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The elevation of music to the highest of the arts entailed a shift in the perceived relationship of art to the world around us. As "art for art's sake" and similar sentiments gained ground in the nineteenth century, music became prized for its very separation from the real world, its lack of precise representational meaning. The symphony became the focal point for a new valorization of music, especially as it developed in the German lands at the hands of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Beyond its presumed purity, music's removal from the here and now made it seem a perfect vehicle for expressing the Romantics' sense of "infinite longing," which Hoffmann, in an 1810 essay on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (1808), called the "essence of Romanticism." Within this formulation, music could be allied with the sublime, the unattainable, the infinite, and the ineffable, while at the same time expressing and probing profound inner states. Through music, one's soul could connect, through "longing" or some other deep feeling, to something beyond the everyday world. In this way, as the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus argues, music could be understood as "absolute" in two senses, both through its purity, its "absolute" separateness from the reality we can see and touch, and through its capacity to connect us to the "absolute" in the philosophical sense, after Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831).
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Despite the enormous and accelerating worldwide interest in Wagner leading to the bicentenary of his birth in 2013, his prose writings have received scant scholarly attention. Wagner's book-length essay on Beethoven, written to celebrate the centenary of Beethoven's birth in 1870, is really about Wagner himself rather than Beethoven. It is generally regarded as the principal aesthetic statement of the composer's later years, representing a reassessment of the ideas of the earlier Zurich writings, especially , in the light of the experience gained through the composition of and the greater part of . It contains Wagner's most complete exegesis of his understanding of Schopenhauer's philosophy and its perceived influence on the compositional practice of his later works. The essay also influenced the young Nietzsche. It is an essential text in the teaching of not only Wagnerian thought but also late nineteenth-century musical aesthetics in general.
Until now the English reader with no access to the German original has been obliged to work from two Victorian translations. This brand new edition gives the German original and the newly translated English text on facing pages. It comes along with a substantial introduction placing the essay not only within the wider historical and intellectual context of Wagner's later thought but also in the political context of the establishment of the German Empire in the 1870s. The translation is annotated throughout with a full bibliography. will be indispensable reading for historians and musicologists as well as those interested in Wagner's philosophy and the aesthetics of music.
ROGER ALLEN is Fellow and Tutor in Music at St Peter's College, Oxford.