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date: 29 January 2020

Absolute musiclocked

  • Roger Scruton


The term ‘absolute music’ denotes not so much an agreed idea as an aesthetic problem. The expression is of German origin, first appearing in the writings of Romantic philosophers and critics such as J.L. Tieck, J.G. Herder, W.H. Wackenroder, Jean Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann. It features in the controversies of the 19th century – for example, in Hanslick’s spirited defence of absolute Tonkunst against the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner – and also in the abstractions of 20th-century musical aesthetics. It names an ideal of musical purity, an ideal from which music has been held to depart in a variety of ways; for example, by being subordinated to words (as in song), to drama (as in opera), to some representational meaning (as in programme music), or even to the vague requirements of emotional expression. Indeed, it has been more usual to give a negative than a positive definition of the absolute in music. The best way to speak of a thing that claims to be ‘absolute’ is to say what it is not....

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