Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
In recent decades a preoccupation with the date 1800 has emerged in Anglo-phone musical research. This moment is said to mark a paradigm shift in the history of musical ideas and the replacement of one set of values and practices by another. Music historians tell a story of the decline of mimesis in music aesthetics and the emergence of idealism, along with the ascent of music within conceptual hierarchies of the fine arts. In most accounts the relationship between music and language is of central importance. Whereas eighteenth-century critics valued vocal music over instrumental music (the precision of linguistic representation compensating for the obscurity of musical signs), for the Romantics that very obscurity allowed music to disclose the hidden nature of ultimate reality more effectively than language. Many current musicologists tell how the patterns of thought that emerged around 1800 persisted in modern musical ‘high’ culture for much of the next two centuries: ‘Today, we are still making music under the premises of the post-1800 paradigm.’
The near-fixation with the familiar tale of the paradigm shift is no accident. It offers a way to understand and control some contested issues in contemporary musicology. By pinpointing the emergence of modern musical discourse at 1800 scholars can isolate and define their own intellectual inheritance, whether they approve of it or not. Thus, on the one hand, they chart ‘the emancipation of music from language’ during the late eighteenth century and uncover the origins of modern conceptions of musical autonomy and the emergence of the discourses of music criticism, hermeneutics and technical analysis at just the time that Mozart and Beethoven were composing their instrumental works.