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‘Labyrinthine Pathways and Bright Rings of Light’: Hoffmann's Aesthetics of Music in Performance

  • Peter Johnson (a1)


E.T.A. Hoffmann's discussions of performance, largely ignored in the current literature, proclaim a key aspect of his aesthetics: performance should transport its listeners to that ‘other world’ of the music itself. To underline the point, Hoffmann resorts to elaborate metaphor, most strikingly in the essay on Beethoven's Piano Trios op. 70.

In seeking to understand this aspect of Hoffmann's aesthetics, I briefly situate his ideas in the context of early nineteenth-century aesthetics. However, his accounts of transcendent listening correlate with modern theories of absorbed attention and, more generally, inform current debates concerning the relationships between performance, listening, and the secondary discourses of musical exegesis. Does knowledge about music always or necessarily promote deep listening? In considering such questions, I turn to the philosophical accounts of audiencing in Gadamer and Adorno. Adorno in particular is aware of the limits of conceptualisation and the need to acknowledge the power of music to transcend what we can say about it.

There are many problems with Hoffmann's aesthetics, but I argue that these do not invalidate his central argument, which is also Adorno's: that the finest music is not a discourse wholly accessible to conceptualization, for the latter may at times detract from the deeper listening experience. I illustrate the point by considering the pre-war recording of Beethoven's op. 135 quartet by the Busch Quartet, arguing that this recording achieves its longevity not by complying with Beethoven's score but by adopting strategies that draw its listeners into its own magical arena.


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1 Hoffmann's musical writings are collected and edited by David Charlton in E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, trans. Martyn Clarke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). The essay entitled ‘Beethoven's Piano Trios’ was first published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (AMZ) in March 1813, and is translated, with critical commentary, in Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 300–325. The cited passage is on p. 324.

2 The essay on the Fifth Symphony, first published in AMZ in July 1810, is translated in Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 235–251.

3 Gerhard Allroggen (‘Hoffmann, Ernst Theodor Amadeus’, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second ed., eds. Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell, London: Macmillan, 2001) assumes that readers of The New Grove will not be interested in Hoffmann's texts on performance: ‘After 1815, [Hoffmann] reviewed only performances for the Berlin newspapers’. For Daniel Chua's ‘deconstruction’ based mainly on the essay on the Fifth Symphony, see his Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), especially p. 178.

4 Robin Wallace, Beethoven's Critics: Aesthetic Dilemmas and Resolutions during the Composer's Lifetime (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986): 23.

5 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 239.

6 ‘Review of Mozart's Don Giovanni, 20 September 1815, translated in Charlton Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 399.

7 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 390. Romberg is apparently playing one of his own concertos.

8 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 390–391.

9 Chantler, Abigail, E.T.A. Hoffmann's Musical Aesthetics (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006): 8 and 16. See also Carl Dahlhaus, Ludwig van Beethoven: Approaches to his Music, trans. Mary Whittall (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991): 69 for discussion of Hoffmann's ‘dithyrambic’ style in the essay on the Fifth Symphony.

10 Hanslick, Eduard, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen: Ein Bertrag zur Revision der Aesthetik der Tonkunst (Leipzig: Rudolph Weigel, 1854). English trans. Geoffrey Payzant from the eighth edition (1891) as On the Musically Beautiful (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1986): 28.

11 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1952 [1790]): 175, ¶46. For further discussion see Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 21.

12 Hoffmann argues that the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart are already ‘romantic’ ( Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 237–8). For more extended discussion and historical context see Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music [Die Idee der absolute Musik, 1978, translated Roger Lustig] (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1989), especially chapter 3.

13 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 100.

14 Robin Wallace, Beethoven's Critics, 23.

15 Annette Richards, The Free Fantasia and the Musical Picturesque (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001): 208209 .

16 Schwartz, David, Listening Subjects: Music, Psychoanalysis, Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 7.

17 Carl Dahlhaus, Absolute Music, 85–6 and Chapter 2 passim. The term usefully signifies music that has no non-musical function beyond the strictly artistic, i.e. it is accompanying neither text, dance nor any other activity other than listening, neither is its purpose primarily to represent the extra-musical. Dahlhaus shows how the emergence of what we nowadays identify as the classical symphony exposed the shortcomings of representational aesthetics and pressed the question of how a music that could not be conceptually reduced to function or meaning might nonetheless be perceived as profound. This point is further developed by Andrew Bowie, who more systematically reviews the ways the ‘early romantic’ philosophers attempted to theorize the fundamental epistemological problem posed by instrumental music. See Bowie, Andrew, Music, Philosophy and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 159160 ; also Chantler, Hoffmann's Musical Aesthetics, 21.

18 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 324.

19 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 100. Hoffmann does not give the name of the pianist nor is there evidence of a violinist or cellist at the unidentified event.

20 Margaret Mahoney Stoljar, ed. and trans., Novalis: Philosophical Writings (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997): 28.

21 Cited in Bowie, Andrew, From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (London: Routledge, 1997): 112. Bowie is translating from Schleiermacher's Ethik, 1990 [1812–13]: 116.

22 Goehr, Lydia, The Quest for Voice: On Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998): 149152 .

23 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, 53 (Book 1, ¶8). Kant also emphasizes the freedom of the subject in arriving at aesthetic judgements. For discussion in the light of Kant's theorising of genius, see Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 21.

24 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 100.

25 Abbate, Carolyn, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrativity in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991): xv. For further discussion see Johnson, Peter, ‘Performance and the Listening Experience: Bach's “Erbarme Dich”’, in Theory into Practice: Composition, Performance and the Listening Experience, eds. Nicholas Cook, Peter Johnson and Hans Zender (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999): 55102 .

26 Annette Richards, The Free Fantasia, 5.

27 Richards, The Free Fantasia, 15.

28 Richards, The Free Fantasia, 18.

29 Richards, The Free Fantasia, 207–209.

30 Karl Philipp Moritz, Schriften zur Ästhetik und Poetik, ed. Hans-Joachim Schrimpf, 1962: 3, translated by Roger Lustig in Dahlhaus, Absolute Music, 5.

31 Adorno, Theodor W., Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentnor (London: The Athlone Press, 1997): 17.

32 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 17.

33 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 112.

34 Wagner, Richard, ‘Ludwig Schnorr of Carolsfeld’, in Art and Politics: Collected Writings, vol. 4, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Lincoln, NE: Nebraska University Press, 1995): 228.

35 Wagner, ‘Ludwig Schnorr’, 234.

36 Wagner, ‘Ludwig Schnorr’, 235.

37 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experiences (New York: Harper, 1990): 64. This text is not uncontroversial among psychologists but is grounded on extensive empirical studies.

38 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London: Continuum International Publishing, 1975): 101ff.

39 Rooley, Anthony, Performance: Revealing the Orpheus Within (Dorset: Element, 1990).

40 Recording of Beethoven's String Quartet op. 135, The Busch Quartet, first released by HMV (1933), reissued by Iron Needle on IN 1413.

41 ‘Süsser Ruhegesang oder Friedengesang’, see Kerman, Joseph, The Beethoven Quartets (London: Oxford University Press, 1967): 221 . For Beethoven's suggestive plans to use the Lento assai as an eighth movement to op. 131, see Winter, Robert, ‘Plans for the Structure of the String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, op. 131’ in Beethoven Studies 2, ed. Alan Tyson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977): 106.

42 For further discussion of this and other examples, see Johnson, Peter, ‘The Legacy of Recordings’, in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002): 197211 , and ‘“Expressive Intonation” in String Performance: Problems of Analysis and Interpretation’, in The Music Practitioner: Research for the Music Performer, Teacher and Listener, ed. Jane W. Davidson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004): 79–90.

43 Simpson, Robert, ‘Chamber Music for Strings’, in The Beethoven Companion, ed. Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune (London: Faber & Faber, 1971): 277.

44 Beethoven: The Late String Quartets, Lindsay String Quartet, ASV CD DCS 403, Disc 4.

45 A recording of a 1938 Toscanini broadcast of the Lento assai from op. 135 is reproduced on ‘Toscanini: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony’, Music and Arts CD-1136 (1).

46 Kerman, Beethoven Quartets (London: Oxford University Press, 1967): 222.

47 Kerman, Beethoven Quartets, 220–221.

48 Bruner, Jerome, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986): 109.

49 Adorno, Theodor, Sound Figures, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999): 10 .

50 For further discussion of the contemporary value of traditional ‘high’ art, see Johnson, Peter, ‘Illusion and Aura in the Classical Audio Recording’, in Recorded Music: Performance, Culture and Technology, ed. Amanda Bayley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 3751 .

51 Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994): 40; the italics are his.

52 Philip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998): 142.

53 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 98.

54 Charlton, Hoffmann's Musical Writings, 98.

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‘Labyrinthine Pathways and Bright Rings of Light’: Hoffmann's Aesthetics of Music in Performance

  • Peter Johnson (a1)


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