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Nelson, Thomas K.

The Fantasy of Absolute Music

Ph.D. University of Minnesota, 1998

This dissertation addresses the genealogy of the fantasy of absolute music. It begins with the pastoral of reconciliation in a prelapsarian alternative world compensating for the dysfunctions of the social world. It concludes with the dissolution of the musical means to support that fantasy. The Lieder of Schubert comprise the primary repertory of this investigation of Austro-Germanic art music. The central chapters, 3 and 4, develop a theory of romantic tonality based on Schubert's own poetics of the bVI complex as manifested in his songs. Two preliminary chapters provide a wider cultural-historical context of Schubert's practice. The first chapter explores the literary and artistic figurations of the pastoral, the socio-psychological motivations for fantasy, and Schiller's philosophical theorization of the elegiac idyll as an allegorical idealization of the absolute. Chapter 2 discusses the poetics of 18th-century Galant-Classical musical discourse.

The legacy of the fantasy of absolute music in the 19th century coincides with the confusions and mystifications of aesthetic ideology. The concluding chapters discuss how the allegorical approach to fantasy, cultivated in Early German Romanticism as a collaboration of philosophy and poetics, succumbed to the desire for a purely symbolic certainty in an age marked by growing pessimism. By the end of the century, the desire for the musical absolute had driven the musico-poetic language of common practice tonality toward its own absolution. Chapter 6 includes a detailed interpretation of two songs composed in the 1880s that illustrate the full potential of bVI musical poetics.

The methodological premise of the dissertation rests on an Early Romantic form of dialectical mediation based on the metaphor of Schweben (hovering or fluctuation) as a means of transcendence. Schweben yields a fundamental concept of the romantic fantasy of absolute music itself and the key to its understanding. Similarly, the bVI provides an allegory for German music history in which the aesthetic experience of tonality is itself subject to a temporal fate of disillusionment. Works examined include art by Klinger, Poussin and Watteau; essays by Nietzsche, Schiller, Schenker and Wackenroder; music by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Marenzio, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner.