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  • The Evolution of the Art of Music
  • Bennett Zon (bio)
C. Hubert H. Parry , The Evolution of the Art of Music (1893/96)

Darwinian evolutionism is, arguably, the most important scientific concept to emerge from the nineteenth century, for unlike other significant scientific discoveries of the time, its influence was (and continues to be) felt in almost every sphere of intellectual activity in the sciences and the arts. Music was no exception, and in Victorian Britain, its influence was widespread amongst musicologists, supplanting earlier, Romantic, conceptions of music. For these musicologists, however, evolutionism was not as monolithically Darwinian as one might expect, but hugely variegated, encompassing a rich and often conflicting diversity of contemporary opinions and conceptualizations.

Where Darwinism offered a seemingly irrefutable mechanism for interpreting historical change (the idea of modification by descent), it came at the expense of previously unassailable developmental certainties, wreaking havoc with the irrefragable teleological convictions underlying contemporary historiography. As Stephen Jay Gould says, Darwin postulated "a causal theory stripped of such conventional comforts as a guarantee of progress, a principle of natural harmony, or any notion of an inherent goal or purpose" (xii). For some musicologists—especially music historians—this lack of purpose signalled an opportunity to retrench into unreconstructed developmentalism; for others, it was an opportunity to forge new musicological identities in the nascent fields of music psychology and ethnomusicology.

Among music historians, the influence of Comte is, arguably, most pervasive. John Frederick Rowbotham, author of A History of Music (1885), writes that "the 3 Stages in the development of Prehistoric Music, [are] the Drum Stage, the Pipe Stage, and the Lyre Stage, which, it seems to me, are to the Musician [End Page 68] what the Theological, Metaphysical, and Positive Stages are to the Comtist, or the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages to the archaeologist" (1: xx). Earlier, but not less sympathetically, Carl Engel also expresses a rich Comtean influence in his important music-ethnographical treatise An Introduction to the Study of National Music (1866):

Uncivilized nations consider scarcely anything worthy of note except extraordinary events, which surprise by their novelty or by their immediate and startling effects ["theological"].... The conviction that the gradual development of the mental and moral faculties of the people especially deserves consideration, because it affects most deeply the destiny and happiness of man, gains ground only after much experience, and with the increase of knowledge ["metaphysical"].... The interest evinced, since the beginning of the present century, by several European nations in the popular songs, folk-lore, and other monuments of the mental condition of man in different parts of the world, is therefore a sign of progress not less delightful than the most important discoveries which have been made through the agency of practical science ["scientific"].


By the end of the nineteenth century, this Comtean paradigm was fully embedded into the writing of music history but filtered through the developmental philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Spencer not only was the first person to postulate a philosophically credible theory of musical origins but also supplied Victorian culture with one of its most popular evolutionary epithets, "survival of the fittest."1 Coming initially from his Principles of Biology (1864) and quickly entering common parlance, the doctrine of "survival of the fittest" became a metaphorical catch-all for evolutionary thinking in Victorian Britain, even being adopted by Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), On the Origin of Species (5th ed., 1869), The Descent of Man (1871), and a number of subsequent publications.

Underlying this concept are two theories derived from contemporary German morphology: first, from Ernst von Baer's Ueber der Verhältniss der Formen, die das Individuum in den verschiedenen Stufen seiner Entwicklung annimmt (1828), the idea that "less general characters are developed from the most general, and so forth, until finally the most specialized appear" (qtd. in Panchen 20); and second, from Ernst Haeckel's Generelle Morphologie des Organismen (1866), the recapitulationary idea that "Ontogenesis [the evolution of the individual foetus] is a brief and rapid recapitulation of phylogenesis [the evolution of the species], determined by the physiological functions of heredity (generation) and adaptation (maintenance)" (qtd. in Haeckel 81). Spencer amalgamated...


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