At the Origins of Music Analysis

Comen, Craig, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Will, Richard, AS-Music, University of Virginia
Puri, Michael, AS-Music, University of Virginia
Maus, Fred, AS-Music, University of Virginia
Wellmon, Michael, AS-German Lit, University of Virginia

This dissertation chronicles the early history of music criticism over the course of the long eighteenth century, focusing on the emergence of the interpretive close-reading of musical works—what is now called music analysis, a practice ubiquitous across the academic discipline of musicology. The first music analysts were a wide-ranging group of intellectuals and critics who collectively formulated a science of music, complete with a set of scholarly practices and institutions that continues to influence scholarship today. To catalogue and evaluate new music publications, critics interpreted music’s complex structures by fracturing the compositions into parts and attempting to figure out how they related to the whole, resulting in the first structural interpretations—or, in a modern sense, a “critique”—of musical texts. Analysts carved a space for themselves in the emergent disciplinary discourse of musicology, establishing and developing the proprietary knowledge necessary for rationalizing music as a coherent system and playing a pivotal role in establishing its new epistemology.

The study tells the story of the ways in which eighteenth-century critics developed a systematic way of interpreting musical works, and reveals their initial attempts to be far more sophisticated than previously acknowledged. Critics sought to relate musical structure to expression, linking technical concepts recognizable in contemporary music theory to musical meaning. The narrative combines concerns from the fields of cultural history, philosophy, and literary criticism in order to highlight the rich intellectual and cultural contexts surrounding this pivotal moment in the history of musical thought. The narrative begins with French, English, and German music critics of the early Enlightenment, proceeds to trace the intellectual and cultural aspirations of mid-century German musical life and its burgeoning publishing industry, and concludes with the reflective criticism arising from the aesthetic movement of early Romanticism.

My first chapter establishes the variety of critical strands in Germany, France, and England that emerged around the turn of the eighteenth century, all seeking to understand and regulate musical structure in the wake of a panoply of new styles and genres in a newly secularized musical culture. The critics involved were the first to account for musical particularity and to rationalize the musical medium as a site for exhibiting the capacities of the human imagination. The second chapter traces the moment when critics first establish music analysis proper, when they take copious amounts of space to describe moments of compositions that strike them as inventive, employ specialized terms to explain components of the musical structure, and elucidate how the parts of the works relate to the whole.

The final two chapters of the dissertation chronicle the development of analytical practice and its reflective turn in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Many critics began to associate analysis with philosophical concerns from aesthetic modernism and were occasionally weary to employ the practice at all. When they did employ it, they often did so to show that musical form could not successfully contain the seemingly boundless expressive capacities of the human subject. In the process, critics helped to establish models of musical structure and style that musicologists continue to engage with to this day.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Music analysis, Aesthetics, Criticism, History of Music Theory
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