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The Music of Carl Dahlhaus: An Exchange

In response to:

Up from Beethoven from the October 26, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

As the late Carl Dahlhaus is no longer able to respond to Philip Gossett’s critique of his Nineteenth-Century Music [NYR, October 26, 1989], perhaps the book’s translator may be permitted to answer on his behalf.

Professor Gossett paints a bleak picture of what he terms Dahlhaus’s “method.” This, in Gossett’s opinion, consists of establishing a single, largely Austro-German line of music history from Beethoven to the pre-dodecaphonic Schönberg, against which works and composers of other nations or musical persuasions are measured, found wanting, and cast upon the ash-heap of history as “inauthentic.” Moreover, Gossett continues, this “central premise” of Dahlhaus’s history is not new, having been adapted from Schönberg as reformulated in the late 1940s by Theodor Adorno in his anti-Stravinsky diatribes. Thus, Gossett concludes, Dahlhaus’s brand of history is both ideologically lopsided and fundamentally out of date, and therefore of little use as a model for today’s music historian.

Many readers of Dahlhaus’s book may be as surprised as its translator to find the author’s thoughts so fundamentally misunderstood. Having been given a 1200-word limit by the editors, however, I can only outline some of my larger reservations toward this review. Professor Gossett has, I would suggest, misread the book in two important ways. First of all, he overlooks an important distinction between analysis and value judgment. This distinction, however, is crucial—indeed so much so that Dahlhaus even devoted a book to the subject (Analyse und Werturteil, 1970). To say that the first theme of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is not capable by itself of supporting a symphonic movement of Beethovian proportions is not to say that we should turn up our noses at the work or that Beethoven is superior to Tchaikovsky, but merely to point out one difficulty faced by a lyrically-minded composer confronting a fundamentally dramatic and monumental genre toward the end of the century. Dahlhaus’s own preferences, in fact, were for just such problematical works as Tchaikovsky’s Fourth.

Second, Professor Gossett has singled out only one strand in this book—compositional history, i.e., the history of compositional technique, which even Rossini and Verdi admitted to be primarily a German domain—and dubbed it Dahlhaus’s “method” and “central premise.” This, however, does not do justice to Dahlhaus’s actual approach to history, which consisted precisely in blending the methods of social, intellectual, cultural, institutional, stylistic and—yes—compositional history to suit the topic under discussion. Once again, Dahlhaus even devoted a book to the subject (Grundlagen der Musikgeschichte, 1977) in order to justify what he called his “methodological pluralism.” To single out any one of these strands as “central” is greatly to oversimplify Dahlhaus’s technique as an historian.

In the Grundlagen Dahlhaus also declares his allegiance, not to Adorno or the universal historians of the Enlightenment, as Gossett suggests, but to Fernand Braudel and the Annales school of structural historians. Structural histories, of course, have their disadvantages, and it is probably here that Professor Gossett’s criticism of the book actually lies. Just as one can put aside Braudel’s Les structures du quotidien and say “That’s all very well, but what about the Plantagenets,” it is possible to feel that Dahlhaus’s study slights some of the century’s leading musicians. Debussy, for example, appears solely as the composer of Pelléas et Mélisande, while interesting but unclassifiable composers such as Henri Duparc or Ferruccio Busoni disappear altogether and the reader never learns that Schubert wrote supremely beautiful chamber music. But to raise these objections is to argue against a structural history of musical genres altogether. Dahlhaus’s book asks to be assessed for what it tries to do—to explain a musical culture of extreme divergences and contradictions—rather than for what it is not—a summary of the life and works of the century’s most famous musicians or a recreation of their world-views.

A book of this scope is bound to have its share of errors. That I added at least one as a translator is embarrassing and regrettable, although I assure readers that I corrected a good many in the original German edition, thereby earning the grateful thanks of the author. But Dahlhaus’s considerable howler regarding Liszt’s Sonnetto 47 del Petrarca should not be allowed to cast suspicion on his musical analyses altogether or on his powers as an historian. The question to be asked is merely whether his historical edifice still stands when this example is corrected or replaced by another.

Dahlhaus also deserves to be disembarrassed of the anti-Stravinskian tag. Though there is no doubt that his interests as an historian centered on Schönberg rather than Stravinsky, the reason for this did not lie in obeisance to Adorno or in contempt for Stravinsky. For Dahlhaus’s actual views on Stravinsky the reader should turn to Vom Musikdrama zu Literaturoper (1983, 2/1989). Here he will find a forty-page account of Stravinsky’s operatic and quasi-operatic works which outlines a complete typology of twentieth-century music theater (the book barely mentions Schönberg). Posing the question why Stravinsky’s influence on twentieth-century opera has been so decisive, Dahlhaus does not hedge in his answer: “the compelling impact of Stravinsky’s music.”

Professor Gossett is right to ask what lessons American music historians might learn from Dahlhaus’s example, but his answer—“to reinstate the composer in the history of music”—conjures up an antiquated view, modeled on political history, in which composers are historical agents and works of music are their historical deeds. It may well be possible to make this historical model more sophisticated by taking into account the recent achievements of reception history and the history of aesthetics, but basically this approach would cast music historiography back to a level at which history is simply the lengthened shadow of a man. If Dahlhaus’s book has a message for today’s music historian, it might be found in his methodological pluralism, the extraordinary range of his interests (not even nineteenth-century barroom singing is so insignificant as to be unworthy of discussion) and his view that even a structural history of music should never lose sight of the great masterpieces. That he was unable to complete his projected History of Western Music beyond some preliminary sketches is an irreparable loss to scholarship, but we can be certain that it would have done more than sing the praises of the German masters.

J. Bradford Robinson
Munich, West Germany

Philip Gossett replies:

Although I greatly admire his work as a translator, Mr. Robinson distorts not only my views, but also the historical method of Carl Dahlhaus. While Dahlhaus certainly practices “methodological pluralism” in the course of his Nineteenth-Century Music, he does not embrace the techniques of “structural history” manifest in Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life: a history whose primary subject is composed music could hardly proceed along those lines. Compositions written by the musical equivalent of the Plantagenets dominate the discourse, and nowhere did I criticize Dahlhaus for a lack of inclusiveness: those objections are strictly Mr. Robinson’s, not mine. Keenly aware of his goal to write a history of music that was also a history of music, Dahlhaus redefines structural history in his own terms as “the evolution of musical genres”: “It was here that aesthetic and compositional principles intermingled with conditions from intellectual and social history, so that a history of musical genres outlines a structural history relating the various facets of music-historical processes.” That pretty well sums up Dahlhaus’s own view of where the center of his book lies, and that is where my review placed it.

According to Robinson, my alternative would lead us back to the antiquated view of history as a string of biographical sketches. From the perspective of 1990, however, the “antiquated view” might be one that treats musical compositions as abstract designs free-floating in an agentless ether. (One good distortion deserves another.) Instead, musicologists ought to learn from the methodologies of their colleagues in literary and art history, seeking not to dissociate the agent from the work but recognizing that agents functions within complex historical, cultural, and generic conditions.

Much of my review celebrated the genius of Professor Dahlhaus and the force of his contribution to the current reshaping of American musicology, in particular his emphasis on issues of method and historiography. My specific criticisms, however, were twofold, and Mr. Robinson apparently misunderstands them both. First, despite Dahlhaus’s enormous frame of reference and methodological scope, his organic view of music history, drawing its primary intellectual sustenance from Schoenberg and Adorno, shapes the entire enterprise. The issue is not whether Professor Dahlhaus writes about Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Gilbert and Sullivan, or barroom singing, but what he says about them. As Max Weber, whom Dahlhaus loves to quote, would have remarked, Tchaikovsky’s symphonic movements are problematic only when seen from a particular perspective, in this case that of an “ideal type” defined by Beethoven. It is unfortunate that a historian keenly aware of methodological pitfalls could have created in Nineteenth-Century Music a narrative persona so infused with a particular cultural perspective. I also cited a later essay in which Dahlhaus recognizes the fragility of the kind of “history” he had projected in much of his earlier work. This self-criticism (as Professor Leo Treitler of the City University of New York pointed out to me) is a measure of the complexity of the man and his thought. I should have made that point explicit in my review.

Second, I discussed two instances where Dahlhaus’s evidence fails to support his formulations: in one case, he misunderstands the structural terms of a Donizetti scene; in the other he analyzes the the ways in which a composition by Liszt supposedly illustrates a Petrarch sonnet, but invokes the wrong poem. Were these isolated examples, as Mr. Robinson imagines, it would have been churlish to cite them. Instead, the errors reveal a systemic failure. Dahlhaus’s central vision is so pervasive that it tends to misrepresent or demean the music it treats. What he heard was so dominated by what he thought that he could imagine a Norwegian dance by Grieg and a Spanish/Moorish dance from Bizet’s Djamileh to be indistinguishable in their “exoticism”: no concert-goer would share his confusion.

Professor Dahlhaus’s remarkable contributions to musicology and the brilliance of his Nineteenth-Century Music are not at issue. I acknowledged and celebrated both, and continue to do so. No other book about the period so engages the thoughtful reader. Only by simultaneously understanding the more problematic aspects of his approach, however, can we hope to absorb its most important lessons and move beyond it.

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