Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Hanslick With Feeling

Robert W. HALL [ # ]


Among most contemporary philosophies of art, Eduard Hanslick's Vom Musikalisch-Schönen is regarded as an irredeemably formalistic tract denying any aesthetic relevance of feeling in the aesthetic appreciation and discussion of music. Challenging this position, I show that Hanslick's outlook is consistent with an expressiveness in music that can be appreciated and discussed aesthetically in relevant metaphorical terms which reveal how the music « looks and what its beauties are ».


Parmi les philosophies de l'art contemporain, le Vom Musikalisch-Schönen d'Eduard Hanslick est considéré comme un traité formaliste strict, qui nie toute pertinence esthétique du sentiment dans l'appréciation et la discussion sur la musique. Malgré cette prise de position, je vais montrer que le point de vue de Hanslick n'exclut pas une expressivité musicale sujette à une appréciation et à une discussion esthétiques en termes métaphoriques pertinents, qui révèlent « l'allure » de la musique et « quelles en sont les beautés ».

The consensus of most contemporary philosophers of art is that Hanslick's On the Musically Beautiful is an irredeemably formalistic tract.1 It vehemently denies that the aesthetic apprehension of instrumental music includes feeling either of the composer or of the listener. Hanslick, so it is widely believed, acknowledged as aesthetically relevant only music's formal or technical characteristics.

I think that this contemporary view of Hanslick's alleged formalism may be due in part to his vigorous and oft repeated denial that music could in any way represent or express the « garden-variety » emotions or ordinary emotions. It hardly follows from this that for Hanslick the only possible aesthetic apprehension of music would be its formal aspects. As Beardsley has noted, denial of the expression theory of music does not necessarily result in formalism; an expressive theory of music is possible.

The Expression Theory has called our attention to an important fact about music--namely, that it has human regional qualities. But in performing this service it has rendered itself obsolete. We have no further use for it. ... 'This music is joyous' is plain and can be defended. 'This music expresses joy' adds nothing except unnecessary and unanswerable questions.2  

The interpretation of Hanslick as a musical formalist may be due to an all too hasty inference from his conviction that (1) « from all customary appeals to feeling, we can derive not a single musical law. » Yet, earlier Hanslick stoutly maintains (2) « the view that the ultimate worth of the beautiful is always based on the immediate manifestation of feeling. » Hanslick is amazed that his negative thesis « opposing the widespread view that music is supposed to represent feelings » has led to the insistence of many people that « this implies an absolute lack of feeling in music. »3 I think that the apparent conflict in Hanslick's view of the role of feeling in music can be resolved by the implied context of his remarks.4 When Hanslick refers to (1), he is emphasizing that feeling in the ordinary sense has no role to play in the process of composition, whether it be the initial inspiration or subsequently in « fleshing out » the musical work. The kind of feeling indicated by (2) that Hanslick finds in the finished musical composition is expressive because of its tonal forms. As Beardsley said above, and Hanslick agrees with him, music cannot express joy, but music can be joyful. Hanslick's reasons for holding (1) are well known and need not be discussed here, but attention should be given to how he arrives at (2) and what is the nature of the expressive terms applied to the musical work.

What may help us in dealing with (2) is Hanslick's account of the creation of a musical work.

... as the creation of a thinking and feeling mind (eines denkenden und fühlenden Geistes), a musical composition has in a high degree the capability to be itself full of ideality and feeling. This ideal content we demand of every musical artwork. It is to be found only in the tone-structure itself, however, and not in any other aspect of the work.5  

The union of thinking and feeling in the mind explains Hanslick's affirmation that the « ultimate worth of the beautiful is always based on the immediate manifestness of feeling. » What oversees the activity of composing is the spirit or « Geist » of the composer. The meaning of « Geist » or spirit is ambiguous.6 In its broader connotation « Geist » means « spirit ». For Hanslick it includes as complementary both thought and feeling (Gefuhl). « Feeling » in this context is distinguishable from the ordinary meaning of feeling. In its narrower sense « Geist » as intelligence or understanding is opposed to feeling in its ordinary or garden-variety meaning. The feeling Hanslick associates with the broader connotation of « Geist » may be called the composer's feeling. It is not directly involved in the creative process but is, nonetheless, essential for it; « Without spiritual ardour, nothing great or beautiful has ever been accomplished in this life » exclaims Hanslick.7  

Hanslick describes the activity of the composer as the construction of a « product. » Initially the « autonomous beauty » of a melody appears to the composer. He has but a « vague notion » of the outlines of the musical composition. The labor of constructing the musical work is « step by step. » As Hanslick points out, the individual musical elements or tones have their unique expressive characteristics. The inner subjectivity of his inner formative properties » reveals the « predominant characteristics », the composer's feeling, which condition his selection of « certain tonalities, rhythms, transitions, and so on, which accord with the basic « impulse » of the composition. »8 According to Hanslick examples of these « predominant » or prevalent characteristics, which constitute the composer's feeling(s), are « sentimentality, energy, serenity, and the like. »9 When these characteristics have been « absorbed » by the finished musical composition they do not reflect the subjective emotions of the composer, but are objective « musical determinants » in the music itself.

Once the « expressiveness » of music is substituted for feeling in music in the following passage, Deryck Cooke's analysis of the role of feeling and intellect is strikingly similar to Hanslick's.

Music is no more incapable of being emotionally intelligible because it is bound by the laws of musical construction than poetry is because it is bound by the laws of verbal grammatical construction. In fact, in both cases it should be a truism to say that the construction of a work of art is guided both by the feeling and the intellect: the intellect brings craftsmanship to bear on realizing the overall shape which is felt before it is intellectually apprehended. Let us turn to the Eroica Funeral March once more. We have seen how the C minor tonality and the slow-march rhythm must have crystallized unconsciously in Beethoven as the main theme. Equally unconsciously, the tenderer feelings for the dead hero would give rise to a complex of notes in E flat (the natural key for the end of the first strain beginning in C minor); the feeling of joy would naturally find outlet in brighter complexes of notes in C major (the natural key for the Trio section) and the feelings of triumph in the G major and C major climaxes of the trio - the central point, farthest away from the mournful opening and ending.10  

Hanslick reinforces his view that the expressive characteristics, the result of the composer's feeling, are absorbed into the music itself.

Concerning the place of ideality and feeling in a musical composition, our view is to the prevailing view as the notion of immanence is to that of transcendence.11  

Hanslick is contrasting the two senses of feeling mentioned earlier. As allied with intelligence or ideation in the Geist of the composer, feeling as expressive is immanent in the musical work. As Hanslick's list of the ordinary emotions that music is supposed to arouse indicates, in its ordinary sense feeling evoked in the listener transcends the music. Such evocation of emotion in the listener is for Hanslick not aesthetic. It is due solely to something objective in the music which is, I suggest, expressiveness as a « necessary consequence of its musical determinants. »

It is not the actual feeling of the composer, as a merely subjective emotional state, that evokes the corresponding feeling in the hearer. If we do concede so coercive a power to the music, we thereby acknowledge its cause to be something objective in the music, since only something objective can coerce in any kind of beauty. ... this something objective is the musical determinants of a particular piece. In a strictly aesthetical sense, we can say of any theme at all that it sounds noble or sad or whatever. We cannot say, however, that it is an expression of the noble or sad feelings of the composer. ... The aforementioned musical expression of the theme is a necessary consequence of the musical determinants having been selected just as they were and not otherwise.12  

In a little known passage which may seem completely uncharacteristic to those upholding Hanslick as a musical formalist, but quite in keeping with Hanslick's views as presented here, is the affirmation of the aesthetic relevance of objective, expressive characteristics immanent in the symphonies of Beethoven.

Aesthetical inquiry does not and should not know anything about the personal circumstances and historical background of the composer; it hears and believes only what the artwork itself has to say; it will accordingly discover in Beethoven's symphonies (the identity and biography of the composer being unknown) turbulence, striving, unappeasable longing, vigorous defiance, but that the composer had republican sympathies, was unmarried and becoming deaf, and all the other features which the art historian digs up as illuminating it will by no means glean from the works and may not be used for the evaluation of them.13  

Beethoven's symphonies, thus, have something to say that can be described in expressive terms, expressiveness stemming from those tonally moving forms chosen by the composer's feeling, his predominant characteristics. Asks Hanslick

Is it perhaps the (very sketchy) harmony in the principle (sic) theme of Beethoven's « Coriolanus » overture and Mendelssohn's « Hebrides » which confers upon them the expression of brooding melancholy?14  

What I have thus far said about On the Musically Beautiful may appear to be an uncharacteristic, and even perverse interpretation of Hanslick's work. Yet, as I have already indicated, On the Musically Beautiful provides ample support for my interpretation. Hanslick's expressive language is drawn from the different realms of appearance. It is largely metaphorical and presents an alternative to technical language to describe and talk about music.

Since music has no prototype in nature and expresses no conceptual content, it can be talked about only in dry technical definitions or with poetical fictions. Its realm is truly not of this world. All the fanciful portrayals, characterizations, circumscriptions of a musical work are either figurative or perverse. What in every other art is still description is in music already metaphor. Music demands once and for all to be grasped as music and can be only from itself understood and in itself enjoyed.15  

Other than presenting a technical description, music can be described either perversely or metaphorically.16 Perverse descriptions are, of course, those definitions cited by Hanslick which hold that music's function is either to portray the emotions of the composer or to arouse the emotions of the listeners, or perhaps both.

Hanslick envisages a wide range of aesthetically relevant metaphors that « we cannot do without » as long as they do not have referents. For Hanslick, metaphors are drawn from « other realms » of appearance than the emotionally expressive.

Quite rightly we describe a musical term as majestic, graceful, tender, dull, hackneyed, but all these expressions describe the musical character of the passage. To characterize the musical expressiveness of a motive, we often choose terms from the vocabulary of our emotional life: arrogant, peevish, tender, spirited, yearning. We can also take our descriptions from other realms of appearance, however, and speak of fragrant, vernal, hazy, chilly music. Feelings are thus, for the description of musical characteristics, only one source among others which offer similarities. We may use such epithets to describe music. (indeed we cannot do without them) provided we never lose sight of the fact that we are using them only figuratively and take care not to say such things as « This music portrays arrogance, » etc.17  

Hanslick, then, advocates the use of metaphor in describing music as an alternative to a technical description. But how are we to understand his usage of metaphor in describing music? Among the myriad theories of metaphor, Beardsley's Verbal Opposition Theory may be usefully applied to music.

... when a term is combined with others in such a way that there would be a logical opposition between the central meaning and that of other terms, there occurs that shift from central meaning to marginal meaning which shows the word is to be taken in a metaphorical way.18  

According to Beardsley, metaphor exhibits two levels of meaning. The first level results in a logical absurdity with regard to the central meaning of the metaphor. The second level relates the two terms through their marginal or peripheral meaning as with the metaphor « spiteful sun. »19 But how can Beardsley's account of literary metaphor be applied to musical metaphor? To say that musical work « X is sad » in « sad's » central meaning would be logically impossible. How, as Hanslick emphasizes, could a musical piece embody the emotion of sadness? As Hospers put it

Emotions occur only in sentient beings; but in music no sentient beings are represented, hence no emotions. You cannot have the smile without the Cheshire cat.20  

In its central meaning « sad » is predicated not of an assemblage of musical notes or tones, but of sentient, if not human, beings who are sad about something. But on the second level, in a marginal or peripheral sense, « sad »can be attributed to music without a referent in the same way that is can be predicated of faces (both human and animal), scenes, situations, happenings etc.

As presented here Hanslick's argument is akin to Schopenhauer's view that in music the listener hears directly without conceptualization the form or shape of feeling, sadness or defiance with no reference to an object of the emotion,

... music does not express this or that particular and definite pleasure, this or that affliction, pain, sorrow, gaiety, merriment, or peace of mind but joy, pain, sorrow, gaiety, merriment, peace of mind, themselves to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without any accessories, and so also without the motives for them.21  

Nevertheless, Hanslick differs from Schopenhauer's apparent claim that music presents non-conceptual yet generic feelings, giving « their essential nature. » An aspect of the individuality of composers for Hanslick lies not in a « generic » expressiveness if such were possible, but in the shadings of expressiveness revealed in the music. The non-aesthetic listener, the « feeling theorist » is only concerned with whether the music is « cheerful » or « sad. » If several pieces have a « noisy cheerfulness » that generic characteristic is what evokes the corresponding emotion in the listener. In contrast, the aesthetic listener is aware of the individuality of each piece that falls under a « generic » expressive character.

If we play a few similar pieces, perhaps of a noisy, cheerful character, for an adherent of the feeling-theory, he will remain under the spell of the same impressions. Only what these pieces have in common, the effect of noisy cheerfulness, penetrates his awareness, while that which is special in every composition, namely its artistic individuality, escapes him. The musical listener will proceed in precisely the opposite manner. The characteristic artistic construction of a composition, which in effect marks it off from a dozen similar compositions as a self-subsistent artwork, so dominantly occupies his attention that he considers its similar or dissimilar impressions upon the feelings to be of trifling significance. The isolated perception of an abstract feeling-content instead of the concrete artistic phenomenon is entirely characteristic of such musical cultivation as the feeling-theorist's (i.e. the non aesthetic listener). ... This unartistic apprehension of a piece of music does not single out the strictly sensuous aspect i.e. the rich variety of the succession of sounds in itself, but rather its abstract general impression as mere feeling.22  

Radford has well brought out the various shadings of a generic expressive terms revealing the « artistic individuality » of the composers as suggested by Hanslick (with Hanslick's conceding that they are only expressive shadings and not different shadings of ordinary emotion).

... the sadness ... varies with the nature of the music, with its particular quality that we subsume under the generic term 'sadness'. The sadness of Bach is not the sadness of Beethoven; Schubert's sadness is not Chopin's.23  

When Hanslick writes that « music demands once and for all to be grasped as music and can be only from itself understood and itself enjoyed », he is echoing what others have said about the other arts. Yet, they acknowledge that a description of the expressive character of the art object is possible and meaningful. Bell, for example, the supposed « Hanslick » of painting, writes that there is what Beardsley would say is a « human regional quality » in the Sistine Madonna, » a human relationship ... between mother and child » which he had not experienced before. Of Raphael's painting Bell writes that the sentiment or expressiveness in the painting while « felt in the heart » can be « externalized only in the forms and recognized only by the eye. »24 Bradley extends the unique meaning of art to painting, literature, and music,

Just as there is in music not sound on one side and a meaning on the other, but expressive sound, and if you ask what is the meaning you can only answer by pointing to the sounds; just as in painting there is not a meaning in paint, or significant paint; so in a poem the true content and the true form neither exist nor can be imagined apart. ... What Beethoven meant by his symphony, or Turner by his picture, was not something which you can name, but the picture and the symphony. Meaning they have, but what meaning can be said in no language but their own.25  

Granted that a description can not bring out fully the meaning of a work of art. Yet, it may be of considerable assistance in « understanding » the art object. Why else would Bradley write his classic study on Shakespearean tragedy, or Hanslick his music reviews? Blocker's cogent remarks about poetry could be applied to music in a manner which would be compatible with Hanslick provided when applied to music we take « meaning » as « expressiveness. »

... the assertion that a poem is untranslatable should not be understood to mean either the impossibility of translating a poem into a prose statement or the inadvisability of such. The assertion that a poem is untranslatable should be taken as a warning not to mistake a suggestion of the meaning of a poem which we can give, for an exact equivalent of the meaning which we cannot.26  

As we have already seen, Hanslick affirms that we can not do without prose descriptions in describing music. According to Hanslick, in reviewing a musical composition, the critic's task is to « describe how it looks and what its beauties are. » In this activity, the critic and, presumably the interested listener, cannot do, as Hanslick maintains, without metaphorical epithets that say something about the music, that, for example, aesthetically speaking, the symphonies of Beethoven display « turbulence, striving, unappeasable longing, vigorous defiance. »

Similar metaphors could, of course, apply to these symphonies. But it would hardly be appropriate to describe Beethoven's symphonies as tragic, despairing, placid, calm. Theses terms do not « say » what the music is about or reveal its « beauties. » While expressively metaphorical terms may not provide meaning in the conventional, referential sense, according to Hanslick they do communicate something aesthetically meaningful about music, « how it looks and what its beauties are. » Hanslick's insistence on the need for describing music in metaphorically expressive terms surely indicates that he is not the musical formalist that he is alleged to be, for, as we have seen for him « the ultimate worth of the beautiful is always based on the immediate manifestness of feeling » in the expressive character of the musical composition.


1. See, for example, Sparshott's comment that Hanslick's advocacy of formal relations in music has achieved « wide acceptance as one of the permanently possible positions in the aesthetics of music », F. Sparshott, « Aesthetics of Music », in S. Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, I, p. 128. In The Interpretation of Music, M. Krauz, ed., (Oxford, 1993) F. M. Berenson notes that for Hanslick music is an « end in itself. » In the same volume in his « Music as Ordered Sound », pp. 151-2 Joseph Margolis characterizes Hanslick's position on the aesthetics of music as « the reduction of all musical properties to the properties of mere ordered sound. In Music Alone (Ithaca and London, 1990) p. 185 Kivy affirms « that Hanslick is famous, even infamous, for his view that expressive properties play no essential role in music.... »

2. Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics (New York, 1958) p. 331.

3. Eduard Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful, G. Payzant, trans., (Indianapolis, 1986) p. xxii. Further citations to this work will be by page number only.

4. In his « Introduction: New Directions in the Philosophy of Music », The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, V. 52, No. 1, 1994, p. 1, Philip Alperson observes that « Hanslick does not believe that the musical experience either is or should be devoid of feeling. » Yet Alperson emphasizes that « Hanslick resolutely denies the view that the purpose of music could be either the arousal of emotions in the listener or the expression of emotion in the music itself, » leaving the reader to wonder why music should not be « devoid of feeling. » The following discussion here attempts to clarify the sense in which Hanslick accepts and rejects the role of feeling in music as aesthetically correct.

5. p. 31.

6. For this account of Geist and Hanslick's description of the composing process I am greatly indebted to G. Payzant's invaluable article « Hanslick on Music as the Product of Feeling », Journal of Musical Research, V. 19, 1989, pp. 133-67.

7. p. 46.

8. p. 47.

9. p. 47.

10. Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music, (London, 1960) p. 31.

11. p. 31.

12. p. 47.

13. p. 39. In « The Repudiation of Emotion: Hanslick on Music », The British Journal of Aesthetics, V. 20, 1980, p.42, n.12, M. Budd mentions this passage only to dismiss it as failing « to integrate this thought into his theory that the beauty of music is specifically musical and that the most that music can do is to reflect the dynamic properties of feeling », which as he realizes, has nothing to do with the specifically musical. For the relevance of this passage to the argument in On the Musically Beautiful, a passage ignored by virtually all accounts of Hanslick, see R. W. Hall, « Hanslick and Musical Expressiveness », The Journal of Aesthetic Education, V. 29, No. 3, 1995, pp. 85-92.

14. p. 34.

15. p. 30.

16. F. E. Maus in « Hanslick's Animism », The Journal of Musicology, V. X, 1992, pp. 273-92 suggests that Hanslick is dissatisfied with the methods of « dry technical analysis. » Hanslick complains that his one brief example of such analysis, of Beethoven's « Prometheus Overture » «  makes a skeleton out of a flourishing organism. » Although it might destroy all beauty,Maus points out that even Hanslick's « dry technical analysis » is figurative in its use of a fountain metaphor. Indeed, Hanslick deems it the function of music criticism to describe how a musical composition looks and « what its beauties are »; Eduard Hanslick Music Criticisms 1846-49. H. Pleasants, ed. and trans. (Harmondsworth, 1963) p. 210. Some critics have, in fact, considered Hanslick's Music Criticisms as at variance with On the Musically Beautiful; so Peter Kivy, op cit. pp. 184-94. I think, however, they are, on the whole, quite in agreement with On the Musically Beautiful's use of expressive qualities to describe the music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn as quoted above.

17. p. 31 In « Musical Criticism and Musical Meaning », The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, V. 53, No. 3, 1995, pp. 299-312, Patricia Herzog contends (p. 302) that Hanslick virtually in the same breath disclaims the use of figurative language and yet says that we cannot do without them as the passage cited here indicates. I don't find in the context of the passage that she cites and is cited here any basis for such a disclaimer. Hanslick's denial that we can say that « This music portrays arrogance », etc. does not deny the figurative use of language in musical description. It merely states Hanslick's reiterated claim that music can not represent or express ordinary emotion but not that music can not be expressive. My previous discussion has already indicated Hanslick's aesthetically correct use of expressive language as in notes 13 and 14.

18. The « Metaphorical Twist », in Monroe Beardsley's The Aesthetic Point of View (Ithaca and London, 1982) pp. 270-71.

19. Notes Beardsley a metaphorical attribution . . . involves two ingredients: a semantical distinction between two levels of meaning, and a logical opposition at one level. Thus there is no question of « spiteful, » in a metaphorical context, denoting spiteful people and injecting them for the purpose of comparison; the price it pays for admission to this context is that it function there to signify only its connoted characteristics.

20. John Hospers, Meaning and Truth in the Arts (Chapel Hill, 1946) p. 53.

21. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, V. 1, F. J. Payne, trans. (Indian Hill, 1958) p. 261.

22. 58-59, 60.

23. Colin Radford, « Emotion and Music, A Reply to Cognitivists », The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, V. 47, No. 1, 1989, p. 73.

24. Clive Bell, Enjoying Pictures (New York, 1934) pp. 79-80.

25. A. C. Bradley, « Poetry for Poetry's Sake », in Problems of Aesthetics, eds. E. Vivas and M. Krieger (New York, 1957) pp. 569, 575-76.

26. H. Gene Blocker, « Interpreting Art », The Journal of Aesthetic Education, V. 24, No. 1, 1990, p. 43.

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