January 20, 2013
Formalism, Fair and Foul
By (Yale University)

Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Thus chant the three witches at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Now it’s clear enough that the witches weren’t talking about formalism; they had more sinister, bloodier business to attend to.  But suppose for a moment that they were talking about formalism–in aesthetics in general, or about formalism in musicology, music theory, and composition in particular.  What then might their words mean?  Shakespeare’s two threatening lines about the fair and the foul resonate eerily with the reception history of the word formalism, and the concept to which it refers. In music and the other arts, perhaps the most striking feature of formalism, in the 150 or so years of the word’s existence, is the conflict and controversy that it inevitably stirs up.  It’s difficult to hear, or think of, the word, without reflexively calling up its opposites, its Others:  formalism vs. expressionism, formalism vs. hermeneutics, formalism vs. Marxism; formalism vs. historicism, formalism vs. postmodernism.  In the conflicted and bitterly contested “fog and filthy air” that formalism seems so frequently to generate, it is indeed difficult to tell what is fair and what is foul.  The fog and the stench blur our senses and disable our minds.  Even if we think we know what formalism means, the intensity of emotion that its mere utterance sometimes releases makes it impossible for us to keep our heads and remain objective.  The word seems to be at its very essence emotional and political; and in our fields of music, music theory, and musicology, it is emotionally, and politically, that we often respond to it.

To illustrate the emotional charge that has accompanied the word since its origins, I offer two examples, one from over 150 years ago, one from a bit less than 100.  First is a sentence that I culled from the Oxford English Dictionary, in my search for the very earliest use of the word formalism. Tellingly, this first example in the OED—an example that dates, handily, from exactly 1850—turns out not to be about matters aesthetic, but about matters political.  In the relevant sentence, the author decries the fact that in the English universities of the time, admission was denied to capable and honest students from the working class, whereas students whose parents came from the higher classes, and especially those whose parents were members of the Church of England, were admitted automatically—or formally, as it were–even if they lacked academic and personal merit:

Useless formalism! which lets through the reckless, the profligate, the ignorant, the hypocritical; and only excludes the honest and the conscientious, and the mass of the intellectual working men… the real reason for our exclusion, churchmen or not, is, because we are poor.1  (OED, vi, 83)

The bitterness of the initial expression “Useless formalism!” is typical of the rancor that the word arouses.  And there is no doubt in this example that the author considers formalism foul; the very thought of the injustice inherent in “useless formalism” unleashes from him a powerful stream of rhetoric.

My second example comes from an author who, in contrast, finds formalism to be fair: 

Formalism screamed, seethed, and made a noise. . . . [But it] is worthwhile to say a few words about the name. . . . [I]ts future biographer will have to decide who christened it the “Formal method.”  Perhaps in those noisy days it itself courted this ill-suited designation. (quoted in Steiner 1984, 16)

Now initially this quotation may sound as though it comes from an anti-formalist, but it doesn’t.  Its author is Boris Tomachevsky, a leader of the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism in the early twentieth century.  The quotation dates from 1925, and Tomachevsky was looking back to the heady days of the founding of his group ten years earlier.  Tomachevsky, a brash, iconoclastic theorist in the group, was obviously proud of the screaming and seething and noise-making that he and his colleagues indulged in when they rejected all previous literary theories and went off in their own new direction.  It is also worth noticing that he strongly objects to the designation “formalism,” labeling it as an ill-suited description of his group’s critical efforts; yet he still wears it as a badge of honor.  That he simultaneously flaunts and repudiates the label is typical of formalists.  Looking over the formalist schools of the past, we find that formalists often don’t call themselves formalists, and they don’t like to be called formalists, even though, paradoxically, they take great pride in being formalists.  This ambivalence, this inconsistency, is one of many reasons why formalism is fair game for Shakespeare’s three witches, with their toggling between the fair and the foul.

And so what does formalism have to do with musicologists, music theorists, and composers, in 2013?  We know that in contemporary music and musical scholarship we encounter the word frequently, as both scholars and composers, often in politically charged language, and virtually always with negative connotations.  We thus need to have a grasp of the term and its history, and we need to learn to be sensitive to its political overtones.  Accordingly, let us now consider two very recent and characteristic examples—both from Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music.  Taruskin uses the word formalism only twice in the five volumes of his history—and both times, significantly, he acknowledges the charged quality of the word by putting it in quotation marks.  In Volume 5, in a chapter on twentieth-century Russian music, he tells of the brutal denunciation of Shostakovich, Prokofieff, and other prominent composers by the Soviet Ministry of Culture in 1948:

All were charged with “formalism,” a vague term with a checkered history, defined in a post-1948 Soviet music encyclopedia as “an aesthetic conception proceeding from an affirmation of the self-sufficiency of form in art, and its independence from ideological or pictorial content.”  In practice it was the code for elite modernism, something that the [Soviet] doctrine of socialist realism expressly forbade. (Taruskin 2005, v, 9)

In another passage, describing musical education in the US a few years later, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, “formalism” rears its ugly head again.  But this time it is not the Soviet government leveling the charge of “formalism.”  It is Taruskin himself.  Taruskin is a writer, as is well-known, who is not afraid to reveal his own biases in his telling of history; and surely, his strongest bias is that against musical modernism.  And thus he writes of American musical education:

when . . . the aesthetics of modernism finally gained the upper hand in American institutions of higher education, music appreciation was altered to accord with a new ideology . . . that of ‘formalism,’ (the study of structure rather than meaning), reflecting the interests of composers rather than marketers. (Taruskin 2005, iii, 783)

This is precisely the kind of political usage of the term of which we would do well to be aware.  When we read about the Soviet government’s denunciation of its best composers, we instinctively side with the composers, and we are righteously indignant that a government would thus persecute its creative artists, demanding that their music be explicitly “for the people” (whoever they are) and accusing them of claiming the “[lifeless] self-sufficiency of form in art.”  But when we read what he has to say about American musical education, we are subtly led to take the opposite side.  Now we instinctively resent those modernist composers, who impose their formalist ideology upon presumably innocent students.  And now, suddenly, formalism is not a vague term with a checkered history, not a code for elite modernism; now it is neither vague nor coded.  We now know exactly what formalism is, because we can read its definition in Taruskin’s parenthetical comment:  formalism is, simply, the ideology (not the claim, I should note, but the ideology) that favors the study of structure over meaning.  Although Taruskin does not say so, his language, as is so often the case with formalism, implicitly suggests that formalism favors lifeless structure over human meaning.  (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair;/ hover through the fog and filthy air.”)

In our current musical and music-scholarly world, it is not only certain sorts of composers, but also music theorists and analysts, who are vulnerable to charges of formalism.  It has most frequently been musicologists of a critical orientation, especially so-called New Musicologists, who complain about music theory’s formalism.  From scores of examples, here are two.  First is a statement by Joseph Kerman, in his well-known essay “How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out.”  Kerman refers to the statement by Eduard Hanslick, the quintessential musical formalist, to the effect that music is “sounding form in motion”:

For if music is only “sounding form,” the only meaningful study of music is formalistic; and while Hanslick was not an analyst, later critics took it on themselves to analyze music’s sounding form in the conviction that this was equivalent to its content. (Kerman 1980, 314-15)

In other words, the problem with analysts is that for them, music is only “form,” and if it is only form, music is thus devoid of content.  And again the implication is that a “formalistic” approach is almost by definition a lifeless one.

Second is a trenchant quotation from the young American musicologist Robert Fink, in his book on minimalism.  In the following passage he savages academic music theorists who, in his view, for years considered minimalist music simplistic, vapid and beneath contempt, only to find, at the eleventh hour, that it does have musical relationships of the requisite level of complexity to be, after all, worthy of music-theoretical attention:

Unfortunately the belated intervention of academic music theory has only exacerbated matters: after decades of ignoring minimalism because it had so obviously upset their modernist compositional heroes, some music theorists began to realize in the 1980s that this music in fact resonated perfectly with the extreme formalism of musical analysis that held sway within their discipline. (Fink 2005, 18)

Now it is absolutely not my intention to refight the music-scholarly battles of the 1990’s.  Those battles have had their day in the sun, and it’s time to move on.  Indeed, the very title of my paper suggests a reconciliation of sorts:  the title is “Formalism, Fair AND Foul,” not “Formalism, Fair OR Foul.”  Still, as Kofi Agawu has memorably said, “We are not finished with formalism” (Agawu 2004, 273).  It remains very much in play, and it is still contested turf—still cherished by some, scorned by others.  But now, more than ever, it is used in tandem with historical and critical approaches in productive and insightful ways.  What I hope to do here is to clarify what formalism means, to sketch out its history in a synthetic way that relates its usage in music to that in the visual and literary arts, and to raise a number of issues that affect our musical and scholarly lives as we read, write, listen, and compose.  I will thus divide the remainder of my paper into two parts:  “Definition and History,” and “Issues to Ponder.”

I.  Definition and History

Anyone trying to define formalism precisely, or even claiming that it can be defined precisely, treads on dangerous ground.  The slipperiness of the situation is readily apparent just in the quotations that I have offered thus far in my paper.  Sometimes writers have no doubt about what formalism—whether in the arts or elsewhere–means.  In the example from the Oxford English Dictionary, the British writer, protesting admissions policies of English universities in 1850, seems to be absolutely confident that he knows what formalism is.  So do Robert Fink and Joseph Kerman.  So does Richard Taruskin, when he defines formalism straightforwardly, without comment, as “the study of structure rather than meaning.”  But Taruskin also calls formalism “a vague term with a checkered history,” and he explains how this vagueness works in the real world, when he shows how the Soviet government used it to persecute and control its own creative artists.  And yet Boris Tomachevsky, even while carrying the banner of formalism, suggests that the word is indefinable, and that in no way does it capture the essence of his project.  Other cautions are not hard to find.  For one example among many, the literary scholar Peter Steiner, in the Preface to his 1984 book on the Russian Formalists, observes the evident lack of consensus regarding the meaning of formalism:  “Because of the great variety of meanings that the label ‘Formalism’ has attracted in the course of time, it seems legitimate to question its utility and to offer my own understanding of the term as a historical concept” (Steiner 1984, 9).

I will attempt here to do likewise.  And, despite the many cautions and the lack of consensus as to what formalism means, I venture to suggest that the term does bear a core meaning that, while it in no sense captures all of its varied meanings over time, does nevertheless manage to tie most of these usages together—at least those meanings associated with music and with aesthetics.  After all, just because a word has meant many things over the years does not mean that it means nothing.  In this spirit, I will employ the following as a working definition of formalism:  formalism is the claim that the essence of any art resides in relationships of elements within an artistic work itself, not in relationships to anything outside that work.  Recent historical accounts and reference works on aesthetics offer virtually the same definition.  For example, the [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Aesthetics defines formalism as “the aesthetic doctrine in which [the formal elements of a work of art] are said to be the primary locus of aesthetic value, a value that is independent of such other characteristics of an artwork as meaning, reference, or utility.” (accessed online, 16 March 2012)  Two corollaries to this definition (whether in my version or the encyclopedia’s) follow naturally.  First, the artwork is a kind of black box that is hermetically sealed from all that is outside it–the work’s creator, any feeling or emotion that that creator is imagined to be expressing, its representation of actual things in the world, animate or inanimate, and its historical and social context.  Second, formalism stipulates relationships within the work of art:  it not only seals the work from the outside world, but it requires that there be definable entities within the work that relate to one another in coherent, cognitively describable ways.  The positing of such relationships entails the further claim that the formal elements of a work be capable of abstraction—e.g., material, shape, line, and color in painting; notes, timbres, and rhythms in music; meter, rhythm, and line in poetry.

Using the above definitions and their corollaries, I will offer here a historical sketch of uses of the term formalism in music, visual art, and literary art.  Much of my sketch will draw on previously published work in aesthetics or in the individual arts, but what is new here, and what I hope will be useful, is a synthetic approach that focuses primarily on music, but that also coordinates ideas in musical aesthetics, both conceptually and chronologically, with formalism in the visual and literary arts.

The notion that a well-formed or beautiful object involves the coherent and appealing organization of its component parts goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, and it appears variously in ideas attributed to Pythagoras, in classic works on rhetoric, and in the works of Plato, Horace, St. Augustine, and others. Similarly, in the Renaissance, rhetoricians, as well as theorists of painting such as Leon Battista Alberti, described how the elements of a literary work, painting, or sculpture must be put together (i.e., composed) harmoniously, and how a beautiful work of art could have nothing removed from it or added to it without ruining the whole.  A few hundred years later, in the eighteenth century, at the time when the discipline of aesthetics had its formal beginning, writers about all the arts attended to the notion of form, and attributed the qualities of beauty and aesthetic value to works that were well-formed, and that embodied unity within variety.  Yet, even though such writers identified form and valorized it, they were not formalists, nor did they represent formalism in the modern sense.  Why?  Because their system of aesthetic values judged works not on the basis of their form, but on the basis of mimesis—how well they reflected nature.  It was only when the possibility that form may trump representation or some other aesthetic value that formalism became possible:  it was thus not possible through most of the eighteenth century.

But that possibility was realized at the very end of the eighteenth century, with the publication, in 1790, of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the fons et origo, the foundation of philosophical aesthetics. (Kant 1987 [1790]) Kant writes about both beauty in art, and beauty in nature, and he sets the same criteria for both.  Of the two, it is the application of his ideas to art that has been determinant for aesthetics.  The central ramifications of Kant’s aesthetics for formalism are his requirements for the judgment of beauty in art:  that artistic beauty must be “purposive without purpose,” and that the appreciation of it must be “disinterested.”  By “purposive” he means, in the words of Ernst Cassirer, a twentieth-century German scholar of the Enlightenment, that intentional quality by which “a totality is converted from a mere aggregate into a closed system, in which each member possesses its characteristic function . . . [and where] all these functions accord with one another so that altogether they have a unified, concerted action and a single overall significance” (Cassirer 1981 [1918], 267).  But at the same time, this manifest “purposiveness”—this impression of intentional organization—must, paradoxically, be “without purpose’:  that is, the aesthetic object in question must not have a practical, real-world function.  This first requirement refers to the beautiful object itself–the object being perceived.  The second requirement, then, refers not to the object but to the perceiver:  the perceiver must be “disinterested,” in the sense that s/he must experience the object for its beautiful, formal qualities, in themselves, not for any practical purpose in the real world.  An experience counts as an aesthetic experience, and the object in question qualifies as an aesthetic object, if the subject perceives it disinterestedly, and adjudges it as beautiful—and here are more requirements—not cognitively, on the basis of concepts, and not according to emotion or to what Kant calls charm (Reiz).  There is much more to Kant’s aesthetic system, and I have simplified his ideas in certain ways.  But it should be clear that his notions of purposiveness without purpose, disinterestedness, and aesthetic judgments based on form and formal relationships could lay the foundation for formalism, and that they indeed resonate strikingly with formalism as defined above.

Kant’s Critique laid the foundation for a whole century of work in philosophical and practical aesthetics in Germany, much of it centered on music, and much of it also centered on what eventually came to be labeled, in the second half of the nineteenth century, formalism.  The colloquy unfolded in three separate but interrelated planes:  academic aesthetics, philosophical aesthetics, and music criticism.  Initially, the focus, at least so far as music was concerned, was on the separation of purely musical relationships from notions of expression and emotion.  Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), a professor of philosophy at Königsberg and Göttingen, is best known for his work in metaphysics and educational psychology, but he also wrote influential essays on aesthetics.  As to the question of what composers express in their music, Herbart’s answer is simple:  “Nothing at all. . . . Their thoughts [do] not go outside of the art works but rather into their inner essence” (Rothfarb 2012, 177).2  And again, disallowing subjective interpretations of music, he turns out to be a formalist avant la lettre:  discussions about music must be “of tones”—of structural relations of musical elements alone (Rothfarb 2012).  We find strikingly similar statements in the work of an exact contemporary of Herbart’s, Hans Georg Nägeli (1773-1836).  Nägeli was a musician, critic, and historian who had no academic position, but who published extensively in matters musical, including a series of lectures on music and aesthetics in 1826, and who was well-known in musical circles at the time.  At times he sounds exactly like Hanslick, or even a twentieth-century musical formalist:

By nature, music is thoroughly and completely a matter of play, nothing more.  It has no content, as some think, and which some have wanted to ascribe to it.  It has only forms, ordered connections of tones and tone series to create a whole. (Rothfarb, 180)

For him, the essence of music lies only in its “play of forms” (Formenspiel).

Hanslick, who had read both Herbart and Nâgeli, understood that his musical aesthetic was influenced by theirs, and he cites their work in his famous 1854 pamphlet, Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (Hanslick 1986 [1854]).  His musical formalism was also close to that of his friend Robert Zimmermann (1824-1898), a professor of philosophy in Vienna, who published a massive two-volume work on aesthetics, a central part of which was a formalist musical aesthetics that builds substantially on Herbart’s.  Yet, for all his reputation as the quintessential musical formalist, Hanslick’s view of musical aesthetics also relied to a degree on the musical aesthetics of G. W. F. Hegel, who articulated a view in tension with that of his contemporaries Herbart and Nägeli:  that although works of music do depend on their inner musical coherence, their ultimate purpose is to express some Geist, to articulate some deep and inner life of the individual subject.  As Rothfarb has insightfully pointed out, even though Hanslick did indeed deny that music expressed emotion, and even though he valorized purely musical relationships for their very purity and lack of external referents (unlike Hegel), he still unequivocally accepted the Hegelian view that music embodies an inner spiritual essence (Rothfarb, 195).

Perhaps predictably, given the idiosyncratic history of the term formalism, the word itself seems not to have appeared until it could be put to pejorative, rather than positive, use.  All the above writers wrote of form, formal relations, and the play of forms, pressing some claim regarding the centrality of same in art in general and music in particular.  But we hear nothing from them of formalism.  It was not until a school of aesthetics arose in explicit opposition to their point of view that we begin to encounter the words formalism and formalist.  That school has been dubbed by Rothfarb and others as the empathists, the first of whom was Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-1887), a professor at Zürich and later Tübingen, who produced a massive, four-volume treatise on aesthetics from 1846 to 1857.  His position is in many respects precisely the opposite of that of Zimmermann and Hanslick:  the content of music is emotion; we cannot speak of pure form in music, but only emotion-laden spiritual content (Rothfarb, 189-93). Vischer explicitly attacked Zimmermann as a “formalist,” and his ideas formed the basis of the aesthetics of his student Karl Köstlin (1819-1894), who further defined aesthetic spiritual content as the mental projection of human sympathies, of which music and the other arts can function as symbols.  Vischer’s son, Robert Vischer (1847-1933), developed further the idea of the aesthetic symbol, which became a central feature of his Einfühlungsästhetik—the aesthetics of feeling, or of empathy.  Rounding out this anti-formalist, empathist line in the nineteenth-century German aesthetics was Johannes Volkelt (1848-1930), who characterized Zimmermann’s formalism as reducing the aesthetic object to a “dehumanized, meaningless surface”—language that resonates with countless descriptions of formalism in the twentieth century—and who developed an aesthetics of symbolic forms that shared numerous features with the growing science of psychology.3

And so the concept of formalism had its birth in Germany.  Although we do not begin to encounter the word itself until the second half of the nineteenth century, the idea is traceable to Kant, and it proliferated in the history just recounted.  Significantly, music, which in the eighteenth century (and especially in Kant) had not fared well in aesthetic discussions because of its lack of semantic or visual reference, now takes a central, if not the central role in the nineteenth-century German aesthetics of form.  Arguably, Hanslick’s music criticism represents the first great flowering of formalism within one of the fine arts, and the only one in the nineteenth century.  In the twentieth century, the notion of formalism expanded geometrically and geographically.  Considering Hanslick’s work to be the first, I will now focus on what are surely the five best-known instantiations of formalism from the twentieth century to the present.  Second was a school of formalism in art criticism and art history, initiated by the British critic Clive Bell in his book simply entitled Art, in 1914.  Third, and almost at the same time, was the literary-critical school of Russian Formalists, noted above, from 1915 to 1930.  Fourth, also in literary criticism, was the American school of New Criticism from the 1930’s to 1950’s.  Fifth was the period of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1930’s and climaxing in the late 1940’s, with the official government denunciation of the country’s most prominent composers.  All of these critical periods of formalism are exceedingly well-known; most reference works on aesthetics, and histories of aesthetics, refer to them.  The sixth instance is closer to musicians and musical scholars, and is well-known to us, but not necessarily to other artistic communities—it is not something that one will find in dictionaries of aesthetics:  that is, the formal(ist) work of music theory and analysis in our own time.4

If we date the first flowering of formalism to the publication of Hanslick’s Vom Musikalisch-Schönen in 1854, the second and third flowerings of occurred, interestingly, sixty years later, both at almost exactly the same time.  Slightly earlier was formalism in the visual arts—or, to be precise, in art history and criticism regarding painting and sculpture.  Clive Bell’s approach, as he argues forcefully in his book of 1914 (Bell 1914), turns on the concept that he calls “significant form,” by which he means technical elements such as line, color, balance, and the like.  He argues that significant form—that is, the play of “forms and relations of forms”–arouses a specific “aesthetic emotion.”  He goes so far as to claim that the subject of a representational painting—that is, the person or thing or scene represented—is irrelevant to its artistic value.  The essence of meaning in a representational painting is not its subject, but the interplay of line and color that it achieves—its significant form.  In a characteristically iconoclastic statement of his position he notes:

. . . The rapt philosopher, and he who contemplates a work of art, inhabit a world with an intense and peculiar significance of its own:  that significance is unrelated to the significance of life.  In this world the emotions of life find no place.  It is a world with emotions of its own.

To appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing but a sense of form and colour and a knowledge of three-dimensional space. (Bell 1914, 27)

Bell’s theory obviously has strong Kantian overtones; it suggests that a painting has no real-world function, but its formal relations are in a sense, in Kant’s formulation, “purposive without purpose.”  Similarly, it implies that the viewer of a painting or sculpture finds in it no real-world meaning, but experiences aesthetic pleasure simply in the contemplation of its purely formal relations.

Close on the heels of Bell’s work came the Russian Formalists.  Their aggressively stated goal was to overturn completely the sorts of literary criticism that were practiced in Russia at the time:  first, biographical criticism, focusing on the relation of a literary work to its author’s life; second, sociohistorical criticism, focusing on the cultural and historical context of literary works; and third, philosophical criticism, which interpreted works as embodying a particular philosophy.  Against such critical practices the formalists proposed the study of literary language in and of itself—or in words coined by their two best-known members, the “literariness” of literary language (Roman Jakobson), and the “defamiliarization” characteristic of that language (Viktor Shklovsky).  What the Russian Formalists proposed was a “scientific” study of the material and formal aspects of literature, not the critical and historical interpretation of its meaning.  Their concern was with literary techniques or devices, as they termed them, and how these devices functioned in literary works.  By the mid-1920’s the so-called Formalists began gradually to come into conflict with the Marxist literary theory imposed from above in the newly minted Soviet Union.  Leon Trotsky, writing from a position of power in the Soviet government, published an influential book, Literature and Revolution, in 1924, in which he contrasts the Formalists’ work negatively with Marxist criticism, while, significantly, praising their work nonetheless, and suggesting what aspects of it might be useful for the further development of Marxist aesthetics.  But within just a few years, by the time Stalin had gained power in the late 1920’s, there was no one of influence who sympathized with the Formalists, and they had utterly disbanded in Russia by 1930. Yet their influence in literary studies in the twentieth century and beyond has been extraordinary.  Jakobson moved from Moscow to Prague, and was instrumental in establishing the school known as Structuralism there in the 1930’s.  The work of this structuralist school eventually combined with the structuralist school of linguistics founded by the earlier Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure, and fed into the structuralist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s—notably Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology and Roland Barthes’s literary and cultural criticism.

American New Criticism, the fourth major flowering of formalism, flourished in the late 1930’s through the 1950’s, in the work of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others.  What the New Critics did for English and American literary criticism was to a degree the same as what the Russian Formalists did for Russian literary criticism.  They excluded authorial intention, cultural context, historical position, and moral or philosophical interpretation from consideration, in order to concentrate on the literary work itself.  They did not concentrate so exclusively on form, material, and technique as did the Russian Formalists (and the Structuralists who followed), nor did they not ignore meaning to the extent that the Russians did.  Rather, they theorized that meaning and form are inextricably intertwined.  Their preferred genre was British and American lyric poetry, and their analytical method, which involved detailed consideration of both syntactic and semantic elements, came to be known as close reading—a technique that was taught to generations of American college students, and that held sway until deconstructive criticism began to gain popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The fifth instance of formalism, unlike the previous four, involves the political use of the term as a tool of political slander.  It takes us back to Russia, and to the condemnation of a number of Soviet writers in 1946, and of Soviet composers, as already noted, in 1948, by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, led by Andrei Zhdanov.  Composers were reprimanded for writing music that was “subjective-idealist,” or “formalist,” rather than the strictly prescribed “socialist-realist”—that is, music that allegedly was for the selfish use of creative individuals, rather than for the social use of “the people.”  Composers either had to take refuge in works with text–but only texts that could pass through the censors—or in conservative instrumental works that quoted folksongs or military marches.  From the point of view of the present essay, the very type of work that lends itself to formalist analysis, with its concentration on purely musical relationships, and whose meaning could not be specified in everyday language, was precisely that which was condemned.

Having reached the 1970’s and 1980’s, we are now in a position to consider our last instance of formalism—one that is much closer to our own work.  Briefly, what happened in North American musical scholarship of the late 1970’s and 1980’s was that many teachers of music theory found themselves ill-served by both the work of the American Society of University Composers and the American Musicological Society.  Composers were interested in their own new music, and musicologists were interested in archival research, biography, and musical style, while theorists were interested in analyzing musical works as music.  The establishment of the Society for Music Theory and of professional journals in music theory signaled the beginning of a vital period of theory and analysis in the academic musical community.  Analytical publications flourished, with enormous interest in Schenkerian analysis of tonal works, set-theoretical and other formal methods of analysis for post-tonal works.  All this set the stage for the revolt of the so-called New Musicologists of the late 1980’s and the 1990’s—musicologists who took music theory to task precisely for its formalism, for its studied exclusion of social, political, and historical meaning from its considerations.5

And so we have six incarnations of formalism in the history, criticism, and analysis of the arts since 1854.  What do they have to do with us, as historians, theorists, and composers?  How might we understand them in our language of formalism fair, formalism foul?  In Part II, in the remainder of my paper, I will simply comment on some issues relevant to this topic, and I will raise some questions—all with the aim of helping us understand what the formalism of the past has on that of the present, and helping us come to grips with it in our creative and scholarly lives.

II.  Issues to Ponder

1.  Formalism in music, as opposed to the other arts

It is significant, and in fact not surprising, that music was the first of the arts in which a formalist approach flourished.  From the history of aesthetics, and from the history of music, we know that around the turn of the nineteenth century, instrumental music, which had long been ranked at the lower end of the fine arts because it had no representational content, began to be valued for its very non-specificity of meaning.  Rankings of the arts were turned upside down, and suddenly, music, which had always been at the bottom, was now at the top.  And so, in the work of Schopenhauer, the first top-tier philosopher thus to honor music, only music, with its absence of external referentiality, could embody the essence of the individual will.  Furthermore, instrumental music, with its reveling in purely musical relationships, lent itself naturally to formalism.  The growing prestige of chamber music and the symphony also was linked to the development of music analysis.  Even as early as 1810, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s well-known essay on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony combined interpretive and hermeneutic criticism with what we now call analytical close reading—identification of motives and their development, harmonic structure, and the like.    Analyses of this sort became more and more common as the nineteenth century progressed into the twentieth, all the way up to the late twentieth century, with its new societies for music theory and analysis.  An aesthetic issue that we might ponder, then, with respect to music and its relationship to the other fine arts, is as follows.  Leonard Meyer, in his book Music, the Arts, and Ideas, of 1967, with a revised version in 1994, suggests that music, of all the arts, is the art that best lends itself to, or finds itself most vulnerable to (depending upon one’s point of view) formal abstraction and formal analysis.  Do we agree?

2.  Hanslick and Musical Analysis

Hanslick’s tract published in 1854 became the lightning rod for a formalist approach to music.  Indeed, given its prominence in writings in aesthetics over the past few decades, one might argue that it is the central statement of formalist aesthetics ever, in any and all of the arts.  We might expect that accordingly he would show an interest in musical analysis, since it is analysis that uncovers and tries to explain purely musical relationships.  Musical analysis was becoming a common practice by the 1850’s, and it makes sense that a philosophically oriented musician such as Hanslick would be drawn to it.6 Yet Hanslick himself was not an analyst.  There is no analysis of music in On the Beautiful in Music, nor anywhere else in his writings.  And even though he famously had close relationships with some of the best musicians of his time—most obviously Johannes Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he drew up a hostile manifesto against Liszt and the New German School in 1860—he did not get his ideas in musical aesthetics solely, or even primarily, from his musical friends.  Rather, as we have seen, he was knowledgeable about philosophy, particularly Kant and Hegel, and he was also able to plug into the burgeoning tradition in formalist aesthetics—both its academic (Herbart, Vischer, and Zimmermann) and its music-critical (Hoffmann and Nägeli) sides. An intriguing issue that arises here is thus as follows.  In general, the academic world of philosophical aesthetics is quite separate from everyday activity in the arts.  But Hanslick’s work had an immediate effect on the musical culture of his time, and in fact, ever since; musicians, not just philosophers, know his work well.  We thus might pursue the question of how academic formalist aesthetics relates to aesthetics “on the ground”—the aesthetics of artistic practice, music analysis and criticism, and public discourse.

3.  Some etymological questions

The wide range of uses to which the word formalism has been put, and the polemical charge that it usually carries, both suggest that a study of its etymology would be revealing.  Below are some informal observations from my research so far in this area, along with some questions still to be answered.

i. A straightforward question about the word: is the term formalism simply charged in and of itself?  Is there in fact no possible objective use of the term, or is it polemical in its very being?  The German Historical Dictionary of Philosophy (Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie) has a revealing entry in this regard.  The dictionary’s first definition of formalism involves not aesthetics, but ethics, but what it says is relevant to our concerns nevertheless.  At the very head of the definition, we read a telling parenthetical phrase that suggests that formalism is polemical by default:  “Formalismus:  a term (that is, a polemical term, because of the suffix –ismus). . . ” (translation mine, vol. 3).  The authors of the dictionary would thus probably come down on the side that claims that formalism is an intrinsically polemical, and thus an emotionally and politically charged, term.  Might they then claim that there is no fair usage of the word, only foul?  What do we think?

ii. Much recent work, both in musical and literary scholarship, tacitly equates formalism with modernism.  A telling example is the book A Poetics of Postmodernism, by the Canadian literary scholar Linda Hutcheon—who has also written trenchantly about opera.  If you look up “formalism” in the book’s index, you read:  “formalism:  see modernism.”  If you then look up “modernism,” and check out all the examples in the book, they all use the term “modernism”; “formalism” is never used at all (see Hutcheon 1989).  And so, for us, does formalism = modernism, or not?

iii. Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History, uses formalism, as we have seen, only twice in the book.  But he uses a term of his own coinage, maximalism, scores of times.  The relationship of maximalism and formalism is fuzzy—he never equates the two, but they are surely related.  Taruskin’s maximalism seems to refer to the claim that aesthetic value in a musical work varies proportionally to the abundance and richness of purely musical relationships embodied therein.  This statement, it seems to me, accurately describes the aesthetic of a number of composers (and theorists)—Milton Babbitt comes immediately to mind.  When we write, read, and evaluate musical analyses, might it be useful to ask how the “maximalist” claim relates to our own work, or to that with which we are engaging?

iv. This point suggests a related point:  to what extent do writers who use the term formalism equate formalism simply with music analysis?  One can make the argument that when scholars such as Kerman, Taruskin, Fink, Lawrence Kramer (see Kramer 1992) and many others refer to formalism, they refer simply to the contemporary practice of music analysis.  Is this the case, and if so, do we agree or disagree with the claim that formalism and analysis are equivalent?

All these etymological questions bring us full circle, back to our central topic, “Formalism, Fair and Foul.”  Our formalist adventures suggest that the aesthetic issues that we face are rather more complex than my title would suggest.  As we have seen, the word formalism has had a short, but exceedingly lively and colorful history.  And there is still much to learn about it, and to ponder about it.  I would guess, as a matter of fact, that it is incumbent upon me, here at the end of my short essay, to offer an opinion, to take a position on formalism, rather than just to describe it from the outside.  My position, briefly, is that I believe we can arrive at a clear, working definition of formalism:  again, formalism is the claim that the essence of any art resides in relationships of elements within an artistic work itself, not in relationships to anything outside the work.  In this regard, and in fairness to Richard Taruskin, I should note that, even though I took him to task for using the term rather inconsistently, and in a polemical way in his book, my definition of formalism is compatible with his:  it is the study of structure rather than meaning.  That said, I categorically reject the claim that formalism is in itself foul.  Formalism has made vast contributions to our understanding of music, and will continue to do so.  It has given us the insights of Rameau, and Schenker, and David Lewin, and many more theorists.  Even though these theorists conceived of their systems in such a way as not to require any explicit consideration of composer biography, or social and historical context, or hermeneutic meaning, I am in no way willing to do away with their insights.  I find these insights inherently valuable in and of themselves, and history shows us that if a formal musical system is worth its salt, it can eventually lend itself to interpretation of musical and socio-cultural meaning.

I close with an example from relatively recent musical scholarship.  In the late 1990’s, my music-theoretical friend and colleague Richard Cohn conceived of a notion that he called hexatonic poles.  He did so solely in terms of relationships inherent in the twelve-note equal-tempered system and the major and minor triads embedded in that system.  As it has turned out, his conception is hugely relevant to all sorts of chromatic tonal music—certainly that of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century composers such as Wagner, Brahms, Franck, Mahler, and Elgar; but also to music of composers going back to Schubert, and even to Gesualdo; and forward to Prokofieff and Shostakovich.  Music theorists and analysts have appropriated hexatonic poles in a variety of ways, most often in analyses that are indeed essentially formalist:  an analyst notices hexatonic relations in a piece, describes how they work, usually with all sorts of interesting harmonic and tonal ramifications, and usually with a certain sense of awe that a composer could use the relationships in such a musically interesting way.  Pure formalism!  But many scholars, beginning with Cohn himself (Cohn 2004), have also shown that composers have employed hexatonic poles to articulate all sorts of musical meaning—tragic, ironic, and much more. They get expressive use, as well as technical use, from the abstract relationships.  If Cohn had not done his formalist work on hexatonic poles, music hermeneutics and criticism would have less to work with in the interpretation of chromatic tonal music, and they would accordingly be impoverished in a way that they in fact are not.  And so formalism, far from being merely a sterile exercise for academics, can in fact serve as a valuable, even essential, tool in interpretation.


1. Oxford English Dictionary.  Second ed.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1989.  The source cited is Charles Kingsley’s Aton Locke (1850).
2. My discussion of nineteenth-century German aesthetics in this and the following two paragraphs is deeply indebted to Lee Rothfarb’s illuminating essay, “Nineteenth-Century Fortunes of Musical Formalism” (Rothfarb 2012).  All the quotations in these paragraphs are from Rothfarb’s essay; all the translations are his.  See also Lippman 1992.
3. For a detailed discussion of the work of Köstlin, Robert Vischer, and Volkelt, see Rothfarb, 197-211.
4. The visual and literary arts have offered significant new instantiations of formalism that are intriguing, although they must remain beyond the scope of this essay.  Noteworthy in the visual arts is Whitney Davis’s distinction between High and Historical Formalism (Davis 2008 and 2010).  In literature and literary studies, first is the New Formalism in American poetry, which advocates a return from free verse to traditional poetic forms with standard patterns of meter and rhyme (see Gioia 1987).  Second is the more recent New Formalism in literary criticism, which advocates a return from the deconstructive and postmodernist modes of criticism in play since the 1970’s, to the close reading of texts (see Levinson 2007).  Both the poetic and literary-critical “new formalisms” are, in terms of the present essay, “formalisms fair,” since they clearly represent a reaction against an earlier anti-formalism.
5. For a historical-critical view of the development of modern Anglo-American music theory, see McCreless 1997.
6. The classic account of the history of musical analysis is Bent 1987.  For examples of analysis in the nineteenth century, see Bent 1994 and 1996.

Agawu, Kofi. “How We Got out of Analysis, and How We Can Get Back in Again.” Music Analysis 23 (2004), 267-286.

Bell, Clive. Art. London: Chatto and Windus, 1914.

Bent, Ian. Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.

________. Music Analysis in the Nineteenth Century. 2 vols. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Cassirer, Ernst. Kant’s Life and Thought. Trans. James Haden. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.

Cohn, Richard. “Uncanny Resemblances: Tonal Signification in the Freudian Age.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 57.2 (2004): 285-323.

Davis, Whitney. General Theory of Visual Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

________. “Subjectivity and Objectivity in High and Historical Formalism.” Representations 104 (2008), 8-23.

Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. 4 vols. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Fink, Robert. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimalism as Cultural Practice. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

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Hanslick, Eduard. On the Musically Beautiful: A Contribution Towards the Revision of the Aesthetics of Music. Trans. and ed. Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986 [1854].

Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie. Ed. Joachim Ritter. 13 vols. Basel and Stuttgart: Schwabe, 1971—

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987 [1790].

Kerman, Joseph. “How We Got Into Analysis, and How We Can Get Out.” Critical Inquiry 7 (1980), 311-31.

Kramer, Lawrence. Haydn’s Chaos, Schenker’s Order; Or, Hermeneutics and Musical Analysis: Can They Mix?” 19th-Century Music 16 (1992).

Levinson, Marjorie. “What Is New Formalism?” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 122 (2007), 558-569.

Lippman, Edward. A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

McCreless, Patrick. “Rethinking Contemporary Music Theory.” In Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987, 13-53.

Meyer, Leonard B. Music, The Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture. With a new postlude. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994 [1967].

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Rothfarb, Lee. “The Nineteenth-Century Fortunes of Formalism,” Journal of Music Theory 56 (2012), 167-220.

Steiner, Peter. Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. 5 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

About the Author

Patrick McCreless is Professor of Music at Yale University.  He has published on the operas of Wagner--including a monograph, Wagner's Siegfried:  Its Drama, Its History, and Its Music; and (with the literary scholar Adrian Daub) the articles on the Ring in the forthcoming  Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia.   He has also published essays or book chapters on the theory and analysis of chromatic music in the nineteenth century; Schenkerian theory; rhetoric and music; musical gesture; the music of Shostakovich; and the history of music theory.

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