Introducing the ‘Seminal Works Project’: Tim Blanning

Posted in seminal works by Freya Gowrley on August 30, 2011

As a new, occasional column here at Enfilade, the “Seminal Works Project” aims to identify and describe works that dixhuitièmistes consider to have been especially influential for their academic development. Such a ‘work’ could be a book, exhibition, journal article, even a television program — anything that had a great impact.

In the first installment, Tim Blanning of the University of Cambridge identifies Paul Bekker’s Das deutsche Musikleben [German musical life] as important for his thinking on musical form. Blanning’s research centers on the history of Continental Europe from the seventeenth century to the First World War, with various publications on eighteenth-century cultural history, most recently, The Triumph of Music in the Modern World (2008).

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Seminal Works
Tim Blanning, On Paul Bekker’s Das deutsche Musikleben (1916)

Among the innumerable books and articles which have influenced me, the one that stands out for its originality is Paul Bekker’s Das deutsche Musikleben [German musical life], first published in 1916. Born in 1882, Bekker began life as a musician – early on at the very highest level indeed, leading the Berlin Philharmonic while still in his twenties. He then progressed briefly to conducting before devoting himself to writing, establishing a reputation as one of the most influential critics in Germany. After the First World War he served successively as artistic director at the state theatres of Kassel and Wiesbaden, while writing numerous books on musical theory and history. Forced into exile in 1933, he died in New York in 1937.

Although he was mainly concerned with contemporary music and the nineteenth century, his views on the interaction between society and music have just as much relevance for the eighteenth century. At the heart of his theory is the axiom that both the musician and society create. It would be wrong to allow the former alone the role of creator and assign to the latter just the role of receiving and performing. Musical form is usually understood as something confined to the sound (Klangbild) as recorded by the composer on the stave; and this sound is seen as the completed work of art. But that is to overlook the fact that such a sound is just inert matter – it acquires form only through perception. That perception can only take place through interaction with the milieu (Umwelt). Form appears only when matter and milieu relate to each other and only when the two of them get together does the finished work of art – the form – appear. The creative musician can be regarded as the creator of the form only in a limited sense: what he does is to set his music down on the stave, but to attain status of sound, it has to be performed, and however faithful the performer, he/she does participate in and add to its creation. That is even more true of the other element in form – perception. Perception is not passive reception but is an active process. By allowing the matter to become form through perception, it introduces a new element to the creative results of the musician: perceiving activity. This means that the milieu wins an independent share in the creation of form. Two separate creative powers enter into an active relationship with each other: the power of the musician, who arranges the matter, and the power of the milieu which perceives it. Although the laws which determine the formation of matter are fixed by the musician at the time of creation and are immutable, the perceptive power of the milieu is very mutable. So the potential for changes in form is as great as the changes in the milieu’s perception. The subject-matter is created by the composer in accordance with his perception of his audience’s ability to receive it. It is not formed as a result of any internal laws. It is the result of interaction with social reception. Consequently sound is not an aesthetic but a sociological construct. Through its particular composition, it is society which provides the foundations, and through its perceptive capacity it provides the preconditions for the formation of the musical subject-matter. There is much more besides in this wonderfully cogent and incisive book.

Tim Blanning
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

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