Tag Archives: E. T. A. Hoffman

Literature as Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aspects of music can be spatially represented through notation and recording, which freeze moments in time. But, as an experiential medium, which relies on performance and audition, music reveals itself in the present tense. This temporal quality is not only thought to distinguish music from spatial arts, such as illustration, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, but also from written language, which cements ideas and oral expression into fixed letters. However, this characterization has its limits.

Author Anthony Burgess restricts the framing of words as concrete objects to informational writing. Scientific texts, legal documents, historical records, and other types of non-fiction primarily appeal to reason rather than imagination. They are written for study, reference, and comparison to other writings in the field. Their words are artifacts to be mulled over, digested, quoted, and critiqued. Contrastingly, Burgess sees literature as a “twin of music,” which, like music, occurs in real-time, transcends physical space, and manifests in the imagination.

Burgess’s interest in the link between music and literature stems from his biography. Best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, featuring a deranged gang leader obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Burgess was also a composer of some 150 works, most of which have been lost. He wished the public would view him as a musician who writes novels, rather than a novelist who composes music on the side. Yet, in his memoir, This Man & Music, Burgess concedes: “I have practiced all my life the arts of literary and musical composition—the latter chiefly as an amateur, since economic need forced me to spend most of my time producing fiction and literary journalism.”

Burgess’s fiction brims with musical content, from characters who are musicians or music lovers, to writing styles that consciously borrow from sonata form, symphonic form, and the like. Stressing literature’s performative essence, Burgess complains: “We have come to regard the text as the great visual reality because we confuse letters as art with letters as information.” While non-fiction works might be understood as monuments of human thought, literature is a lived experience akin to traveling through a piece of music.

This discussion has more to say about literature than it does about music. Like the poet E. T. A. Hoffman, another composer who made his living in words, Burgess idealized creative writing as an art approaching music. Central to his argument is the conception of time as the canvas upon which both art forms take shape, and imagination as the invisible realm where their meaning is made.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

Autonomous Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A rallying cry was heard in nineteenth-century France: “l’art pour l’art”—“art for art’s sake.” Against a backdrop of scholasticism, scientific thinking, and hostility toward “useless” art, French writers argued that the greatest value of art was not some external aim, but self-sufficiency. Art’s highest goal was to exist in its own formal perfection; its highest purpose was to be contemplated as an end in itself.

This was the basis of aestheticism, or the aesthetic movement—an approach with ideological ties to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790), which presents the “pure” aesthetic experience as the “disinterested” contemplation of an object that “pleases for its own sake,” without making reference to reality or claims to utility or morality. More directly, French aestheticism was rooted in Théophile Gautier’s witty defense of his assertion that art is useless (in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1835).

Aestheticism was developed by poet Charles Baudelaire, who was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s claim, made in “The Poetic Principle” (1850), that the supreme work is a “poem per se.” This governing ideal was taken up by many other writers, and spread into Victorian England through Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, and others. Instrumental music, because of its absence of words, was sometimes held up as the apex of this artistic aspiration. Pater famously remarked, “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.”

Meanwhile, German romanticists of the nineteenth century promoted self-sufficiency as a musical ideal. In contrast to programmatic music, which has a specific purpose, story, theme, or sung text, so-called “absolute music” was music for its own sake. Poets such as E. T. A. Hoffman and Ludwig Tieck conceived of instrumental music as the language of a higher realm, and celebrated music’s potential for non-representation non-conceptualization—qualities that led Kant to dismiss music as “more entertainment than culture” in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

“Absolute music” actually began as a pejorative term, coined by Richard Wagner to expose the limitations of instrumental music and support his own view of opera’s superiority. For Wagner, music without signification was not only ludicrous, but had no right to exist. Proponents of “music per se” held the opposite view: music can (and should) express nothing other than music itself.

In practice, a pure listening experience is unobtainable. Exposure to musical sounds, whether or not they carry explicit meanings, invariably comes with a host of influencing factors, including social conditioning, cultural context, momentary disposition, and mental/emotional associations. Our responses to music, in turn, transcend strictly musical considerations.

That being said, we might choose to hear pieces as (more or less) autonomous works, or read into them extra-musical connotations, either stemming from our own backgrounds or the composers’. However, rarely—if ever—are these avenues of perception clearly bifurcated; we may favor hearing music as absolute or programmatic, but conceptual colorations are impossible to avoid. As Mark Evan Bonds writes in his recent book, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, “[W]e are most likely to hear [musical pieces] as some combination of the two. But that is a choice we make, and not a quality inherent in the works themselves. Neither mode of listening is superior to the other, and the notion that we can hear them in exclusively one way or the other is in any case deeply suspect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Between Reason and Monsters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1799 Francisco Goya published “A Collection of Prints of Capricious Subjects.” The eighty etchings and aquatints, known as Los Caprichos (caprices, folios), criticized the “multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society” and particularly in Goya’s native Spain: superstitions, arranged marriages, corrupt rulers, powerful clergy, etc. The forty-third print is among the artist’s most enduring images. Entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”), it shows an artist (possibly Goya himself) asleep at his drawing table. He is surrounded by bats, owls, and a wide-eyed lynx—ominous creatures in Spanish folklore. A mysterious figure lurks in the center, staring directly at the viewer.

On first impression, the illustration seems to be an endorsement of rational thought: when logic lies dormant, the world becomes demon-haunted (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). But this is only part of the meaning. A caption accompanying the print warns, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” Pure rationality and pure irrationality are both dangerous. Reason without emotion is too dull and heartless to adequately address basic human and societal needs. Emotion without reason gives rise to all sorts of prejudices and harmful fantasies. When held in harmonious balance, passion and intellect create life-affirming art.

Goya’s rejection of absolute rationalism marked a transition from the Enlightenment to early Romanticism. While not denying the value of science and social reforms, he reclaimed emotions as an authentic and positive force.

Romantics would further the cause, placing knowledge and wonder, history and mythology, order and spontaneity side by side. Their idealization of expression stirred them to especially grand appraisals of music, which E. T. A. Hoffmann called “the most romantic of all the arts—one might say the only purely romantic one.” This belief owes largely to the balance Goya advocated. In most of its incarnations, music is both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Its raw materials and construction are open to theoretical and scientific analysis, but its evocations are almost by definition non-rational. Most important, its expressiveness is born from its structure.

As a visual artist, Goya might have objected to the musical bias of many later Romantics. After all, the counter-requirements of heart and mind are found in every art form to a greater or lesser extent. At its best, art is a reminder of what makes us human: form and feelings, function and purpose, reason and emotion.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Expressing Expression

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The popular appreciation of music as a language beyond words has origins in nineteenth-century German Romanticism and its unrestrained obsession with the expressiveness of musical sound. While composers of the genre were busy expanding the emotional dimensions of their craft, poets were writing about music with equal sentimental effusiveness. The expression heard in the works of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms inspired poets like Tieck, Schlegel and Heine to pour out laudatory verses proclaiming music’s unsurpassed ability to convey true feeling. To the poets, music was the embodiment of expression itself—their most venerated aesthetic principle—and they regularly infused their poems with musical references in hopes of harnessing that emotive power. Their ethos is captured in a quote from E. T. A. Hoffmann: “Music is the most romantic of all the arts—one might almost say, the only entirely romantic one.”

The view of music as a transmitter of emotions spread throughout Europe and influenced other fields. Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher and biologist, concluded that “primitives” developed the capacity for music specifically as a means of communicating their state of being. This anthropological assumption, while a product of its time, had many antecedents. The ancient Greeks, for instance, devised a musical system comprised of modes intended to evoke or intensify particular reactions. Other societies past and present possess a similar (if not as systematic) awareness of music’s potential to penetrate and manipulate our inner lives. Nonetheless, the exuberance with which Romantic-era writers emphasized and exalted music’s expressiveness has not been equaled.

As an example, here are some of Hoffmann’s comments on Beethoven: “Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens us to the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!”

Embedded in this characteristically verbose appraisal is the contradictory concession that music is “immeasurable” and thus incapable of being justly described in words. Goethe said it best: “Music begins where words end.” Try as they might to explain the sounds and effects, the poets freely admitted that their verse—like other art forms—could only approximate the purity of emotional transmission they felt in music. Theirs was an era when composers and performers greatly expanded the range and intensity of dynamics, phrasing, articulation, tempo, harmony and all manner of musical coloration. Sympathetic feelings aroused in audiences reached unprecedented levels, and it was widely held that the soul of music made contact with the soul of the listener. All of this put music outside the grasp of language.

It is not necessary to adopt the often-exaggerated stance of the Romantics to value music’s emotional impact. Nor must one agree with the view of post-modern detractors, who argue that feelings induced by music are illusory, to acknowledge the limits of musical expression. Still, it is easy to accept the basic Romantic assertion: our emotional responses to music, real or imagined, account largely for our interest in the art form.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.