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Eduard Hanslick: can music represent anything?

March 20, 2012
Dr Eduard Hanslick, lithography by Josef Bauer, 1879

In this extract from The Beautiful in Music Eduard Hanslick discusses if music can express or represent anything.  Footnotes have been omitted.

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Music can undertake to imitate objective phenomena only, and never the specific feeling they arouse.  The falling of snow, the fluttering of birds, and the rising of the sun can be painted musically only, by producing auditory impressions which are dynamically related to those phenomena.  In point of strength, pitch, velocity, and rhythm, sounds present to the ear a figure, bearing that degree of analogy to certain visual impressions which sensations of various kinds bear to one another.  As there is, physiologically speaking, such a thing as a vicarious function (up to a certain point), so may sense-impressions, aesthetically speaking, become vicarious also.  There is a well-founded analogy between motion in space and motion in time, between the colour, texture, and size of an object and the pitch, “timbre”, and strength of a tone, and it is for this reason quite practicable to paint an object musically.  The pretension, however, to describe by musical means the “feeling” which the falling snow, the crowing cock, or a flash of lightning excites in us, is simply ludicrous.

Although, as far as we remember, all musical theorists tacitly accept, and base their arguments on the postulate, that music has the power of representing definite emotions – yet, their better judgement has kept them from openly avowing it.  The conspicuous absence of definite ideas in music troubled their minds and induced them to lay down the somewhat modified principle that the object of music was to awaken and represent “indefinite”, not definite emotions.  Rationally understood, this can only mean that music ought to deal with the motion accompanying a feeling, regardless of its essential part, with what is felt; in other words, that its function is restricted to the reproduction of what we termed the dynamic element of an emotion, a function which we unhesitatingly conceded to music.  But this property does not enable music “to represent indefinite feelings” for to “represent” something “indefinite” is a contradiction in terms.  Psychical motion, considered as motion apart from the state of mind it involves, can never become the object of an art, because without an answer to the query; what is moving, or what is being moved, an art has nothing tangible to work upon.  That which is implied in the proposition – namely, that music is not intended to represent a definite feeling (which is undoubtedly true) is only a negative aspect of the question.  But what is the positive, the creative factor, in a musical composition?  An indefinite feeling as such, cannot supply a subject; to utilise it, an art would, first of all, have to solve the problem; what form can be given to it?  The function of art consists in individualising, in evolving the definite out of the indefinite, the particular out of the general.  The theory respecting “indefinite feelings” would reverse this process.  It lands us in even greater difficulties than the theory that music represents something, though it is impossible to define what.  This position is but a step removed from the clear recognition that music represents no feelings, either definite or indefinite.  Yet, where is the musician who would deprive his art of that domain which from time immemorial has been claimed as belonging to it?

This conclusion might give rise to the view that the representation of definite feelings by music, though impracticable, may yet be adopted as an ideal, never wholly realisable, but which it is possible, and even necessary, to approach more and more closely.  The many high-sounding phrases respecting the tendency of music to cast off its vagueness and to become concrete speech, no less than the fulsome praises bestowed on compositions aiming, or supposed to be aiming at this, are proof of the popularity of the theory in question.

Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, trans. Gustav Cohen, 1891, pp. 53-55.  The text of the title page of this edition is reproduced below.

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 THE

BEAUTIFUL IN MUSIC

A CONTRIBUTION TO

THE REVISAL OF MUSICAL AESTHETICS

BY

DR. EDUARD HANSLICK

Professor at the Vienna University.

SEVENTH EDITION, ENLARGED AND REVISED (LEIPZIG, 1885).

TRANSLATED BY GUSTAV COHEN

And dedicated to his Friends

MR. AND MRS. F. COLLIER.

__________

LONDON: NOVELLO AND COMPANY, LIMITED.

NEW YORK: THE H.W. GRAY CO., SOLE AGENTS FOR THE U.S.A.

____

1891.

MADE IN ENGLAND

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