Absolute Music: The History of an Idea  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Absolute Music: The History of an Idea (2014) is a book on the history of the concept of absolute music by Mark Evan Bonds.

Excerpt on the origins of abstract art:

"The sense of painting as an art primarily of form rather than of representation won growing acceptance toward the end of the nineteenth century. The French painter and writer Maurice Denis (1870–1943) pointed out in 1890 that "it is well to remember that a picture -- before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." In lectures delivered at Harvard in the 1890s, Santayana speculated on the possibility of a "new abstract art" that would "deal with colors as music does with sound." Along similar lines, the German architect August Endell (1871–1925) spoke in 1898 about “the beginning of a totally new art, an art with forms that mean nothing and represent nothing and remind one of nothing; yet that will be able to move our souls so deeply, as before only music has been able to do with tones." The writings of the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer (1881–1965) lent further prestige to the aesthetics of abstraction. In his influential Abstraktion und Einfühlung: Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie (1908), he asserted that throughout history nonrepresentational art [...] reflected a society's distrust of materiality and a correspondingly greater attraction the world of the spirit."

From the publisher:

What is music, and why does it move us? From Pythagoras to the present, writers have struggled to isolate the essence of "pure" or "absolute" music in ways that also account for its profound effect. In Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, Mark Evan Bonds traces the history of these efforts across more than two millennia, paying special attention to the relationship between music's essence and its qualities of form, expression, beauty, autonomy, as well as its perceived capacity to disclose philosophical truths.
The core of this book focuses on the period between 1850 and 1945. Although the idea of pure music is as old as antiquity, the term "absolute music" is itself relatively recent. It was Richard Wagner who coined the term, in 1846, and he used it as a pejorative in his efforts to expose the limitations of purely instrumental music. For Wagner, music that was "absolute" was isolated, detached from the world, sterile. His contemporary, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, embraced this quality of isolation as a guarantor of purity. Only pure, absolute music, he argued, could realize the highest potential of the art.
Bonds reveals how and why perceptions of absolute music changed so radically between the 1850s and 1920s. When it first appeared, "absolute music" was a new term applied to old music, but by the early decades of the twentieth century, it had become-paradoxically—an old term associated with the new music of modernists like Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Bonds argues that the key developments in this shift lay not in discourse about music but rather the visual arts. The growing prestige of abstraction and form in painting at the turn of the twentieth century-line and color, as opposed to object-helped move the idea of purely abstract, absolute music to the cutting edge of musical modernism.
By carefully tracing the evolution of absolute music from Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages to the twentieth-century, Bonds not only provides the first comprehensive history of this pivotal concept but also provokes new thoughts on the essence of music and how essence has been used to explain music's effect. A long awaited book from one of the most respected senior scholars in the field, Absolute Music will be essential reading for anyone interested in the history, theory, and aesthetics of music.




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