The Animated Arabesque

Hanslick on Musical Beauty

Eduard 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 animated in sound” (“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 gracefully ornamental.

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?

The Auditory Kaleidoscope

To clarify his view of musical beauty, Hanslick points to the kaleidoscope, as a kind of arabesque-in-motion. Music is such a kaleidoscope, but at an incommensurably higher level of appearance.

It presents beautiful forms and colours in ever-evolving variety, with gentle transitions and sharp contrasts, always symmetrical and fulfilled by itself. (I 3.8; modified in VI 3.8)

The kaleidoscope might be obsolete nowadays, in an age of electronic toys. But you can also think of the ‘visualisations’ of the (now also outdated) Windows Media Player. An algorithm instantly produces kaleidoscopic moving images with the music, “with gentle transitions and sharp contrasts”.

It is mainly this comparison which has made Hanslick’s reputation as patriarch of formalism in music aesthetics. He himself rejected this interpretation of his work; and there are all sorts of observations in VMS that should put his formalism into perspective. The problem is that it is often unclear what he is talking about: whether it is music as such, musical beauty, or the ‘essence’ of music.

Temperamental Polemics

Much of VMS is a rather temperamental polemic against a naïve aesthetics of feeling of feeling for which he has a passionate dislike: the idea that music is mainly about expressing and arousing emotions.

[The argument] first and foremost opposes the widespread view that music should ‘represent feelings’. It is hard to see how one can derive from this the ‘demand for an absolute lack of emotion in music’. The rose is fragrant, but its ‘content’ is not ‘the representation of fragrance’ […]. (II V2.4)

The analogy is patently absurd: a rose is just a rose (by whatever name), since it is a natural phenomenon; but music, made by human beings for humans, belongs in the realm of significant things, charged with meaning and intentions.

Tensions between his polemical position and his musical intelligence produce numerous inconsistencies, which are covered up by the apparent clarity of his rhetoric. Perhaps that hidden inconsistency is the main reason why his little book has so often been reprinted, translated and, above all, commented on. Exegesis is not least the art of smoothing out contradictions.


Here are two examples (references are to paragraph numbers in the online publication of the 1854 (I) and later (II-X) editions; translations are mine.)

(1) Aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty. It focuses exclusively on the properties of the artistic object, not on the response or perceptions of the listener. (I 1.5) And yet, musical beauty is time-bound (I 3.29).

The art of music is like nature, which every autumn turns a world full of flowers into a mould from which new blossoms emerge. All tone poetry is the work of man, the product of a particular individuality, time, culture, and therefore always permeated by elements of its near or distant decay. (VII footnote 23)

This implies that perceptions are decisive: it is those perceptions, not the properties of the musical object, that change with time and culture.

(2) Even though music may excite feelings, it does not represent them. And yet, it offers analogies in sound for what we perceive as movement and evolving processes (I 2.23). This cannot qualify as a representation of emotions, because it lacks the specificity which is only provided by a concrete object. Stormy rage and stormy love are musically just that, stormy (I 2.5, 2.19).

Still, music is admitted to have means of expressing sadness (II 2.28). Moreover, what makes a piece of music or a musical idea more than a soulless pattern of tones, is the articulation of musical sentences and the expression of musical thoughts with a specific expressive value. Music can be proud or sad, graceful, gentle, fierce, powerful, graceful, fresh; but these characterisations can – implausibly – be applied without any thought of “what they mean for the human psyche” (für das menschliche Seelenleben) (I 2.9, 4.9).

Moreover, there is an odd differentiation between composition on the one hand, and interpretation and improvisation on the other. Particularly improvisation can be “uncensored speech” (I 4.16). Interpretation offers freedom for “the immediate outpouring of a feeling in sounds” (I 4.14), even though the musician can only reproduce what is written in the score (I 4.15).

Hanslick was right to point out that music – the kind of music he wrote about, ‘classical music’ – demands an ‘art of listening’ (Kunst des Hörens, I 5.22). Unfortunately, he influenced generations of aestheticians to identify the supposed ‘essence’ of music with some abstract beauty all of its own, beyond its powers of representation and expression.