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Defining the Term ‘Absolute Music’ Historically


In his influential book The Idea of Absolute Music, Carl Dahlhaus claimed there was ‘a comprehensive concept of “absolute” music which reveals the latent unity of musical aesthetics in the nineteenth century’. However, a history of the term ‘absolute music’, as opposed to the concept, leads in different directions that disrupt that latent unity. A reinvestigation of some of the ground covered in Dahlhaus’s book shows, first, that it is a myth that Hanslick championed the term. Absolute music emerged as a positive concept associated with Hanslick only around 1880, which is when it started being used to designate the opposite of programme music. I also present evidence that Wagner and Nietzsche did not use the term‘absolute music’ in a positive sense. A metaphysical ‘absolute music’ is found primarily in the writings of August Halm and Ernst Kurth. These theorists developed esoteric theories centred on Bruckner’s music as the most perfect embodiment of absolute music. Dahlhaus’s account of the idea of absolute music as the key aesthetic concept of the nineteenth century relies heavily on the twentieth-century writings of Halm and Kurth; it was only at this point that the term began to be used in combination with the concept. The conclusion addresses the question of why Dahlhaus constructed a unified idea of absolute music. The development of Dahlhaus’s thought is considered in the context of his position as a professor of music in West Berlin, waging an ideological battle against Marxist musicology and his East Berlin counterpart Georg Knepler.

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