Musical critics often give applause to compositions as being “scientific” – as being meritorious not in respect of the emotions they arouse but as appealing to the cultured intelligence of the musician … I hold these to be perverted beliefs having their roots in the prevailing enormous error respecting the constitution of mind. In that part of life concerned with music, as in other parts of life, the intellect is the minister and the emotions the things ministered to.
STRONG words coming from a self-confessed, rank musical amateur. From anyone else they might be dismissed as the mad ravings of a lunatic. Coming from a Victorian intellectual titan and author of one the first evolutionary studies of musical origins, however, Herbert Spencer's words carried a great weight of authority.
Public intellectual and serial controversialist, Spencer (1820–1903) came from a relatively unmusical family and was unable to play an instrument, but he clearly enjoyed music and from the late 1840s he regularly attended opera and concerts in London. Around the same time he began learning how to sing from Hullah's famous singing manual, and although his interest remained more intellectual than practical he retained a love of singing by the piano, later chiding his close friend (and possibly lover) the novelist George Eliot for never joining in. Recent work on Spencer reflects an interest in his work-a-day musicality – portraying him as an amateur in the strictest sense, and as a true, ardent lover of music – but most work on Spencer and music tends to focus almost exclusively on his evolutionary theory, and there is practically nothing on his musical criticism. As John Offer, Charles Brotman and I suggest, so deeply interwoven is evolution within his philosophical programme as a whole that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to disaggregate it from other elements of his thought, especially his music criticism.
To do that requires more than simply disentangling the strands in Spencer's evolutionary thinking; rather, it requires an examination of their relationship to a curiously neglected musicological topic – sympathy. For Spencer and his philosophical descendants in the Oxford School of music criticism, sympathy is at the root of human advancement. At the root of sympathy, however, is music; musical feelings, Spencer opines, ‘are the chief media of sympathy’.