What Music? – Whose Aesthetics?


Looking Back Over Edward Lippman’s
History of Western Musical Aesthetics (1992)

Matthew Pritchard
(University of Leeds)
MPSG Retrospective Review No. 2019:2
Published 10. July 2019

How should one write a history of “Western musical aesthetics”? How, for that matter, should one teach, anthologize, or otherwise curate a topic so vast as to encompass, at least potentially, all the ways in which aestheticians, critics, composers and everyone else with some stake in musical culture have thought about music’s essence and value? Such questions appear to repeat those raised over the last few years in relation to “Western music history”. Richard Taruskin”s five-volume Oxford History of Western Music has been seen both by its own author and its reviewers as probably the final such venture of its kind, and the traditional undergraduate music-historical “survey course” has either slipped off curricula or been subjected to revision and dispersal; old ambitions to “not leave gaps” in what a student “ought to know” now seem not just unachievable, but misguided.

Writing in the early 1990s at the end of a long career, Edward Lippman (1920-2010) manifested few such doubts in A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. As the principal such guide from the last half-century to be written in English (Enrico Fubini’s History of Music Aesthetics was translated from Italian by Michael Hatwell in 1990), the work remains indispensable to anyone researching or teaching the subject. Together with his three-volume anthology Musical Aesthetics: a Historical Reader (1986), Lippman’s narrative confidently surveys the procession of Western musical thinkers, illustrious and obscure, from the ancient Greeks to the late twentieth century. The confidence is such that no prefatory remarks – let alone a self-exculpatory methodological introduction such as Taruskin’s – are deemed necessary. Lippman just launches in – “If we examine the fundamental views of the nature of music that are found in Western thought from Greek antiquity to the seventeenth century, two major types seem to emerge…” (p. 3). Classification, then, is one aim of the book: the variety of opinions on “the nature of music” at various junctures in history can be brought under a relatively small number of headings. Indeed at the book’s close, Lippman suggests that three very broad categories may constitute a “systematic and exhaustive group of viewpoints from which the art of music can be regarded” (p. 509): “music can always be examined with respect to its peculiar constitution or structure, with respect to its human significance…or with respect to its relation to other areas of expression or its combination with other arts” (p. 510).


One might balk at the impulse to trans-historical systematization that statement conveys, but the scheme is loose and heuristic enough to deflect any more pointed critique. Translating it into chapter titles such as “Formalism and Autonomy”, “Operatic Aesthetics” or “Emotional Realism”, Lippman chooses authors to represent his categories. This seems to have been done on the basis of various criteria: some are famous names outside of music or even outside philosophy, such as Charles Darwin or Søren Kierkegaard; others – Moritz Carriere, Mathieu François Pidansat de Mairobert – are barely familiar even to the specialist, and Lippman’s discussion of them gives us virtually unique access to their views on music. Providing and maintaining access to older authors in foreign languages, through summary and translation, is one valuable service that the historian of music aesthetics can perform, and Lippman undoubtedly excels at it, whether dealing with French, German or Italian sources. Even his selections from the writings of canonical figures such as Wagner (pp. 243-70) are judicious, striking and beautifully translated; there are indeed few better short summaries out there if one wants both an overview of Wagner’s key arguments and a flavour of his prose at its best.

Summary has its place, then, and whatever quibbles one might make about its extent, it is more the critical judgements woven into Lippman’s discussion that are likely to start a twenty-first-century music scholar wondering – “what kind of history is this?” For Lippman rarely fights shy of delivering judgement when he suspects a writer of argumentative weakness or inconsistency – “Hanslick is seduced by the attractiveness of a negative argument and the easy opportunity it offers for a display of cleverness…[his] other proposed demonstrations are also fallacious, and the general formalist claim…that music has no emotional expression or content will not stand the test of closer examination” (p. 300) – or more positively, when his subject displays unusual insight or knowledge – “the remarkable depth of Adorno’s insight” (p. 480), “the strength of [Sofia] Lissa’s treatise as a whole derives from her detailed knowledge of musical history and musical style” (p. 496).

Without some such judgements, one might retort, the text would be very dry – and having mastered so much primary material, does a scholar not have the right to give us his opinion of it? Yet it is hard to evade the uneasy sensation that Lippman at times treats his source texts a little like a reviewer for a contemporary scholarly journal: summarize, give a few signal quotes, contextualize and compare, then assign praise or blame based on the work’s supposedly intrinsic merits or faults – and if one happens to feel strongly about those, there is no need to conceal one’s feelings. The peculiarity of getting hot under the collar about a 150-year-old polemic and still claiming to be practising some sort of historical approach should be evident. If it were even possible to deliver an objective assessment of the strength of Hanslick’s argument, such a verdict would pale into insignificance beside the one already given by his text’s historical reception. Whether you agree or disagree with them, the arguments of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen demand more than cursory treatment, since their impact changed the course of Western musical culture. (For the same reason, no-one would take a music historian seriously if they delivered similarly heated and idiosyncratic judgements on the music of Wagner or Schoenberg.)

The point is not that Lippman displays bias, or comes to his historical sources with the kind of preconceived idea of the one true view of music that vitiates (to take one example) Hugo Riemann’s history of music theory (Geschichte der Musiktheorie, 1898). Lippman’s own aesthetic position, outlined in A Humanistic Philosophy of Music (1977), is largely veiled here. It is rather his scant regard for the transformative influence of the thinkers he reviews which raises the biggest questions. Not being a systematic thinker, Hanslick is slighted, but other figures are given disproportionate space on the basis of their general reputation or broader intellectual system-building despite their far more tenuous relationship to music. Did the writings of Adam Smith, Darwin, Herbert Spencer, or Eduard von Hartmann, discussed by Lippman, actually have any strong basis in, or effect on, the musical life of the time? Lippman does not tell us.

One way to overcome this separation of musical aesthetics and practice was pointed out over a century ago by the critic and conductor Hermann Kretzschmar, when he proposed that scholars turn their attention from the philosophical “aesthetics of music” (Musikästhetik) to the “aesthetics of musicians” (Musikerästhetik). For Kretzschmar, “the aesthetics of musicians were more valuable and solid than the average music aesthetics produced by philosophers at the same period; at any rate, they would be worth investigating and working through”. Instead of following the familiar order of Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer, Kretzschmar suggested that such a survey of musicians’ aesthetics should “begin with Friedrich Reichardt and, via C. M. von Weber and E. T. A. Hoffmann, make its way up to the present”.[1] Kretzschmar’s proposal is an appealing one precisely because it lays stress on the historical connection between musical thought and culture. While retaining that element of his conception, one can ease the task he set the historian if one realizes that it is not, after all, necessary to pose such a stark choice between “high” philosophical and “low” musicians’ aesthetics. Musicians, and more especially music critics, have frequently read philosophers, and sometimes even understood them. But it is certainly more worthwhile to understand musicians’ interpretations of philosophers’ ideas, and how they were made and exerted an impact within musical culture, than it is to try and decide whether the tumultuous succession of grand philosophical systems over the last few centuries is taking us any closer to a true account of the essence of “MUSIC” (to use the capitals favoured by Susan McClary). For the answer to that (forlorn) hope is in my title: “what music?”

As Nicholas Cook has proposed concerning music analysis, it may well be that the most important thing about the philosophy of music is not how accurately it reflects our musical experience but how it changes it. And with changes in musical experience come changes in musical creativity – in performance style or compositional method. “Musics”, to use the plural coined by Paul Bekker in 1925, condense and express “aesthetics” (Aesthetiken). To conclude whether a particular aesthetic has merit on purely philosophical grounds is often fatally at odds with the attempt to trace its historical consequences for a particular tradition. (A prime example is Peter Kivy’s denial of the Florentine Camerata’s theory of musical expression, which brings in its wake the astonishing judgement that Monteverdi’s Orfeo “fails” and may not even qualify as a genuine musical work.)[2] Nor can the goal be realized by a kind of Zeitgeist theory, drawing loose parallels between philosophical and musical gestures – a temptation into which Fubini, despite his greater attentiveness than Lippman to concrete historical context, is drawn when he asks whether Kant or Hegel provides the best analogy to the structure of sonata form.[3]  The only truly historical way forward is to study how the ideas of philosophical aestheticians, whatever the degree of prestige or plausibility they have for us today, actually affected the critical discourse and imagery that prevailed within past cultures of music – and how both philosophers and musicians interact with the socio-political context of their time.

Judged by these lights, some recent contributions to the history of music aesthetics seem hardly more developed in their conception of historical method than Lippman’s survey. Indeed with books such as Mark Evan Bonds’ Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, the history of music aesthetics feels as if it is drifting ever further away from the history of music. As Bonds’ subtitle suggests, we are in the realm of a – remarkably old-fashioned – Ideengeschichte. And while one problem with this remains the issue of “what music” is at stake, another and equally important issue is “whose aesthetics” we are really discussing – by which I mean not merely whose name heads each section or paragraph of our conceptual précis, but what cultural experiences, social attitudes and political interests went into shaping those figures’ personalities and ideas.

Lippman’s rejection of such considerations is unwavering: “as far as the aesthetics of music is concerned, or its philosophy, social history is essentially irrelevant” (p. 470). But is it? It seems to me all too likely that the history of migration in the twentieth century, an aspect of social history if anything is, had deep effects – to take two examples – on T. W. Adorno’s critique of “radio listening” and the culture industry’s commodification of music, a critique formulated in American exile during World War II, and on Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy’s theories of cultural exchange and diaspora across the “Black Atlantic”. In both cases, social change undoubtedly affected the musics being theorized; but more than that, it swept up the theorists themselves, enabling and in some cases impelling their analysis. On a still broader level, one of the most exemplary and challenging moments in Lydia Goehr’s analysis of the musical work-concept is her demonstration of the concept’s complicity with, and naturalization through, some of the deepest-laid feelings of Western superiority over the rest of the world: “we have before us in fact a clear case of conceptual imperialism”.[4] Reading these pages, the banal adjective “Western” that qualifies Lippman’s and so many other similar titles suddenly seems more than a mere circumscription of scholarly competence, an accident of geography and language, and becomes a sunken marker of these ideas’ involvement in the largest “social history” of all – the 500-year global history of Western colonial exploitation.

Some readers will be groaning by this point, suspecting a hijack of aesthetics by postcolonial theory and Foucauldian cultural studies. In response to their anticipated objections, I want to end on a reconciliatory note. The answer to “whose aesthetics?” need not be the aesthetics of the ruling classes, of dead white European men, or of Western cultural dominance, as long as we do not expect all aesthetics to look like Hegel and Adorno. Even when it is the aesthetics of dead white European men, we can be a little more precise about what their experiences and ideals were. The last thing I am proposing is that we reduce the history of music aesthetics to social history; but without acknowledging that the two are interlinked, we run the risk of inviting just such a reductive riposte from other quarters – along the lines of Terry Eagleton’s proposal that the history of the aesthetic charts mostly the progress of “a kind of internalized repression…operating as a supremely effective mode of political hegemony”.[5] To trace the interactions of the aesthetic and the social, without seeing in aesthetic experience only internalized “hegemony”, would be a worthwhile task for a twenty-first-century historian of music aesthetics. In looking back over their predecessors, they might do well to imitate Edward Lippman’s depth of scholarship, his historical range, his avoidance of preconception and parti pris, and his lucid style; but they would be best advised to update his methodology.

[1] Hermann Kretzschmar, “Robert Schumann als Ästhetiker”, in Gesammelte Aufsätze über Musik und Anderes (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 1911), II, 294.

[2] Peter Kivy, Osmin’s Rage: Philosophical Reflections on Opera, Drama, and Text (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 93, 87.

[3] Fubini, History of Music Aesthetics, 258.

[4] Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 245.

[5] The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 28.

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