Animated Wallpaper

Hanslick’s essay on ‘the musically beautiful’ (Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, 1854) is a remarkable piece of work. Neither coherent nor illuminating, it yet manages to maintain itself in the centre of almost any discussion of music aesthetics.

This is confirmed once more by Mark Evan Bonds’ recent Absolute Music: The History of an Idea (OUP 2014). Not because the author stands up for Hanslick’s ideas (he doesn’t), but because he presents a whole history of music aesthetics, from mythic origins to 1945, as leading up to VMS and continuing in its wake. At the same time, he cites ample evidence that hardly any of Hanslick’s ideas was original, or duly credited.

Maybe it’s just the aplomb with which Hanslick has pushed his vision of music as a kind of animated sonic wallpaper. Or, more precisely, the idea that its value – its ‘beauty’ – derives from its being, in his notoriously obscure and untranslatable phrase, “patterns resoundingly put into motion” (“tönend bewegte Formen”).

Of course there are kinds of music (the more saccharin type of Minimal Music) to which his image of the swirling ‘arabesque’ applies. But it is hard to think of the thundering rhetoric of Brahms’ D minor concerto as an ‘arabesque’.

By untying the value of music (its ‘beauty’) from expression, emotion, and all other connections with the world-outside-music, VMS has given music theorists an excuse (if they needed any) not to think about such matters. But the excuse itself drifts in a void. It vaguely relies on associations between ‘beauty’, ‘abstraction’, ‘purity’, and, in the German Idealist context, ‘the Absolute’. It also draws from the ancient tradition of Pythagoreanism, which for centuries has related music to cosmic harmony, or ‘the harmony of the spheres’. But this applies to an abstract substrate of pitch relations (intervals), not to the music we listen and dance to. Its ‘beauty’ resides in simple numerical relations. We may still recognize this ‘celestial harmony’ in the fact that numbers allow us to find order in the universe, even though this order is much more complex than ever intuited – maybe infinitely.

Most writers on music aesthetics offer a solution without the puzzle, silencing questions rather than asking them. Paddling along from quote to quote, Bonds’ curiously skewed history of aesthetics does little to penetrate beyond the surface of its numerous sources. What remains in the dark is the key problem they all hover around: What animates the patterns?