Absolute Music: How to define it

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Written By DanielHaldeman

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It is possible to listen to what is commonly called “classical music” and wonder if it is music. It is absolutely the answer! But is that absolute music? Not necessarily. Music can be divided into two main categories when studying it. Programmatic music refers to music that has a subject. Absolute music is, however, music that doesn’t have a subject. 

History of Absolute Music

Sleep music has been around since the beginning of recorded history. However, not all music was created with a specific subject in mind. This distinction was crucial in the 19th century when new debates arose about the role art plays. This period is known as the Romantic Era, when artists explored what art was all about. They were interested in capturing emotions and not just a subject. This is when the concept of art for its own sake was born. The viewer can only experience the art and the emotions it produces, without having to rely on the physical context. This is the core idea.

Romantic painters tried to be independent of tradition but they were still tied to the world they depicted. Music was a different medium. Music was an auditory art. It was not intrinsically connected to the visual world, and it was therefore a great medium for exploring abstraction in art. Romantic musicians stopped creating works that were based on a topic (such as the plot of an opera), and instead created music that could be enjoyed by itself, with no distractions. This was the birth of absolute musicality as we know it today.

Some examples of Absolute Music

Although there are many examples of absolute music within Western traditions, we will only be focusing on three B’s: Bach and Beethoven. These three men contributed more to Western joo music than anyone, and they also helped establish the Romantic idea of absolute music. As we discuss these compositions, try to locate recordings. It would be like trying not to hear these songs.

Johann Sebastian Bach – Chromatic Fantasia, Fugue in D Minor

Let’s begin with Johann Sebastian Bach, a German composer. Bach was primarily active in the 18th century. This means that he predates Romantic era. We can still see the foundations for absolute music in Bach’s work.

One of Bach’s greatest works of early absolute music is Chromatic Fantasia with Fugue in D Minor. It was composed for the harpsichord between 1717-1723. It is based upon the repetition of chords on an chromatic scale. Bach used these chromatic chords in this piece to create a beautiful composition. But, let me ask: What is the subject? We don’t know what the title means, as fugue and chromatic fantasia are both genres of music power. Bach’s compositions were written before the formal debate about absolute music. However, they are already a part of that movement.


Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Ludwig van Beethoven

We now reach the true Romantic composers. Ludwig van Beethoven is one the most well-known composers. However, he was instrumental in elevating absolute music. His 1808 5th Symphony is one of his greatest works. It is, like Bach’s title, without subject because it is not subject.

Beethoven And German Influence

The development of the concept was influenced by the German Idealist philosophical tradition. It also played a significant role in the development and consolidation of German nationalism. Hegel and Immanuel Kant provided the foundations. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1883), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), however, developed a musico-philosophical structure. Ironically, Wagner was the one who coined “absolute music” in mid-century. He did this to challenge its validity. He claimed that music, which he thought of as “woman”, could not thrive in isolation and needed the “poet”, a masculine, seminal, and rational, to flourish.

 In the second quarter century, Beethoven’s works, particularly his symphonies, were being hailed as the most representative of pure music career success. They also became the foundation of a German musical tradition that was the highest expression of the highest arts. This was an essential part of what it meant for Germans to be German. Adolf Bernhard Marx (1795-1866) was a major contributor to the formal analysis of Beethoven’s music. His descriptions of sonata form, which is the basis for Beethoven’s instrumental music, were a significant part of this process.

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) wrote the landmark On the Musically Beautiful (1853). He did not use the term “absolute” music. Instead, Hanslick argued that music’s form was the same as its content. This effectively disassociated music from emotion and claimed for it a masculine rationality based in formalist musical logic. Over the course of Hanslick’s century-old book, a variety of methods were developed to analyze music. These included Hugo Riemann (1849-1919), who advocated functional harmonic analysis and phrase structure analysis; Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), which introduced layered reductive vocal-leading analysis; Rudolph Reti (1885-1957), which relied on motivationic analysis. All these systems were created to confirm the logic of Beethoven’s instrumental music. Furthermore, Beethoven was seen as both the head of German teaching music and an assumed universal. The concept of “absolute” that these methods helped to consolidate the status of German music’s musical value is the concept of “absolute”.

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