• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Up from Beethoven

Nineteenth-Century Music

by Carl Dahlhaus, translated by J. Bradford Robinson
University of California Press, 417 pp., $35.00

When compared to current work in art history or literary studies, American musical scholarship must seem very old-fashioned indeed. Much of it is devoted to finding, editing, and analyzing a large number of major and minor musical compositions that have been lying dormant in archives, libraries, and private collections. Several generations of music historians have devoted themselves to discovering and reclaiming this European and American musical past, and the results of their efforts are apparent throughout today’s musical life: in concert and recorded repertories, in performance styles, in the way we think about the music we hear. At the same time, it has become increasingly evident that such traditional kinds of research tend to isolate the study of music from the broader historical, aesthetic, and cultural issues that dominate humanistic scholarship today. Many musicologists are increasingly uneasy about this isolation.

The writings of Carl Dahlhaus suggest a variety of different approaches to music, while addressing the basic theoretical issues of the discipline from a perspective strongly rooted in the German aesthetic and philosophical tradition. Professor of music at the Technische Universität in Berlin from 1968 until his death this past March at the age of sixty, Dahlhaus was a man of broad interests and talents. Before assuming his university post, he undertook important research into the history of tonality and into the music of Josquin and Bach. He served as Dramaturg at the Göttingen Deutschen Theater for almost a decade, taught at the famous summer seminars on contemporary music at Darmstadt (as well as briefly in the US), and worked as music critic for the Stuttgarter Zeitung. He wrote on music aesthetics, music theory, analysis, Medieval music, Renaissance music, music in the classical period, nineteenth-century music (particularly Beethoven and Wagner—he was editor in chief of the new Wagner edition), and twentieth-century music (particularly Schoenberg).1

Dahlhaus is one of the few European musical scholars whose major works have almost all been translated into English,2 and there is every reason to expect that the most significant books of his final years will soon join the list.3 On the occasion of the publication in English translation of what may well be his most important book, his history of nineteenth-century music, it is appropriate to reflect on the relationship between Dahlhaus’s and American musical studies, and to suggest some of the strengths and limitations of his work.


I had the good fortune to attend Dahlhaus’s 1968 Princeton seminars on music theory between 1500 and 1700. One phrase in my notes stands out:

Problem: reconstruct questions and issues to which text is an answer.

Or to put it differently: in considering the text before you, whether it is a musical composition or a written work, ask what issues and questions the author would have been addressing when he wrote it. This methodological concern, whether applied to theoretical treatises or works of art, resurfaced in whatever field Dahlhaus addressed. A characteristic statement of it appears in Nineteenth-Century Music, at the end of his rather skeptical treatment of the chamber music produced by the Parisian Société Nationale de Musique (with its motto, ars gallica) during the last decades of the century. He contrasts the techniques Brahms adopted during this same period with those of his French contemporaries, such as Saint Saëns. Defining the “issue” to which the “piece” is an answer as “an effort to preserve sonata form from disintegrating under the relentlessly increasing complexity of harmony,” he cites Brahms’s success in “shifting” the emphasis from the key scheme to thematic manipulation, an approach “which led ultimately, in Schoenberg’s third and fourth string quartets (1927 and 1936), to the extreme case of an atonal sonata form.” (This compositional lineage had already been stated by Schoenberg in his essay “Brahms the Progressive.”4 ) The French composers, on the other hand, notably Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Franck, were in pursuit of a mirage, “a fata morgana, imagining a form as tightly knit as a Haydn quartet and, paradoxically, as luxuriant as a score by Wagner.” He concludes that “the life of compositional history is to be found less in its actual results than in its problems and utopias.”

Dahlhaus’s characteristic concerns and methods are apparent here. Many had been sketched out in his Foundations of Music History, a book written as a theoretical response to “practical difficulties that I encountered in trying to devise a history of nineteenth-century music.” In Nineteenth-Century Music the problems are expounded neatly in the introductory chapter:

A sharp cleavage between the history and the philosophy of art—that is, an art history which collapses works of music into documents or mere illustrations of a style, idea, or milieu, and an art philosophy that extracts artifacts from history in order to place them in an imaginary museum—gains the methodological advantage of clearly separating these disciplines, but only at the price of sweeping crucial problems of music historiography into the gap between history and aesthetics rather than solving them. A history of art which is not at the same time a history of art—that is, one that bypasses aesthetic interpretation in favor of documentary interpretation, or vice versa—falls wide of the goals of any music history with a claim to be more than a collage pieced together from composers’ biographies, concert guides, and cultural-historical panoramas.

For Dahlhaus most music history since the middle of the nineteenth century has failed to meet this challenge. Rather, it has been content with historical reconstructions that are largely “collages,” turning “music historiography into a pantheon of famous names by interpreting music as biography.” Though he explicitly rejects the notion of an “art without names,” he insists that “every name mentioned in this history is meant to stand, not for a biography, but for work that manifests the person as author.” His is a history of “the generic traditions that sustained the history of musical works by allowing them both to break from and to adhere to those traditions,” a history concerned with “continuity and evolution, the setting and breaking of norms.” The goals of his kind of “structural history” are not dissimilar from those he describes as the “universal history” practiced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: a “broad historical outline, whose ‘truth’ resided in the plausibility of an evolutionary pattern for which facts merely provided illustrations.”

To this central vision of a history of musical works and their generic traditions, he adds perspectives that give the book remarkable historical and social depth. Although rejecting more extreme formulations of “reception history” (in which the versions in which a musical work was actually heard assume greater importance than the work in an “authentic” form as reconstructed by textual criticism), he shrewdly assesses the ways in which the history of the reception of music has determined our view of music history. The myths of the period are crucial to the history we recount, just as our own myths are crucial to the way we reconstruct that history.

In the case of Beethoven, for example, the Romantic myth of the composer “as a Promethean revolutionary, as a sorcerer, or as a martyred saint,” bears little relation, Dahlhaus argues, to the biographical figure of Beethoven or indeed to the “aesthetic ‘subject’ that we sense in Beethoven’s music.” The myth, in fact, is sustained by

a narrow selection from his complete output: Fidelio and the music to Egmont; the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies; and the Pathétique and Appassionata sonatas. It is not a fact in support of the Beethoven myth that these works are “representative,” but rather one of the claims that make up the myth. To the same extent that the myth was abstracted from the music, the reception of the music was tempered by the myth.

Indeed, the existence of this myth had serious negative consequences:

We seldom think of how much we lost as the Beethoven tradition took root. His characteristic first-period works, which drew on the divertimento tradition, especially that of chamber music with wind instruments, vanished virtually without a trace from the late-nineteenth-century repertoire and sank into oblivion.

Nor did the composers of the following generation take their “stylistic bearings” from the works of Beethoven that were incorporated into the Romantic myth, but rather from a group of works written around 1810, in which

the rigor and consistency of Beethoven’s thematic and motivic manipulation relaxed, as it were, to make room for a lyricism that infringed against the spirit of sonata form by permeating whole movements rather than remaining confined to their second themes. Cantabile, a mere enclave in classical sonata form, became an underlying structural principle.

All of this is brilliantly observed, linking trenchant musical insight with a keen awareness of historical process.

A sampling of Dahlhaus’s subjects along with the chapter headings under which he deals with them suggests the remarkable range of his book. He discusses nineteenth-century philosophical tendencies and their interaction with the history of music (“The Metaphysic of Instrumental Music,” “Music Criticism as Philosophy of History,” “Historicism”); entire repertories and genres usually absent from histories of art music (“The Idea of Folk Song,” “Choral Music as a Form of Education,” “Trivial Music”); and social transformations that had direct impact on musical life (“The Music Culture of the Bourgeoisie,” “Church Music and Bourgeois Spirit,” “Romanticism and Biedermeier Music”).

These are among the book’s most provocative sections. His discussion of “Trivial Music,” for example, defines with great sophistication a phenomenon peculiar to nineteenth-century musical culture, and significantly different from popular musical styles of the eighteenth century (which, while designed to entertain, lacked emotional pretensions). Trivial music

is deliberately bland, but with the pretense of being emotional. It wishes to be direct and intelligible to all, and for this reason remains within the narrowest confines of convention at the same time that it tries to appear as a spontaneous outpouring of feeling. It is banality masquerading as poetry, if only in the form of its title, for the simple reason that the nineteenth century discovered the effect of the poetical in a world that was becoming more and more prosaic.

To his credit, Dahlhaus never stops at such generalizations, but supports them with musical examples, in this case an extended analysis of melodic and harmonic devices in one of the more famous salon pieces of the century, Lefébure-Wély’s Les cloches du monastère. 5 The piece employs a striking pianistic idea (“an imitation of monastery bells”), but

its harmony, rhythm, and melody nevertheless remain so simple that it poses not the slightest obstacle to a mode of listening that glides across the musical structure and loses itself in an imaginary vision of monastic quietude, or in melancholy self-indulgence in the listener’s own need for repose.

The result is a music that can be defined as “Pseudopoetic music,…the characteristic nonart of the romantic age, partaking of its aesthetic criteria but failing to satisfy them”—a quintessential Dahlhaus judgment.

  1. 1

    The complete list of his publications, in the festschrift presented to him on his sixtieth birthday, Das musikalisch Kunstwerk: Geschichte—Aesthetik—Theorie (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1988), occupies almost forty pages.

  2. 2

    They include (in the order of their original German publication): Esthetics of Music (1967; Cambridge University Press, 1982); Analysis and Value Judgment (1970; Pendragon Press, 1983); Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas (1971; Cambridge University Press, 1979); Between Romanticism and Modernism: Four Studies in the Music of the Later Nineteenth Century (1974; University of California Press, 1980); Foundations of Music History (1977; Cambridge University Press, 1983); The Idea of Absolute Music (1978; The University of Chicago Press, 1989); Schoenberg and the New Music (1978; Cambridge University Press, 1987); Nineteenth-Century Music (1980; University of California Press, 1989); Realism in Nineteenth-Century Music (1982; Cambridge University Press, 1985); and The New Grove Wagner (with John Deathridge, Norton, 1984).

  3. 3

    In particular, Die Musiktheorie im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert, Erster Teil: Grundzüge einer Systematik (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesselschaft, 1984); with Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, Was ist Musik? (Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen’s Verlag, 1985); Ludwig van Beethoven und seine Zeit (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1987); and Klassische und romantische Musikästhetik (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1988).

  4. 4

    The essay, written in 1947, is published in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein (University of California Press, 1984), pp. 398–441.

  5. 5

    A more familiar piece to American audiences, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s The Dying Poet, could be analyzed in much the same way.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print