Musikästhetik, ii: Die Romantik und der Kampf ästhetischer Richtungen by Stanislav A. Markus

Deutscher Verlag/Breitkopf


Only a truly heroic theorist, e.g. of the Soviet Union, could write 562 pages on the aesthetics of music without ever mentioning the idea of beauty or the actuality of music. Such topics are left to the bourgeois musicologist. Stanislav Markus gets full marks for his facts, but Karl Marx for his interpretations; and I fear that his labour, considered as a theory of value, has been largely in vain. Still, he has some reasonably rich rewards, from which in my estimation many a Western writer could profit. First, he offers a comprehensive anthology of relevant scholarly data drawn from an impressively wide range of reading. Secondly, his doctrinaire assumption that music is no mere self­contained sound pattern ('reactionary formalism') seems arguably plausible and indeed persuasive. The trouble is that this book is itself part of a self-contained system, exactly like the formalism it effects lo deplore and nothing like the realism it purports to expound. It needed further translation, not just from Russian into German, but from assertion into ratiocination.

   A general introduction on Romanticism (the 18th century was reviewed in detail in vol.i) is followed by carefully-documented accounts of the musical writings and sayings (never the doings) of Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Wagner. It seems surprising that Wolf should be unheard in Russia; so glaring an omission might well be called a howler, especially since that voice was raised nightly for years in support of the very causes here espoused. Close attention is then devoted lo the, critical work of Hanslick (why not the infinitely better writing of Bernard Shaw?) and the more systematic aesthetics of Vischer, Schopenhauer, Hartmann and Kurth. There are also appeals to political authority, which is far from aesthetic in any ordinary sense. But this seems lo be mainly a ritual, like washing one's dated Lenin in public. Much more ominous, I think, is the rubber-stamping postscript by some nameless Party hack, as if Soviet scholars had to be supplied with an apparatchik criticus.

   This vast weight of learning, this ironclad rigidity of approach, outlook and attitude, all made heavier still by German translation, is like a 47-ton Stalin tank that has stopped dead in its tracks. Let's consider pp.367-89, as characteristic of the entire campaign. They intend an all-out assault on that obstinately Bastogne-like bastion of re­actionary theory, the formalism of Eduard Hanslick. First, the enemy position is sedulously mapped, with a great deal of quotation (not always acknowledged). Then we peruse a number of detailed intelligence reports, from Russian and other sources. Then the troops are roused lo patriotic fervour by the news that Hanslick had a special dislike of Russian music, because of its realist, popular and expressive elements. Finally the bombardment begins; the great dim muzzle rears and barks out its barrage of condemnation. But when the dust and debris have settled, everything seems much the same as before. The target is as blank as the ammunition.

   At least certain facts have been correctly noted. First, Hanslick's famous monograph The Beautiful in Music was indeed a youthful work, and a slender one. Its claim that music is essentially form, without separable content, was never expanded, never pursued, but on the contrary often ignored and even contradicted by its author, in both prior and sub­sequent critical practice, as well as in the work itself. Hanslick's songwriting, completed even earlier and published much later, is also noted. Typically, the songs themselves are left out of account (presumably as being too reminiscent of actual music); but they too are flagrantly incompatible wìth serious formalism, in style as well as genre. The conclusion is however that Hanslick was a typical bourgeois formalist who was seduced in his youth by Kant(Critique of Judgment) and never grew out of it. As further proof of Hanslick's hopelessly bourgeois outlook, we are told that he was distressed at seeing a reactionary hanged from a street lamppost in the 1848 Vienna rising. Aestheticians should be made of sterner stuff. On all these counts Hanslick is found guilty; and we are duly warned of our solemn duty to combat his formalist tendencies and their modern advocates with unremitting vigilance. The awkward fact that in practice he rejected them himself, alt his life, is readily explained; this is a diabolically clever dodge designed to dupe the unwary. Similarly his apologists are found to fall neatly into two groups, both equally reactionary. There are those who like Roland de Candé accept his formalism and glory in it; and those who like Friedrich Blume deny or modify it (that is, cunningly seek lo conceal or mitigate it).

   All this is very carefully decorated with copious citations; but it is of course manifest nonsense. In fact Hanslick's formalism was wholly atypical of bourgeois thought, including his own; and anyone with the least independent feeling for aesthetics or criticism can readily devise some simple hypo­thesis to explain his apparent contradictions. For example, he was a personal friend of the neo-Kantian formalist Zimmermann and a personal enemy of the anti-Semitic anti-formalist Wagner. But such possible insights, and indeed in my view the whole inwardness of the subject, must remain well wide of Markus, for two reasons. First, he begins with his conclusions, and can only remain there. Once the State (or the Church, or the Occult, or even the Unconscious, collective or other) has converted the mind into a built-up area, free thought has nowhere to play, and ideas stay stunted. Secondly, the whole stance and thrust of the book is generalized and collectivist, and this can never satisfactorily relate to the personal or individual. So we see the big guns of the Soviet musicologist well trained to range readily over everything on earth except what actually lies under their muzzles. Hence the otherwise inexplicable feat of writing and knowing so much while saying and understanding so little.        


The Musical Times, Feb. 1978 (pp. 141-142) © the estate of eric sams