The Myth of Absolute Music


ACLS Fellowship Program




The concept of “absolute music” posits music as a self-referential, purely formal art. Historically, absolute music is the first manifestation of an aesthetic that celebrates art’s independence from the strictures of representation and social value. When it emerged in the 1840s, it was an extreme expression of l’art pour l’art, and it was slow to catch on: aesthetics had traditionally taken its cues from the verbal and visual arts. But by 1877, the literary critic Walter Pater could declare that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”—that is, pure form without content. Abstract poetry, painting, and sculpture are all part of the legacy of absolute music. This study traces the history of this concept from its origins in music down to the present day.