The music of J. S. Bach and the evolution of Romantic aesthetics

Wilkinson, Tom Andrew (2021) The music of J. S. Bach and the evolution of Romantic aesthetics. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s 1802 biography of Bach portrays its subject as the ideal German composer: a progenitor of musical perfection towards whose standards contemporary mortals could only aspire. This retrospective elevation to God-like status, which captures the spirit of the Bach revival, demands explanation. What was the nature of the music’s potent appeal in the first three decades of the nineteenth century? What led Bach to write such music – which was regarded by many of his contemporaries as old-fashioned, even eccentric – in the first place?

In addressing these questions, this thesis examines the rapid rise in the status of music itself in the period 1700-1830. With reference to the rise of aesthetics and to hermeneutical theory (i.e. theory of interpretation), it explores the historical processes that led to music being regarded, by some in the Romantic age, as a medium of transcendent significance. The underlying thread of my historical analysis is the ‘critical’ shift in the locus of ‘meaning,’ from object to subject. It is this migration that underpins my consideration of the nineteenth-century reassessment of Bach’s music. Bach may well have conceived his music in objective terms, perhaps as a kind of homage to the purported unity of creation. When heard ‘Romantically,’ I argue, the music could accrue a new, subjective significance, as an inculcator of an ‘experiential’ form of the unity it had been intended merely to imitate.

Hermeneutical theory is principally relevant to this thesis as a window onto the evolving attitudes towards interpretation in the period 1700-1830. However, owing to its traditional association with biblical exegesis, it also serves as a useful prism by which to consider this period in broader historical context. Famously, Martin Luther viewed biblical interpretation as the foundation of faith; this uncompromising vision was gradually undermined during the early-modern age. Ultimately, I argue that the avowedly Lutheran underpinnings of Bach’s sacred music served to bolster its appeal, ironically enough, to the liberalized, subjectively focussed religious sensibilities of the early nineteenth century. This notion captures the image of Bach that I defend throughout this thesis: that of a composer whose conservative impulses led him to produce music of progressive communicative potential.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Due to copyright issues this thesis is not available for viewing.
Keywords: Johann, Sebastian, Bach, music, aesthetics, Romanticism.
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Culture and Creative Arts > Music
Supervisor's Name: Butt, Professor John
Date of Award: 2021
Depositing User: Mr Tom Wilkinson
Unique ID: glathesis:2021-82103
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 06 Apr 2021 13:30
Last Modified: 06 Apr 2021 13:50
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82103

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