Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven

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Before the nineteenth century, instrumental music was considered inferior to vocal music. Kant described wordless music as "more pleasure than culture," and Rousseau dismissed it for its inability to convey concepts. But by the early 1800s, a dramatic shift was under way. Purely instrumental music was now being hailed as a means to knowledge and embraced precisely because of its independence from the limits of language. What had once been perceived as entertainment was heard increasingly as a vehicle of thought. Listening had become a way of knowing.

Music as Thought traces the roots of this fundamental shift in attitudes toward listening in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Focusing on responses to the symphony in the age of Beethoven, Mark Evan Bonds draws on contemporary accounts and a range of sources—philosophical, literary, political, and musical—to reveal how this music was experienced by those who heard it first.

Music as Thought is a fascinating reinterpretation of the causes and effects of a revolution in listening.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker - Alex Ross
A fascinating new book.
Currents - Patricia Howard
This is a cogent and well-illustrated account of the theoretical basis for the changes in how instrumental music was listened to in the early decades of the 19th century. Bonds clarifies complex material and piles up evidence to make a convincing case for a 'revolution in listening.'
Music Research Forum - John Stine
Philosophical discussion of music can easily become dense, but Bonds presents his arguments and evidence in a clear, discernible manner such that readers with little exposure to the philosophical issues of the time period can follow his reasoning and come away illuminated by a first-hand account concerning the reception of the symphony in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
This is a cogent and well-illustrated account of the theoretical basis for the changes in how instrumental music was listened to in the early decades of the 19th century. Bonds clarifies complex material and piles up evidence to make a convincing case for a 'revolution in listening.'
— Patricia Howard
Music Research Forum
Philosophical discussion of music can easily become dense, but Bonds presents his arguments and evidence in a clear, discernible manner such that readers with little exposure to the philosophical issues of the time period can follow his reasoning and come away illuminated by a first-hand account concerning the reception of the symphony in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.
— John Stine
The New Yorker
A fascinating new book.
— Alex Ross
From the Publisher
"A fascinating new book."—Alex Ross, The New Yorker

"This is a cogent and well-illustrated account of the theoretical basis for the changes in how instrumental music was listened to in the early decades of the 19th century. Bonds clarifies complex material and piles up evidence to make a convincing case for a 'revolution in listening.'"—Patricia Howard, Currents

"Philosophical discussion of music can easily become dense, but Bonds presents his arguments and evidence in a clear, discernible manner such that readers with little exposure to the philosophical issues of the time period can follow his reasoning and come away illuminated by a first-hand account concerning the reception of the symphony in the first quarter of the nineteenth century."—John Stine, Music Research Forum

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691126593
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/7/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Evan Bonds is Professor of Musicology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His previous books include Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration and After Beethoven: Imperatives of Originality in the Symphony. He is a former editor in chief of Beethoven Forum.

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Read an Excerpt

Music as Thought

Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven
By Mark Evan Bonds

University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12659-3

Chapter One

Listening with Imagination: The Revolution in Aesthetics

HISTORICALLY INFORMED PERFORMANCE PRACTICE has become a commonplace in the concert world in recent decades. Orchestras routinely perform Beethoven's symphonies on period instruments, and even nonperiod orchestras play in a manner that reflects a heightened sensitivity to performance traditions of the composer's time. Historically informed listening, on the other hand, has been much slower to develop. It rests, after all, on the consumer rather than the producer and is in any case far more difficult to reconstruct, for the evidence of how people actually listened to specific works of music in any given time and place is scant and by its very nature notoriously subjective. In a celebrated passage in Howards End (1910), the novelist E. M. Forster neatly captures an entire spectrum of modes of listening among six characters in a concert hall, all listening to the same work of music with six decidedly different reactions:

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are likeMrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come-of course, not so as to disturb the others-; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music's flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fräulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is "echt Deutsch"; or like Fräulein Mosebach's young man, who can remember nothing but Fräulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings.

The responses range from the visceral (Mrs. Munt) to the technical (Tibby), programmatic (Helen), formalist (Margaret), nationalistic (Fräulein Mosebach), and purely social (Fräulein Mosebach's young man). Listeners, as Forster reminds us, have their own methods and motivations, and there is no reason to think that the audiences of Beethoven's era were any different in this regard. Indeed, the available documentation strongly suggests that the typical concert audience of the early nineteenth century covered just as wide a spectrum as that described by Forster a hundred years later, ranging from those who listened with rapt attention to those who used the occasion primarily to socialize, giving only passing attention (if any at all) to the music being played. Any attempt to reconstruct listening practices of the past must therefore confront the challenge of reconciling an inevitable variety of responses toward a common object. The challenge is further compounded by the reluctance of these listeners to commit to writing just what those responses might have been on any particular occasion.

Still, there is much to be gained from trying to understand how the more attentive listeners of a particular place and time might have approached the music they heard, at least in the most general terms. Fortunately, the documented discourse on the aesthetics of the symphony in German-speaking lands during Beethoven's lifetime is extensive enough to allow us to reconstruct these earlier modes of perception in its broad outlines, to recreate a horizon of expectations of what informed listeners thought that instrumental music could and could not do.


Attitudes toward instrumental music changed markedly during the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade of the nineteenth. Many of the more sophisticated listeners of this time began to perceive it as equal if not superior to vocal music. This was a radically new perspective: at no previous point in the history of music had any prominent composer or critic argued for such a view. The power of instrumental music to move the passions had long been acknowledged, but without words, music's perceived ability to convey ideas had always remained suspect. Yet within the span of less than a generation, this new attitude toward instrumental music won increasing legitimacy, and its adherents would grow steadily in numbers throughout the nineteenth century.

The scope and speed of this change can be illustrated through two very different yet widely read sources of the time: Immanuel Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgment), first published in 1790, and E.T.A. Hoffmann's review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, first published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig in 1810. Both stand as landmarks in the history of aesthetics. Kant's treatise set off an intense debate about the relationship between art and philosophy that would dominate aesthetic debate through Hegel and beyond. One could disagree with Kant (and many did), but no one could ignore him. And it is scarcely an exaggeration to call E.T.A. Hoffmann's review of Beethoven's Fifth the most influential piece of music criticism ever written. It established a new standard for written discourse about music by integrating emotional response and technical analysis in unprecedented detail. Critics of subsequent generations would turn to it repeatedly as a model, and Hoffmann's images and method have continued to resonate to the present day. Particularly in its abridged form (1813), Hoffmann's comments gained a readership well beyond that of the journal in which it had originally appeared. Had Hoffmann had been a solitary critic-if, in other words, his account had not resonated among his contemporaries-his review would have been swallowed up among the countless other notices of the day, filed away and forgotten. But his ideas were soon taken up by others, and the premises of listening he articulates in this review would soon be assimilated into the most basic assumptions of how to listen to music.

In his Critique of Judgment, Kant declared instrumental music to be "more pleasure than culture" (mehr Genuß als Kultur), for without a text, music could appeal only to the senses and not to reason. Kant marveled at instrumental music's potential to move listeners, but because it contained no ideas and was a purely temporal art, it remained merely transitory in its effect: once the sound of the notes had died, there was nothing left for the listener to contemplate. In his hierarchy of the arts, Kant classified instrumental music among those that were "agreeable" or "pleasing" (angenehm) but incapable of transmitting concepts. Like wallpaper, instrumental music was an abstract art that gave pleasure through its form but lacked content and was therefore inferior to vocal music.

Kant's view of instrumental music, published when Beethoven was just nineteen, was thoroughly typical of its time. French aestheticians had been wrestling with the issue of instrumental music's "meaning" for decades and had concluded, almost unanimously, that without a verbal text, music alone could convey little of any significance. No one denied music's power or even its close affinity to language: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Essay on the Origins of Languages, maintained that music and language shared a common origin and that the language of music, although "inarticulate," was "vivid, ardent, passionate" and had "a hundred times more energy than speech itself." But the inability of music to express ideas remained a stumbling block. "To understand what all the tumult of sonatas might mean," Rousseau wrote in his Dictionary of Music (1768), "we would have to follow the lead of the coarse artist who was obliged to write underneath that which he had drawn such statements as 'This is a tree,' or 'This is a man,' or 'This is a horse.' I shall never forget the exclamation of the celebrated Fontenelle, who, finding himself exhausted by these eternal symphonies, cried out in a fit of impatience: 'Sonata, what do you want of me?'" Fontenelle's bon mot would be retold with relish by countless writers over subsequent decades: it became a kind of shorthand dismissal of the art of instrumental music on the grounds of vagueness and imprecision.

Kant's German compatriots were equally unwilling to hear instrumental music as a vehicle of ideas. Johann Georg Sulzer, in his widely read encyclopedia of the fine arts published in the early 1770s, called instrumental music unterhaltend ("entertaining"), the same word that provides the basis for the modern-day German term Unterhaltungsmusik -that is, music meant to be enjoyed rather than contemplated, or as we might say more colloquially nowadays, "easy listening." Sulzer characterized "concertos, symphonies, sonatas, and solos" as "a not disagreeable sound, even a pleasant and entertaining chatter, but nothing that would engage the heart."

By the time Beethoven was thirty-nine, Kant's hierarchy of the arts had been turned on its head. In his 1810 review of Beethoven's Fifth, E.T.A. Hoffmann declared instrumental music to be the highest of all art forms, for it opened up to listeners the realm of the infinite, "a world that has nothing in common with the external world of the senses." Precisely because of its independence from words, music could express that which lay beyond the grasp of conventional language. And Hoffmann was merely the most articulate in a series of prominent writers who had been arguing along much the same lines for more than a decade.

How can we account for this remarkable transformation of attitudes within such a short span of time, between Kant in 1790 and Hoffmann in 1810? At the simplest level, there are three variables to consider: (1) the instrumental music composed during this time, (2) the way in which this music was performed, and (3) the way in which it was heard. All three are closely connected, yet it is the first of these-the music itself-that has always been regarded as the primary force behind this new aesthetic. And on the surface, at least, the priority of the music in driving this change seems not only plausible but inescapable. Can it be entirely coincidental, after all, that the status of instrumental music rose so markedly during precisely the period in which Mozart's late symphonies were being discovered by a wider public, Haydn was composing his twelve symphonies for London (1791-95), and Beethoven was writing and publishing his first six symphonies (1800-1806)? Hoffmann himself appealed to the centrality of this repertory in having elevated instrumental music "to its current height" by tracing a steady progression of growing intensity among these three composers: Haydn's symphonies, according to Hoffmann, "lead us into vast green meadows, into a merry, bright throng of happy people." Mozart, in turn, "leads us into the depths of the spirit realm." But it is left to Beethoven's instrumental music to "open up to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable." It "sets in motion the lever of horror, fear, revulsion, pain, and it awakens that infinite longing which is the essence of Romanticism."

Hoffmann also gives credit, in passing, to the steady improvement of performances, ascribing this to technical advances in instruments and to the increasing competence of players. The available evidence confirms these trends: contemporary accounts of early performances of the Eroica make us wince, but orchestras clearly warmed to the task over time. Rehearsals, once a rarity, were becoming more common, and there can be no question that the standards of performance were rising steadily as a result.

But Hoffmann has nothing good to say about listeners, and by the time he revised portions of his commentary on the Fifth Symphony in 1813, he had moved from indifference to contempt. Those listeners "oppressed by Beethoven's powerful genius" suffer because their "weak perceptions" cannot grasp "the deep internal coherence of every composition by Beethoven." Such deprecatory comments reinforce the largely erroneous but seeming ineradicable notion that Beethoven's music was not appreciated during the composer's lifetime. (Judging from contemporary reviews, critics did in fact find the music challenging at times but rarely oppressive, and already by the second decade of the nineteenth century, Beethoven was consistently acknowledged as the greatest living composer of instrumental music.) In any event, Hoffmann was not prepared to grant listeners any kind of positive role in instrumental music's newly elevated status. This new music, he claimed, demanded a more strenuous kind of listening, and audiences would have to elevate themselves to new heights of comprehension if they were to assimilate these works.

In this respect, Hoffmann's review created a paradigm that would be applied by virtually all subsequent commentators: Beethoven's music created a new aesthetic, one in which listeners were compelled to rise to the level of the composer. This basic model has persisted from Hoffmann down to the present. Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, in the most comprehensive of all studies dealing with the reception of the composer's oeuvre, argues that a "language of reception never heard before appears spontaneously soon after 1800 in connection with Beethoven's music," while Scott Burnham, in his compelling account of how listeners have interpreted many of the composer's most important works, speaks of a "change of critical perspective engendered by Beethoven's heroic style."

Yet this new kind of listening had already been a matter of intense discussion for well over a decade before Hoffmann's review. The unprecedented prestige of instrumental music was driven not by any composer or any particular repertory, but rather by a profound shift in aesthetics extending to the very act of listening itself. Ironically, the debate had been unleashed by Kant's Critique of Judgment, the same work that had dismissed instrumental music as something less than a fine art. Even while downplaying the status of music without words, Kant had provided the philosophical basis for the creative role of the beholder in all the arts, including music. The aesthetic revolution that took place during Beethoven's lifetime, then, focused not so much on any particular artist, composer, or repertory, but rather on the act of perception itself. For Kant, this meant a striving toward the reconciliation of the perceiving subject and the perceiving object; Johann Gottlieb Fichte conceived of the problem as the search for a means by which to integrate the "I" and the "Not-I"; Hegel sought to synthesize what he called the "identity of nonidentity" in a point of "nondifference" (Indifferenz). None of these writers was particularly sympathetic toward music. But others more sensitive to the art-Friedrich Schiller, Friedrich Schelling, Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Jean Paul, Friedrich Schlegel, and eventually E.T.A. Hoffmann-would take up the implications of this new way of thinking about the act of perception as it applied to music.


The story of instrumental music's sudden emergence as one of the highest, if not the highest, of all the arts at the end of the eighteenth century is most commonly told from the perspective of Romanticism, that slightly later and notoriously slippery phenomenon whose chief characteristic, at least according to the conventional telling of this tale, is its tendency to favor emotion over reason. Whereas Enlightenment rationalists had almost universally dismissed instrumental music for its inability to incorporate and convey ideas, their Romantic successors, particularly in Germany, were quick to embrace music without words precisely because of its ability to function outside the strictures of language. Writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Jean Paul, Friedrich Schlegel, and E.T.A. Hoffmann all praised instrumental music for its ability to transcend that which could be expressed in words. Instrumental music's lack of precision, long regarded as a liability, was now perceived as an asset.


Excerpted from Music as Thought by Mark Evan Bonds Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction xiii
List of Abbreviations xxi

PROLOGUE: An Unlikely Genre: The Rise of the Symphony 1

CHAPTER ONE: Listening with Imagination: The Revolution in Aesthetics 5

From Kant to Hoffmann 6
Idealism and the Changing Perception of Perception 10
Idealism and the New Aesthetics of Listening 22

CHAPTER TWO: Listening as Thinking: From Rhetoric to Philosophy 29

Listening in a Rhetorical Framework 30
Listening in a Philosophical Framework 33
Art as Philosophy 37

CHAPTER THREE: Listening to Truth: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony 44
The Infinite Sublime 45

History as Knowing 50
The Synthesis of Conscious and Unconscious 53
Organic Coherence 55
Beyond the Sublime 57

CHAPTER FOUR: Listening to the Aesthetic State: Cosmopolitanism 63

The Communal Voice of the Symphony 63
The Imperatives of Individual and Social Synthesis 68
The State as Organism 71
Schiller's Idea of the Aesthetic State 73
Goethe's Pedagogical Province 75

CHAPTER FIVE: Listening to the German State: Nationalism 79

German Nationalism 79
The Symphony as a "German" Genre 88
The Performance Politics of the Music Festival 92
The Symphony as Democracy 99

EPILOGUE: Listening to Form: The Refuge of Absolute Music 104

Notes 117
Bibliography 153
Index 167

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