Music and Modern Literature Overviews - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

J. A. Fuller-Maitland

SOURCE: "Music and Letters," in Essays and Studies, Vol. XVII, 1932, pp. 44-55.

[In the following essay, Fuller-Maitland traces the relationship between the musical and literary arts in England from the Elizabethan age to the twentieth century.]

Once upon a time the world of letters included Music among its departments. The education of the average Englishman in the Elizabethan days would not have been thought complete if he had not been taught something concerning the art, or at least something in the way of what we now call appreciation. The often-quoted passage in Morley's Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), telling how a guest was put to confusion when the part-books were brought out and he was expected to join in madrigal-singing, may have been a little too highly coloured to be accepted as a literal statement of fact, since the treatise naturally gives an awful warning against ignorance of what it undertakes to teach. But Shakespeare's many references to music may surely be taken to imply a certain amount of musical knowledge in the audience, for if the technicalities which Bianca had to learn had been quite unintelligible to the bulk of the spectators, would they have endured their length and minuteness? At any rate, the sixteenth-century hearer who was conscious that he had 'no music in himself' would not like to find that he was unworthy of confidence, and would probably keep quiet about his disability. He would not take pride in 'not knowing one tune from another', as many an otherwise educated man has been known to boast in fairly recent times.

Throughout the seventeenth as through the sixteenth century, music was recognized, if not actively practised, by educated people in general. Down to the Restoration, as we are apt to forget, musical performances took place almost exclusively in private houses or in church. 1665 is the earliest date that has been found for a public concert in England (a subscription concert at Oxford), and this date is considerably earlier than any notice of public concerts on the continent. No doubt it often happened that musicians were paid for their services on special occasions; and it is likely that among the nobility there were some who emulated the 'King's Band of Musick' and employed musicians of their own, thus befriending the art in a way that resembled the beneficent patronage exerted at so many small courts abroad, the influence of which was powerful on the development of the art in the classical days. But the bulk of the music that was to be heard must have been of the domestic kind, and its executants what we should now call amateurs.

Somewhere about the end of the seventeenth century Milton's sphere-born sisters ceased to be harmonious; we can only guess at the severance between their divine sounds; but the wedding celebrated in the poet's immortal words had to wait for its final consummation until the breach had been healed, and Parry's music could glorify the union.

Even after this splendid epithalamium, the arts of Music and Poetry were often treated as if they were in opposition; as late as 1912, W. H. Hudson, in A Hind in Richmond Park, closed a beautiful comparison between the two, with these words: 'As they grew to womanhood they changed, and progressing from beauty to beauty, they grew less and less alike until, their sisterhood forgotten, they were become strangers to one another and drew further and further apart; and finally, each on her own throne, crowned a queen and goddess, and worshipped by innumerable devoted subjects, they dwell in widely-separated kingdoms.'

It is tempting to lay the blame for the separation between music and literature upon the fashionable adoration of foreign performers of whom such a torrent swept over the country not long after the Hanoverian Succession. This suggestion is perhaps less paradoxical than appears at first; we all know how common it is for games and sports to become professionalized and to lose their charm for those who were fond of them in a quiet way, and who, finding themselves so easily surpassed by the professors, lost their interest as actual participants and took to watching players who were paid for their exertions. What happened soon after the advent of Italian Opera followed exactly this course; music left the home for the theatre and concert-room, and from about this time musical references become rarer and rarer in the general literature of the day, being almost entirely confined to easy sneers at the operatic conventions and makeshifts. The rivalries between Cuzzoni and Faustina, the combat of Nicolini with the property lion, cannot have excited much interest among those who did not frequent the Opera; and the two papers in The Tatler (nos. 153,157) in which Addison likens various types of people to various musical instruments do not show much more than that the general characteristics of the mediums of sound were recognized. When Fielding's Amelia goes 'to the oratorio' (name not specified) she has to wait two hours before catching sight of 'Mr. Handel's back', a passage which incidentally helps us to realize some of the conditions under which such concerts were given, for it is evident that seats were not reserved, and also that Handel conducted in the way to which we are now accustomed, not seated at the harpsichord (unless, indeed, the party's seats were at the side of the auditorium). But musical allusions such as this are comparatively rare during the Augustan age of our literature. Appreciation of music was ever more and more closely confined to a small body of cognoscenti, and the art gradually lost its interest for those who were not specialists, whether professional or amateur. Goldsmith, whose references to music are always to the point and accurate, seems to be the latest of the distinguished writers of the eighteenth century to make any allusion to music as if it were part of ordinary education.

It is not impossible that even the superficial knowledge of the Italian language which was needed for the enjoyment of the Opera may have done something to widen the gulf between general literature and music. That gulf remained yawning till well on in the nineteenth century, to the great disadvantage of musical progress, while to some extent letters suffered too.

As the musical forms became more and more highly organized, and the 'classical' ideals more and more widely recognized, a fresh obstacle arose to keep literary and musical people apart; for the former there was yet another language to be learnt before the more elaborate patterns of construction could be assimilated, and those who had not time or opportunities for undertaking the trouble involved in the attempt to grasp the elements of musical form very naturally enrolled themselves among the really unmusical people, and were very properly angry when the few who had mastered what they themselves had shirked spoke a language to which they had no key.

It would probably be quite wrong to suppose that the period during which music was virtually banished from the world of letters was sterile in musical talent. The wind of artistic genius bloweth where it listeth, and it may well be that even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were born in England some who in the more favourable conditions of Germany would have made a name for themselves as musicians; and here reference may be made to such careers as those of Pearsall and Pierson, the former of whom preferred to expatriate himself for reasons not unconnected with ambitions other than artistic, while he did obtain a considerable degree of recognition in England by his part-songs, which became household words among English amateurs. The latter, a son of 'Pearson on the Creed', sought in Germany (where he changed the spelling of his name) a congenial atmosphere he could not find at home, and eventually became eminent as a German composer, whose music to Faust was regularly employed whenever Goethe's drama was revived. As things then were in England, the exercise of music as a serious branch of art was completely discredited as an occupation for male children, though the daughters of any well-to-do family were compelled to learn pianoforte pieces whatever their natural propensities might be, and any young woman who could boast a shapely arm was similarly enjoined to play the harp. These performances of course went in and out of fashion, just as the custom of playing the flute was at one time quite normal among young men, so much so that, when the Cambridge University Musical Society was first started, the difficulty was to find employment for the very numerous amateur flautists, and to discover any undergraduate students of stringed instruments. Though domestic performances are often referred to by Jane Austen, who often makes one of her characters go to 'the instrument', and be accompanied by some gentleman on the flute, she is careful not to give us any details, and it is evident that the music was rather a convenient way of disposing of characters that for the moment were not wanted, than an episode in the story. When we consider what was the standard probably attained on such occasions, it is impossible to be surprised that the number of professedly unmusical people should have been so markedly increased. In fact, the more delicate the musical sensibilities were, the greater the certainty that those who felt tortured by these displays would seek the company of others similarly afflicted, and would establish themselves as haters of music. Jane Austen wisely did not commit herself to any musical details and avoided the trap into which so many of the Victorian novelists fell, although we must not forget that Thackeray gives us a memorable picture of the performance of Mme. Schroeder-Devrient in Fidelio, while at the other end of the scale he created the celebrated 'finger' of Miss Wirt, a member as famous as Sir Willoughby Patterne's 'leg'. Those variations on 'Sich a gettin' upstairs' must surely have had an actual, audible existence before they reached immortality in one of the indisputably admirable passages in The Book of Snobs.

It is curious that George Eliot, who had a more definite musical training than the average lady of her time, should have committed herself to such a blunder as the passage in Mr. Gilfil's Love Story: 'Handel's "Messiah" stood open on the desk, at the chorus "All we like sheep", and Caterina threw herself at once into the impetuous intricacies of that magnificent fugue'; but she makes ample amends in Middlemarch and must evidently have made a complete study of the usual view of music held by two types of English gentlemen and one typical English lady. Mr. Brooke remarks,' "There is a lightness about the feminine mind—a touch and go—music, the fine arts, that kind of thing—they should study those up to a certain point, women should; but in a light way, you know. A woman should be able to sit down and play you or sing you a good old English tune. That is what I like; though I have heard most things—been at the opera in Vienna: Gluck, Mozart, everything of that sort. But I'm a conservative in music—it's not like ideas, you know. I stick to the good old tunes." "Mr. Casaubon is not fond of the piano, and I am very glad he is not," said Dorothea, whose slight regard for domestic music and feminine fine art must be forgiven her, considering the small tinkling and smearing in which they chiefly consisted at that dark period.

' "I never could look on it in the light of a recreation, to have my ears teased with measured noises," said Mr. Casaubon. "A tune much iterated has the ridiculous effect of making the words in my mind perform a sort of minuet to keep time … As to the grander forms of music, worthy to accompany solemn celebrations, and even to serve as an educating influence according to the ancient conception, I say nothing, for with these we are not immediately concerned."

' "No; but music of that sort I should enjoy," said Dorothea. "When we were coming home from Lausanne my uncle took us to hear the great organ at Freiberg, and it made me sob."

' "That kind of thing is not healthy, my dear," said Mr. Brooke.'

The attitude of the average Englishman of the early nineteenth century, so well indicated by George Eliot, is illustrated in Charles Lamb's well-known lines beginning

Some cry up Haydn, some Mozart,
Just as the whim bites; for my part,
I do not care a farthing candle
For either of them, or for Handel.

One wonders how such a poem, if it could have been perpetrated, mutatis mutandis, in the spacious Elizabethan days, or at any moment when music was at peace with letters, would have been received, or what punishment would have been thought appropriate for such ribaldry.

Another instance of the width of the separation between literature and music is to be found in the popularity and no doubt financial success of an absurd novel called Charles Auchester, in which the scarcely-disguised portraits of Mme. Sainton-Dolby, Mendelssohn, and Sterndale Bennett are framed in a mass of high-falutin' stuff that reveals an uncommonly superficial knowledge of the art to whose lovers it appeals.

Though the vogue of this book cannot be taken as a completely trustworthy sign of the average English reader's attitude towards music, it might be profitable to compare it with such a story as Facing the Music if an illustration were wanted of the change in public appreciation.

In the comfortable days of Queen Victoria, when the words 'glimpse' and 'sense' were still content with their position as nouns substantive, the graphic arts, unlike that of music, were not banished from literature or from general conversation, for among the small change of talk in the London season, one of the commonest conversational openings was 'Have you been to the Royal Academy?'; but it would have been a solecism to ask one's neighbour if she had been to such and such a concert without first ascertaining whether she was musical or not.

Yet another indication of the width of the chasm between music and letters may be found in the condition of the song-writing of the period. Down to the time of Purcell, the words chosen by composers for musical treatment were such as were likely to be accepted by educated people, and these were set with due appreciation of the natural inflection or accentuation intended by the poet. In the days of the estrangement I have spoken of, the purveyors of songs either chose words of exquisite ineptitude, or, when they ventured to embark upon snatches of real poetry (as was occasionally done by men like Stevens, Bishop, Balfe, and others) they ignored the obvious accent and even the meaning of the words, or tortured them to fit their silly little tunes. Of the art that is sometimes called 'declamation', or more properly 'accentuation', there is hardly a trace until we come to the work of a great man like Parry, to whose skill, in this regard, Milton's sonnet to Henry Lawes is entirely appropriate.

The case of Tennyson is very curious, for the ear that was so delicately attuned to the music of words was completely deaf to that of notes. He was aware of his deficiency, for he said to Hubert Parry: 'Browning is devoted to music, and knows a good deal about it; but there is no music in his verse. I know nothing about music, and don't care for it in the least; but my verse is full of music.' (The words are reported by Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, in his Victorian Vintage.) Yet he must have had an instinctive appreciation of what musicians call 'height' and 'depth'; for, when Stanford played through to him an album of settings of his songs by various writers, the poet made singularly apt comments on the way in which the melodies went up or down, and the songs he elected to praise on this account were exactly those which a musician would have picked out as coming from the pens of distinguished composers. The queer orchestra of 'flute, violin, bassoon', to which the dancers in Maud contrived to dance 'in tune', may be contrasted with Hardy's delicious descriptions of village music of the old type, and of the little groups of instruments that were used in country churches. The quarter of a century that separates Maud from the early books of Hardy did actually see the beginnings of the bridge that was to unite letters and music once more.

Browning, whose practical knowledge of music was considerable, is the most satisfactory of the Victorian poets who have dealt with music, and his words are sometimes so apt that the music he describes can be almost literally translated into notes; still, there is always that stumbling-block of 'the mode Palestrina' which neither Pope Gregory nor the authorities of the Solesmes chant could possibly identify. By a strange perversity, the most easily accessible edition of his complete works is a treasure-house of musical 'howlers', as indeed it is of blunders other than musical. For example, the editors' definition of fugue as 'a kind of melody', of 'girandole' as 'a dance', and of a toccata as 'an overture—a touch-piece' can never be forgotten now that the chasm has been bridged and most people know enough to be amused, not misled, by these wonderful statements. One of the best musical 'howlers' was perpetrated after the breach between music and letters was healed. A well-known clerical poet in the North of England, in a pamphlet telling of the formation of some local industry and the opposition the committee met with, wrote 'A tumult arose, wild as a Parsifal chorus'. Some female novelist, whose book has passed into a well-merited oblivion, said: 'She roguishly played on her violin some short piece of Palestrina.'

If there were faults on the literary side, the musicians were perhaps even more to blame. Through the earlier half of the Victorian era, most of the professional musicians were apt to look upon their art as a mere trade, and few indeed were those who had enough imagination to consider it from a higher point of view. Of course there were some brilliant exceptions, but the bulk of cathedral organists and professional musicians were content to go on in their narrow groove of work, and it must be remembered that to become an expert musician is a 'whole-time job', what with the necessary technical practice and the education of others in the same branch of knowledge and skill. It must be remembered, too, that music stands apart from the other arts, since it alone, in Lord Balfour's words, 'is without external reference'. Still, when all allowances have been made, the fact remains that, as a body, the practitioners of music had not much general culture, or indeed much reverence for the ideals they were supposed to profess.

The typical Victorian organist would go to his desk and turn out an anthem because his wife wanted a new bonnet; and the remark made by the wife of a well-known conductor during the first season of the Richter Concerts is hardly an exaggeration: 'Don't talk to me about Richter; me and—we've conducted the Philharmonic these twenty years and we don't want any foreigners coming to teach us how to conduct.' Whether or not such instances of a trade view of the art be actually true, it must be confessed that the Germans of that time did take a higher view of the art in which their nation had so long been eminent, and I am inclined to think that their artistic attitude, whether real or assumed, had something to do with the preference shown for so many years to everything that came out of Germany, so that a fifth-rate foreign performer was more highly paid and more warmly applauded than a first-rate English one.

The professional writers on music had little or no literary taste, and the jargon they used was calculated to disgust any educated reader who might chance upon the musical notices in the daily papers. This jargon was in some degree excusable when we remember how very few synonyms there are for the definite technical terms that must be used if any useful impression is to be conveyed. But the clichés we critics used were even farther removed from anything like a literary style; a favourite opening to an article upon any of the provincial festivals in the autumn was:'—was en fête to-day. The show of bunting, though not so abundant as on former occasions', &c., &c. In the end of the nineteenth century we should not have been shocked by such a sentence as 'The rendition of this item, and which was reminiscent of the palmy days of the lyric stage', &c.

How and when was the chasm bridged over? It is not easy to say very definitely, but it is probable that the first pier of the bridge was firmly planted when Sir George Grove, whose place in the world of letters was assured,—was he not editor of Macmillan's Magazine?—allowed his musical enthusiasms full play in his work at the Crystal Palace and the inception of his great Dictionary of Music. If he was not the actual beginner of the musical renaissance in England, he used his great influence in the encouragement of that movement, and it was mainly due to him that the musical education of the country reached a point at which literary people were compelled to recognize the tuneful art.

An important part in this bridge-building was played by certain official appointments, like Parratt's connexion with Oxford, Stanford's with Cambridge, and Harford Lloyd's with Eton. Each of these succeeded men whose ideals, such as they were, were bounded by the limits of the professional attitude already referred to. Each started a tradition of general cultivation, so that to-day it would be hard to find among cathedral organists any specimens of the old type, who would admit that they took no interest in general literature. Not only the standard of musical tuition in our great public schools, but the conditions in which it is given, have so marvellously improved that it is possible to believe in the recorded fact that the greatest masterpiece of music, Bach's Mass in B minor, was actually performed at Oundle School without extraneous help. Among those who 'assisted' at such a performance, whether as listeners or executants, there must have been many boys who would be classed as 'unmusical', but even these can no longer ignore music in the way their forefathers did, or echo their ancestors' favourite gibe: 'Musicians' heads are as empty as their fiddles.'

In many ways the institution of Musical Competition Festivals has done much to bring music into line with the other arts and with literature. For on the one hand the pattern of the festivals devised by Miss Mary Wakefield has given useful employment in their organization and direction to a very large number of intelligent people all over the country whose interest in music had been largely wasted in the old-fashioned amateur efforts, and whose friends, if not 'musical' themselves, are bound to recognize something of the importance of the art; and, on the other hand the improved culture of the young composers has led them to choose for their part-songs words of lasting beauty instead of the trumpery that was formerly thought good enough to be set to music.

The admirable catholicity of the Broadcasting programmes is another element in the healing of the old breach, as well as a sign of the reality of the healing process. To refer only to one side of its work; the weekly performance of the Bach cantatas, that series of masterpieces buried for so long, is not only an inestimable boon to musical hearers, but is an education in itself for the young people who have to learn them. It may be surmised that the mere neglect to switch off the current has often compelled literary and musical listeners respectively to hear parts at least of each other's delights.

It may be a mere coincidence that so many of the old dichotomies, such as that between Science and Religion, are in course of being brought into agreement, and it stands to reason that every effort of the kind is to the manifest advantage of both sides.

As I have already said, it is inconceivable that Charles Lamb's ribald rhymes could have been accepted in the earlier days when music was the property of all men; and it is just as impossible to imagine The Testament of Beauty as existing before the fulfilment of the revival of music and its restoration to the world of letters:—

And if the Greek Muses wer a graceful company
yet hav we two, that in maturity transcend
the promise of their baby-prattle in Time's cradle,
Musick and Mathematick: coud their wet-nurses
but see these foster-children upgrown in full stature,
Pythagoras would marvel and Athena rejoice.

James Anderson Winn

SOURCE: "The Condition of Music," in Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 287-346.

[In the following essay, Winn explores similarities and differences between poetry and music within the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements toward autonomy in both arts, with particular emphasis on the efforts of the Parnassian and Symbolist poets to make the language of poetry independent of everyday meaning by emulating the effects of music.]


Wagner's ideas, not to mention his success and his arrogance, were bound to produce opponents, whose works, whether in music or in words, were just as certain to be dismissed as reactionary by his convinced followers. So when Eduard Hanslick published his slender volume Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (The Beautiful in Music) in 1854, it was possible for Wagnerites to dismiss it as mere polemic, the product of Hanslick's known antipathy to Wagner and friendship for Brahms. But the importance of Hanslick's work transcends not only these personal relations but the immediate concerns of nineteenth-century music as well; as Morris Weitz argues, "it is to music what Hume's Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding is to speculative philosophy, a devastating critique of unsupportable views and an attempt to state clearly and precisely the territories and boundaries of the areas they discuss." More than that: The Beautiful in Music separates and dismisses the various imitative and emotive notions about the function of music which Romantic thought had impressionistically blurred together; it boldly insists on music's autonomy, its independence not only from words (a battle already won in the eighteenth century) but from verbally definable feelings as well. The aesthetic position it stakes out is not only fundamental to twentieth-century thought about music, but strikingly similar to the literary aesthetics of I. A. Richards and the American New Critics.

For musicians, the idea of autonomy would prove a means of liberating themselves from all kinds of imitative demands; as the coherence of classical Viennese instrumental music had given the quietus to the Renaissance claim that music's function was to serve or express words, Hanslick's doctrine would still the Romantic claim that its function was to express or imitate some specific emotion. Thus, in the course of his argument, Hanslick finds the recitative, the legacy of the Musical Humanists, a particularly convenient target:

In the recitative, music degenerates into a mere shadow and relinquishes its individual sphere of action altogether. Is not this proof that the representing of definite states of mind is contrary to the nature of music, and that in their ultimate bearings they are antagonistic to one another? Let anyone play a long recitative, leaving out the words, and inquire into its musical merit and subject.

Two birds with one stone: not only does music "degenerate" when it makes itself the slave of words, but "the beautiful tends to disappear in proportion as the expression of some specific feeling is aimed at."

Poets, too, were interested in autonomy, though the word necessarily had a different meaning for them. As Hanslick proclaimed the independence of music from the demands of words or specific emotions, Edgar Allan Poe, in an essay first published in 1850, "allude[d] to the heresy of The Didactic," the claim that "the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth." The old doctrine that poetry had a duty to instruct as well as to please, like the doctrine that music had a duty to imitate something, took a variety of forms in the nineteenth century; W. K. Wimsatt distinguishes three—"the Shelleyan and Carlylean rhapsodic retort to scientism," a vigorous assertion that poetry also dealt in truth; "the Arnoldian neo-classic idealism," a prophecy that poetry would assume the functions of religion and philosophy; and "the sociorealistic propagandism" that would eventually harden into Soviet demands for "socialist realism." Concerned to make a quite different claim for poetry, Poe argues that it has nothing to do with truth:

The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox, to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth, we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical.

A familiar ancient distinction, if one more or less absent from Western aesthetics since the Renaissance; it might be Plato or Augustine on music and rhetoric, with the striking difference that Poe chooses Song rather than Truth. His Greek and patristic forbears, arguing that eloquence and melody were incompatible with truth, had sought in vain to control the claims of beauty, even in their own writings, but Poe "define[s] … the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty." And like many who would follow him, including (in their several ways) Pater, Wilde, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Pound, and Auden, Poe links poetry to music in the same gesture with which he separates it from didacticism:

Contenting myself with the certainty that Music, in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected—is so vitally important an adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance, I will not now pause to maintain its absolute essentiality.

Twenty-three years later, in an essay on the painter Giorgione, Walter Pater would maintain that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."

There were powerful conceptual similarities between the musical and literary movements toward "autonomy." Central in both cases was the positing of some aspect of the mind between intellect and feeling, a three-part scheme where older accounts had only two. Thus Hanslick:

It is rather curious that musicians and the older writers on aesthetics take into account only the contrast of "feeling" and "intellect," quite oblivious of the fact that the main point at issue lies halfway between the horns of this supposed dilemma. A musical composition originates in the composer's imagination and is intended for the imagination of the listener.

And Pater:

Art… is always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of its responsibilities to its subject or material; the ideal examples of poetry and painting being those in which the constituent elements of the composition are so welded together, that the material or subject no longer strikes the intellect only; nor the form, the eye or the ear only; but form and matter, in their union or identity, present one single effect to the "imaginative reason," that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol.

Yet even in these obviously similar passages we see equally important differences: Hanslick is concerned to separate the imagination from feeling on the one side and intellect on the other, to establish an area of the mind from which music can be said to arise in the composer and to which it can be said to appeal in the listener, without either the claim that music is an intellectual language or the claim that it is a language of the feelings. Pater, by contrast, is concerned to fuse intelligence and sensuality, the mind and the ear, to produce his "imaginative reason." The movement toward musical autonomy was a movement toward abstraction, a declaration of independence from imitative demands; the movement toward poetic autonomy saw and admired in music not only its physical sensuality, but its abstraction as well. For Pater, music "most completely realises" his combining ideal, the "perfect identification of form and matter"; therefore "music,… and not poetry, as is so often supposed, is the true type or measure of perfected art." Hanslick, denying the capacity of musical form to express an external subject, makes a simpler claim: "the form (the musical structure) is the real substance (subject) of music—in fact is the music itself."

Hanslick's definition of autonomy can be more abstract than Pater's because the art he describes is finally more abstract; he can claim that structure simply is meaning, while Pater must necessarily talk about "welding" the two together. If, with Hanslick, we define the condition of music as the abstraction resulting from the essential neutrality and plasticity of its materials, we must recognize, as Pater's verb suggests, that poetry may aspire to that condition but cannot reach it. Words … resist attempts to empty them of their ordinary morphemic content. I may write a poem in which the word "swan" comes to function as a symbol for some larger abstraction, but even a reader who understands my method will find it hard to read that word without some notion, however fleeting, of a large, white bird with a curved neck. By contrast, I may change utterly the meaning of a note or even a chord in a composition; I may do so within a theoretical system or (more radically) by changing the entire system. The note G may be the tonic of one tonal piece, but in another piece in another key, it will take on another function; and since, in music, function is meaning, the fact that G has been the tonic of some other piece will be entirely irrelevant. As Hanslick compactly puts it,

The fundamental difference consists in this; while sound in speech is but a sign, that is, a means for the purpose of expressing something which is quite distinct from the medium, sound in music is the end, that is, the ultimate and absolute object in view.

W. H. Auden, in a poem entitled "The Composer," makes the same distinction from a poet's point of view:

All the others translate: the painter sketches
A visible world to love or reject;
Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches
The images out that hurt and connect.
From Life to Art by painstaking adaption,
Relying on us to cover the rift;
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift.

Just how absolute or pure music could be has been proved in our century by a development Hanslick only dimly foresaw: the waning of the tonal system. Hanslick does acknowledge the speed with which music "uses up" its forms:

Modulations, cadences, intervals, and harmonious progressions become so hackneyed within fifty, nay, thirty years, that a truly original composer cannot well employ them any longer, and is thus compelled to think of a new musical phraseology.

But he imagines, as anyone would have in 1854, that triads "will ever remain the indestructible foundation upon which all future development must rest." The first perception proved more accurate than the second: as a result of the harmonic innovations of Hanslick's arch-enemy Wagner, among others, triadic progressions, stable keys, and ordinary cadences began to seem "hackneyed." By the turn of the century it was possible to hear, in the music of composers all over Europe (Debussy and Scriabin, for example) such powerful motion away from tonality that triadic conclusions, when employed, seemed hollow gestures toward convention. And by 1910, Arnold Schönberg was announcing his abandonment of tonality in language which still echoes Pater's notion of a fusion of expression and form, and which sounds positively Romantic in its acknowledgement of an "inner compulsion":

With the George songs I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form which has been in my mind for years. Until now, I lacked the strength and confidence to make it a reality. But now that I am conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic; and though the goal toward which I am striving appears to me a certain one, I am, nonetheless, already feeling the resistance I shall have to overcome; I … suspect that even those who have so far believed in me will not want to acknowledge the necessary nature of this development … I am obeying an inner compulsion which is stronger than any upbringing.

The revolutionary changes wrought by Schönberg and others exposed as never before the limitations of the metaphorical description of music as a language. As Charles Rosen explains in his little book about Schönberg,

The so-called "breakdown of tonality" at the end of the nineteenth century revealed to what extent this exterior stability [of the tonal system] was an illusion; more precisely, it was a construction that depended substantially on the individual works of music much more than a linguistic system depends on individual acts of speech. Music is only metaphorically a language; a single work of music may transform and even create an entire musical system, while no act of speech may do more than marginally alter language.

If an individual work of music may alter and even create "language," then the conditions for understanding it must—at least partially—be made evident in the work itself.

Thus, to adopt for a moment the famous distinction of the linguist Saussure, the relation between a parole, an individual speech act, and the langue, or larger system, is quite different in poetry and in music. A word in a particular parole, even if that parole is a poem, will seem to most readers to refer inevitably to its dictionary meaning in the langue. But in music, each parole, each piece, must establish within itself the "conditions for understanding it." This was actually as true for Mozart as for Schönberg, but the familiarity of the tonal langue implied by Mozart's parole made it possible to adopt the comforting but false assumption that the tonal system was a stable language in which individual pieces might be written. One could thus believe that even if music did not express words or feelings, it followed dependable syntactic rules, and thus had some kind of extrinsic referent. Atonal music, by depriving us of the comfort of triads and cadences, scalar and chordal relations, all that Rosen aptly terms "prefabricated material," forces us to confront and acknowledge the uniqueness of each piece. It fully validates Hanslick's claim that musical structure is musical meaning.

Hanslick's prophetic assertions, especially as validated by the ever more apparent autonomy of individual musical works, would thus seem to indicate a final unbridgeable gap between poetry and music. But in the very crisis brought on by the abandonment of "prefabricated material," Schönberg drew on poetic form to solve the urgent problems of length and organization. And when he finally solved those problems in a more purely musical way by devising the "twelve-tone" or "serial" method of composition, he employed some procedures closely related to older kinds of poetic construction: the retrograde, for example, one of the basic operations performed upon a twelve-tone row, is the "crab" or backwards ordering… in the music of Machaut, which Schönberg heard in an early revival and praised for its constructive craft, a craft precisely paralleled in the anagrammatic devices of Machaut's poetry.

In poetry itself, Pater's words have not lost their validity: many of the nameable movements in French and English poetry of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries may be usefully described as attempts to attain various metaphorical versions of the condition of music, motions toward musical technique along various axes; the poets and theorists of these movements, though not all of them have understood music with real precision, have usually acknowledged their desire to make poetry more like it.

The Parnassian poet Théodore Banville, for example, believed that poets should recover intricate medieval forms—rondels, rondeaux, ballades, and villanelles—forms with such demanding technical requirements that content would become subservient to "the implacable richness of the rhyme." Since rhyme depends upon an accidental likeness between words, not a syntactic or morphological one, the French Parnassians and their English admirers were aspiring to the condition of music along the old axis of construction, the axis along which Schönberg would later proceed in borrowing formal hints from poetry. Writing a rondel necessarily entails choosing words for their rhymes and adjusting both syntax and content to accommodate words thus chosen; Swinburne's rondels provide some familiar examples of the possibilities and limitations of this kind of aspiration toward music, but it has been a method infrequently employed in the twentieth century, where the ideal of "sincerity" has made it difficult for poets to accept the constraints of intricate forms. But W. H. Auden, perhaps the preeminent virtuoso among modern English poets, not only mastered numerous older forms but invented equally difficult new ones, some of which show curious affinities with serial techniques; these poems demonstrate the continuing possibility for a technical influence between music and poetry, the usefulness of "contraption" even in a century whose characteristic poetic style is, as Auden admits, "Good Drab."

The much more important Symbolist movement placed even greater emphasis on sound; James Robinson argues that "Mallarmé went on from Banville to conclude that the value of poetry lay more in the sound of words than in their sense," but Mallarmé's position was much more revolutionary than Banville's: given a choice between suggestiveness and clarity, Mallarmé chose suggestiveness; he even attacked the Parnassians as "deficient in mystery," apparently because their poems sometimes named objects:

The Parnassians take something in its entirety and simply exhibit it; in so doing, they fall short of mystery; they fail to give our minds that exquisite joy which consists of believing that we are creating something. To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object. It is the perfect use of this mystery which constitutes symbol.

For the Symbolists, the poem becomes a closed system, whose elements derive their meaning as much as possible from their place in that single formal structure, as little as possible from their everyday functions as names of things. Small wonder that Paul Valéry described Symbolism as the "intention of several groups of poets (not always friendly to one another) to recover from music the heritage due to them." In its fascination with sound, its hostility to ordinary syntax, and most of all its attempt to make the poem a self-contained world, Symbolism was one of the most thorough and serious attempts in history to push poetry in the direction of music. The final, summarizing document of the movement is aptly entitled Four Quartets.

So argues Hugh Kenner, explaining how Eliot and Pound, both influenced by the Symbolist movement, developed in different directions:

One poet moved out of Symbolism, one deeper into it. Commencing from the post-Symbolist nineties, Pound worked his way clear of systematized suggestiveness until his chief point of contact with 19th-century French verse was Théophile Gautier of the direct statement ("Carmen is thin") and his most Symbolist procedure an isolating of single words, not necessarily English. Eliot… worked more and more deeply into the central Symbolist poetic.

But Pound's hygienic program for clearing away the Symbolist mists was the use of the "image" (later the "vortex"), which he defined as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." In that definition we may still hear the voices of Hanslick and Pater, the idea of an instantaneous fusion of intellect and emotion in a single image. Simultaneity is the axis along which this kind of poetry—whether we call it Imagism, Vorticism, or (more simply) the procedure of Pound—aspires to the condition of music. Pound's fascination with Chinese ideograms, beyond their alleged visual expression, lay in the fact that one ideogram might be made be out of several others like a chord out of several notes. Joyce's Finnegans Wake, forging new words (new chords) from disparate linguistic elements, strains toward this kind of harmony, and Pound's Cantos, assembling the melodies of many times and tongues, strain toward a more contrapuntal simultaneity. Again Kenner has caught it: "A polyphony, not of simultaneous elements which are impossible in poetry, but of something chiming from something we remember from earlier, earlier in this poem and out of earlier poems, such is Arnaut's way—and such Pound's."

As Kenner's aside acknowledges, actual polyphonic simultaneity is impossible in poetry, but the results of Pound's search for an equivalent are often impressive, as are the results of Mallarmé's attempt to make the poem a closed system, or the results of Auden's formal virtuosity. Hanslick's claim that music is not finally a language is correct, but these poets (like many of their predecessors) have seen in the musical possibilities for simultaneity, density, and design attractive models for poetry.

Similarly, the greatest of twentieth-century composers, while convinced of the autonomy of music, not by any means cut themselves off from the expressive possibilities we associate with poetry. At the simplest level, we ought to remember that the revolutionary works of Schönberg's "Expressionist" period—the George Lieder, Erwartung, and Pierrot Lunaire—all employ texts, and that the Sprechstimme introduced in Pierrot Lunaire, while it dramatizes the difference between speech and song, acknowledges the expressiveness of spoken poetry by incorporating its shifting and uncertain pitch into a carefully designed musical setting. Schönberg was neither naive nor sentimental about the relations between music and poetry; many of his pronouncements on the subject sound the orthodox Hanslickian doctrine of autonomy. But his greatest scorn was reserved for music he took to be empty of expression; he was no cold-blooded mathematician.

The other giant among twentieth-century composers, Igor Stravinsky, chose a path often followed by poets: the renewal of past techniques. Reaching back past Romanticism, he regained some of the compression, wit, and irony of eighteenth-century art. But even when writing in a strictly diatonic idiom, Stravinsky manages to indicate that that idiom is a mask, a persona; he is arguably the most rhetorical composer who ever lived. Because older music was more frequently heard in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth, thanks to recording and greatly expanded publication, neo-classic procedures which had been available to poets for centuries—allusion, parody, burlesque—were newly available to twentieth-century composers, a situation brilliantly exploited by Stravinsky. But like Pound and Eliot, similarly eclectic poets, Stravinsky remains recognizably himself no matter what mask he assumes. The ultimate example of the power of his compositional personality to transcend convention is the marvelous twelve-tone music he wrote after the death of Schönberg, music in which he masters a new idiom just as deftly as he had earlier mastered the idioms of Gesualdo, Haydn, and American jazz. And if, like Schönberg, Stravinsky made severe claims for musical autonomy, he too continued to set texts. His Shakespeare Songs, for example, are at once explorations of serial technique and witty examples of imitative word-painting.

Indeed, the great danger for poets and composers in our time may be the tendency to respond to our recognition of the gap between music and poetry by exaggerating it, by withdrawing into isolation. The weakest twentieth-century music, the dead academic serialism of the 1950s, results from a rigorous working out of constructive principles and an ascetic disregard for expression; in aleatoric music, where some elements are determined by chance, this asceticism has become a kind of despair. The weakest twentieth-century poetry, the self-indulgent amoebic "free verse" of the little magazines, so values its supposed expressive "authenticity" that it abhors even minimal craft and construction. If there is one central lesson in the history traced in [Unsuspected Eloquence], it is that great music and great poetry invariably involve both construction and expression. The healthy and accurate recognition by modern theorists of the fundamental gap between the two arts—the fact that music has by nature greater constructive resources, and poetry greater expressive resources—need not mean that analogies between musical and poetic procedures are pointless. The pursuit of such analogies, whether true or false, has been a factor in the making of great works in both arts, and may in turn enrich our understanding of them.


Richard Wagner's enterprise, as Hanslick recognized, was not a pursuit of analogies between distinct arts but a thoroughgoing attempt to merge the arts in a Gesamtkunstwerk. In a pointed personal version of the myth of Beethoven as "tone poet," Wagner argued that Beethoven finally turned to texts, specifically to Schiller's "Ode to Joy" in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, because he had come to recognize that only the word could give music the precise expressive meaning for which (according to Wagner) his earlier work had been searching. With reverent gestures in the direction of ancient Greek tragedy, Wagner declared that the music of the future must be combined with poetry and dramatic spectacle. His opinions … sometimes resembled those of the Renaissance musical humanists, though there is no evidence that Wagner knew their work; in any case, Wagner was a much more influential spokesman for these ideas than Bardi or Baïf: not only was he an able propagandist, but he was an important composer whose significant musical innovations suggested that his opinions should be taken seriously.

For Hanslick, however, Wagner's operas were a "violation of music by words," and the metaphor of rape seems intentional. In order to explain his opposition to Wagner without seeming merely personal, Hanslick constructs a careful and skeptical philosophy of music, a philosophy whose main points are negative: he denies the validity of a number of conventional ways of discussing music, insisting instead on an aesthetic perspective which acknowledges music's autonomy and discusses music in musical terms. Some of his main points reappear in the equally skeptical, negative, and liberating literary aesthetics of the so-called New Critics.

Romantic composers of program music, like the Musical Humanists of the Renaissance, couched much of their talk about music in the language of emotion; they spoke of the power of music to express a composer's emotions or to arouse a listener's emotions. Hanslick, while quite careful to acknowledge that "music operates on our emotional faculty with greater intensity and rapidity than the product of any other art", nonetheless insists that "definite feelings and emotions are unsusceptible of being embodied in music." He separates and rejects what the New Critics would call the "intentionalist" and "affectivist" arguments:

On the one hand it is said that the aim and object of music is to excite emotions, i.e., pleasurable emotions; on the other hand, the emotions are said to be the subject matter which musical works are intended to illustrate.

Both propositions are alike in this, that one is as false as the other.

Aesthetic investigations must above all consider the beautiful object, and not the perceiving subject.

Even though Hanslick claimed (perhaps disingenuously) that the principle of concentration on the object had already been established in the aesthetics of the other arts, it took many years for literary critics to achieve a similarly rigorous insistence on separating the aesthetic object from the responses of its perceiver or the intentions of its maker. And when Monroe Beardsley and W. K. Wimsatt gave those principles their most exacting formulation—in the essays on "The Intentional Fallacy" and "The Affective Fallacy"—they acknowledged their indebtedness to Hanslick by choosing as an epigraph for the latter essay a cutting reductio ad absurdum from Hanslick's attack on musical affectivism: "We might as well study the properties of wine by getting drunk." The essay on intentionalism contains no explicit quotations from Hanslick, but closely follows the opinions he expressed in passages like these:

The beautiful, strictly speaking, aims at nothing.

In music there is no "intention" that can make up for "invention."

The limits to which a musical composition can bear the impress of the author's own personal temperament are fixed by a preeminently objective and plastic process.

Neither Hanslick nor his New Critical heirs would want to deny that poets and composers have intentions, or that their works may affect us powerfully; they are united in recognizing that neither of these phenomena "possesses the attributes of inevitableness, exclusiveness, and uniformity that a phenomenon from which aesthetic principles are to be deduced ought to have."

Hanslick takes a similar position about pleasure; he acknowledges its occurrence but denies its relevance to aesthetic investigation:

If the contemplation of something beautiful arouses pleasurable feelings, this effect is distinct from the beautiful as such. I may, indeed, place a beautiful object before an observer with the avowed purpose of giving him pleasure, but this purpose in no way affects the beauty of the object. The beautiful is and remains beautiful though it arouse no emotion whatever, and though there be no one to look at it.

Here the most striking literary analogue comes in the Principles of Literary Criticism of I. A. Richards (1928):

It is no less absurd to suppose that a competent reader sits down to read for the sake of pleasure, than to suppose that a mathematician sets out to solve an equation with a view to the pleasure its solution will afford him. The pleasure in both cases may, of course, be very great. But the pleasure, however great it may be, is no more the aim of the activity in the course of which it arises, than, for example, the noise made by a motorcycle—useful though it is as an indication of the way the machine is running—is the reason in the normal case for its having been started.

For both Hanslick and Richards, pleasure is at least as unsatisfactory a basis for aesthetic principle as intention or affect; it is a by-product of musical or poetic objects they would advocate studying in a more purely analytical way.

But Hanslick's most important point was one which could have no literary analogue: the denial of past and present attempts to describe music as a language. In a passionate conclusion to a long discussion of this point, Hanslick points to the "mischievous practical consequences" of

… those theories which try to impose on music the laws of development and construction peculiar to speech, as in former days, Rameau and Rousseau, and in modern times the disciples of Richard Wagner, have endeavored to do. In this attempt the life of the music is destroyed, the innate beauty of form annihilated in pursuit of the phantom "meaning." One of the most important tasks of the aesthetics of music would, therefore, be that of demonstrating with inexorable logic the fundamental difference between music and language, and of never departing from the principle that, wherever the question is a specifically musical one, all parallelisms with language are wholly irrelevant.

This stringent denial of all metaphorical attempts to describe music as a language is central to Hanslick's stated purpose: the establishing of musical "autonomy." But advocates of poetic "autonomy," as we have seen, made much of metaphors comparing poetry to music; here we confront a semantic inconsistency at least as ironic and revealing as those conflicting definitions of "imitation" in the eighteenth century. For Hanslick and the twentieth-century musicians who came to accept his doctrine, musical autonomy meant an escape from the extraneous requirement that music "mean" something which might be verbalized; for Poe, Wilde, and Pater, poetic autonomy meant an escape from a criticism centered on subject matter, and one of the most common and powerful ways to express what that escape might mean for poetry was to talk of aspiring to the condition of music. Even Richards, whom we hardly think of as a pale aesthete, sounds very much like Poe in drawing a clear line between poetry and truth:

It is evident that the bulk of poetry consists of statements which only the very foolish would think of attempting to verify.… Even when they are, on examination, frankly false, this is no defect.

And in seeking to explain why T. S. Eliot's poems were misread by those seeking a logical or intellectual structure, he falls back on the analogy to music:

If it were desired to label in three words the most characteristic feature of Mr. Eliot's technique, this might be done by calling his poetry a "music of ideas." The ideas are of all kinds, abstract and concrete, general and particular, and, like the musician's phrases, they are arranged, not that they may tell us something, but that their effects in us may combine into a coherent whole of feeling and attitude and produce a peculiar liberation of the will.

Ironically, the analogy leads Richards into an affectivist account of music that Hanslick would surely have rejected: another example of the tendency for poets and critics marching under the banner of autonomy to encourage loose analogies to music, while musicians marching under a similarly labeled banner have discouraged descriptions of music as a language. This inconsistency is not merely amusing; it ultimately confirms a basic difference between the arts, as does the fact that Hanslick's position has become something like orthodoxy among twentieth-century composers, while the tough Hanslickian positions of Beardsley and Wimsatt have met a constant and ingenious opposition from poets and literary critics. To put it as simply as possible, most people cling more tightly to intentional and affective claims as ways of discussing poetry than as ways of discussing music, and they think of subject matter as a primary category for describing a poem. If you tell me that you have just read an interesting poem, I am likely to ask you what it was "about," and your answer may well include some remarks about what the poet was "trying to do" and how the poem moved you; if you tell me that you have just heard an interesting piece of music, I cannot so easily inquire about its subject matter, and your only satisfactory answer to such an inquiry would be to sing or whistle some remembered portion of the musical material. Nor would claims about the composer's intentions or the music's emotional impact on you tell me very much about the piece; its notes would remain "pure contraption." And even the coiner of that phrase, for all his respect for composers, recognized the limits on poetry's aspirations toward music, its ultimate duty to say something. In "The Cave of Making," he admits to the ghost of Louis MacNeice:

I should like to become, if possible, a minor atlantic Goethe,
with his passion for weather and stones but without his silliness
re the Cross: at times a bore, but,
while knowing Speech can at best, a shadow echoing
the silent light, bear witness
to the Truth it is not, he wished it were, as the Francophile
gaggle of pure songsters
are too vain to. We're not musicians: to stink of Poetry
is unbecoming, and never
to be dull shows a lack of taste.

Poetry, by this account, is not truth, but its aspirations toward truth-telling are as much a part of its problematic identity as its aspirations toward musical purity. Auden is making at the level of the whole art the same point Hanslick made earlier at the level of fundamental materials: that notes are plastic and neutral, while words mean things, even if we wish they did not.…


When modern poets have sought to emulate music along constructive lines embracing various kinds of formal complexity, they have often wished to escape critical fixations on the politics, morality, truth, or "sincerity" of their subject matter. We have already seen how that kind of analogy to music helped Poe attack "the heresy of The Didactic," and in France, where Poe's influence was to prove most powerful, Gautier had declared as early as 1835 that "form is everything." A group of poets called the Parnassians, formed in the 1860s, built an entire aesthetic theory on that principle. Reaching back to Villon and Ronsard, as Schönberg later reached back to Machaut, Théodore Banville devoted himself to virtuoso forms ultimately derived from the troubadour tradition. The title page of his Améthystes (1862) describes the contents as "composed according to the rhythms of Ronsard," and since those rhythms were musical in origin, we may think of Banville as cheerfully writing new words to an old tune, insisting on the primacy of form in order to deflect critical attention from the contents of such lines as these:

Vois, sur les violettes
Brillent, perles des soirs,
De fraîches gouttelettes!
Entends dans les bois noirs,
Frémissants de son vol,
Chanter le rossignol.

Reste ainsi, demi-nue,
A la fenêtre; viens,
Mon amante ingénue;
Dis si tu te souviens
Des mots que tu m'as dits
Naguère, au paradis!

[Look, on the violets / Sparkle, pearls of the evening, / Fresh dewdrops! / Hear from the dark woods / Trembling in his flight, / The nightingale singing. / Stay that way, half-naked, / At the window; come, / My innocent

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