Musical writings of late eighteenth-century Germany contain numerous references to the listener’s attention. This is especially true of theoretical texts, which explain many technical features of the music of this time as devices for influencing the attention. The topic has not hitherto attracted the interest of scholars, perhaps because the references are somewhat scattered and seldom accompanied by explanation. However, I show that they constitute a coherent discourse which suggests an intriguing notion of ‘attentive listening’ and has ramifications for our understanding of various late eighteenth-century musical debates.
Part I examines the meaning of the term ‘attention’ in mid eighteenth-century German thought and presents the music theorists’ references. In the aesthetics of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and his followers, attention was conceived as the fundamental faculty of the soul, and was frequently linked with effects of various features of artworks. These writings were informed by the metaphysics of Leibniz, who stressed the need for each human soul to increase its internal activity and reflect God with ever-greater distinctness. The experience of beauty, according to the aestheticians, acts as a spur to the soul’s faculties of desire. Thus, although an aesthetic discourse such as a piece of music may offer a succession of attractive stimuli to the soul, its task is not to exploit human weakness, but to cultivate an innate impulse to goodness and perfection.
Part II addresses the thought of the two writers who contributed most to the discourse on attention, the aesthetician Johann Georg Sulzer and the theorist Johann Nikolaus Forkel. The focus shifts from technical details of theory to broader issues in late eighteenth-century music aesthetics and criticism, including music’s place among the arts, the status of instrumental music and the meaning of music history. Finally, a brief Epilogue surveys more recent thought on music and attention.