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Hegel on Music Richard Eldridge 1 At first glance, Hegel says some striking but apparently inconsistent things about music. He appears, first, to defend musical formalism: the view, urged by theorists from Eduard Hanslick to Peter Kivy, that pure instrumental music is an acoustic arrangement that signifies nothing. In music as an art, Hegel notes, “sound, just as sound, is treated as an end in itself ; . . . its own form, artistic note-formation, can become its essential end” (A 2:899).1 He goes on to indicate in particular that successful art music need not be based on any verbal text. Music has the maximum possibility of freeing itself from any actual text as well as from the expression of any specific subject-matter, with a view to finding satisfaction solely in a self-enclosed series of the conjunctions , changes, oppositions, and modulations falling within the purely musical sphere of sounds. (A 2:901–2) Yet, second, Hegel also remarks that music that is simply selfenclosed development “remains empty and meaningless” (A 2:902). In order to defeat this threat of meaninglessness, music must acquire “spiritual content and expression” (A 2:902). If it fails to acquire this content, then it fails to be “a genuine art” (A 2:902). These remarks suggest that Hegel is committed to the view that successful art music must somehow be about something—a position held by Aristotle and defended in contemporary music theory by Kendall Walton, Jerrold Levinson, Edward T. Cone, and Fred Everett Maus. About the now so-called Classical Style music of his own time, Hegel remarks first that by retreating from definite content it has “lost its power over the whole inner life” and become something “for connoisseurs only” (A 2:899). Yet he also notes that “nowadays . . . miracles [in conception and in virtuosity] have occurred in music” (A 2:936), and he claims that 119 “music carries [the] liberation [of the soul] to the most extreme heights” (A 2:896). These prima facie contradictions (formalism vs. antiformalism; contemporary music as decadently empty vs. contemporary music as miraculously ensouled) are further set by Hegel within a historical framework that present-day thought about the arts finds peculiar and opaque. Music, according to Hegel, is “the second romantic art” (A 2:889) between painting and poetry, where historical epochs are distinguished from one another by the significative salience of a particular medium of art: architecture for the symbolic phase of art; sculpture for the classical phase of art; and successively painting, music, and poetry for art’s romantic—that is, modern or post-Roman—phase. What sense can we make of this? Surely works in various media existed at many historical times. The Greeks, Romans , and medieval Europeans all had music, as did other civilizations. And why should poetry be thought to be more significant than music now? In fact, however, Hegel’s views about music are neither contradictory nor historically foolish. Instead his remarks on music provide a way to embrace the genuine insights present in the opposed camps (formalism vs. antiformalism; Classical Style as a matter of empty connoisseurship vs. Classical Style as normatively authoritative) without the exaggerations and confusions that often accompany the simple taking of sides in these debates. The key to seeing how his remarks afford balanced insights lies in unpacking his thought that a successful composer of art music must give attention to both structure and “content (true a rather vague one)” (A 2:954). The essentially vague content in question turns out to involve standing, felt aspirations for a meaningful, unified life plus a sense of present circumstances as simultaneously inhibiting those aspirations. This content of felt aspirations and a complex sense of circumstances can inherently be embodied, according to Hegel, in certain kinds of structures of developing sound, with certain open-ended degrees of latitude. In order, however, to make clear both the nature of the human content of music and how that content inherently permits embodiment in purely musical structures, it will be helpful first to survey briefly more standard, more scrutable, and yet ultimately one-sided philosophical views about music and meaning. 2 In his On the Musically Beautiful (1854), the Czech music critic Eduard Hanslick distinguishes sharply between purely musical ideas and their 120 R I C H A R D E L D R I D G E development in musical form, on the one hand, and conceptions that are expressible in language, on the other. A musical idea brought...


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