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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The Renaissance created the concept of genius and
determined the basic outlines of its evolution through
baroque and classicism to romanticism. We have been
told by a well-known music historian and Bach scholar:

It is characteristic of baroque mentality not to make the
slightest fuss about a great artist's genius.... Nowhere...
is there a hint of the select nature of the great artist or
of the divine origin of his creative gifts. These are concepts
created by romanticism. In Bach's time we find no talk of
“depth of feeling,” “originality,” or “personal approach,”
and certainly not of a composition expressing an attitude
towards life and the world. These ideas lay outside the
baroque world of thought

(Schering, pp. 85-86).

In reality, the first theoretician of opera, Giovanni
Battista Doni (1594-1647), had already coined the
classical formulation of the contrast between counter-
point as a craft and dramatic music as the creation
of genius:

Counterpoint requires art and exercise rather than natural
inclination, since it consists of many rules and observations
and is based on practice acquired by long use. But in
dramatic music he who is wanting in natural disposition
should not even try to undertake it. Never will he achieve
perfection, even though he may arrive at mediocrity through
long study and knowledge acquired thereby, things equally
needed by those singularly privileged by Nature. The
composer of dramatic music, therefore, must be very inven-
tive and versatile, he must have a quick mind and a strong
imagination: qualities that he has in common with the poet,
wherefore it is said poetae nascuntur, Oratores fiunt, poets
are born, orators are made. Thus we may compare to orators
those composers who ordinarily take the cantus firmus or
subject from others and, weaving over it an artful counter-
point, draw various melodic lines from it, which often have
something dry or labored, in that they lack a certain grace
and naturalness, which is the true spice of melody. This
is what today's musicians have noted in Soriano, who, while
most experienced in counterpoint, never had talent to write
beautiful and graceful melodies, wherefore he devoted him-
self to the writing of canons and similar laborious composi-
tions.... Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, on the other hand,
who was truly born for music, and with a gift for musical
expression, and who could clothe with his musical gifts any
poetic subject, never attended, as far as one knows, to
canons and similar labored exercises. Such should be, then,
the genius of the good composer, particularly for that genre
of musical compositions which should bring to life all inner
affects of the soul with vivid expression

(Lowinsky [1964],
pp. 338-39).

Doni could not have chosen apter personifications
for his concepts of craftsman and genius than Pale-
strina's disciple, Soriano—famous for his 110 canons
over a Marian hymn—and the princely composer,
Gesualdo, who, for the sake of truth of sentiment,
broke every rule in the book.

In another passage Doni comments on the dilemma
in which “modern” composers find themselves with
regard to tradition:

One will think it was not permissible to depart from the
rules left behind by the predecessors, another will be more
daring and follow these modern composers like the Prince
of Venosa, indeed he will spontaneously invent new things.
This is why Monteverdi seeks more the dissonances, whereas
Peri hardly departs from the conventional rules

[1964], p. 340).

The stylistic separation between counterpoint and
expressive music goes back to Monteverdi's famous
distinction between the old and the new style or, as
he phrased it, the prima and seconda prattica of the
beginning of the seventeenth century. But Monteverdi
had not yet said—perhaps he implied it—that it took
less genius to write in the old style. He merely postu-
lated greater liberty for the seconda prattica, the new
expressive style of music.

If testimony is needed that concepts such as “depth
of feeling,” or “composition as expressing an attitude
towards life and the world” or the “divine origin of
creative gifts” are indeed part of baroque mentality,
a reading of Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument (1676)
should provide it. Mace, a clerk at Trinity College in
Cambridge, although no more than a fine craftsman


and mediocre composer, entertained the most sublime
ideas of music, its power and origin:

Musick speaks so transcendently, and Communicates Its
Notions so Intelligibly to the Internal, Intellectual, and
Incomprehensible Faculties of the Soul; so far beyond all
Language of Words, that I confess, and most solemnly affirm,
I have been more Sensibly, Fervently, and Zealously
and drawn into Divine Raptures, and Contem-
by Those Unexpressible Rhetorical, Uncontroulable
and Instructions of Musicks Divine Language,
than ever yet I have been, by the best Verbal Rhetorick,
that came from any Mans Mouth, either in Pulpit, or else-

Those Influences, which come along with It, may aptly
be compar'd, to Emanations, Communications, or Distilla-
of some Sweet, and Heavenly Genius, or Spirit;
and Unapprehensibly (yet Effectually) Dispos-
the Soul, and Mind, of All Irregular Disturbing, and
Unquiet Motions; and Stills, and Fills It, with Quietness,
and Peace; Absolute Tranquility, and Unexpressible

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 333-34).

Such raptures are not confined to the peculiar tem-
perament of an eccentric musician, as one might think
Mace to have been. One of the sturdiest, worldliest
gentlemen of seventeenth-century England, a man of
wealth, power, and fame, Samuel Pepys, discourses in
a surprisingly similar vein about his musical experience.
Having heard a concert of wind music for The Virgin
he wrote in his diary:

... [it] is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a
word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick,
just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife;
that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at
home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all
night transported

(Weiss, p. 64).

Another Englishman, Roger North (1653-1734),
Attorney-General to James II, and one of a lengthy
series of English amateur musicians and writers on
music, insisted that

good musick must come from one by nature as well as art
compleately made, who is arrived at a pitch to throw away
the lumber of his rules and examples, and act upon the
strength of his judgment, and knowledge of the subject
matter itself, as if it had bin bred and born in him ab origine

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 332).

Anticipating Rousseau and later romantic writers,
North saw music's finest jewel in melody, or as the
English were wont to call it, “ayre,” of the invention
of which he said:

But as for securing an Ayre, if it must be above the indiffer-
ent, it is like securing witt in poetry, not to be done; and
after all will be found to flow from a genius, and not without
some accidents or rather felicitys of fancy, as well as sound
judgment, to make it sublime

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 332).

The term génie is also part of the vocabulary of
French musical theory of the baroque. De la Voye, in
his Traité de musique (1656), after having dealt with
elementary theory, counterpoint, and fugue, concludes
his treatise with these words:

The other artifices of music, such as recitatives, echoes, the
variety of movements, the order of cadences, the beauty
of the melodies, the mixture of modes, the natural expression
of the words and passions, they depend on the genius and
the invention of the composer

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 332).

The greatest French theorist of music in the age of
the baroque, Jean Philippe Rameau, was accused by
the partisans of Jean Jacques Rousseau of nurturing the
belief that the composer needed not genius but only
the science of harmony. However, in his Traité de
published in Paris in 1722 when Rousseau
was a boy of ten, Rameau speaks constantly of le génie
et le goût.
“There is a world of difference,” he observes,
“between a music without fault and a perfect music”
(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 329-30), and with this remark
Rameau demolishes the notion of the artist as a crafts-
man whose excellence can be measured by his success
in following the rules of his craft. In speaking of mel-
ody he remarks:

It is well-nigh impossible to give rules concerning it
[melody], inasmuch as good taste has a greater part in it
than anything else; thus we leave it to the happy geniuses
to distinguish themselves in this genre on which the whole
strength of sentiment depends

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 330).

As happens so often, the critics had not read what they
criticized. Rameau defends the composer against the
pedantic guardians of the rules who, he says, become
deaf if you want to show them the good effect of
freedom, license, and exception in a music composed
apparently against the rules.

Nothing shows Rameau's appreciation of imagina-
tion in the composer's work better than his plea for
freedom in the writing of what is usually thought of
as one of the strictest and most rational forms of music,
the fugue, which he called

... an ornament of music which has only one principle,
good taste; the very general rules governing it [the fugue]
that we just outlined do not suffice in themselves to insure
perfect success in it. The various feelings and events that
one can express in music constantly produce novelties that
cannot be reduced to rules

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 330, n. 29).

Aside from genius, a composer, according to
Rameau, also needs good taste. With le goût another
irrational element enters our discussion, one that can-
not be measured, prescribed, or fixed in rules. Yet it
is to some extent rational—and in that regard typically
French—in that it resides in aesthetic judgment rather


than in emotion, an essential attribute of genius in
German and Italian writings. The irrational concept
of empathy, the dramatic composer's ability to put
himself in the place of his characters and re-create
them in tones by the sheer force of sympathetic imagi-
nation—and Rameau was a composer of opera him-
self—is already a part of Rameau's aesthetics. At the
end of Chapter 20, Book Two, on the propriety of
harmony, he says:

For the rest, a good musician must surrender himself to
all the characters that he wishes to depict, and, like a skilful
comedian, put himself in the place of the speaker, imagine
himself in the localities where the events to be represented
occur, and take part in them as much as those most involved
in them, be a good orator, at least within himself, feel when
the voice should rise or fall more or less, so as to shape
his melody, harmony, modulation, and motion accordingly

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 331).


No statement on musical genius had a more profound
impact on the world of art and letters than the article
on génie by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire
de musique
(1768)—the first dictionary of music to deal
with the concept. Because of its seminal significance,
the entire article follows in translation:

Don't ask, young artist, “what is genius?” Either you have
it—then you feel it yourself, or you don't—then you will
never know it. The genius of the musician subjects the entire
Universe to his art. He paints all pictures through tones;
he lends eloquence even to silence. He renders the ideas
through sentiments, sentiments through accents, and the
passions he expresses he awakens [also] in his listener's heart.
Pleasure, through him, taken on new charms; pain rendered
in musical sighs wrests cries [from the listener]. He burns
incessantly, but never consumes himself. He expresses with
warmth frost and ice. Even when he paints the horrors of
Death, he carries in his soul this feeling for Life that never
abandons him, and that he communicates to hearts made
to feel it. But alas, he does not speak to those who don't
carry his seed within themselves and his miracles escape
those who cannot imitate them. Do you wish to know
whether a spark of this devouring fire animates you? Hasten
then, fly to Naples, listen there to the masterworks of Leo,
of Durante, of Jommelli, of Pergolesi. If your eyes fill with
tears, if you feel your heart beat, if shivers run down your
spine, if breath-taking raptures choke you, then take [a
libretto by] Metastasio and go to work: his genius will kindle
yours; you will create at his example. That is what makes
the genius—and the tears of others will soon repay you for
the tears that your masters elicited from you. But should
the charms of this great artist leave you cold, should you
experience neither delirium nor delight, should you find that
which transports only “nice,” do you then dare ask what
is genius? Vulgar man, don't profane this sublime word.
What would it matter to you if you knew it? You would
not know how to feel it. Go home and write—French music

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 326-27).

It is easy to see why poets, musicians, and
aestheticians were stirred by Rousseau's concept of
genius. This was not an ordinary dictionary article; this
was a dithyrambic ode, every word of which echoed
Rousseau's own intense musical experiences in the
Venetian opera houses during his days as secretary to
the French Embassy in Venice.

Creative activity engendered by enthusiasm, fire,
imagination, and above all, by the ability to feel, and
feel passionately—all of these essential elements in the
romantic concept of genius hail from Rousseau.
Rameau's careful balance between craft and inspira-
tion, rules and good taste, technical mastery and genius,
is scornfully thrown aside by Rousseau in exchange for
a one-sided emphasis on emotion and empathy. Being
himself the very model of an untutored genius given
to passionate outbursts of tears, he would never have
dared to set his own hand to composing libretto and
music of his operetta, le Devin du village (1752),
without the profound conviction that feeling, more
than anything else, is needed to create music that goes
to the heart. “A student of three months could write
the 'Devin'”—Rousseau said later—“whereas a learned
composer would find it hard to embark upon a course
of such decided simplicity” (Lowinsky [1965b], p. 201).

One element is conspicuously absent in Rousseau's
definition of genius: musical originality. Rousseau was
primarily a man of letters; as a musician he was decid-
edly an amateur. Music was for him a means to enhance
the emotional appeal of the spoken word, of the drama.
This agreed with his belief (Essai sur l'origine des
1753) that in the beginning word and tone,
speech and melody, were one. Nor were his democratic
convictions that led him to espouse a style of folk
song-like simplicity designed to foster appreciation of
musical originality.

Thus we find ourselves facing the paradox that the
eighteenth-century apostle of feeling could think of
genius without the attribute of originality—indeed, it
is in “imitating” Metastasio that a musician becomes
a genius—whereas the century's most detached and
rational thinker, Kant, conceived of originality as the
chief attribute of genius.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment (Kritik
der Urtheilskraft
), calls genius “the talent (natural gift)
that gives the rules to art” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 328).
This is an ingenious, indeed, an elegant definition in
its studied avoidance of opposition between rule and
inspiration, talent and genius. Kant succeeds, never-
theless, in making a sound distinction between them,


especially as he goes on to say that genius “is a talent
to create that which escapes all definite rules: it is
not natural skill for what can be learned according to
any rule; hence, originality must be its first attribute.
... Everyone agrees that genius must be opposed
completely to the spirit of imitation” (Lowinsky [1964],
p. 328). Thus Kant manages to avoid the emphasis on
emotion that was contrary to the nature of his
analytical mind, and yet to stay basically within the
framework of thought of his time. It has been remarked
(Serauky, p. 162) that there is an irreconcilable contra-
diction between Kant's definition of genius as rejecting
“the spirit of imitation” and his belief that music is
the art of imitation of human emotion—an idea current
throughout the eighteenth century and developed par-
ticularly by Charles Batteux in his Traité des beaux
arts, réduits à un même principe
(1746). Kant uses the
term in two meanings: imitation of one artist by an-
other in a specific artistic medium, and imitation as
a re-creation of human emotions in tones. There is no
contradiction between these two ideas. Notwith-
standing his emphasis on originality, Kant did not
escape the criticism of the emerging romantic move-
ment led by Herder, who printed excerpts from Kant's
definition of genius together with devastatingly sarcas-
tic glosses.

The eighteenth-century literary movement of Sturm
und Drang
was keenly interested in the nature of
genius in general and of musical genius in particular.
All of its exponents were fired by Rousseau's ideas.
Christian Friedrich Schubart, poet, musician, keyboard
player, famous for his improvisations, philosopher,
imprisoned for his ideas as a free thinker, wrote in his
essay Vom musikalischen Genie words reminiscent of

Musical genius is rooted in the heart and receives its im-
pressions through the ear.... All musical geniuses are
self-taught, for the fire that animates them carries them
away irresistibly to seek their own flight orbit [Flugbahn].
The Bachs, a Galuppi, Jommelli, Gluck, and Mozart
excelled already in childhood through the most significant
products of their spirit. Musical harmony lay in their soul
and they soon threw away the crutch of art

[1964], p. 326).

But unlike Rousseau, Schubart added: “Nevertheless,
no musical genius can reach perfection without culti-
vation and training. Art must perfect what Nature
sketched in the raw” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 326).

Schubart, in his Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der
(1784-85), eulogizes Rousseau, his ideas on
music, and his Dictionnaire de musique. Rousseau's
inspiration also hovers over Johann Gottfried von
Herder's essay “Von Musik” in which Fontenelle's
Que me veux-tu, Sonate?”—the opera composer's
defiance of “mere” instrumental music, of “academic”
art—made famous by Rousseau's enthusiastic approval,
is quoted without indication of its source.

Rousseau is also the indubitable inspiration for the
romantic poet, composer, pianist, conductor, and music
critic E. T. A. Hoffmann and his conception of the
nature of musical creation:

To touch us, to move us mightily, the artist himself must
be deeply affected in his own heart. Effective composition
is nothing but the art of capturing with a higher strength,
and fixing in the hieroglyphs of tones [the notes], what was
received in the mind's unconscious ecstasis. If a young artist
asks how to write an effective opera, we can answer only:
read the poem, concentrate on it with all the power of your
spirit, enter with all the might of your fancy into all phases
of the action. You live in its personages; you yourself are
the tyrant, the hero, the beloved; you feel the pain and
the raptures of love, the shame, the fear, the horror, yes,
Death's nameless agony, the transfiguration of blissful joy.
You rage, you storm, you hope, you despair; the blood flows
through your veins, your pulse beats more violently. In the
fire of enthusiasm that inflames your heart, tones, melodies,
harmonies ignite, and the poem pours out of your soul in
the wonderful language of music.... Technical training,
through study of harmony in the works of the great masters,
and your own writing bring it about that you perceive your
inner music more and more clearly; no melody, no modula-
tion, no instrument escapes you, and thus you receive,
together with the effect, also the means which you now,
like spirits subject to your power, detain in the magic lines
of your score. To be sure, all this amounts to saying: take
care, my good friend, to be a very musical genius. The rest
will come by itself. But thus it is, and not otherwise

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 323-24).

Musical creation as the volcanic eruption of a glow-
ing soul in the grip of ecstatic revelation, technical
study as the magical means to summon the spirits of
the art: this indeed is a truly romantic concept.

Whereas one will have difficulty finding an entry
on “genius” in modern musical dictionaries, it occurs
in nineteenth-century dictionaries such as Peter
Lichtenthal's Dizionario e bibliografia della musica
(1826) or in August Gathy's Musikalisches Conversa-
(2nd ed., 1840). Neither offers a history
of the concept, but both define it in terms derived from
Rousseau. Gathy, in addition, shows the influence of
the romantic writer Jean Paul, in whose writings we
come to the final inversion of the medieval hierarchy
of values. Boethius saw the highest human faculty in
ratio, the lowest in instinctus naturalis, with which he
credited the composer. In Jean Paul's Vorschule der
(1804; 2nd ed., 1813) the “unconscious” is the
great motivating power of the creative artist (Das
Mächtigste im Dichter... ist gerade das Unbewusste


Genius is guided by “divine instinct”—a term picked
up by Gathy. Each artist has his own specific “organ,”
the painter the eye, the musician the ear; “the
supremacy of one organ and one force, for example
in Mozart, operates with the blindness and assurance
of the instinct” (Miller, pp. 55-67). The divine instinct
speaks more clearly, more forcefully in the genius; it
is he who gives us the view of the whole—talent can
provide only views of details.

Jean Paul defines the limits of talent versus genius;
it remained for Richard Wagner, in DieMeistersinger
von Nürnberg
(1867), to create the immortal double
image of genius and craftsman: Walter is an ideal-
ization of genius, Beckmesser a caricature of the
craftsman. Walter personifies the artist whose creativity
rests on inspiration, and whose inspiration springs from
an imaginative mind and a generous and sensitive
heart, open to love and enthusiasm. Beckmesser's art
rests on the pedantic observation of timeworn rules.
His pedantry is at home in a small, petty, scheming
mind, equally incapable of noble emotions and of the
flight of fancy. Between these two extremes stands
Hans Sachs, his roots in the world of the mastersingers,
but his heart and mind open to Walter's freely inspired
art, in which, he confessed,

No rule would fit, and yet no error could I find
(Kein Regel wollte da passen, und war doch kein Fehler drin, Act II).

The opposition between conventional rule and fresh
inspiration, the idea that the genius, unlike the mere
craftsman, can transcend rules without committing
errors and that in so doing he can make new revela-
tions, is a leitmotif in the history of the concept of
musical genius.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who had turned from an ardent
admirer to a bitter critic of Wagner, restored the bal-
ance between inspiration and rational judgment when
he wrote the ironic words (Menschliches Allzumensch-

The artists have a vested interest in our believing in the
flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration, as if the idea
of the work of art, of poetry, the fundamental idea of a
philosophy shone down from heaven as a ray of grace. In
reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker pro-
duces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his
judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects,
selects, connects as one can see now from Beethoven's
sketchbooks where he appears to have slowly developed the
most beautiful melodies and to have selected them, as it
were, from many diverse starts.... All great artists and
thinkers were great workers, indefatigable not only in
inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, order-

(Gast, p. 163).

Nietzsche wrote these words only a few years after
Gustave Nottebohm had published his Beethoveniana
(1872), the first thorough presentation and discussion
of Beethoven's sketches. No wonder they impressed
Nietzsche. For if ever there was a representative of
musical genius, it was Beethoven, both as a man and
as an artist. As a man he was strong and sensitive,
gentle and irascible, generous and passionate, proud,
suspicious, love-seeking, frankly eccentric, and without
compromise in matters of art and of honor; as an artist,
he was creator of a new world of spirit and form, in
which passionate utterance was contained by the most
severe discipline of form, a novel dynamic form that
derived its inner laws from the new spirit of untram-
meled freedom of artistic expression. “There is no rule
that may not be broken for the sake of greater beauty,”
he once wrote.

Yet, the sketches revealed the titanic struggle that
this great master fought for the ultimate realization
of his ideas, which often began in a conventional, if
not banal, form to grow by degrees—at times it took
as many as thirty sketches—into exquisite original
thoughts. It was Nietzsche who, following Beethoven's
example, discovered an element of musical genius often
overlooked by writers from the Renaissance through
romanticism: endless patience and infinite striving
(Streben) or effort. One of the few writers remarking
upon this was Glareanus, when he spoke about Josquin
des Prez. And, indeed, there is a peculiar affinity be-
tween the personalities and the creative characteristics
of the great genius of the fifteenth century who came
out of the Middle Ages and moved toward the new
world of the Renaissance, and the composer of the
eighteenth century who moved from classicism to
romanticism, creating in the process a musical
amalgam of an utterly unique character (Grout, p. 183).

It remained for our own time not only to make light
of the whole idea of genius, both past and present
(Ricci, pp. 80 and 83), but also to replace feeling,
imagination, planning, and aesthetic principle with
mathematical formulas, computers, and “chance.” The
inherent paradox of this modern approach to composi-
tion lies in this: whereas aesthetic principles have been
abandoned in the process of composition, the results
are presented to modern audiences having no other
possible approach to the understanding of music than
one based on aesthetic perception. This unresolved
contradiction of modern music contains in itself the
seeds of its own necessary destruction. Either music
is to be heard, and then it must proceed from principles
of perception and aesthetics; or it proceeds from
merely intellectual and mathematical principles or
chance, and then it makes no sense to present as
sounding form what was not experienced as sound and


form. Once this dilemma has been resolved, musical
genius will return to the artistic scene and move from
its present underground to the center of the stage in
an affirmation of faith in the possibility of choice,
decision, and creation. The musician alone cannot do
it. The whole age will have to reconquer faith in the
humanity of Man and in the individuality of his art.