For much of the twentieth century a chorus of Wagnerites and Modernists has fixed the image of Eduard Hanslick, dubbed by Verdi the “Bismarck of Viennese music criticism”, as a reactionary curmudgeon trapped in the aspic of formalism and clinging to a narrow canon that began with Mozart and more or less ended with Brahms. The odium heaped on Hanslick is of course a backhanded tribute to the power of his writings and his enduring significance, not only for Viennese culture, but for musical aesthetics generally. Since the 1970s leading scholars (including Peter Gay, Geoffrey Payzant and the philosopher Roger Scruton) have revisited his achievements; and since 1993, Dietmar Strauss has been engaged on a monumental critical edition of the complete works projected at 22 volumes (only seven have appeared). Hanslick is dead! Long live Hanslick!
Born in Prague to a German Catholic father and a Jewish mother, Hanslick (like Grillparzer) secured a fall-back position in Franz Joseph’s bureaucracy before his career took off as a music critic and cultural journalist. The times were propitious and newspapers were expanding to meet the demand from an increasingly cultivated bourgeois public for accessible but authoritative cultural journalism. When his career began mid-century, the Viennese competition in Hanslick’s speciality of music criticism was lamentable, as he put it: “stuffed with epithets and shallow enthusiasms, limp wit and phrase-making, unmanly heroisations and idolatry – echt wienerisch!” His first and perhaps greatest achievement was to raise musical appreciation to a professional level, diffusing his knowledge effortlessly in urbane prose, but dedicating himself to his task by playing every score right through before a performance. He would also do extensive background reading, for example of a Shakespeare play and commentary on it, before reviewing a Verdi opera. One lasting impact of his approach was that he addressed the work primarily and the performance secondarily, from which it followed that the quality of a work might not necessarily be obscured by inadequacy of performance, or, of course, vice versa…
Hanslick is known in Vienna for championing the music of Brahms and disparaging that of Bruckner, and especially that of Wagner. The truth, as always, is somewhat more complex. His very first outing as a music critic consisted of an eleven-part appreciation of Tannhäuser, published in 1846 in the Wiener Musikzeitung when Hanslick was only 21. He was thus the first to champion Wagner to a Viennese public, though Tannhäuser was not in fact performed in Vienna for another 13 years. However by the time (1863) that Wagner read his Meistersinger libretto to an invited audience (including Hanslick) in Vienna, relations between them had cooled and Wagner claims in his not very truthful autobiography that Hanslick recognised himself in the pettifogging Beckmesser and left the house in a fury.
The second edition (1869) of Wagner’s racist and completely unhinged pamphlet (Das Judentum in der Musik) attacks Hanslick’s by then celebrated book on musical aesthetics (Vom Musikalisch-Schönen) inter alia for distorting Viennese classicism by bridging it to Mendelssohn (“so the musical Jew-beauty took its seat in the heart of a full-blooded German system of aesthetics”). Curiously Hanslick rose to Wagner’s bait, insofar as he denied that he was himself Jewish, though his mother was the daughter of one of the richest Jewish merchants in Prague. Of Wagner’s childish rant about Jewry and music, he sensibly confines himself in his autobiography to the observation that the operas showing the most pronounced “Jewish” tendencies according to Wagner’s criteria are indeed Wagner’s own.
Wagner’s racist attacks have rather obscured Hanslick’s substantive criticisms of his music. He strongly objected to what he (perhaps incorrectly) took to be Wagner’s idea that the music should be the servant of the text, and to the yoking of music to a utopian or revolutionary vision, what the Wagnerians called “the music of the future”. As Peter Gay drily remarks: “Hanslick had seen the future, and it did not work.” There was (and is) a fundamental issue here, namely that of whether music should (or could) be harnessed to extra-musical ideas. The anti-Wagnerians like Hanslick were clear that it could not be, that music means itself, or, as Hanslick put it, “music has sense and logic – but musical sense and logic”. This was the burden of his Europe-wide success On the Musically Beautiful (1854), the first book on musical aesthetics that reached a broad educated public, going through many editions (ten of them revised by Hanslick) and appearing in several languages. From this belief it followed that “programme music”, for which there was a great vogue amongst the Romantics, was at best misconceived, at worst an abomination. Here again Hanslick had abandoned the approach of his youth, when he had championed Berlioz in Prague in 1846. Liszt of course was even more suspect and it is certainly possible to feel some sympathy with Hanslick’s view if one sits through a performance of Mazeppa without having read the programme (perhaps even more so if one has). Although Hanslick respected Liszt’s achievements, he was unrelenting in his criticism of individual works, particularly Les Préludes (over-use of the diminished seventh, overripe harmonies, too much brass and percussion bombast, what he called “janissary music”).
Hanslick’s aesthetic of music can be seen as being bound up with his positivist Weltanschauung as a cultivated and loyal bureaucrat of the Dual Monarchy. He was a liberal in politics, especially in regard to censorship and religious toleration, but recoiled (like the playwright Franz Grillparzer) from the excesses of the 1848 revolution. (His autobiography supplies a chilling description of him being swept along by a crowd to Am Hof, where the semi-naked corpse of Latour, the Minister for War, was hanging from a lamp post.) Wagner, a self-proclaimed utopian (and theoretically socialist) revolutionary, was not the sort of person to appeal to Hanslick on the personal level, even if he could have overlooked, for the sake of his art, the composer’s massive conceit, his dishonesty and his megalomania. But what most disturbed Hanslick was the Wagner cult, which was both a political (nationalistic) and an artistic phenomenon. The artistic effects of the cult he clearly believed were reflected in what he regarded as the bad taste of much of Wagner’s music (“Effekthascherei” and “Opiumrausch”).
In his warnings about such a cult he was, after all, somewhat prescient. Some three decades after his death, Cosima Wagner, who embodied and encouraged absolutely the worst aspects of Wagner’s character, was being fawned upon by Hitler at Bayreuth. A few years later Hanslick’s much younger Jewish wife, Sophie, who survived him by forty years, was obliged to go underground in Vienna in the last years of the Nazi regime…