Ruminating on Second Hand Theories

From Sir Donald Tovey’s 1934 lecture entitled Musical Form and Matter

Neither the humble lover nor the master of pure musical form need entertain any tolerance for theories that deny the supremacy of absolute music. But all history and experience go to prove that the absoluteness of music is a result; that this result remains independent of circumstances that may happen to make music illustrative and, moreover, that it is a result very imperfectly attained, if at all attainable, by methods that have not early familiarized the musician with the musical treatment of words.

It is not mere accident that three of the four greatest masters of absolute music, Bach, Mozart and Brahms, spent more than half their time in setting words to music and that the fourth, Beethoven took enormous pain in the later part of his career to recover the art which he had almost neglected since he wrote exercises in Italian musical declamations for Salieri.

On the other hand, the loudest propagandists of “programme-music”, such as Berlioz, are often almost angrily inattentive to what they call the subjects of their works. The titles of Berlioz’s King Lear Overture and Harold Symphony are mere instances of shameless mendacity; and if these compositions have obscurities as absolute music the titiles do nothing to illuminate them.

A quartet of Beethoven is obviously absolute music and all attempts to illustrate it by Beethoven’s biography or the French Revolution are merely sentimental excuses for inattention.

On the other hand, the Pastoral Symphony is just as absolute music and the superior person who think s it the worse for the fact that Beethoven not only enjoyed thunderstorms and cuckoos and nightingales, but made them recognizable in this music, is just as liable to the charge of petulantly ruminating on second hand theories of art as the opposite type of listener is liable to the charge of extemporizing sentimental romances instead of listening to the music.

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