Forkel’s “On the Theory of Music”: Introduction

Many years ago now, Patrick McCreless observed that we have entered a “new stage” in studying the history of music theory, “one in which historians have moved beyond an overriding concern with musical substance and structure to take into account the philosophical, aesthetic, and cultural contexts of the theories about which they write.”1 While new discoveries since that time have reopened questions of musical substance,2 it is nevertheless true that the history of music theory has largely morphed into a local branch of intellectual history.3 We turn to the music theory of Germany in the last quarter of the eighteenth century not for its insights on the technique of Haydn and Mozart—indeed, by our standards the writers of this generation have very little of interest to say about Haydn and Mozart—but out of an interest in the culture and thought of the era as a whole. It is in this spirit that I offer a translation of the essay “On the Theory of Music” (1777) by Johann Nikolaus Forkel as a contribution to the history of music theory.4 This essay has been repeatedly referenced in recent literature.5 Although an MS translation exists in the papers of John Wall Callcott,6 and isolated excerpts have been translated here and there, this is the first time the entire essay has been made available to the public in English.

Forkel is not often considered a major contributor to music theory. Among musicians, he is best known today as the first important biographer of J. S. Bach.7 Among scholars, he is perhaps better known as a prolific critic and the first modern historian and bibliographer of music.8 Historians of music theory may have encountered him in passing in discussions of the musica poetica tradition, of which he was the last important exponent.9 But on the whole, Forkel made no lasting mark on compositional theory. Why, then, would this essay be considered a contribution to the history of music theory?

If we draw the boundaries of music theory such that they encompass little more than the theory of harmony (as we too often do), then Forkel has little to offer us on this subject. But if we take a broader view of music theory as systematic thought about the three principal musical activities—composition, performance, and listening—then Forkel’s essay stands almost alone as an eighteenth-century contribution to the theory of musical listening. This is the point of view from which Matthew Riley analyzes Forkel’s writings, and, with some differences of emphasis, it is the point of view I will take.

Much of the material that Forkel covers in this essay is also covered in the introduction to his Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik, which has been available in translation for some time now.10 Since the introduction expresses some of the same ideas at greater length, and represents the views of a mature scholar who has had time for reflection and revision, it might be thought that the present translation is unnecessary. But the distinguishing feature of this essay is that it is embedded in a larger project distinct from the plan for an encyclopaedic history of music. Forkel foresaw that an aesthetic agenda—promoting serious music of inner beauty, not just outward attractiveness—would require an educational agenda to create the kind of listeners he needed. His essay served as an introduction to his lectures, where he would instruct students at the University of Göttingen in the basics of music necessary for becoming a sophisticated listener. Along with the lectures, he inaugurated a series of winter concerts which would present edifying music by such past masters as Handel, Graun, Bach, Jommelli, Hasse, and Rolle. Forkel’s essay thus serves as an introduction to what he hoped would be a virtuous cycle of musical pedagogy: theoretical learning begets sophisticated listening, which in turn begets greater theoretical understanding.

Forkel’s sources and language

German musical writings of the late eighteenth century present relatively few problems to the translator. Like many writers of his generation, Forkel is clear, organized, and as concise as the German language enables its users to be. The main difficulties concern the use of musical terminology that is now obsolete. Even in this respect, Forkel is not an innovator. His terminology is almost all familiar from better-known musical writings, often ones that were no longer current in the 1770s. Forkel’s text sits at the boundary between music theory, criticism, and technical aesthetics. As such, he appropriates technical terms from various different fields and uses them with varying degrees of rigor. It is tempting to discuss the many possible translations of a term such as Vorstellung or Geist, along with the factors that may lead one to translate it one way or another, but the truth is that Forkel is not a philosopher, and very little hangs upon minute choices of wording. The correct translation of difficult words is almost always obvious except in the case of a few terms specific to music. For those who are curious, these issues are dealt with in my annotations to the essay and the glossary at the end. Only a few of the more important of them need to be reviewed here.

The first is the term “phrase.” The use of this English term is contentious even today.11 My position—and I hope to persuade the rest of the musical world to adopt this position as well—is that a phrase should be understood generically as a short contiguous span of musical time that coheres as a unit in some way. This word should not be assumed to imply anything more unless an author explicitly says so. Forkel uses two terms that might reasonably be translated as “phrase.” The first is Sectionalzeil—a somewhat rare term that, according to Powers, needs further study.12 I have found instances of it in Marpurg’s writings, and it has an entry in Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon, but I’m not aware of its appearance anywhere else. Forkel employs it to deepen the analogy between musical and poetic structure: just as a musical foot is akin to a poetic foot, a Sectionalzeil is akin to a line (Zeil) of verse. Perhaps, then, a Sectionalzeil is a phrase in a strictly foursquare hypermetrical rhythm. The other “phrase” word is Satz, a perennially problematic term for music theory translators. It has a host of ordinary meanings along with several technical musical definitions, not to mention its technical use in other fields. In the modern theory of form, it is the German term that William E. Caplin translates by “sentence,” a structure that can encompass anywhere from four to a few dozen measures of music. It is also the usual term for an entire movement, or for a musical setting. When it is not obviously being used in one of these senses, the best translation is usually “phrase,” understood in the broadest possible sense of the word. But one exception requires comment.

Especially in compound terms such as Hauptsatz or Nebensatz, it often makes the most sense to translate Satz as “theme.”13 This translation is correct and in keeping with eighteenth-century practice: German authors, including Forkel, introduce the term Thema as a Latinate alternative to Hauptsatz.14 But “theme” tends to suggest an elaborately articulated structure normally of eight or 16 measures, especially to modern readers familiar with Caplin’s strict taxonomies of musical themes. This is clearly not Forkel’s intention. For him, a Hauptsatz is a theme in a rhetorical sense: it is the theme of a composition in the same way that “the harmful effects of tobacco” might be the theme of a speech. The opening five measures of Beethoven’s fifth symphony might be called a theme in Forkel’s sense, while for Caplin the main theme of this movement is unquestionably mm. 6–21, a span with strictly defined parts marked off by definite harmonic and melodic events. If we wished to make Forkel strictly compatible with Caplin, we would have to translate Hauptsatz as “main idea,” since a musical idea is something susceptible to reuse in various themes throughout a movement. With this caveat to the reader, I translate Hauptsatz as “main theme” and Nebensatz as “subsidiary theme” consistently throughout the essay.

Forkel employs the term Zusammensetzung frequently, which I have translated almost exclusively as “composition.” This is an almost literal translation: Zusammensetzung might be rendered in caveman-fashion as “together-putting,” or com-position. But it does not refer to specifically musical composition. In cases where the issue might get confused, I have employed various workarounds to ensure clarity. Surprisingly, Forkel does not use the word Composition or Komposition at all: instead, he talks about a two-stage process of invention (Erfindung) and disposition (Anordnung). He does not use Komponist, the standard German term for someone who writes music—though on two occasions he uses the term Compositor, once when quoting an English author. Instead, he deals almost exclusively with the musical artist (Tonkünstler or simply Künstler).

Unlike in English, all German nouns are inflected for gender as masculine, feminine, or neuter. Third-person pronouns referring to masculine or feminine objects are the same as the third-person pronouns referring to male or female people—hence Mark Twain’s famous comment: “after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns, he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade his tongue to refer to things as ‘he’ and ‘she,’ and ‘him’ and ‘her,’ which it has been always accustomed to refer to as ‘it.'”15 When a writer affects a poetic register, this has the potential to create ambiguities. For example, Forkel’s many references to nature (die Natur) could be translated to English in the colloquial neuter or the poetic feminine. Depending upon your point of view, this choice can either downplay or exaggerate the sexual overtones in a passage like the following: “He does not remove himself from nature; he only penetrates deeper into her, enticing her most hidden secrets from her and betraying them to others.” My preference is to play up such overtones in the interest of stirring the pot, but a more responsible translator might prefer a more neutral rendering.

Finally, there is the vexing issue of Kenner and Liebhaber. This pair of terms has generated an enormous literature of its own on which I do not intend to dwell except insofar as it bears on Forkel’s employment of them in this essay.16 A recurring topic of dispute is whether it is appropriate to translate Liebhaber as “amateur.”17 The current consensus holds that Liebhaber should either be translated as something else or left untranslated entirely.18 In my view this is erroneous for two reasons, one of which is specific to Forkel and the other is more general. The objection to translating Liebhaber as “amateur” hinges on a supposed incommensurability of terms: today, “amateur” is a term of abuse for the nonprofessional participant in art, while a Liebhaber was an enthusiastic, unsophisticated but often quite skilled participant. Toward the end of the century, a Liebhaber was more often than not an inexpert listener, with no pretentions of being a practitioner of music at all (this is the sense in which Forkel employs the term). Thus the Liebhaber that Forkel addresses are not necessarily people that we would today describe as “musical amateurs” or “amateur musicians.”

But “amateur” does not always carry pejorative overtones even today—it can signify “hobbyist” in a relatively neutral sense, as in the “amateur beekeeper,” “amateur gardener,” or “amateur radio operator,” all of whom are normally quite skilled in their chosen field. This was even more true in the past.19 Alongside such familiar usages as “Dr. Percival. . . writes on philosophical subjects as an amateur rather than as a master” (1786), we find from the very beginning odd-sounding locutions such as “The President will be left with his train of feeble Amateurs” (1784); “The whole boxing corps and gentlemen amateurs crowded to behold the spectacle” (1802); “Those who are the greatest amateurs, or even professors of revolutions” (Burke, 1791); “Mr. Burke, a byestander, a mere amateur of aristocracy” (George Rous, 1790); even, “I am no amateur of these melons” (1863).20 In short, “amateur” need not carry pejorative overtones, and it can mean “devotee” just as much as “hobbyist,” although this is less common in recent usage.

Even if we accept for the moment this supposed incommensurability between “amateur” and the normal eighteenth-century usage of Liebhaber, there would still be an argument for translating the term as “amateur” in Forkel’s case. As Riley observes, Forkel differs from many of his contemporaries in the view that a Liebhaber‘s listening practice is in need of cultivation in order to fully appreciate art as it deserves.21 In Forkel’s writings, the word Liebhaber begins to take on amateurish overtones, as evidenced by the central conceit that the Liebhaber should aim to become a Kenner—that is, something other than a Liebhaber.

The other, more general argument in favour of translating Liebhaber as “amateur” is that the issue in question is actually quite simple and can be explained in a brief footnote. The whole dispute mystifies the modern observer by positing the existence of a reader who is interested in eighteenth-century theoretical texts but is incapable of reading explanatory remarks from modern editors. Music scholarship generally has a bad habit of spuriously claiming that German words are untranslatable. When engaging with a historical text, or any text in translation, it is necessary to meet the original halfway. Often this means relaxing our grip on our own technical terms, developing a broader sense of terminological history and an etymologically attuned ear in order to ascertain how our language might relate with or differ from that of the past. From this point of view, nothing is “untranslatable.”

Forkel’s writing style presents another, related difficulty. As a well-read scholar and the leading authority on musical literature of his time, Forkel is promiscuously allusive to all sorts of other texts. This early essay actually represents a rather muted form of this allusiveness, which seems to have increased in his later writings as he gained greater mastery of his sources. Forkel’s sources span from classical works to seventeenth-century music scholarship and the most current philosophical and cultural writings of his day. While the classical authors are readily available in original and in various translations, almost none of the other sources have been translated into English. A few of them would be completely unavailable if not for microfilms and online scans. For the most part Forkel quotes Latin and French works in the original and provides a translation or paraphrase of his quotations from English sources—no doubt reflecting the languages most of his readers were likely to be familiar with.

Forkel’s sources can be divided into two categories. He treats classical writings like Wilkie Collins’s Betteridge treats Robinson Crusoe: as a source of potent quotables that may be dipped into as needed without regard for context. Boileau and Pope, whose writings adopt the style and subject matter of Horace, also fall into this category. Even Aristoxenus, Forkel’s sole ancient source dealing specifically with music, is treated just as casually as Lucan or Cicero. He draws on these works as a body of literature that is likely familiar to his educated readers, inserting relevant snippets here and there for flavour.

The other sources are genuine interlocutors: writers on music theory, philosophy, or the arts who present arguments that Forkel sees as relevant to his work. Here he shows a genuine erudition that is unequalled by contemporary writers on music. He was clearly conversant with the major musical writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a variety of languages. He also followed debates in other arts, especially painting and literature, and took pains to show how the contributions of these critics were relevant to music. Here we get an image of Forkel the voracious and systematic reader with access to one of the best European libraries of the time.

The structure of the essay

Forkel’s essay is structured as an ordered list of the five musical disciplines and the topics they treat, with commentary interspersed. At the end of the essay, he extracts this commentary and presents just the list as a summary. The disciplines are:

  1. The physical theory of sound
  2. The mathematical theory of sound
  3. Musical grammar
  4. Musical rhetoric
  5. Music criticism

Physical and mathematical theory are, respectively, the sciences of acoustics and canonics. Forkel passes over these with cursory treatment, dismissing at a stroke a large proportion of the music theory written before 1700. Musical grammar encompasses all the branches of compositional technique which are susceptible to unambiguous judgments of correct and incorrect—that is, notation, keys, harmony, meter, and so forth. Issues of musical grammar pass over gradually into musical rhetoric, which concerns style, genre, the arrangement of musical ideas, and the complex of musical considerations we would now group together under “form.” Rules apply here, but not so simply as in musical grammar. Here rules are mere approximations derived from experience—hence the need for the last and most important category, that of musical criticism.

Fond as music theorists are of lists, charts and diagrams, this structure is an appealing feature of the essay. But Forkel’s argument does not really proceed according to this list, and he would later abandon the fivefold division of music theory in favour of studying the broad division between grammar and rhetoric more closely. Looking at the text as a whole, we can identify a four-stage argument that cuts across the list. The first part, which runs from the beginning of the essay until the first subheading, is Forkel’s apology for music theory. The need for rules in music is popularly doubted as in no other field, he argues. His aim is to show that a certain amount of theoretical knowledge is necessary for the amateur to understand music in terms of its inner beauties—to understand it as art rather than as mere decoration.

The second part encompasses the first three divisions of theory. Again, these are the areas where judgments of right and wrong apply, and understanding these subjects is necessary to have even the most basic comprehension of music. To listen to a piece of music without some notion of harmony is like listening to a speech in a language you do not understand. Something may still be conveyed, but the important details are lost. The third part of the argument concerns musical rhetoric. While musical grammar had only concerned itself with the creation of isolated bits of music, rhetoric deals with the manner in which these bits are to be arranged. (Naturally the two categories allow some overlap, a fact which Forkel allows for.) Musical rhetoric deals with the deployment of musical materials following a rationally conceived plan, according to the exigencies of style and genre, with the purpose of creating specific aesthetic effects such as wit or sublimity. Because the rules of musical rhetoric cannot be precisely specified, they must be repeatedly derived and re-derived from the experiences of our greatest musical minds.

This leads finally to the fourth stage of Forkel’s argument, which concerns music criticism—for him the most important discipline of musical knowledge. Criticism is indispensable both for the artist and the listener. It is the true source of the artist’s knowledge, and it is the guide without which the listener cannot understand the effect or effectiveness of a piece of music. It is not just another branch of music theory, but the ultimate branch: it is the field in which all the other parts of music theory operate. The reason to learn music theory is so that it may be applied in criticism, so that a piece’s true worth can be discerned through the application of technical principles. In this way, the wheat can be separated from the chaff.

In this sense, it is possible for us to understand Forkel as an early theorist of music analysis—a term that certainly wasn’t in use in his time, but which seems appropriate in retrospect.22 Before Forkel, examples of analysis are thin on the ground, and they tend to be narrow technical demonstrations rather than appreciations of a piece of music for its own sake. Analysis in Rameau, in Mattheson, in Burmeister, even in Koch exists for the purpose of theory. Forkel’s writing marks an inflection point where this relationship begins to reverse, so that theory serves the purpose of analysis. This relationship would hold steady for much of the nineteenth century.23

The Translation

The translation is available in PDF form here. I have plans to make certain supplementary documents available—especially an edited transcript in modern typeface of the original German—but that will have to wait for the time being.

At various stages in this project, I have received help or criticism from Tobias Tschiedl, Ryan Nauta, Rachel Hottle, James Maiello, and William Caplin. I wish to thank them for their input, although any deficiencies in the translation should be attributed to me alone.


  1. McCreless, review of Baker and Christensen, Aesthetics and the Art of Musical Composition in the German Enlightenment: Selected Writings of Johann Georg Sulzer and Heinrich Christoph Koch and Ian Bent, Music Theory in the Age of Romanticism, Journal of the American Musicological Society 51, no. 1 (Spring 1998), 170.
  2. In particular, the boom in partimento studies has created a renewed interest in eighteenth-century theories of harmony.
  3. With the history of music theory encompassing such figures as Aristoxenus, Augustine, Boethius, Mersenne, Descartes, Saveur, Rousseau, Sulzer, Helmholtz, and Nietzsche, the field maintains a close relationship to the respective histories of science and philosophy.
  4. The full title of the essay is “Ueber [or Von] die Theorie der Musik, insofern sie Liebhabern und Kennern nothwendig und nützliche ist”: “On the Theory of Music, insofar as it is necessary and useful to amateurs and connoisseurs.” See the translation itself for bibliographic details on Forkel’s text.
  5. See Matthew Riley, Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder, and Astonishment (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004); Thomas Christensen, “Genres of Music Theory, 1650–1750,” in Towards Tonality: Aspects of Baroque Music Theory, ed. Peter Dejans (Leuven University Press, 2007), 9–39; Mark Evan Bonds, “Turning Liebhaber into Kenner: Forkel’s Lectures on the Art of Listening, ca. 1780–1785,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ed. Christian Thorau and Hansjakob Ziemer (Oxford University Press, 2019), 145–161.
  6. Held in the British Library. See the bibliography to the translation for details. Callcott was an English composer and theorist who attempted to compile a Musical Dictionary of similar scope to Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon, and it is most likely for this purpose that he translated Forkel’s text: see his Plan of a Practical Dictionary of Music (London, 1798). Calcott’s most lasting contribution to music theory is the names of the three augmented sixth chords, which first appear in his Musical Grammar (London, 1806, most widely available in the first American edition): see Daniel Harrison, “Supplement to the Theory of Augmented Sixth Chords,” Music Theory Spectrum 17, no. 2 (Autumn 1995), 181ff.
  7. Forkel, Ueber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke (Leipzig, 1802), a work that has been reprinted many times and translated into English as Johann Sebastian Bach: His Life, Art, and Work, trans. Charles Sanford Terry (New York : Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920).
  8. For an introduction to Forkel’s scholarly work, see Vincent Duckles, “Johann Nicolaus Forkel: The Beginning of Music Historiography,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 1, no. 3 (March 1968): 277–290.
  9. See Dietrich Bartel, Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 156–164.
  10. Doris Bosworth Powers, “Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s Philosophy of Music in the Einleitung to volume one of his Allgemeine Geschichte der Musik (1788): A Translation and Commentary with a Glossary of Eighteenth-Century Terms” (PhD diss., UNC Chapel Hill, 1995).
  11. In a recent article, Janet Schmalfeldt provides a historical overview of the various definitions of the term “phrase”: Schmalfeldt, “Phrase,” in The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory (Oxford University Press, 2019). See also William Rothstein’s definition of the term in Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music (New York: Schirmer, 1989), 3–15. Schmalfeldt erroneously suggests that Rothstein requires a phrase to end with a cadence; Rothstein actually says a phrase requires a tonal motion of some kind, though not necessarily a cadence.
  12. Powers, “Einleitung,” 417–418.
  13. Christensen translates Sulzer’s “Hauptsatz” article as “main theme.” See Aesthetics and the Art of Musical Composition, 100.
  14. German is much poorer in Latinate words than English, and by the late eighteenth century Latin had only recently ceased to be the standard language of scholarly writing. Thus German scholars of this era often introduce Latin equivalents to their German terms in parentheses. This sometimes looks odd in English translation, where the idiomatic English rendering of the German is often a cognate of the Latin term.
  15. Twain, “The Awful German Language,” in A Tramp Abroad (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1880), 608.
  16. For references, see Riley, Musical Listening, 109n4. A more recent article by Yonatan Bar-Yoshafat adds little to the historical discussion that is not contained in Riley’s work: “Kenner und Liebhaber – Another Look,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 44, no. 1 (June 2013), 19–47.
  17. The translation of Kenner, whether as “connoisseur” or “expert,” is significantly less controversial. I choose “connoisseur” to preserve the general shape of the word along with the sense of “one who knows.”
  18. Riley leaves the terms in the original German.
  19. The OED cites no uses of the word “amateur” in English before 1784, and I have not been able to find any in my own investigations. According to one OED citation from 1803, “Amateur, in the Arts, is a foreign term introduced and now passing current amongst us, to denote a person understanding, and loving or practising the polite arts of painting, sculpture, or architecture, without any regard to pecuniary advantage.”
  20. The Rous citation is from Thoughts on Government: occasioned by Mr. Burke’s Reflections, &c., in a letter to a friend (London, 1790), 12; the rest, qtd. in the OED entry, s.v. “amateur.”
  21. Riley, Musical Listening, 88–90.
  22. Christensen observes that “the aesthetic turn of music theory towards issues of style, rhetoric, and genre evident in the writings of Mattheson or Scheibe. . . bespeaks a concern with the poetics of the musical work that could arguably be taken as a foretoken of nineteenth-century music analysis.” He adds that this concern is “made even more explicit” in Forkel’s writings. “Genres of Theory,” 35.
  23. See Ian Bent, ed., Music Analysis in the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols (Cambridge University Press, 1994).