Hanslick from On The Beautiful in Music


After Hegel one of the most the controversial attacks on the expressive theory of music was launched by Eduard Hanslick (a critic of the music of Richard Wagner) in his Vom musikalisch-Schönen (1854; On the Beautiful in Music).


Eduard Hanslick: The Beautiful in Music (Preface & Chapter 2):




Opens his book as follows:

"The course hitherto pursued in musical aesthetics has nearly always been hampered by the false assumption that the object was not so much to inquire into what is beautiful in music as to describe the feelings which music awakens." (p.7)

Some further quotations from Chapter 1:

"Such systems of aesthetics are not only unphilosophical, but they assume an almost sentimental character when applied to the most ethereal of all arts; and though no doubt pleasing to a certain class of enthusiasts, they afford but little enlightenment to a thoughtful student who, in order to learn something about the real nature of music, will, above all, remain deaf to the fitful promptings of passion and not, as most manuals on music direct, turn to the emotions as a source of knowledge." (p.7)


·         Advocates a “Formalism” for genuine musical appreciation. 

·         Argues against the customary emphasis in music on emotions.


Hanslick, the most influential formalist theorist of music, insists that his theory of music derives from a purely objective approach.


The argument depends on the conceptual connections between autonomy and objectivity if value in work of music and the music’s form.


Hanslick rejects two ideas:


a. that the point of music, it’s “meaning,” is ultimately to be understood in terms of emotional effects


b. that the meaning of music is to be understood in terms of its alleged ability to represent emotional states,


"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." (p.9)


He attempts to develop an objective aesthetics of music that deals with music in its own terms, that is, as an autonomous phenomenon. (One need not point “outside” of the music to explain what gives it it’s beauty/ value.)


Emotional responses to music come and go. (e.g. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring) Our emotional estimate of a piece of music varies too much from context to context and person to person, to be a valid basis for detecting and analyzing what is beautiful in music:


Emotional reactions being so transitory and unstable cannot possess the attributes of inevitable-ness, exclusive‑ness and uniformity.


            "In the pure act of listening we enjoy the music alone and do not think of importing into it any extraneous matter. But the tendency to allow our feelings to be aroused implies something extraneous to the music" (p. 282).


(not in whatever emotions or associations we may connect to the music.)


Pure instrumental music, commonly called "Absolute Music" in music theory, is championed by Hanslick and other nineteenth‑ and twentieth‑century theorists as the highest form of music.


Thinks the imagination (an active organ of the mind) performs the function of constructing experience to enable us to mentally grasp external perceptual objects.


To hear sounds as music is not to feel emotions or to think of distant scenes but to hear the sounds with our imagination, which can represent the sounds as pure music.


It then “contemplate it with “intelligence.  (Note the “it” that we contemplate, presumably, is the mental construction we have of the music’s form- elements plus syntax.)


He distinguishes direct effect music has on out imagination (imaging capacity) from indirect effect on emotions.


The only valid analysis of the beauty of music must focus on the music itself, on what is in the music, not on the music's variable and indirect effects.


Hanslick's argument thus shows that a demand for complete autonomy for artworks (and I would argue coupled with a demand for objectivity, necessity and universality) implies a rejection of mimetic theories and expression theories of art in favor of the formal 'relation of elements within the artwork.


What remains after we put aside the emotional and representational content is the musical content, the musical properties of sounds.


“The primordial element of music is euphony, and rhythm is its soul. . . . The crude material which the composer has to fashion ... is the entire scale of musical notes and their inherent adaptability to an endless variety of melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Melody ... is preeminently the source of musical beauty." (p. 284)


            Note: not only is he identifying the elements of music so as better to discern musical formal properties, but also tacitly recommending a research project for each artistic medium to discover its own essential nature (Minimalism- media formalism)


An “Intellectual Principle” is implied according to Hanslick


And an intellectual principle is essential according to Hanslick, “for we would not apply the term ‘beautiful’ to anything wanting in intellectual beauty;”


“and in tracing the essential nature of beauty to a morphological source, we wish it to be understood that the intellectual element is most intimately connected with the sonorific forms,” (p. 286)


Hanslick grounds his account on the more traditional concepts of beauty as well as what pleases us.  Hints that form furnishes music with even more profound values.