James Donelan’s book explores the relationship between music, philosophy, and poetry in the romantic period, and how these three entities converge around the notion of self-consciousness. The study is genuinely cross-disciplinary in that the author demonstrates his proficiency in philosophical, poetic, and musical discourse. The theoretical core of this study emerges through summaries of the various versions of self-consciousness in Idealist philosophy, from Kant to Fichte to Schelling to Hegel. Donelan himself clearly adopts an Idealist position, but his aim is to place philosophy into a reciprocal relationship with music and poetry, as he explores “how and why the idea of self-consciousness came to such prominence simultaneously in both philosophy and music and how poetic discourse mediated between the two” (31). The author therefore seeks to coordinate his philosophical deliberations with close readings of selected poems by Hölderlin and Wordsworth, as well as a detailed musicological analysis of one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. However, while the author’s particular focus is how music came to be heard as a “metaphor for self-consciousness” (154), his broader aim, most clearly and forcefully articulated in the last, brief chapter of the book, is to reaffirm the autonomous value of “the aesthetic,” and to do so from a humanistic perspective: “We need the aesthetic to restore our knowledge of who we are”. The reason for the enduring appeal of Beethoven’s music, he claims, is that it embodies the “hope for reintegration of the self through beauty” (177).
The alignment of music with self-consciousness takes place through what Donelan calls “Romantic musical aesthetics,” and this is the first term over which the reader may stumble. Of all the philosophers included in this study, only Schelling commonly receives the designation of “Romantic philosopher,” but there are a number of even more troubling omissions. Romantic music aesthetics first emerges in the 1790’s in the musical essays and narratives of Wilhelm H. Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck. While these writings are not widely known, it is strange that they would not even be mentioned in a book with this title. E. T. A. Hoffmann, a much more well-known figure in the English-speaking world, whose essay on Beethoven’s instrumental music is one of the canonical texts of Romantic music aesthetics, mainly appears as a foil to Hegel (88-90). Given Donelan’s focus on self-consciousness, it is clear why these figures would not receive much attention. It was these Romantics who established music as an autonomous art-form, i.e. one that had a certain philosophical or spiritual dignity in its own right, even and especially when it was not accompanied by language. At first, however, it was not at all clear that the autonomy of the musical artwork could be aligned with the autonomy of the self. For Hoffmann in particular, this autonomy is associated with the uncanny self-organization of the automaton, as it appears in so many of his tales.
Underlying the dubious question of who “is” and “isn’t” a romantic, then, there is also a more tractable philosophical issue. As the readers of this journal are more aware than most, romanticism is notoriously difficult to define. Implicitly, the author identifies romanticism with the “assertion of independent subjectivity and the primacy of the aesthetic” (176). While the latter term is less controversial, the identification of romanticism with an Idealist conception of “independent subjectivity” is not obvious or un-problematic. In fact, Donelan’s thesis cuts against the grain of a generally accepted narrative concerning the emergence of German romanticism, according to which the “birth” of this movement is dated not to Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and that work’s positing of the “absolute ego,” but to the overcoming of that concept on the part of the younger generation. For Fichte, this term referred to an entity that constituted the ultimate unity of all oppositions. The mythical core of this entity is the elusive “intellectual intuition,” in which subject and object, intellect and sense, are one and the same. With this notion, that is, Fichte posited that the “original” identity of subject and object was the identity of the self-conscious “Ich.” What unites Fichte’s erstwhile followers in Jena is that they all, and often independently, arrived at the conclusion that the absolute ego was not a tenable concept.
According to this narrative, then, figures such as Friedrich Schlegel and Friedrich von Hardenberg “exploded” the absolute ego. They did not reject the dialectical style of thinking that Fichte used to support this notion, but “liberated” it from its Idealist bonds. With this explosion, Totality is conceived not in terms of a totalizing self-consciousness, but rather as Being, the Absolute, etc. – whatever term is used to designate the ultimate unity of all oppositions. E. T. A. Hoffmann, coming to intellectual and artistic maturity a decade after the early romantics, reflects the legacy of this explosion. Beethoven’s music leads the listener not into the solipsistic sphere of self-consciousness, but into the “Realm of the Infinite.”  The fundamental mood of Beethoven’s symphonies is thus one of “infinite yearning,” pointing human consciousness toward that infinite sphere to which it will never be adequate. In this sense, romanticism re-orients aesthetic experience towards that which can never be circumscribed within the self – that which remains ineluctably “other.”
The relationship between Fichte and the early romantics is, of course, much more complicated than this truncated narrative would suggest, but is especially necessary in the chapter on Hölderlin. Donelan acknowledges Hölderlin’s break with Fichte, as it is recorded in the well-known philosophical fragment, “Judgment and Being” (“Urtheil und Sein”). In this document, Hölderlin asserts the primacy of the “primal division” (“ur-teil”), that the origin of human consciousness lies not in an originary synthesis, but rather in an originary rupture. Donelan interprets this document, however, as stating the “problem” to which Hölderlin’s poetry, as the synthesis of intellect and sense, represents the “solution”: “Hölderlin solves the problem of being by ascribing the power of self-origination to his melopoetic language, that is, language that is both sign and sound, at once linguistic and material” (59). What this interpretation suppresses is that self-consciousness has been supplanted by Being as the fundamental category of Hölderlin’s thought.
Donelan’s account of how music becomes aligned with self-consciousness, or perhaps how music “becomes self-conscious,” rests on two basic analogies. On the one hand, self-consciousness, or the unity of the absolute ego, is achieved through the “intellectual intuition,” designating a mythical moment or “act” in which subject and object, intellect and sense are one and the same. Music approximates or produces self-consciousness in this sense through its own distinct capacity to fuse together these dualities, as one particular manifestation of “the aesthetic” – that which “emerges after pure sensation but before cognition” (3). On the other hand, self-consciousness is not just a characteristic fact of human identity, but a temporal process, and “[j]ust as … the synthetic unity of apprehension must occur over time, music must occur over time” (21). These two aspects of self-consciousness then come together, in Donelan’s account, in the temporalization of self-consciousness that takes place in post-Fichtean Idealism. “[T]he act of self-positing through an aesthetic encounter with the self, the unification of subject and object” becomes “a continuous process of the self becoming its own object” (33-34). Donelan’s identification of music with self-consciousness might be more persuasive if his analysis went beyond these rudimentary analogies. To reinforce this identification, one would have to delve into the analogy between dialectical philosophy and the dialectical techniques used in classical composition. How is the musical reconstruction of time analogous to, or, as I believe Donelan wants to claim, identical with the philosophical reconstruction of time that takes place in the positing of self-consciousness? Donelan’s study is well-researched, both with respect to the musicological and the philosophical literature, and he does, at various points in his study, cite some of the figures who have delved into this area of correspondence: Theodor Adorno, Carl Dahlhaus, and Scott Burnham, among others. But only at a deeper level of conceptual and/or phenomenological analysis, however, can his central claim as to the identity of music and self-consciousness be justified, or lent theoretical clarity.
It was Hegel’s dialectical approach to musical aesthetics that allowed later critics like A. B. Marx and Eduard Hanslick to do what the romantics could not – align musical experience unambiguously with the autonomous Self. Donelan does an admirable job of setting the stage for his discussion of Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. He carefully places the lectures in the context of Hegel’s overall philosophical project, and responsibly considers the tenuous authority or authenticity of the transcriptions of these lectures. What does not become quite clear, though, is the precise sense in which self-consciousness becomes aligned with “musical material” in Hegel’s terms. Instead, Donelan centers on the question of music’s “content,” which caused Hegel’s basic ambivalence concerning this art-form. As an art-form, music supercedes the visual arts—architecture, sculpture, and painting—through its “cancellation of spatial objectivity,” whereby music comes to express “the object-free inner life, abstract subjectivity as such.”  Donelan makes an interesting comparison between music and “unhappy consciousness,” observing that “both lack an external object, a true other, which would enable them to escape the isolation of their own self-negation” (92). He objects to Hegel’s claim that music does not have “its own” content, and the implication here seems to be that if Hegel had recognized such content, then he would also have acknowledged that music embodies the unity of subject and object, intellect and sense. Donelan never quite formulates or elaborates this syllogism explicitly, however, and what is again missing from the account is an explanation of how the processional character of self-consciousness is reflected or concretely realized in music. For Hegel, the temporal essence of the self becomes manifest in the determinate process of double-negation. An account of how music achieves, or, short of achieving, approximates self-consciousness in Hegel therefore has to consider and explain how this process is performed by measured sequences of tones.
The two main composers in Donelan’s study are Mozart and Beethoven. The discussion of Mozart appears in the first chapter, where Donelan sets the stage for his argument by juxtaposing (a) a philosophical account of the development of self-consciousness from Kant to Schelling and (b) a sociological account of the development of Mozart’s career – in particular, the fateful decision to leave his secure position as Kapellmeister in Salzburg to become an entrepreneurial composer/performer in Vienna. Donelan suggests through this analogy that Fichte’s theoretical assertion of the absolute ego and Mozart’s practical realization of the “absolute composer”—a composer who is not reliant on aristocratic or ecclesiastical patronage—are two independent manifestations of the same revolutionary process.
The last chapter on Beethoven goes further in sketching out how self-consciousness might become manifest in musical terms. Donelan’s primary focus in this chapter is on Beethoven’s late works, and the op. 130/133 quartet in particular. Like many other interpreters, Donelan notes the peculiar way in which this and other late works seems to quote earlier, outmoded forms – rather than overcoming those outmoded forms, as he does especially in his middle or “heroic” period. Donelan departs from most interpretations, though, in insisting that this self-reflectivity does not destroy the ideal of “organic unity,” but reinvents it: “the evident self-reflective nature of the work,” he claims, “far from undermining its artistic unity, synthesizes its dialectical tensions … into an artistic whole” (154). His argument is two-pronged. First of all, he presents a musicological argument in which he claims that Beethoven’s late quartet is in fact unified, but that the structural principles of this unity are radically different from those of earlier compositions. In his analysis of the first movement, for example, Donelan argues that, rather than structuring the movement around the traditional tonic-dominant polarity, Beethoven structures it around “sequences of descending thirds,” and thereby “creates a new large-scale structure that can substitute for, and even oppose, traditional structure” (160-61). Secondly, Donelan interpret’s the work’s ironic acts of citation as “self-consciousness expressed in musical terms: an identity in musical discourse that becomes aware of itself through its opposition and contrast to the other of traditional musical form” (174). Donelan thus sees the way that the late Beethoven distances himself from his musical language as a preliminary step in a new process of unification: “the assertion of a self that looks back on its constitutive elements, and in a clear, audible, and real sense, achieves self-consciousness through this reflection” (175).
The chapters on Hölderlin and Wordsworth are similarly focused on how artworks reflect upon their own constitutive elements, and Donelan’s discussions are again based on the premise that musical and poetic reflexivity is the aesthetic realization of self-consciousness. Here Donelan makes the important observation that the “music of poetry” signifies not only the “mystery” of the poet’s voice, but also formal and material elements of poetic language such as rhyme and meter. In his discussion of Hölderlin, Donelan refers especially to “The Alternation of Tones,” a brief and fragmentary poetological text, to underscore the significance of musical analogies in Hölderlin’s poetry. In the chapter on Wordsworth, he relies more on how music is used as a trope in the poems themselves, but both poets “understood the materiality of poetry through metaphors of music” (98), and acknowledge the “suspension of meaning [in poetry] through metaphors of music” (99). For Donelan, such suspension of meaning signifies the end of the intellect’s dominance over and alienation from sense: “meter and music provide the material resistance to understanding that defines self-consciousness through opposition to the self, a resistance that depends on the twofold nature—sensuous and spiritual—of the aesthetic” (99).
Especially in the chapters of poetry, Donelan’s premise that reflexivity in music and poetry indicates a moment of self-union rather than self-division can seem somewhat arbitrary. Using “Urtheil and Sein” as a hermeneutic frame of reference for reading Hölderlin’s poems, it is much more plausible to suppose that the moments of self-reflection in his poems are further iterations of the “primal division” – further evidence that, for human beings, complete self-unity is impossible. For Hölderlin, such unity is possible only for Nature and “the gods.” In the Wordsworth chapter, Donelan’s Idealist position is undermined by his own readings. For what he finds in Wordsworth, in poems such as “The Blind Beggar” and “The Boy of Winander,” is not self-consciousness as such, but the “shock of self-consciousness” (124). When the poet sees his own double in a blind beggar, this kind of uncanny self-recognition is obviously very far removed from the philosophical notion of self-consciousness. The recognition or cognizance of the self in this case is not “accomplished” by the self via a dialectical process, but “arrives” from the outside as an un-mediated catastrophe. That the author does not acknowledge and comment on this discrepancy contributes to the vagueness surrounding the term “self-consciousness” in the book as a whole. Donelan’s study demonstrates well how music and poetry can be perceived, from an Idealist perspective, as manifestations of self-consciousness, but not why one should, in fact, perceive them this way.
- E. T. A. Hoffmann, “Beethovens Instrumentalmusik,” in Fantasie und Nachtstücke (Düsseldorf: Winkler, 1996) 42.
- “Aufhebung der räumlichen Objektivität;” “das ganz objektlose Innere, die abstrakte Subjektivität als solche” (G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, vol. 3 [Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970] 134, 135).
Colin Benert is Adjunct Lecturer of German at Northwestern University and the author of several recent articles on musical aesthetics in German romantic literature.