)
- Scruton, Roger. "Absolute music." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.[permanent dead link]
- Williams, Alastair Constructing Musicology (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Aldershot, Hampshire, 2001)
- Wolff, Janet The ideology of autonomous art, in: Music and Society in The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception ed. R. Leppert and S. McClary (Cambridge, 1987)
- Young, James O. Critique of Pure Music (Oxford University Press, 2014)