Hanslick, Eduard

 © The New Grove 1980

 Hanslick, Eduard (b Prague11 Sept 1825; d Baden, nr. Vienna6 Aug 1904).


German music critic, aesthetician, musicologist and civil servant. He was the first great professional music critic, an important contributor to the aesthetics of music, and a pioneer of musical appreciation. His critical and biographical writings, spanning half a century, are still valuable for their shrewd judgments, their fluent prose and their informed commentary.


1. life. Hanslick’s paternal ancestors were German-speaking Catholics who owned and farmed land near Rakonitz (now Rakovnik), Bohemia. His father attended Gymnasium and university in Prague, and then earned a living by music teaching and library cataloguing until a substantial prize in a lottery enabled him to marry one of his piano pupils, the daughter of a Jewish banker. Hanslick's mother taught him French and a love of the theatre; he early acquired his father's taste for books and music, and made rapid progress in piano playing and composing. At 18 he began to study with Tomášek, Prague’s foremost music teacher. He also read law at Prague University where he met the philosopher Zimmermann and the music historian Ambros. They all subscribed to the Leipzig Neue Zeitschrift für Musik; and in his earliest articles (for the Prague journal Ost und West) Hanslick emulated the subjective and Jean­Paulian style of Schumann.

     This enthusiasm led to an essay on Das Paradies und die Peri, which prompted an invitation from Schumann in Dresden. There Hanslick also renewed an acquaint­ance with Wagner. In 1846 he moved to Vienna for a final year of legal studies. His article onTannhäuser (in the Wiener Musikzeitung) earned the composer's ap­proval. Hanslick also wrote for the Sonntagsblätter, from whose editor, Frankl, he learnt clarity and read­ability, and was thus able to communicate with a large and growing musical public. He was soon invited to write for the newly founded Wiener Zeitung. By 1849 he had graduated as doctor of law; he joined the department of education, and in 1850 was sent to Klagenfurt, which entailed breaking off an engagement as well as discontinuing his work for the Wiener Zeitung. He found the social life of the provinces con­genial, but when his tour of duty ended in 1852 he was eager to return to Vienna and a post in the ministry of culture. In 1854 he published his Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, which by the end of the century had reached its tenth edition and was widely translated. In 1855 he began to write for the Presse (the Neue freie Presse from 1864). In 1856 he received an honorary readership from the University ofVienna, which accepted his book as a dissertation. For nearly 40 years he gave lectures on music appreciation, then a novel concept. By 1861 he had advanced to a paid associate professorship, which together with his earnings as a critic enabled him to retire from the civil service.

     Meanwhile he had continued his musical travels, often as an adjudicator or official representative – to Germany in 1855, Switzerland in 1857, France in 1860 and 1867, andLondon in 1862. In that year he began his friendship with Brahms and also took his first steps towards promoting the standardization of musical pitch, which was the subject of an international conference in 1885. He was also active in administration, and in 1863 helped to secure subsidies for deserving musicians (later including Dvorak). In 1870 he became a full professor of music history and aesthetics; in 1876 he began his happy marriage with the young singer Sophie Wohlmuth. He continued as critic, teacher, emissary and doyen until retiring, full of honours and renown, at 70. He knew most of the musicians of his day, and many of the writers: such knowledge and influence over so wide a scene have never been equalled. His own phrase for Tomášek in Prague, “the dalai lama of music” might well describe his own eminence not only in Vienna but throughout the German-speaking world, and beyond.



2. Writings. In spite of his renown, Hanslick was far from universally revered. As a critic, he spoke solely for his time and class. As he told Billroth (Aus meinem Leben, ii, 304) he would rather see all Palestrina's works burned than Mendelssohn's, rather all the con­certos and sonatas of Bach than the quartets of Schumann and Brahms, and so on. He felt that music hardly existed before the 17th century, and even then was mainly of historical interest. “For my heart it really begins with Mozart and culminates in Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms” (ibid, 307).

     Yet Hanslick's aesthetic enshrined the classical ideals of orderliness and formal perfection. Even melody, his other main desideratum (“ohne Melodie keine Musik, ohne gesungene Melodie keine Oper”: Aus dem Tagebuch eines Musikers, 179), was admired less for its continuity of flow than for its regularity of pattern. Thus the prelude to Tristan was chided for its lack of contrast or repose (Aus dem Concertsaal, 327). Not only Wagner but Verdi (Otello) lacked melody in this sense (Musikalisches und Literarisches, 72). Wagner also lacked verisimilitude, insofar as he portrayed mythological characters and not real people.

     Hanslick’s consistent equation of music with human values convinced him that creative power declined with the composers health, as in Schumann's last phase (Am Ende des Jahrhunderts (1895-1899), 256, etc). In music as in people he admired above all integrity, of craftsmanship as of purpose, and clarity of communica­tion. “Einheitlich” (unified) and “übersichtlich” (clearly set out) are typical terms of commendation. His analytical mind was quick to appreciate thematic unity (e.g. in Schumann's Fourth Symphony: Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien, 122) in ways far in advance of his time.

     All these qualities, together with liveliness and humour, which he also valued in music, characterized his own reviews. These dealt with works rather than performances, and are often carefully planned round some central theme or aspect of the music, whether based on personal knowledge, as in many discussions of Brahms, or on objective fact and research; for example, a notice of a clarinet work is documented with a history of the instrument (Fünf Jahre Musik (1891-1895), 169) or the Schubert ballad is traced to its sources in Zelter and Zumsteeg (Aus dem Concertsaal, 199). For Hanslick was the first serious musicologist and aesthetician among critics. Conscious of his public respon­sibility, he prepared carefully beforehand (e.g. studying Shakespeare before reviewing Verdi's Otello) and wrote with deliberation afterwards. Even his opponents- and detractors, including so devoted a Wagnerian as Hugo Wolf, could admire his grasp and style.

     Hanslick was concerned always with practical music-making, and continued regular piano practice all his life. He also had experience of composition (the Lieder aus der Jugendzeitwere published by Simrock, on Brahms's recommendation, in 1882). His wide knowledge of musicians as well as music makes his writings an unrivalled source-book of the period for biographical as well as critical material. Finally he was able to see his subject in historical and social perspective. “In no other art form is the effluxion of time so swift and devastating as in music” (Aus meinem Leben, ii, 305). So he could readily concede that the future might well belong to music that lay outside his own frame of reference, citing Mahler. Wolf and Strauss as examples (Aus neuer and neuester Zeit,77).

     Hanslick offered no such concession to Wagner, Liszt and their followers. He duly acknowledged Wagners genius and achievements, but feared that they had forced music beyond its proper boundaries. To cite just one example – “Der Walkürenritt überschreitet die Grenzen des Charakteristisch-Schönen“ (Aus dem Concertsaal, 281). This restrictive attitude explains the taunt of “Beckmesser” from the Wagnerians; that carping critic was called, in a draft of Die Meistersinger, Veit Hanslich. The victim protested (Aus meinem Leben. ii. 227) that he was a serious critic, not a hair-splitting pedant. Yet Wagner's lampoon is not wholly unjust. For the composer, music is as music does; for the critic, it is subject to laws. Many years of such controversy are fixed in one vivid and memorable image (see illustra­tion).

     The question is: what authority has the lawgiver? In some respects Hanslick's attitude was merely subjective. Brahms in 1888, although a long-standing friend and sympathizer, could not deny that Hanslick's view of Wagner embodied a blind spot. Personal antipathies also played a part. Wagner's political and moral stance often seemed to defy the society for which Hanslick spoke. Further, Wagner had inveighed against Jewishness in music, in an article of that title published pseudonymously in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik of 1850 and again in 1869 as part of his prose works. The later version mentions Hanslicks “delicately concealed Jewish descent” (“zierlich verdeckte judische Herkunft”) and described Vom Musikalisch-Schönen as a libel written to further Jewish musical aims. In an uncollected article for the Neue freie Presse (9 March 1869) and again in Aus meinem Leben (ii, 10), Hanslick repudiated Wagner's views, and disclaimed Jewish descent (his mother had converted to Catholicism in 1823). But elsewhere (ibid, ii, 236, 242) he conceded that Vom Musikalisch-Schönen had indeed begun as anti-Wagnerian polemic, and that this negative aspect tends to outweigh the positive aesthetic. However, the latter is not thereby invalidated; and the controversy is worth examining because of its wider relevance.

     The essence of Hanslick's case against Wagner was distilled, for a lay readership, in Aus meinem Leben (ii, 228) as “the subjection of music to words”. On this text Hanslick had consistently preached for half a century. At times the sermon could lapse into rant: he admitted this and pleaded provocation from rabid Wagnerites (Aus meinem Leben, ii, 227ff, 301f). But his basic contention – that the value of music lies in its formal relations and not its expressiveness – has a permanent place in the aesthetics of music. This position is established and defended in depth in Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, which was dedicated to Robert Zimmermann, a professional philosopher, whose own Aesthetik was published in 1865. That work offers many of the same ideas as Hanslick's; and these may well owe their logical coher­ence to Zimmermann's expertise and their memorable formulation to Hanslick's prose style. Zimmermann was a disciple of the formalist Herbart, from whom the main idea derives, namely that music is solely sonorous form with no significant content or expression other than the sound it makes; it can neither convey specific concepts nor express specific feelings. The content of song is the words, not the music; as for programme music, it should make a clear and independent impression quite apart from the programme (Aus dem Concertsaal, 126). Music in all contexts was for Hanslick an end in itself, never a means to the end of poetic or dramatic expression.

     From the domain of music thus defined, Wagner would in logic be banished. The strength of the formalist case may well have been apparent to Wagner himself; hence perhaps his proposed extension of boundaries as far as the Gesamtkunstwerk. But given goodwill all this disputed territory could have afforded common ground. For Hanslick (as Zimmermann in his generally affable review of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen could not forbear to point out) was not a rigid or pure formalist. On the contrary, he was at pains to insist (op cit, chap.2) that although music cannot portray the quality of feelings, it can portray their dynamic aspect or tone. Thus love may be tender or impetuous, joyful or sad; and music can according to Hanslick represent these attributes if not the feeling as such – the epithets, as he put it, if not the substantive.

     But this central admission of music as metaphor or symbol makes a significant concession. If music can be symbolically referential or expressive (as Hanslick insisted) then it can also by the same token have a content separable from its form (as Hanslick repeatedly assumed in his critical writings) without necessarily being in either respect unmusical or even extra-musical; and whether it thereby loses artistic value would there­fore have to be argued and not just assumed.

Nevertheless, the general integrity and consistency. of Hanslick's systems of thought have made a permanent and significant contribution to aesthetics and criticism. His emphasis on autonomy and structure prepared the ground for such analysts as Schenker and Reti; at the same time his acknowledgment and identification of the metaphorical and symbolic aspects of music found fruitful development in the theories of Susanne Langer and others; and finally his critical praxis directly affected the course of music history by implanting and nurturing the seeds of anti-Wagnerian reaction.

Writings and Bibliography


Vom Musikalisch-Schönen: ein Beitrag rut Revision der Ästhetik der Tonkunst (Leipzig, 1854/R1965, 7/1885, 11/1910, 16/1966; Eng. trans., 1891/R1974) [most edns. rev. and enlarged]

with W. Lübke: Wilhelm Lübke und Eduard Hanslick über Richard Wagner (Berlin, 1869)

Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien, i (Vienna, 1869/RI971); Aus dem Concertsaal: Kritiken und Schilderungen aus den letzten 20 Jahren des Wiener Musiklebens, 1848-1868 (1870/R1971, 2/1896)

Gallerie deutscher Tondichter mit biographischem Text von Dr Ed. Hanslick (Frankfurt am Main, 1872, 2/1886)

Die moderne Oper, i Kritiken und Studien (Berlin, 1875/R1971, 2/1876, 3/1911); ii: Musikalische Stationen (1880/R1971, 6/1911); iii: Aus dem Opernleben der Gegenwart (1884R1971, 4/1911); iv: Musikalisches Skizzenbuch (1888/R1971, 3/1911); v: Musikalisches und Literarisches (1889/R1971, 3/1911); vi: Aus dem Tagebuch eines Musikers (1892/R1971, 3/1911); vii: Fünf Jahre Musik (1891-1895) (1896/R1971, 3/1911); viii: Am Ende des Jahrhunderts (1895-1899) (1899/RI971, 3/1911); ix: Aus neuer und neuester Zeit (1900/R1971, 3/1911)

'Beethoven in Wien', Zur Enthüllung des Beethoven-Denkmals in Wien (Vienna, 1880)

Operncyclus im Foyer des K. K. Opernhauses in Wien (Munich and Leipzig, 1880)

Suite: Aufsätze über Musik und Musiker (Vienna and Teschen, 1885) Concerte, Componisten und Virtuosen der letzten fünfzehn Jahre 1870­1885 (Berlin, 1886, 4/1896R1971)

Aus meinem Leben (Berlin, 1894/R1971, 4/1911)

ed. T. Billroth: Wer ist musikalisch? (Berlin, 1895, 3/1898)

H. Pleasants, ed., trans.: E. Hanslick: Vienna's Golden Years of Music 1850-1900 (New York, 1950, rev.2/1963 as E. Hanslick: Music Criticisms 1846-99) [selected writings]



F. P. Laurencin d'Armond: Eduard Hanslicks Lehre vom Musikalisch­-Schönen: eine Abwehr (Leipzig, 1859)

F. Stade: Vom Musikalisch-Schönen mit Bezug auf Dr. Eduard Hanslick's gleichnamige Schrift (Leipzig, 1870, 2/1904)

R. Zimmermann: Kritiken und Studien zur Philosophie und Ästhetik, ii (Vienna, 1870), 239ff [review of Vom Musikalisch-Schönen]

R. Franz: Offener Brief an Dr. E. Hanslick über Bearbeitungen Älterer Tonwerke (Leipzig, 1871)

O. Hostinsky: Das Musikalisch-Schöne und das Gesamtkunstwerk vom Standpunkte der formalen Ästhetik (Leipzig, 1877)

E. J. Breakspeare: 'On Musical Aesthetics', PMA, vi (1879-80), 59

F. von Hausegger: Die Musik als Ausdruck (Vienna, 1885, 2/1887)

R. Hirschfeld: Das kriti.sche Verfahren Eduard Hanslicks (Vienna, 1885)

A. Seidl: Vom Musikalisch-Erhabenen (Regensburg, 1887, 2/1907)

P. Schneider: Über das Darstellungsvermögen der Musik: eine Untersuchung von Eduard Hanslicks Buch Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (Leipzig, 1892)

F. Printz: Zur Würdigung des musikästhetischen Formalismus E. Hanslicks (Leipzig, 1918)

R. Schäfke: Eduard Hanslick und die Musikästhetik (Leipzig, 1922)

H. Nonveiller, ed.: Hugo Wolf: Briefe an Heinrich Potpeschnigg (Stuttgart, 1923), 89 [Wolf on Hanslick]

R. Haas: 'Eduard Hanslick', Sudetendeutsche Lebensbilder, i, ed. E. Gierach (Reichenberg, 1926)

S. Deas: In Defence of Hanslick (London, 1940/R1972)

H. Böhmer: 'Musik als tönend bewegt Form: von Hanslick zu Strawinsky', Melos, xvii (1950), 337

M. Mila: L'esperienza musicale e l'estetica (Turin, 1950, 3/1965)

- ; 'Verdi e Hanslick', RaM, xxi (1951), 212

A. Della Corte: 'Le critiche di Eduard Hanslick alle opere di Richard Wagner', RaM, xxix (1959), 12

A. Wilhelmer: Der junge Hanslick (Klagenfurt, 1959)

A. Della Corte: La critica musicale e i critici (Turin, 1961)

E. Fubini: L'estetica musicale dal settecento a oggi (Turin, 1964)

C. Höslinger: ‘Einige Anmerkungen zum Thema Hanslick', OMz, xxi (1966), 535

C. Dahlhaus: 'Eduard Hanslick und der musikalische Formbegriff’ Mf, xx (1967), 145

R. W. Hall: 'On Hanslick's Supposed Formalism in Music', Journal of Aesthetics, xxv (1967), 433

J. Clapham: 'Dvorak's Relations with Brahms and Hanslick', MQ, lvii (1971), 241

K. Hofmann, ed.: Richard Heuberger: Erinnerungen an Johannes Brahms (Tutzing, 1971), 39 [Brahms on Hanslick]

H. Ullrich: Musikkritik und -Kritiken im Wiener Vormärz', ÖMz, xxvi (1971), 353

D. Glatt: Zur geschichtlichen Bedeutung der Musikästhetik Eduard Hanslicks (Munich, 1972)

W. Abegg: Musikästhetik und Musikkritik bei Eduard Hanslick (Regensburg, 1974)

E. Sams: 'Eduard Hanslick, 1825-1904: the Perfect Anti-Wagnerite', MT, cxvi (1975), 867