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Eduard Hanslick on how words and music can work together

March 27, 2012
Dr Eduard Hanslick, lithography by Josef Bauer, 1879

In this extract from The Beautiful in Music Eduard Hanslick discusses how words and music work together.  Footnotes have been omitted.

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The beautiful in music would not depend on the accurate representation of feelings even if such a representation were possible.  Let us, for argument’s sake, assume the possibility and examine it from a practical point of view.

It is manifestly out of the question to test this fallacy by instrumental music, as the latter could be shown to represent definite feelings only by arguing in a circle.  We must, therefore, make the experiment with vocal music, as being that music whose office it is to emphasize clearly defined states of mind.

Here the words determine the subject to be described; music may give it life and breath, and impart to it a more or less distinct individuality.  This is done by utilising as far as possible the characteristics peculiar to motion and the symbols associated with sounds.  If greater attention is bestowed on the words than on the production of purely musical beauty, a high degree of individuality may be secured – nay, the delusion may even arise that the music alone expresses the emotion which, though susceptible of intensification, was already immutably contained in the words.  Such a tendency is in its consequences on a par with the alleged practicability of representing a certain feeling as the subject of a given “piece of music”.  Suppose there did exist perfect congruity between the real and the assumed power of music; that it was possible to represent feelings by musical means, and that these feelings were the subject of musical compositions.  If this assumption be granted, we should be logically compelled to call such compositions the best as perform the task in the most perfect manner.  Yet do we not all know compositions of exquisite beauty without any definite subject?  We need but instance Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.  On the other hand, there are vocal compositions which aim at the most accurate expression of certain emotions, within the limits referred to, and in which the supreme goal is truthfulness in this descriptive process.  On close examination we find that the rigour with which music is subordinated to words is generally in an inverse ratio to the independent beauty of the former; otherwise expressed, that rhetorico-dramatical precision and musical perfection go together but half-way, and then proceed in different directions.

The recitative affords a good illustration of this truth, since it is that form of music which best accommodates itself to rhetorical requirements, down to the very accent of each individual word; never even attempting to be more than a faithful copy of rapidly-changing states of mind.  This, therefore, in strict accordance with the theory before us, should be the highest and most perfect music.  But in the Recitative music degenerates into mere shadow and relinquishes its individual sphere of action altogether.  Is not this a proof that the representing of definite states of mind is contrary to the nature of music, and that in their ultimate bearings they are antagonistic to one another?  Let anyone play a long Recitative, leaving out the words, and enquire into its musical merit and subject.   Any kind of music claiming to be the sole factor in producing a given effect should be able to stand this test.

Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, trans. Gustav Cohen, 1891, pp.56-58.  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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