In the mid-nineteenth century, materialist and empiricist modes of thought characteristic of natural science increasingly called into question the speculation of German idealist philosophy. Music historians have commonly associated Eduard Hanslick's Vom Musikalisch-Schnen (On the Musically Beautiful, 1854) with this tendency toward positivism, interpreting the treatise as an argument for musical formalism. His treatise indeed sought to revise idealist musical aesthetics, but in a far less straightforward way. Hanslick devotes considerable attention to the "material" that makes up music and the musical work. The nature of music's materiality is in fact a central pillar of Hanslick's argument, which draws on the abundant literature of the 1840s and 50s promoting scientific materialism and on what might be described as an Aristotelian conception of matter. Hanslick's goal, however, was not to deny idealism, but rather to negotiate a middle ground between idealism and materialism, thereby reconciling a prevailing conception of music's metaphysical status with the physical properties of matter. This is most clearly observed in his carefully crafted conception of the musical "tone," which unites the inner world of thought and the external world of nature. Hanslick's somewhat ironic use of a materialist framework to demonstrate music's inherent ideality betrayed a desire not only to attune musical aesthetics with the latest materialist theories, but also to preserve art music's exclusivity. On the Musically Beautiful is perhaps best understood not as an unequivocal case for formalism but as evidence of the complex ways in which mid-century tensions between idealism and materialism informed German musical discourse.
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