The Universal and the Absolute

My essay in its current form is a critique of the idea of “absolute music”. I had no idea just how complicated the whole discussion of absolute music was until I started writing for my paper. I started my research on the subject with the entry in New Grove, and was relieved to find out that the article generally matched my conception of absolute music. However, problems started to emerge when I searched for journal articles. One of the first I found was “Defining the Term ‘Absolute Music’ Historically” by Sanna Pederson. She is intensely critical of the bulk of the academic conversation about absolute music. She lambastes the article in New Grove, referring to it as “intensely misleading”.

Naturally this discovery was terrifying for me, as I had based quite a lot of my paper off of the article in New Grove and the sources it led me to. I was concerned for a bit that I may have to throw the whole paper out. Thankfully a conversation with my professor cleared up a lot of the concerns I was having. Sanna Pederson is certainly correct about much of what she writes in her essay, but perhaps goes to far with her criticisms like the one about the New Grove entry. The entire episode of panic was still useful, however. I realized that I needed to be very clear about what definition of absolute music I was working with, and from where I was getting it.

I also rediscovered how great a breadth exists in musicological scholarship. In researching absolute music I found essays like Sanna Pederson’s which were rigorously historically grounded, straightforwardly written, and polemical. I was also rather surprised to find scholarship like Daniel Chua’s book Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning. The book is more philosophical than historical, and contains more poetry than polemics.  Discovering this breadth is useful, it’s a reminder that I have more leeway than I think I do in the style of my writing, and in the sorts of arguments I make.

All in all, research is going well, but I foresee absolute music to continue to be a thorny topic to write about.

Leave a Reply