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The term ‘absolute music’ denotes not so much an agreed idea as an aesthetic problem. The expression is of German origin, first appearing in the writings of Romantic philosophers and critics such as J.L. Tieck, J.G. Herder, W.H. Wackenroder, Jean Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann. It features in the controversies of the 19th century – for example, in Hanslick’s spirited defence of absolute Tonkunst against the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner – and also in the abstractions of 20th-century musical aesthetics. It names an ideal of musical purity, an ideal from which music has been held to depart in a variety of ways; for example, by being subordinated to words (as in song), to drama (as in opera), to some representational meaning (as in programme music), or even to the vague requirements of emotional expression. Indeed, it has been more usual to give a negative than a positive definition of the absolute in music. The best way to speak of a thing that claims to be ‘absolute’ is to say what it is not.
It is not word-setting. Songs, liturgical music and opera are all denied the status of absolute music. For in word-setting music is thought to depart from the ideal of purity by lending itself to independent methods of expression. The music has to be understood at least partly in terms of its contribution to the verbal sense. It follows that absolute music must at least be instrumental music (and the human voice may sometimes act as an instrument, as in certain works of Debussy, Delius and Holst). Liszt and Wagner insisted that the absence of words from music did not entail the absence of meaning. Liszt’s Programm-Musik and Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk both arose from the view that all music was essentially meaningful and no music could be considered more absolute than any other. This view gives rise to a further negative definition of the ‘absolute’ in music: it is music that has no external reference. So the imitation of nature in music is a departure from an absolute ideal: Vivaldi’s concertos the ‘Four Seasons’ are less absolute than the Art of Fugue. The symphonic poem is also tainted with impurity, as is every other form of Programme music.