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Reviewed by:
  • Alain Frogley
Bonds, Mark Evan. Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. Pp. xxi+ 169. ISBN: 978-0-691-12659-3

Partway through his fascinating book, Mark Evan Bonds briefly alludes to a skirmish in the protracted Kulturkampf between France and Germany. In 1835 the German music critic Gottfried Wilhelm Fink reacted angrily to a claim, put forward in a French journal and then translated into German by the influential Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, that the Parisian composer François-Joseph Gossec, not Franz Josef Haydn, was the true creator of the modern symphony. This momentous accolade in the history of music, Fink, asserted, belonged "exclusively to the German, and this honor cannot be taken from us." Several years later Robert Schumann drove home the nationalistic point and raised the stakes, with the focus now on Beethoven's symphonies: "With Beethoven, a German has spiritually re-won the battles that Napoleon took from him. He even dares to compare him to Shakespeare." And shortly afterwards Richard Wagner joined battle in similarly geo-political terms, asserting that in the musical territory of the Eroica Symphony, Beethoven saw that "he could accomplish the same thing that Bonaparte had achieved in the fields of Italy" (see Bonds 90; all translations his).

Scholars of French music and culture will regret that this is one of only a few short discussions by Bonds of the significance of his topic for French studies. Nevertheless, the quotations above underline the power of nineteenth-century German music, especially Beethoven and Wagner, to present a continually looming challenge to French [End Page 333] musicians and their attempts to define French music, and to crystallize broader issues concerning French and German cultural identities. For obvious reasons, this challenge became especially pressing in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, and then in the years surrounding the two world wars; less inevitably, it was complicated by the thrall in which Wagner held many French musicians - and of course poets, painters, and many others - and by the fact that for significant numbers of French composers the genres of "absolute" instrumental music, perfected by German and Austrian composers from Bach to Beethoven, offered the primary inspiration for purging French music of Second Empire frivolity and debased theatricality in the years after 1870.

Indirectly, then, Bonds' book will be potentially important reading for anyone interested in exploring further the Franco-German dynamic in nineteenth-century music. To those outside the field of musicology, it may seem surprising that a book on listening to the nineteenth-century symphony could represent a significantly original contribution to the literature; after all, reader-response theory and other reception rather than work-centered approaches now have a long history in literary criticism. But musicology has only in the last fifteen years or so begun to catch up with its sister humanities disciplines in many areas, such as gender studies, deconstruction, post colonialism, and reception history and theory, and much work remains to be done. Bonds' primary goal is set out in his Introduction:

People began to listen to music differently in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, and this change in listening opened up new perceptions toward music itself, particularly instrumental music [. . .] The goal of this book is to trace the process by which purely instrumental music - music without a text and without any suggestion of an external program - came to be perceived as a vehicle of ideas in the decades around 1800, of just how and why the act of listening came to be equated with the act of thinking.


Despite the presence of Beethoven in his title, Bonds argues that the process that he traces was, at least in its initial stages, driven more by developments in philosophy than innovations in musical composition. He pursues these developments across five chapters that trace a gradually shifting and broadening focus, from philosophy of mind and late-eighteenth-century æsthetics at the outset - where a pejorative tradition of viewing music as a merely emotional experience was transformed by new theories of subject-object relationships, which merged epistemology and æsthetics - to Hegelian notions of the...


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pp. 333-335
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