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Beauty in the Ear of the Beholder

"If the contemplation of something beautiful arouses pleasurable feelings, this effect is distinct from the beautiful as such. I may, indeed, place a beautiful object before an observer with the avowed purpose of giving him pleasure, but this purpose in no way affects the beauty of the object. The beautiful is and remains beautiful though it arouse no emotion whatever, and though there be no one to look at it. In other words, although the beautiful exists for the gratification of an observer, it is independent of him."

So claimed the music critic, Eduard Hanslick in 1854. Writing at a time when the opposing schools of Brahms and Wagner dominated the music scene, Hanslick’s attempt to formulate an objective evaluation of what is musically beautiful was reactionary. His insistence that human emotions cannot be used in making a judgement of beauty in music flew in the face of the prevailing expressive values of late nineteenth-century Romanticism. Whilst admitting that beautiful music may move the listener deeply, Hanslick believed that this emotional response was no more than a side-effect. The true beauty of the music was to be found within the music itself. Perhaps even more controversially at the time, Hanslick claimed further that beautiful music could never be written as a narrative representation of an event or other specific content: ‘a musician cannot but find this method hazardous from the very start, since it demonstrates that music is only the afterthought. First place is taken by the poetical material; the music is a kind of brilliantly illustrated marginal notation.’

Beauty and the music of Wagner

Hanslick followed his beliefs about musical beauty in levelling extensive criticism against the composer, Wagner. Wagner aimed to combine art and literature with music in his operas, and famously developed the use of the ‘leitmotiv’ or musical theme to represent different characters on the stage. In his review of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in 1858, Hanslick wrote that its enthusiastic reception ‘would be more readily understood by a deaf person, subject only to the impression of the stage sets, the processions, the groupings, the miming of the principals, than by someone who knew nothing of Lohengrin but the music.’ In contrast, Hanslick writes with enthusiasm about the music of Brahms, a contemporary composer writing non-programmatic symphonies and chamber music. He claimed that this music ‘has the virtue of not seeking effects at the cost of intelligibility’ and that ‘there is no seeking after applause in Brahms’ music, no narcissistic affectation.’ Brahms’ approach to composition obviously satisfied Hanslick’s view that ‘music demands once and for all to be grasped as music’.

Musical beauty in early twentieth-century France

Hanslick’s conviction of the autonomous beauty of music foreshadows the development of ideas about musical beauty by composers in the twentieth –century. In France, the poet Jean Cocteau launched an attack against the influences of both Wagner and Impressionism in Le Coq et l’Arlequin, whilst the composer, Albert Roussel advocated ‘a music satisfying in itself, a music which seeks to eliminate all picturesque and descriptive elements.’
The Austrian composer, Schoenberg also concluded that ‘by producing comprehensibility, form produces beauty’. These aesthetic principles lie at the heart of the philosopher Susanne Langer’s later theory of musical appreciation. In Feeling and Form (1953) and Problems of Art (1957) she suggested that music’s power to interest stems from its formal relations to the patterns of human feeling. Furthermore, she used music as an example of a symbol system whose symbols are not necessarily descriptive, evocative or expressive.

Objective guidelines for musical beauty

Hanslick’s analysis of musical beauty as being independent of human beings lays the foundation for objective standards of criticism about beauty in music. The nature of objectivity implies the comparison of a work to an ideal or absolute truth. The eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant recognized ‘objective’ principles as those considered to be applicable to the whole or to everyone. Similarly, the nineteenth-century physiologist, Claude Bernard believed that subjective ideas are interior and bring the subject an impression of the truth, whilst objective ideas are exterior and are based on observation and experimentation. Can there be agreement about an objective standard of ideal beauty in music however, or does the essentially personal experience of musical beauty always escape such generalisation?

Attempts to define beauty in music

One writer who attempts to answer this question is Lewis Rowell. He included a proposal of guidelines for musical excellence in his book, Thinking about Music (1983). Although he recognized the controversy surrounding the judgement of value in a composition, he believed that a work would be more likely to ‘deserve a rating’ if it conformed to the criteria he suggested. He described pieces that fail through their lack of a ‘unified, coherent structure’ or their inability to ‘strike an appropriate balance’ between the criteria he proposed. However, his statements show a tendency to indicate the causes of failure in a piece of music rather than to pinpoint exactly the essential ingredient that brings successful beauty to a composition.

Musical beauty evades definition

An ideal of beauty in music appears to be elusive despite wide-ranging debate on the subject. As a result, guidelines for critical evaluation are generally based on previous successes in music rather than on an absolute ideal. Attempts to set out objective standards of criticism for beauty in music are therefore concerned primarily with outlining reasons for the failure of a composition to be beautiful. A reversal of these explanations is then allowed to stand as an explanation of musical beauty. Whilst the first of these processes has relevance in practice, the second is a misguided fallacy. Many successful pieces of music bear no relation to the guidelines suggested by philosophers. The inescapable conclusion is that a personal appreciation of beauty in music may ultimately resist any objective definition.

Links and References

  • Eduard Hanslick. (1854/1885) Vom Musikalisch-Schönen. Translated in 1891 by Gustav Cohen as: The Beautiful in Music. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1957.

  • Rowell, Lewis (1983) Thinking About Music: An Introduction to The Philosophy of Music. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

  • An outline of Hanslick’s theory of beauty in music.

  • Visit The Music Chamber for an introduction to the major periods and composers in music history. Includes RealAudio performances of 15 greatest works.

  • Information and illustrations about early twentieth-century music in France.

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