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Book Review

Music as Thought

Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven

Mark Evan Bonds
Princeton University Press, pp xx + 169, July 2015
ISBN-10: 0691168059
ISBN-13: 9780691168050
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Mark Evan Bonds is Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he has taught since 1992. Specialising in (German) music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – particularly instrumental music and aesthetic theory, he began work on what eventually became Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven 20 years ago as a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to collect and translate critical material dealing with the symphony during the period from its effective birth in the 1720s to the fundamental changes which it underwent at the start of the last (20th) century. But working in Berlin and other German cities and musical environments slowly changed the focus of the book into one which examines how we experience the symphony as something which is best set in wider political and aesthetic contexts.

Although one rarely senses that Bonds hankers for an age when music was received with less of a "Take it or leave it" attitude, he is in no doubt that the age of the (German) symphony significantly advanced our understanding of the aesthetics and philosophy of music, and of thought, in ways that are still not always appreciated. When, how and why this came about, and how it works musicologically, and what the implications are for our understanding of symphonic and orchestral music are form the substance of this stimulating and instructive new book.

Bonds' central thesis is that before the period in question (essentially the nineteenth century), vocal music was assumed "superior" to purely instrumental work. Devotional music and music specifically in aid of worship were felt to need text in order to express (or even to have) any accepted purpose. Dialog was used to advance drama and rhetorical tension. Indeed, Kant and Rousseau all but dismissed instrumental music as "more pleasure than culture", and as being unable to convey concepts – respectively. In the Romantic era of the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, music's very independence from text was seen as liberating; and as a new strength without the limitations of language. What had formerly been viewed as "entertainment" came increasingly to be accepted as a "tool" to think with. There was a certain insistence – as a matter of polemic, almost – that music emphatically was not representational.

This can be claimed to have culminated in Wagner's concept of Absolute Music and the ethereal journeys undertaken in the monumental symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler and the late Romantics. Bonds demonstrates how this idea of music as thought began in the age of Beethoven. He uses contemporary documents, refers to sources from the métiers of literature, philosophy as well as music. As senses of cultural identity and "belonging" evolved, as well – even – as education and personal status, so a social and even political dimension became more and more necessary to understand what symphonic and instrumental music were meant to achieve. Think, too, of Schumann's factions, "parties", Leagues.

Most music-lovers will be familiar with the ways in which Beethoven revolutionized music, musical expectations at least. Bonds examines the Fifth Symphony in particular in Chapter 3 and sets it in the context of audiences already prepared, eager even, to "elevate" their knowledge and tastes. Similarly, the status of composers was changing: although continuing to rely on patronage, they were considered less as retained "servants" at court, more as creative artists in their own right. As composers consciously aimed increasingly at the Sublime (here Bonds adduces many and useful sources in philosophical thought from the eighteenth century – not least Hoffmann and Burke), so the (social) standing of music that was not tied to words almost inevitably increased. This was clearly liberating: contrast Berlioz with Haydn, barely 50 years apart, for instance. Bonds is also particularly strong when he illustrates social change and attitudes in the context of purely musical ones… the concise section at the very end of Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven on the symphony as democracy is a good example. Yet again it draws the important distinction between the politicization of music and the politicization of listening to music.

As the book progresses, though, one does sometimes wonder whether – sound and sustainable though Bonds' theory surely is – he is straying into territory whose relevance to it is not always made completely clear… parts of the fifth chapter dealing with music festivals, for instance. Yet this portion of the book does bring us back to (the time of) Beethoven. However familiar you are with the music and history of the period under examination here, Bonds does a very good job indeed of knitting together otherwise potentially diverse themes, currents and figures in ways that, perhaps, you hadn't considered before. It's not a story; but it is a narrative – and a well-constructed one. And the way that this relatively short book for such a major (though focused) theme is dealt with means that distillation of sometimes complex ideas is necessary. Bonds is to be congratulated for a style and approach that nevertheless both make the book substantial and satisfying; and not over complex or difficult to follow because of the need for precise references.

There are no musical examples in Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven, although it is a scholarly text which advances and supports its theses (central and supplementary) easily, intelligently and with quotation and footnotes. Adequately indexed and with an excellent bibliography, it is not a difficult read, although it does implicitly assume familiarity both with the relevant works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the cultural developments and preoccupations of that period… the work of Kant, Hoffmann, Schiller, Goethe and the later Nationalists and aesthetic commentators through to Wagner and beyond. Since Bonds is so good at explaining the key movements, moments and achievements of the key figures, though, this book can be treated almost as much as a narrative as an exhaustive exegesis. After all, its substantive text occupies barely 100 pages. If the long nineteenth century is a period whose (orchestral) music you love, if a fresh way of looking at its music appeals and/or if you simply want to read an intelligent and informed examination of what Bonds considers a "revolution" in listening – particularly one which you had not necessarily previously considered as such – you should investigate this reasonably-priced and accessible book.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Sealey.