Absolute Music

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Rick Watts
Dr. Beth McGinnis
Music History II
Monday, May 12, 2008

Absolute Music
I. Introduction

In this paper I will offer several opposing views regarding instrumental music, and its purpose. I will do so by summarizing prominent people’s beliefs on this matter, and offering some quotations by these people which most thoroughly and concisely convey their thoughts. I will conclude the paper with my personal thoughts and beliefs regarding instrumental music. II. The Views

The term absolute music was originally coined by Richard Wagner. Since the term's initial appearance in the mid 1800s, it has been used to describe instrumental music in both positive and negative ways. Wagner viewed absolute music as being a lesser art form than vocal music. He believed that music without words could only convey general feelings, but that music with text could convey the specific emotions that music should achieve.[1]

This Wagnerian idea originated in response to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the first major work that incorporated the human voice at the same level as the instruments in a symphony. This was achieved through a choral finale which uses the text of Friedrich Schiller's poem Ode an die Freude ("Ode to Joy").[2]

Beethoven's 9th Symphony is a dark and stormy work until the choral finale, is introduced by a baritone soloist singing “Oh friends, not these tones! Rather let us sing more cheerful and more joyful ones. Joy! Joy!” This is a very appropriate bridge between the stormy portion of the symphony and the joyful choral finale.[3]

Wagner's view is that through this choral finale the true meaning of this work is conveyed. Regarding the instrumental recitative of the fourth movement, Wagner wrote: “Already almost breaking the bounds of absolute music, it stems the tumult of the other instruments with its virile eloquence, pressing toward decision, and passes at last into song-like theme.”[4] Carl Dahlhaus clarified this statement:

The ‘decision’ Wagner means is the transition from ‘imprecise,’ objectless instrumental music to objectively ‘precise’ vocal music. Wagner ascribes ‘endless and imprecise expressiveness’ to pure instrumental music; in a footnote he quotes Ludwig Tieck, who perceived in symphonies ‘insatiate desire forever hieing forth and turning back into itself.[5] Wagner is rumored to have said, “Where music can go no further, there comes the word…the word stands higher than the tone.” Although this cannot be verified, it is supported by other bona fide writings of Wagner. It is no surprise that Wagner, a largely vocal composer, praised Beethoven, a largely instrumental composer, when he finally incorporated voice into a symphony.

There were, however, people who opposed Wagner's position regarding this choral finale. One such person, Louis Spohr, wrote: I confess freely that I could never get any enjoyment out of Beethoven's last works. Yes, I must include among them the much-admired Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement of which seems to me so ugly, in such bad taste, and in the conception of Schiller's Ode so cheap that I cannot even now understand how such a genius as Beethoven could write it down. I find in it another corroboration of what I had noticed already in Vienna, that Beethoven was deficient in aesthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty.[6] In Spohr's opinion, Beethoven had forsaken “beauty” in an effort to express the “sublime.”[7]

Absolute music soon became associated with the existing perspective that instrumental music transcends other art forms by transporting the audience to a higher realm. One of the leaders of this perspective was E.T.A. Hoffmann. Hoffmann believed that instrumental music is superior to vocal music because its meaning is not limited by words. Where Wagner saw the text as the source of meaning for music, Hoffman saw text as a limitation to the meaning of music. “[Vocal music] does not permit a mood of vague...
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