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Book Review

Absolute Music

Absolute Music by Bonds

The History of an Idea

Mark Evan Bonds
Oxford University Press, 2014, 375 pp.
Illustrations (B&W), notes, bibliography, index
ISBN-10: 0199343632
ISBN 978-0-934363-8 (hardback)
ISBN 978-0-934364-5 (online content)
ISBN 978-0-934365-2 (updf)
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"Absolute music" is a term which originated with Richard Wagner, surprisingly enough. He used it in his 1846 commentary on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, to mark the finale's departure from purely instrumental music. Bonds says that the expression is a "retronym, a two word neologism" marking the beginning of what distinguishes a new variant of something, in this case something distinct from just plain "music" That new thing was "program music," previously known as "representational music," "characteristic music," etc. The term "program music" first appeared in 1855 and was coined by Franz Liszt in an article about Berlioz' Harold in Italy.

Bonds does not present these terms until the second half of his book, because, as a history, his account of the nature of music begins thousands of years earlier, in the age of myth and the pre-Socratics, with Orpheus and Pythagoras, representing the very different expressive and the mathematical ways music can be understood. The legendary Orpheus had immense powers of charm evoked by the sounds of his lyre. Pythagoras, who, in the sixth century BCE, thought the whole cosmos was ordered in numerical terms, and who influenced Plato, discovered mathematical ratios among pitches, such as the octave and perfect fifth. Legend has it that Pythagoras heard this first in the different sounds that different size hammers made at a blacksmith shop. Later extreme Pythagoreans scorned "mere" sound in favor of abstract mental constructions to characterize the nature of music. The cosmic connection they attributed to music would be seen in some musical theory right up to the nineteenth century. The seven liberal arts, meanwhile, notably in the teaching of Boethius in the fifth century of our era, grouped music with mathematics in the "quadrivium," which comprised four of the seven liberal arts.

The sensuous seductions of musical sounds combined with sung words would trouble people like Saint Augustine, who found it difficult to focus his mind on the latter rather than the former when he was trying to pray. Centuries later, there would be much discussion about whether music with words was "better" than purely instrumental music. Part II of Bonds' book, "Essence and Effect: 1550-1850" takes up this matter, while neatly dividing his consideration to "expression, beauty, form, autonomy" and "disclosiveness." I shall leave it to the reader to discover what Bond means by some of these qualities, but they include such considerations as the aesthetic uniqueness of the different arts, notably music. I shall note here, however, that Bonds returns to these same qualities in the last chapter of his Part III, "Essence or Effect: 1850-1945."

Part III centers on Hanslick's treatise, Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen (On the Musically Beautiful in one translation; but let it be noted that Hanslick never attempts to define beauty. Bonds almost always quotes titles in the original language – mostly German – and in this case he stresses the importance of the hyphen. Hanslick's book was first published in 1854 and subsequently in a remarkable number of revised editions. This famous and influential work resulted in extensive polemics which, by the end of the nineteenth century pretty much died down, although the references to "extra-musical considerations" in current usage testifies to its continuing influence. Importantly, Bonds notes that what Hanslick said was often misrepresented or misunderstood, and Hanslick's own honesty was not always above reproach either.

Hanslick was at pains to say that "pure" music was independent of any other art form, such as poetry and, although it might arouse feelings, they were irrelevant to what music was essentially. The Wagnerians – as is well-known – preferred music combined with drama. Bonds recounts the specifics of the controversy this represents at great length, and even includes an Appendix, with dates and capsule summaries of the various pro and con responses to Hanslick.

Bonds continues his account well into the twentieth century, including mention of Stravinsky's extreme statements about the "powerlessness" of music to express anything. (For more discussion of Stravinsky's aesthetics, see my Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint.)

Probably few will find Bonds' book to be a page-turner; it requires close attention. I myself found it fascinating at nearly every point. (My first academic specialty was intellectual and cultural history, before completing a doctorate in philosophical aesthetics; and from a very young age I had been interested in the matter of emotional expression in music.) The section of Bonds' book where he writes about the German idealists, such as Schelling, is likely to cause readers the most difficulty. It helps to know about Kant and Schopenhauer also. German idealist philosophy (and most of this whole controversy took place in Germany) underpins the difficulties which references to music's alleged cosmic connections caused Hanslick. But since Hanslick revised his book – as well as his thinking – as time went on, some readers may prefer to skim over this section, with minor loss to the thread of the main question of musical formalism vs. expression.

Bonds writes with great clarity for the most part. This is an immensely informed, thoroughly documented, and detailed book, offering much to chew on during a delicious and intellectually nourishing journey through millennia of theoretical discussions about the nature of music. Readers with an interest in these matters should find Bonds' account profoundly satisfying, and his book should also provide the basis for graduate seminars on musical aesthetics. Highly recommended to this audience.

Copyright © 2015, R. James Tobin