Holtmeier on Weber and Mattei

My plan to read about music and economic history and post my notes here on an ongoing basis has been derailed slightly by personal emergencies and obsessions. I’ll probably resume next week. In the interest of keeping you people busy and happy, I’m recycling some old material from my stash. Here’s my translation of an excerpt from a very good article by Ludwig Holtmeier that I wish were better known in English: “Feindliche Übernahme: Gottfried Weber, Adolf Bernhard Marx, und die bürgerliche Harmonielehre des 19. Jahrhunderts” (“Hostile Takeover: Gottfried Weber, Adolf Bernhard Marx, and the Bourgeois Harmonic Theory of the Nineteenth Century”), which appeared in the journal Musik und Ästhetik 16, no. 63 (July 2012), 5–25.

Holtmeier’s article covers the rise of a tendency he calls “bourgeois harmonic theory” in Germany in the early nineteenth century. The bourgeois harmonic theory is characterized by a reliance on rational system-building rather than practical example, disconnection from the musical practice of performer-composers, and the systematic exploration of a combinatorial possibility-space. These qualities arise from an attempt to emulate the principles of rational enquiry that the bourgeois theorists had received from their professional training outside music. Holtmeier makes much of the fact that the foremost exponents of the bourgeois harmonic theory, Gottfried Weber and Adolf Bernhard Marx, were lawyers and journalists (and Marx a sometime professor), not professional musicians.

The passage translated here concerns one of the most remarkable confrontations in the history of music theory. Gottfried Weber, one of the foremost progressive harmonic theorists of Germany in the early century, anonymously reviewed a practical partimento tutor by the Italian theorist Stanislao Mattei. In the process, Weber revealed that he had virtually no knowledge of the partimento tradition or of eighteenth-century thoroughbass theory more generally. Most striking to me is the fact that he focuses exclusively on Mattei’s prose introduction, which takes up six pages of a 200-page book, rather than the dozens of figured and unfigured partimenti that make up the bulk of the text. The idea that the theoretical content of a work like Mattei’s might consist in the musical exercises (or, more precisely, what the musical exercises invite the student to do) apparently never occured to him.

From “Hostile Takeover,” an article by Ludwig Holtmeier

[TI: all footnotes are original from Holtmeier]

A similar spirit pervades almost all German-language harmonic theory of the nineteenth century: it signals a fundamentally different relationship to theory and to scholarliness (Wissenschaftlichkeit) in comparison with the compositional theory of the eighteenth century. The Regelpoetik of the old compositional theory with its numerous examples, which were not only to be understood theoretically but also drilled as practical patterns, is for Weber and Marx not just thoroughly incomprehensible: rather, they treat it with the flagrant disdain of the “learned” academic.1

This is reflected in the new tone of the bourgeois harmonic theory, in which the change of spheres can be pinned down with particular clarity. The authors of the first bourgeois harmonic theories are also those who had a decisive influence on the still young discipline of music criticism:2 they may not have been professional musicians, but they practiced the craft of writing in a thoroughly professional way. From the aesthetic and political criticism of the time, they imported into music theory a combative and polemical literary style, which from then on was a general sign of music theoretical discourse of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Particularly salient is that specific mix of arrogance, class-consciousness, and ignorance, when the bourgeois music theorist acts as critic of the “old theory” and in particular the Italian theoretical tradition, which had given the European compositional theory of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries its actual character. In the fourth volume of his journal Cäcilia from the year 1826, Gottfried Weber published a “review” of Padre Stanislao Mattei’s (1750–1825) Pratica d’accompagnato (Bologna, 1825).3 After a lengthy translation of the title (“so far as it can be rendered in German”), its dedications to the noble patrons winding in a baroque endless loop, with the transparent aim of exposing and denouncing the work as an “outdated” product of the defunct ancient régime, and before even speaking of the content overall, there follows a “completely faithful translation” of the beginning of Mattei’s book. The last paragraph of this “faithful translation” reads, according to Weber:

Each triad has two inversions, the first 3.6= and the second 4.6. [What the symbols are supposed to mean is nowhere explained (G.W.)]

On the first inversion of the tonic one finds the accompaniment of the third, on the first of the dominant that of the seventh, and the first of the subdominant that of the sixth. [The translation is no less clear than the original (G.W.)]

Weber’s “literal” translation makes no sense—and that is not to be blamed on the translator, as Weber specifically points out in his footnote: “the translation is no less clear than the original (G.W.).” The correct translation of this passage must naturally read completely differently, and Mattei’s text is clear and unambiguous for those who are even somewhat familiar with the music theory of the eighteenth century:

Each triad has two inversions: the first is the sixth chord, the second the six-four chord. The first inversion of the tonic has its seat on the third scale step, the first inversion of the dominant triad has its seat on the seventh, and the first inversion of the subdominant triad on the sixth scale step.

Thus or similarly formulated, one could find this principle just as well in any Viennese thoroughbass treatise of the second half of the eighteenth century. One finds in Mattei the symbiotic juxtaposition, so typical of the music theory of the early eighteenth century, of the rule of the octave with the French and Italian fundamental bass tradition: inversional thinking is correlated with the steps of the diatonic scale, so that the “seats” (the so-called “seats of the chords”) within the scale are determined. This manner of thinking, which is fundamental to the entirety of European music theory of the first half of the eighteenth century, was plainly unintelligible to Weber: he had never learnt what it was actually about.4

Weber’s final judgment on Mattei’s work is scathing: those who want to play “mere figured basses” will be well-served, but those who “wish to purchase instruction and not mere practice material” should pass over this “purportedly theoretical” book. Remarkable is the ease and casualness, even that boundless “bourgeois” self-confidence, with which Weber brushes aside the work of a professional musician and famous music theorist from an old and renowned tradition.


  1. Marx can see in this tradition only “technical training” (Marx, Erinnerungen [Anm. 15], vol. 2, p. 110). Behind Marx’s aversion to all teaching by way of example stands an idealist, “organicist” concept of composition that is irreconcilable with the Regelpoetik tradition. It is characteristic that Albrechtsberger’s discussion of thoroughbass as the foundation of composition and the two-voice framework (“skeleton”) that lies at the basis of each composition (Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Sämmtliche Schriften über Generalbaß, Harmonielehre und Tonsetzkunst, ed. Ignaz von Seyfried, 3 vols, Vienna 1826, here vol. 1, p. 1) elicited Marx’s impassioned rebuttal: “and now that gruesome word skeleton!” (Marx, Die alte Musiklehre im Streit mit unserer Zeit, Leipzig 1841, 61). For Marx it was completely inconceivable that an artwork could originate in such a mechanical and “technical” manner: “Oh no! We are removed from all creative, all artistic feeling and power” (63). Marx’s argument appears in an uncannily similar form in Arnold Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre (Vienna, 7th ed., 1966, 242ff).
  2. Marpurg, Weber, and Marx were editors of influential music journals in which they appear mostly as critics.
  3. Weber, “Recension: Pratica d’accompagnamento. Padre Mattei was a late exponent of the Italian partimento tradition, famous for his theoretical writings, the greater part of which exist only in manuscript form. The Pratica d’accompagnamento was published posthumously.
  4. Comparable to Weber’s erroneous criticism is Marx’s long remark on the German augmented sixth chord in his criticism of [S.W.] Dehn’s music theory (Marx, Die alte Musiklehre im Streit mit unserer Zeit [Anm. 19], 126–128). It is utterly incomprehensible to Marx how Dehn, in agreement with the Italian thoroughbass tradition as well as the rule of the octave, can describe the French and German augmented sixth chords as variant forms of the Italian augmented sixth. Marx cannot accept that the “wholly incidental relationship of the outer voices” (128) of the chords should be determinate: “sixth chord is the name of an inversion,” he writes indignantly (126). For Marx there is nothing beyond primitive third-stacking and inversional thought.