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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading