Nineteenth-Century Music, by Carl Dahlhaus

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Nineteenth-Century MusicNineteenth-Century Music, by Carl Dahlhaus. (Translated by J. Bradford Robinson from Die Musik des 19. Jahrhunderts.) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989. x + 417 pp. ISBN 0-520-05291-9.

It is difficult to begin any discussion of Carl Dahlhaus's historical writing without launching into a rueful description of the evolution and present state of musicology in the United States. I will sidestep this dreary, and by now familiar, discourse by simply noting an irony. His Nineteenth-Century Music will, without doubt, raise eyebrows along with historiographic consciousness in the musicology community; there is no doubt that it prods us along (as his earlier writings have done) in our continuing quest for methodological sophistication and historical context. At the same time, in the American intellectual community at large, the book participates quite comfortably in the neoconservative conversation among the likes of William Bennett and Allan Bloom. While musicologists will find themselves, perhaps with guilty consciences, exhorted to consider more seriously the sociohistorical importance of salon music and opa bouffe, they can at the same time rest assured that the masterworks of the musical canon emerge unscathed—even reaffirmed by the unwonted comparison with such upstart challengers—in Dahlhaus's newly translated book. The grand Western tradition is in safe hands.

This is a book with an intense historiographic self-consciousness. It takes up issues raised in Dahlhaus's earlier Foundations of Music History, which itself appeared as a byproduct of his historical encounter with the nineteenth century.1 As in the earlier book, Dahlhaus engages his readers in a rich, learned, and provocative exploration of the question what "music history" is to be a history of. The answer is, of course, far from obvious. There are the Great Composers, their lives and times—a familiar formula from our school days; there are the Great Works, the chronological list of which—accompanied by appropriate analytic commentary—constitutes another familiar pedagogical genre. There is reception history, and the history of the institutions that support music making, and the history of the social functions and uses of music; for the radical historians, there is the history of human beings in their relation to music as an expressive process. But none of these is precisely what Dahlhaus is after.

The first, introductory, chapter of Nineteenth-Century Music is devoted largely to historiographic considerations, and it contains a variety of clues to its author's complex and subtle understanding of his task. In interpreting these clues, indeed, it is sometimes unclear whether subtlety or ambivalence is in play: discussing the chronological markers he has chosen (on which more below), Dahlhaus comments that "we should not belabor the point that 'watershed years' in music history and political history seem to coincide" (p. 1)—that is, he asserts the coincidence but draws back from it at the same time. He refers to the work as "a book on the 'nineteenth century' in social, intellectual, and compositional history" (p. 2), but will "nevertheless maintain that it is methodologically questionable to make political and social history the main pillars of music historiography" (p. 1). The discussion itself is fascinating to consider, as is his somewhat oblique description of the practice of "historians," perhaps a working credo of sorts:

They place stress variously on the prestige a work enjoyed among contemporary listeners, on the accumulation of later judgments that make up a "tradition," on the influence it had on later works, its steadfastness in remaining in the repertoire, and finally its documentary value to the history of culture and its rating by the aesthetic and compositional standards that happen to apply today. Obviously, the eclectic approach is fraught with difficulties and contradictions; for the moment, however, it is all we have (p. 3).

Ultimately, Dahlhaus's historiographic goal is to find a balance point between too much "context" (the kind of social or intellectual history in which music is only a symptom of some trend or Zeitgeist) and not enough (the kind of positivist musicology in which music is freestanding from its culture, transcendent and detached—what Dah1haus calls the "imaginary museum"). In his location of this point, Dahlhaus discusses the Marxist debate about the "relative autonomy" of art in the superstructure of cultural practices "reflecting" the structural economic base.2 But he does not consider, as for example Raymond Williams does, a different form of relationship between base and superstructure in which the arts are productive rather than reflective of cultural meanings.3 What such a reconsideration does, of course, is to remove the rationale for artistic autonomy by arguing that the values embodied in a musical composition are actively at work in the formation of culture, rather than floating above it in a utopian or transcendent relation to social life. Dahlhaus's discussion of these issues is complex and sophisticated; ultimately he is intent upon preserving some autonomy, some degree of transcendence, as the basis for "trying to select the works that 'belong to history'" (p. 3).

Dahlhaus does not write that "history without names" to which Heinrich W├Âlfflin aspired some decades ago, nor does he wish to do so. But he does approach this objective in the partial sense that Nineteenth-Century Music contains no "composers" as historical personages—a method Dahlhaus refers to as "biographical" and dismisses with some acerbity4—and musical careers are de-realized as the works of individuals are distributed among various sections and chapters to bring particular compositional genres into focus; thus, composers are present as the agents of a "history of composition" which the author seems to treat as though it were sui generis. Despite its ontological oddity, this is rather an intriguing method for understanding the history of works. I find very illuminating a reminiscence recently unearthed by Philip Gossett in notes from a seminar taken with Dahlhaus in 1968: "Problem: reconstruct questions and issues to which text is an answer."5 This formulation seems to capture precisely the methodological ground Nineteenth-Century Music seeks to occupy: the focus on a history of compositions themselves, the role of the composer as agent in that history, and the fragile but real links between the works and the social and historical (as well as musical) conditions that created the "questions and issues" in the first place. And I note with appreciation that Dahlhaus does not mystify the notion by turning a masterwork into "the" answer.

To illustrate: Dahlhaus investigates virtuosity in the 1830s, a phenomenon of "a significance at first cultural but which later affected the history of composition" (p. 134). The mechanism for its effect, he suggests, was Liszt's recognition about Paganini's playing that it "promised to solve a problem that, half-consciously, had tormented Liszt himself" (p. 135); that is, virtuosity suggested a new method for the formal integration of avant-garde musical material. At the other end of the century, he invites us to rehear the symphonies of the 1870s and 1880s in terms of "the problem of how to create a symphonic form equal to the aesthetic claims of the genre and yet consistent with the historical situation" (p. 268). He outlines opposing strategies: Tchaikovsky's, in which "the relation between lyricism and monumentality, so precarious to the symphonic style under 'late romantic' conditions, became an open contradiction," and Brahms's, which "tackled the analogous problem of combining the premises of chamber music with a will to large-scale form, a problem which he solved by going to the root of the matter: the thematic material" (p. 269).

Despite all, a radical historian would note with irony that Dahlhaus's use of this composition-oriented methodology, and even his exhortation that "individuals should never be allowed to overshadow the generic traditions that sustained the history of musical works. . ." (p. 390), do not rescue the book from "great men" or produce a result in any way distressing to traditional historians. Let me illustrate by choosing as a "case study" his already notorious section on "trivial music." (There are other sections of the book which concern similar moments of socio-musical history, also exemplified in music that the author himself calls "rubbish.") Dahlhaus spends considerable space distinguishing "trivial" music from related types—"light," "popular," "entertainment," or "functional" music, for instance; he concedes up front that the term is an aesthetic judgment, remarking that its use, though "marked by intellectual arrogance, seems to capture the phenomenon we have in mind" (p. 311). He associates the development of the phenomenon with the economic progress of the industrial revolution and with Pestalozzian principles of education; he touches intelligently upon the role of domestic musical culture on female socialization in the nineteenth century. He gives us, in sum, a compelling glimpse of the polymath social historian at work analyzing a socially engrossing phenomenon:

Trivial music, then, emerged as a paradoxical cross between sentimentality and mechanization, this being the aesthetic reflection of a sociohistorical clash between a philanthropical. tradition and a drive toward commercialization and industrialization (p. 317).

And yet, a subtheme runs through the section, fretting determinedly, almost anxiously, at the differences between "trivial" music and "serious"; one cannot escape the conclusion that it is the difference that Dahlhaus is most of all concerned with. He argues, convincingly enough if one accepts his presuppositions, that "triviality in music can be pinpointed analytically in the pieces themselves" (presupposing, that is, that analysis unearths and demonstrates the value of music), and sums up by saying that "music split into two realms, into art and nonart" (p. 318).

I elaborate this matter not simply to lay out the politics of this book clearly, but also to suggest how it reflects back upon the methodological issues outlined above: the balance-point between social history and the "imaginary museum" is articulated not only in Dahlhaus's explanatory discourse about it, but also in his practice. In just the same way, that elaborate eclecticism of "the historian," quoted above, is occasionally dislodged under pressure of conventional notions of greatness, as when he asks "in what sense a work such as Hansel und Gretel . . . is deserving at all of a place in the history of musical composition, as opposed to the social or reception history of music" (p. 343). It is possible to read such passages as suggesting that only second-rate works have a social history, while the first-rate ones have transcended theirs.

Just as interesting and important as his definition of the proper object of music history is Dahlhaus's approach to the problems of historical periodization and characterization. Again, these methodological issues are worked out both in self-conscious discourse and in practice. As might be expected, the introductory chapter ruminates at some length on the competing "nineteenth centuries" that might be the subject of the book. In particular, different phenomena emerge if the starting point is taken as 1789, 1812, or perhaps 1830 (the year 1800 is nowhere considered) and, conversely, if the "century" is thought to end in 1889 or perhaps 1924. For all of these dates Dahlhaus supplies "watershed" events and historiographic rationale. He settles, ultimately, on the century between 1814 and 1914. His method here invites contentious response, but from my viewpoint, at least, these dates serve as well as any others, considering that his discussion of them is the meat of the matter in any event. Another variation on the same definitional theme is the author's careful distinction—carried throughout the book—between our "nineteenth century" and the century's own "nineteenth century." He uses this distinction in two principal ways, first in his insistence on beginning from an appreciation of the context of a particular work in its own music-historical and social milieu, and secondly in his frequent reminders that the study of reception-history (which he includes within his mandate) creates a kind of time-layering in which "the subsequent history of nineteenth-century works is part of music history" (p. 3) just as much as their first appearances.

It would be far beyond the scope of any review to give an adequate account of the organization of Nineteenth-Century Music, in which the threads of various compositional genres, national concerns, and historical phenomena are interwoven in a complex and richly imagined way. Suffice it to say that the gross arrangement is chronological, divided into five time-periods (1814-1830, 1830-1848, 1848-1870, 1870-1889, and 1889-1914) whose boundaries or "watershed years" are discussed and defended as meticulously as are those of the "nineteenth century" as a whole. As part of this defense, each period is characterized in the initial subsection of the chapter, according to the interaction of music and the social and political phenomena which Dahlhaus sees as significant for the "compositional history" of the period. As may be imagined, all of these discussions share the intensely dialectical and complex historiography of the book as a whole. For example, he notes the coincidence of the year 1830 with a well-known political watershed and considers at length the possible implications for the music historian's task, but ends by concluding that "we are at a loss to pinpoint any influence that the vicissitudes of social history may have exercised on music history" (p. 116). By contrast, he finds the year 1870 "one of the few profound breaks in political history which had clear repercussions on the history of music" (p. 263). Dahlhaus's process, continually raising and reconsidering this linkage of the music-historical and the social- or political-historical, helps us to understand another aspect of his positioning as a historiographer: he insists that the historian who either assumes such connection or denies it necessarily misconstrues history. Rather one must study the evidence independently for each phenomenon and each era.

In keeping with the general effort to correct misconstrued history, Dahlhaus also seems to enjoy the role of "debunker," and scattered throughout the book are just slightly smug examples of silly things we might have thought if he hadn't told us otherwise. For example: "the notion that German romantic opera derived from the singspiel is not completely wrongheaded but merely askew" (p. 68); or, "'the' Lied is no more a genre than 'the' piece of instrumental music" (p. 96); or, "the notion that there was a social universality to the music of the classical period is a pipe dream . . ." (p. 36). I do not wish to give the impression that these pronouncements are dropped irresponsibly into the text—on the contrary, they are explained and supported at length. But they have somewhat the character of a verbal tic in Dahlhaus's prose, and it is of course never clear who are the musicological straw men who entertain such notions. But more numerous, and considerably more helpful, are the related "corrections" that stem from Dahlhaus's absolute insistence that we approach musical works and genres at least initially in terms of their contemporary contexts. For example, "our appreciation of Verdi is distorted by our habit of pitting Italian 'singer's opera' against Wagner's 'music drama'" (p. 207); or, "we obscure the social character of Chopin's music when we feel an urge to defend it from the thoroughly appropriate term 'salon music'" (p. 147); or, challengingly, "by judging the religion of education and art according to the criteria of twentieth-century dialectical theology, we block any chance of understanding an oratorio and cantata repertoire that merged history with religion. . ." (p. 164).

Since Dahlhaus writes, as Philip Gossett has recently put it, "from a position just slightly west of the Berlin wall,"6 he is comfortable with the notion of social class as a historical variable and uses it with more awareness than is typical for American scholars, for instance in his most interesting discussion of "Church Music and the Bourgeois Spirit" or in the several accounts of minutely-distinguished genres of opera discussed throughout the book. It has not occurred to Dahlhaus, however, to consider the analogous uses of gender as a category of socio-historical analysis. This is not to make the routine complaint that there are "no women composers" in Nineteenth-Century Music, a truism given its method and historical goals. Rather, Dahlhaus's painstaking and often brilliant efforts to come to grips with the social realties of music-making, and his finely-nuanced understanding of reception history, fall short of what they might have accomplished had he acknowledged that human beings have not only class and nationality, but gender as well. The captions accompanying the book's illustrations, highly informative and constituting a fascinating little social history of music in their own right, provide several loci classici: about a caricature of a Jenny Lind concert, Dahlhaus comments that "the gentlemen's enthusiasm is not shared by the few ladies present" (p. 143) without questioning why the women in the audience might have been represented so by the caricaturist, or what this disparity (if real) might have meant, for instance, to the shaping of Lind's repertory. Moritz von Schwind's Die Symphonie of 1852 prompts the observation that its subject "allowed the performers to be placed in a decorative arrangement" (p. 158) without apparent notice that all the central figures of the picture, brilliantly lighted by the painter in their "decorative arrangement," are female and therefore not simply "performers" as such. In a doubly ironic twist, Dahlhaus reproduces a cartoon caricaturing Boris Godunov as "an opera in which woman . . . is of no importance whatever," but claims to be puzzled by this bit of contemporary awareness: obviously she is not, implies Dahlhaus, because this opera is "authentic history" (p. 298)! Then there is his utter silence as to the iconographic significance of the Loreley—by Eduard Jakob von Steinle—which is included as a full-page illustration (and, incidentally, reproduced on the book's lurid pink-and-blue dust jacket). Avatar of the femme fatale, and thus an unsubtly gendered dark counterpart to Orpheus as a symbol of music's power, Loreley is characteristic of the nineteenth century's obsessive and essentialist concern with the feminine, which affected music history no less than any other cultural manifestation in the period.

Perhaps this is the place to point out that, in Dahlhaus's account, "the nineteenth century" happened exclusively in Europe, and largely in continental Europe at that; he does, however, provide more consideration of Eastern Europe than is common. The United States does not exist at all in this book, except for one-and-one-half slightly startling pages about Charles Ives—included apparently for the purpose of distinguishing him, on both musical and metaphysical grounds, from the European tradition.

In his own review of Leon Plantinga's Romantic Music, Dahlhaus raised the question how its potential function as a textbook might influence its shape and content. But Dahlhaus shied away, remarking that "principles of the discipline of pedagogy are too controversial to allow the articulation of reliable standards of evaluation."7 Though I agree, from personal experience, that in some circles pedagogy stands as the most controversial conversational topic short of abortion rights, I confess to a certain curiosity about this comment. In Nineteenth-Century Music the question never comes up, and the book has—at least in its English incarnation—no prefatory matter that would inform us about its intended audience. It will not do for most students, we can be reasonably sure, nor probably the general reader. This is not because the material as such is too technical (though his prose is always dense and difficult), but because Dahlhaus assumes very much indeed, in terms of historical and philosophical information, familiarity with an enormous repertory of music, and historiographic sophistication. (There is, somewhat surprisingly, a glossary at the back.) At the same time, it seems a bit odd to write a "survey" of such dimensions and century-wide coverage for musicological specialists; for their purposes, too, the relatively sparse musical examples and somewhat casual analyses—intended only as illustrative, not as substantive—must prove insufficient. It should also be pointed out that the scholarly sources, contained in a bibliography at the end of each chapter, are not up-to-date and ignore almost all English-language work, most notably the analytic (see Douglas Johnson's review of the original German edition for further discussion of this point)."8

All this said, however, I am very far from wanting to discourage anyone from reading Nineteenth-Century Music. It is filled with new hearings of familiar material, provocative juxtapositions and interpretations, and of course Dahlhaus's characteristic immense learning, historical and philosophical speculations (the author, or perhaps the translator, has coined the term "historiosophical," which seems apt). It is a difficult and at times enraging book, but given all its intellectual and musical riches, it is well worth contending with it.


1Dahlhaus, Foundations of Music History, trans. J.B. Robinson (Cambridge, 1983). Originally published in 1967 as Grundlagen der Musikgeschichte.

2See also chapter 8 of Foundations of Music History.

3See for instance Williams, "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory," in his Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (London, 1980), 31-49.

4In particular, see Dahlhaus's review of Leon Plantinga, Romantic Music, in Nineteenth-Century Music 11 (1987): 194-96.

5Philip Gossett, Obituary for Carl Dahlhaus, Newsletter of the American Musicological Society 19/2 (August 1989): 15.

6Philip Gossett, "Carl Dahlhaus and the 'Ideal Type'," Nineteenth-Century Music 13 (1989): 49.

7Dahlhaus review, 195.

8Douglas Johnson, review of Die Musik des 19. Jahrhunderts, Journal of the American Musicological Society 36 (1983): 532-43.

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