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September 2010

Eduard Hanslick, the notorious Viennese music critic and writer on musical aesthetics, has had a rough time. After a start that was notably spoilt by Wagner’s mocking portrayal of him as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger he has been disqualified more recently as the “chief polemicists for the absolutists” (Susan McClary). To be sure, contemporary philosophers of the analytical tradition have shown sympathetic interest in- and appreciation for Hanslick, who was incidentally an accomplished pianist with skills in composition. But the reasons for this may ultimately be self-interested: Hanslick’s arguments prove useful to professional philosophers of music. They can be neatly dissected. In addition Hanslick is interested in the nature of emotion and in the role cognition and judgement play in their constitution. This attracts those yearning for an escape from the dissonant curses of consciousness and passion to a life of academic equilibrium.

I am arguing here that Hanslick still deserves a fair go. This may require us to turn down the noise of operatic or academic opinions (two phenomena which in combination wreak havoc on the life of the spirit) and turn directly to a reflection on his essay On the beautiful in Music. Here we find two well-known arguments: a negative thesis that music does not represent emotion and feeling and a positive thesis that music is essentially self-referential - not a language of feeling but simply “sounding, moving form.” It is one characteristic of the Hanslick reception to focus on the distinctness of the arguments all but ignoring that both theses are in fact expressions of a more fundamental and unifying view.

In fact, the crucial point is Hanslick’s contextual understanding that music addresses itself properly to pure intuition. He insists that music is neither an intellectual nor an emotional, but a spiritual art. The human faculty most relevant to music in this context is neither reason (Verstand) nor feeling (Gefuehl) but imagination (Phantasie). “It is peculiar”, Hanslick writes at the outset of his treatise, “how the older Aestheticians merely moved within a contrast between “feeling” (Gefuehl) and “reason” (Verstand) as if the main issue would not have to be settled in between this alleged dilemma” (VMS, 41). The identification of this “in-between” (inmitten) is the important point. It warrants a closer look.

For Hanslick a mediation of emotion and reason is firstly achieved by limiting exclusive claims such as the suggestion that the spiritual essence of music amounts to a representation of emotion (his negative thesis). He is clearly insistent on this as he separates the spiritual from the emotional emphasising the peculiar characteristics of the latter in instances of purely emotional responses to music: “We oppose this pathological seizure (Ergriffenwerden) to the conscious, pure contemplation of the sounding work. This contemplation is the only artistic, truthful form of listening; it qualifies the raw passion of the savage and the gushing reaction of the musical enthusiast as belonging to one class” (VMS, 119).

While we are not mistaken to talk about emotion in relation to music, the exclusive account of music in emotional terms is always incomplete and ultimately inauthentic. Music is a spiritual art. This suggests some affinity with the emotional life, but it also suggests a realm of conception and experience that is autonomous - and ultimately independent from mere feeling. Feelings and emotions are totalitarian and tend to claim exclusiveness. They can in fact establish a tyranny over consciousness overwhelming our spiritual consciousness on its way. In this process they reveal their pathological roots.

Such a decisive demarcation of the spiritual essence of music from emotional representation has often generated a view that Hanslick might instead be advocating some kind of intellectual formalism in his positive thesis of music as “sounding moving form”. This seems equally mistaken. An exclusive approach to beauty through understanding or reason would transform – for Hanslick- our relationship with music from an aesthetic one into a logical one. It would amount to an entirely dispassionate relationship with music. However, “without inner warmth, nothing great or beautiful has been achieved in life” (VMS, 97) Hanslick tells us. Neither logical nor pathological approaches to music have a privileged - or even an authentic place in our relationship with music. Hanslick is clear why this is the case: feeling and reason are merely “boundary regions” of the beautiful. Our perception of sounding beauty occurs through intuition (Anschauung) and takes place in our imagination (Phantasie), its natural homeland–neither in our abstract understanding nor in our feeling alone.

Pure contemplation or intuition (Anschauung) transcend feeling and understanding. The “reflection of the imagination” (Nachdenken der Phantasie, VMS 120) reveals the essentially spiritual characteristic of music. A musical work is “spiritual” (geistvoll)- not merely emotional (gefuehlvoll) or merely logical. Feeling is an appearance of spirit but should by no means be confused with its essence. It is a partial and in extreme dominance an inauthentic appropriation of music. In the case of musical performance feeling assists in the communication of the spiritual dimension of music enlivening the moment of recreation. The performer unleashes the emotional dimension of music through the sensuous attributes of music – music “ravishes” the listener in the “amorphous, demonic power” of the tone itself (VMS, 102). However, this emotional – or ultimately physical- impact of music in performance (pathological in a higher sense) will transform our aesthetic relationship to music into a pathological one if it is afforded exclusive influence.

This instrumental importance of emotion in music should not be confused with the pure contemplation which reveals the work of art as a “pure metal”. Once we contextualise the elementary powers of music, the artistic dimension of music is revealed in spiritual perception. This requires an entirely different attitude towards music in which the reflection of the imagination can perform its unique function. The careful distinction between passion and spirit alone suggests that Hanslick deserves a fair go if only for the reason that our contemporary culture constantly confuses the two.

VMS: E. Hanslick, "Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen", in: E. Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen, Aufsaetze, Musikkritiken, Leipzig: Reclam, 1982, 33-145.