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.

At a moment when American musicologists are particularly concerned to broaden their historiographical and cultural concerns, the writings of Carl Dahlhaus offer a striking example of deeply informed and wide-ranging criticism. And yet Nineteenth-Century Music is not without its serious problems.


Dahlhaus proclaims the years 1814 and 1914 as boundaries for his history, insisting on the significance inherent in any such choice:

The criteria we choose to demarcate the beginning and end of an age automatically influence the way we describe the events themselves, provided we are talking about a historical presentation at all, with claims to reveal connections rather than simply list dates and facts.

As a historiographical principle, this can hardly be faulted, although its high moral tone would seem somewhat less than appropriate for a book that, in the German series of which it was originally a part, fits chronologically into commercially convenient hundred-year periods determined by century markers (“Die Musik des 17. Jahrhunderts,” “Die Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts,” etc.). Dahlhaus himself suggests that such divisions are somewhat arbitrary.

The premise underlying our choice of period is that, though not obligatory, it is at least expedient to extract from the continuum of history a “nineteenth century” extending from the Congress of Vienna to the outbreak of the First World War.

Yet at the same time he finds “suspect” the different periods chosen for discussion by earlier historians, among them Georg Knepler, Guido Adler, Thrasybulous Georgiades, and Friedrich Blume. In a recent review of Leon Plantinga’s Romantic Music,6 for example, Dahlhaus objects to both the chronological limits chosen by Plantinga (between 1792 and 1900). For the concluding date, Dahlhaus notes:

Plantinga’s account of the period ends not with Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Stravinsky’s Sacre, but with Mahler’s Third Symphony and the symphonic poems of Strauss; thus Mahler’s total output is cut in two, as if the year 1900 represented not just a calendrical division but also a historiographical one.

The criticism is awkward. It apparently depends, first, on a belief in the unity of Mahler’s style, but such a belief is controversial, as is apparent in Dahlhaus’s lengthy attack in his own history against those who claim there is a separation between the “Wunderhorn” symphonies and the so-called purely instrumental works.7 Whether such a separation exists or not is a matter for analysis and discussion, and there is no inherently “correct” answer: different chronological divisions bring out different truths. Furthermore, the concluding date of Dahlhaus’s history is not 1914 after all but is actually defined in the text as 1907, “the watershed year of Schoenberg’s transition to atonality and Richard Strauss’s about-face from modernism.” Dahlhaus, of course, is fully aware that The Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913 and that his choice,

if taken literally, implies the by no means obvious proposition that the genuine protagonist of twentieth-century modern music was Schoenberg and not Stravinsky.

And, again:

The limits of the “nineteenth century” as a period in music history depend, among other things, on what phenomena we see as constituting the “genuine” modern music of our century.

Such a statement was written in the philosophical shadow of Theodor Adorno,8 for whom some music (Schoenberg’s) is “authentic,” while other music (the neoclassical Stravinsky’s) is not, and hence can be assigned, in one of Dahlhaus’s favorite phrases, to “the ash heap of history.” Indeed, at the beginning of Nineteenth-Century Music, Dahlhaus proclaims that in the twentieth century “the tradition undermined by Schoenberg’s emancipation of dissonance became irrevocably hollow and devoid of aesthetic meaning.” Viewed from the perspective of 1930, he acknowledges, this vision would seem skewed, since at that moment, the height of neoclassicism, Stravinsky would have seemed the “genuine protagonist” of the century; but viewed from 1950, the vision changed, and Schoenberg and “the twelve-tone row came universally into the ascendant.” (One might point out that a “universality” with no place for Bartok, Britten, Shostakovich, and Poulenc is hardly universal, to say the least.) This 1950 vision remains the view of Carl Dahlhaus.


For Dahlhaus the history of music is tied to metaphors of “continuity and evolution, the setting and breaking of norms.” There is scarcely a page in his history that does not bear witness to this evolutionary metaphor. Despite the attention he gives to subsidiary issues (often with brilliant insights), his model of musical history moves in one direction only; it sometimes seems a steamroller that flattens everything in its way. Either music goes in the right direction—and hence is “authentic” and “historical”—or it does not—hence is “inauthentic” or “ahistorical.”

The pervasiveness of this rhetoric can be suggested by a few examples:

1) Virtuosic improvisation is “endangered” and “undermined” by “the march of compositional history.”

Suppose, on the other hand, we were to construct a model that tries to draw connections between improvisation by virtuosos in the nineteenth century, by jazz players beginning in the 1920s, and by the aleatoric techniques of the 1970s.

2) Satie’s “emancipation of dissonance…remained an ‘ahistorical’ fact of little or no impact on the progress of history, where problems gave rise to solutions that in turn engender further problems.”

But why would it not be valid to explore the influence of Satie’s music on composers such as Milhaud and Poulenc, or to draw connections between Satie’s “crazy quilt of repetitions, sequences, transpositions, and diminutions jumbled together in stubborn and provocative defiance of any semblance of development” and the work of recent minimalists such as Steve Reich, for example?

3) Puccini and other veristic composers “sacrificed stylistic modernity to theatrical effectiveness and thereby lost all claim to historical ‘authenticity,”‘ while “local color,” an important aspect of verismo opera, was simply a prop for “opera composers who felt unequal to the aesthetic problems imposed upon their genre by modernism.”

Are we really prepared to consign to the “ash heap” not only the operas of Puccini, but all operas that did not join in a “modernism” defined by Schoenberg and his school, including Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Britten’s Death in Venice, and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha?

4) As for late nineteenth-century symphonists working in France and Russia, “the ‘actual’ main theme [of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony] is hardly suitable, at least by Beet-hovenian standards, for establishing a symphonic movement spanning hundreds of measures,” while “the slow movement theme [of Franck’s Symphony in D minor] is out of place as a concluding group (or third theme) in the exposition of the finale (m. 124) in that the sequence of brass chorale (secondary theme) followed by lyric cantabile (concluding group) inverts the expectations we have inherited from the sonata-form tradition.”

Here and elsewhere Dahlhaus treats models from the German tradition as if they were universally accepted in the late nineteenth century; but they were not. “Beethovenian standards” are a poor measure by which to judge serious composers from other schools. Indeed, it is striking that practically all the “ahistorical” and “inauthentic” musical events in Dahlhaus’s history appear to have taken place in countries other than Germany and Austria.

Perhaps we need to understand Richard Strauss’s rejection of modernism as being more than a rejection of a certain musical style: it was also the rejection of the view of music history set forth in Nineteenth-Century Music.


Much of Carl Dahlhaus’s thinking is based upon Max Weber’s notion of the “ideal type.”9 For Weber, “ideal types” such as the “charismatic authority” are analytical constructions, conceptual patterns against which to understand and measure the “socio-economic events” selected for explanation by the social scientist (or, for Dahlhaus, the “facts of music history”): they are “primarily analytical instruments for the intellectual mastery of empirical data,” as Weber put it. Specific compositions are often a musicologist’s data, his “facts.” While often invoking Max Weber, Dahlhaus stands his methodology on its head, treating many of his own historical constructions as if they were objectively true, while providing an unsatisfactory analysis of the “facts.” This calls into question not only the force of the example but often the “analytical instrument” itself. After all, as Weber insisted, objectivity is possible in the social sciences, and it consists precisely in measuring the relationship between an “ideal type” and the “facts” for which it hopes to account.

Examples from the music of Donizetti and Liszt can suggest the nature of these difficulties. In order to declare a “duality of style” in the period between 1814 and 1830, with Rossini and Beethoven embodying dialectically opposite ways of composing, Dahlhaus analyzes relatively simple pieces by Rossini and ignores the composer’s more complex work. 10 He seeks to demonstrate, on the other hand, that Donizetti, in contrast to Rossini,

succeeded in elevating the “solo number” into a “large-scale form” in which monumentality of design and sophistication of internal workings interact and mutually support each other.

His analysis of the so-called mad scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, in which he claims to find such an elevated solo, does not recognize that the piece belongs to a long tradition of so-called gran scene, extending back into the eighteenth century. Furthermore, Rossini’s presentation of well-known arias in other operas (such as Assur’s “mad scene” in Semiramide) closely parallels Donizetti’s.

Dahlhaus then describes Edgardo’s concluding aria in Lucia as a composition with a primo tempo followed by two cabalettas, as “a chorus with solo interpolations” (Fur le nozze) and “a solo supported by chorus” (Tu che a Dio). Hence, he proclaims the existence of a compositional problem: “By doubling the cabaletta, Donizetti dangerously extended his aria, which, in view of its exposed position at the end of the opera, threatens to fall apart.” To solve this problem, Donizetti imposed an elaborate system of tonal and melodic relationships on the form, “devices of ‘musical logic’ which we would more likely expect to find in a symphony than in an opera seria.” But the supposed compositional problem is illusory: Edgardo’s aria barely departs from basic formal conventions. What Dahlhaus takes as a “doubling of the cabaletta” is a standard tempo di mezzo (in which the chorus informs Edgardo of Lucia’s death) followed by a solo cabaletta with chorus (in which Edgardo reflects on the tragedy). 11 Furthermore, the devices of “musical logic” Dahlhaus refers to were frequently used by Italian composers in the 1820s and 1830s, and are by no means exclusive to the symphonic tradition. In short, analysis of examples from Donizetti fails to provide objective support for the historical model he proposes.

To take a second example of the imperfect relationship between an “ideal type” and the “facts” for which it hopes to account, Dahlhaus’s chapter on “poetic music” deals with the aesthetic concept of the “poetic,” characterized in early-nineteenth-century aesthetics “by its opposition to the prosaic—to the trivial and mechanical.” Dahlhaus chooses examples from the piano music of Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt, and attempts to distinguish the aesthetic presuppositions of each composer’s “poetic music.” He characterizes the “poetic” nature of Liszt’s collection, Années de pèlerinage12 as “the substance that attaches to a work of music when the composer succeeds, as it were, in picking up the thread of a major work of literature.” To demonstrate this point he analyzes a piece from the second volume of the Années, the Sonnetto 47 del Petrarca, which, according to Dahlhaus,

is based on formal elements unmistakably inspired by the [Petrarch] poem whose essence [Liszt] attempted to capture in music: the chromatic harmonies of measure 1 by the image of the phoenix, the “sigh” motive of measure 6 by the love pangs that sustain the sonnet, the cantilena of measure 14—half elegiac, half rapturous—by Petrarch’s unique tone, poised between ecstasy and lament. As in the poem, the aesthetic crux of the music is the way image and emotion give rise to a structure conveying both of these elements at once. And the most cursory analysis shows that this was precisely Liszt’s intention.

Even the shifting tonalities are

organized less according to harmonic logic than in an effort to project a multicolored radiance, as foreshadowed in embryo by the opening measures, the musical image of a phoenix.

All this might seem logical on the surface, were it not for one problem: Dahlhaus has chosen the wrong Petrarch sonnet. Sonnet 47 (poem 61 in the Rime sparse) has as its first quatrain:

Benedetto sia ‘l giorno e ‘l mese et l’anno
e la stagione e ‘l tempo et l’ora e ‘l punto
e ‘l bel paese e ‘l loco ov’ io fui giun-
to da’ duo begli occhi che legato m’ànno;

Blessed be the day and the month and the year
and the season and the time and the hour and the instant
and the beautiful countryside and the place where I was struck
by the two lovely eyes that have bound me.13

No phoenix, no lament (though there is a sigh in one of the later verses). Nor can there be any question which sonnet Liszt had in mind: the piano piece was originally composed as a song setting of “Benedetto sia ‘l giorno e ‘l mese et l’anno.” Examination of the Rime sparse suggests that Dahlhaus must be referring to Sonnet 280, which begins:

E’questo ‘l nido in che la mia fenice
mise l’aurate et le purpuree penne,
che sotto le sue ali il mio cor tenne
et parole et sospiri anco n’elice?

Is this the nest where my phoenix put on her gold and purple feathers,
where she kept my heart beneath her wings
and still wrings from it words and sighs?14

Perhaps Dahlhaus was using a faulty or incomplete German edition of Petrarch. But the confusion is even more serious than a mere slip: it calls into question every analysis of its type. If it is possible to be entirely mistaken about the interaction of a poem and a composition in this way, how can we trust even those analyses where poem and music match each other?


Though Nineteenth-Century Music is written from a perspective that was already seriously dated in 1980, when the book was published in German, it is nevertheless the most significant history we have of this crucial period in the history of music. Dahlhaus’s German prose is singularly difficult; without attempting to disguise this complexity, J. Bradford Robinson’s translation usually renders the original into reasonably lucid English.15 Unfortunately Verdi’s Rigoletto has acquired a fourth act in translation, whereas the original German properly refers to the opera’s third act; some words or phrases are rendered unidiomatically (one does not stress “the beats of the time signature”—“der Schlagfolge der Zählzeiten” means “each beat in the measure”). On the other hand, Robinson often captures succinctly some of Dahlhaus’s turns of phrase: Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable is “a Gothic novel transferred to the stage”; those who still have problems with the “salon music” aspect of Chopin’s art are continuing “to take sides with Leipzig [Schumann] against Paris [Chopin] a full century and a half after the fact.”

The book is generally well produced, though without the luxurious format and ample margins of the German original. More serious, the quality of the illustrations is significantly poorer in the translation (despite the magnificent Loreley by Eduard Jakob von Steinle that adorns the cover). This is unfortunate in a volume whose illustrations have been carefully chosen and supplied with ample captions relating the pictures to arguments discussed in the text.

Dahlhaus’s stimulating and indeed brilliant insights found throughout Nineteenth-Century Music are certainly worth the attention of listeners, musicians, and scholars, but the book ultimately fails either to provide a vision of the century as experienced by its leading musicians (elaborating such a vision, for Dahlhaus, cannot be the goal of a historiographical method since it forms part of the material of history) or to offer a coherent account of the music of the era for anyone who does not share the book’s central and pervasive ideology. Dahlhaus’s history is dominated by a model reflecting the view of Schoenberg and his students, in which the significant elements in the history of nineteenth-century music were those that led to the harmonic techniques and the use of motifs fundamental to dodecaphonic composition. An “ash heap of history” is only an “ash heap” from the point of view of a particular ideology; the more pronounced the ideological message, the less rapport those who do not share that ideology can feel with its artistic judgments.

Toward the end of his life, Dahlhaus published a poignant essay, “A Rejection of Material Thinking?,” which attempts to interpret the music of the past twenty-five years according to his theoretical system.16 He recognizes that the notion of “objectively compelling tendencies” is no longer accepted by composers, and that “a ‘Diktat’ of the material—understood as the outcome of a long history of composition and reception which is contained in the notes and noises or their interrelationship—is felt to be unbearable.” As for “History,” it has

come to be seen as a myth. As an authority presiding over the activities of the individual it has lost the hold on people’s minds which was established for it in the nineteenth century by Hegel and Marx. Of course no one denies that there are historical connections, “histories” in the plural; but we think we now know that “history” (in the singular) does not exist.

If “history” in the singular does not exist, however, the central premise of Nineteenth-Century Music is undermined.

Nonetheless, Dahlhaus’s “History” poses an intellectual challenge to musicology: to create history that, in the absence of “objectively compelling tendencies,” preserves the dignity, diversity, and artistic integrity of nineteenth-century music and culture. Such an account would reinstate the composer in the history of music, without falling into the biographical traps which Dahlhaus’s method is constructed to avoid. It would be aware both of aesthetic theory and the history of reception without being ruled by either one. This challenge needs to be addressed as we enter the last decade of our own century, before the nineteenth century begins to represent an even more “distant” past.

This Issue

October 26, 1989