Old Debates, Older Problems: Elaborating the Connection between Absolute Music and the New Musicology

Music and Philosophy Study Group, Royal Musical Association, 12 July 2019

This paper performs an archaeology of the critical musicology moment, suggesting that its tacit project of undermining musical autonomy remains unfinished because the historicity of absolute music has not yet ended. In his review of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music, Leo Treitler gave a prophetic warning: “Kerman’s book can in the long run reinforce the unwholesome tendencies that worry him.” While Kerman’s original foil was “positivist musicology,” battle lines were drawn when American theorists perceived the book as an attack on their newly minted Society. Only three years after Treitler’s review, Lawrence Kramer and Scott Burnham pitted “criticism” and “analysis” against each other: the former had reductively mischaracterized the aims of analysis, while the latter still clung to a positivist will to truth. Instead of accepting what Gilles Deleuze calls a false problem, the criticism-versus-analysis discourse blossomed into a referendum on the relation of music’s formal elements to factors perceived as external to music. The ineffable menace that was calling to Susan McClary from behind Bluebeard’s final door was really a mounting anxiety over music’s ostensible autonomy.

The critical musicology moment was an important fin-de-millénaire turn against the enduring influence of the absolute music concept. Despite their variety of approaches, critical musicologists aimed to reproach the notion that formal analysis is the proper (read: only) means of musical explanation. The resulting dialectic between form and context is only possible through the notion of the extra-musical, which Carl Dahlhaus identifies as a crucial signifier of the absolute. Peter Kivy, in his polemic against the New Musicology, demonstrates that his Hanslickian view of music—as mere forms—is exactly what is at stake, taunting, “the philosophical problem of absolute music still remains with us.”

Musical discourse since the critical turn remains divided. It has either adopted the lessons as given or treated them with indifference—as evidenced by the growth of neo-structuralist methods: corpus studies, geometrical transformation theory, cognitive (“empirical”) musicology, etc. Like Seth Brodsky’s understanding of modernism, the absolute music concept is a Freudian drive, which lives on wherever interpretation attempts to get inside music by quarantining certain meanings as external, extra-musical.