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Book Review

Volume 12 • Number 2

Fall 2005

 

 

Knowledge, Self, and the Aurality of the Immaterial

 

by Richard Leppert

Michael P. Steinberg. Listening to Reason: Culture, Subjectivity, and Nineteenth-Century
Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. xiv, 246pp.

Michael Steinberg's cultural analysis of (mostly) nineteenth-century central European art music addresses what he terms "music's capacity to think, to argue, and to develop the position of a thinking, feeling subject in juxtaposition with a multiple and challenging cultural and political world" (p.xi). Steinberg thereby marks his project's affinity to a distinguished body of other recent scholarship by the likes of Lawrence Kramer1 and Berthold Hoeckner,2 among others: but complements, not replicates. He starts with Mozart operas and ends with Mahler symphonies, visiting along the way the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Wagner in detail, and a number of other composers' works more briefly, including that of Brahms, Verdi, Dvorák, Janácek, Schoenberg, and Berg. Steinberg's fundamental concern is music's agency in the production and maintenance of subjectivity. His temporal locus, beginning with late Classicism, includes the history of Romanticism (broadly conceived) and its aftermath, organized around post-Enlightenment notions of the subject qua individual, with individuality registered as the defining principle—historical, not ontological—of human worth. Steinberg considers the highly contingent history of subjectivity as manifested in musical production, criticism, and consumption. The musical culture of his concern is set against a broad range of contemporaneous aesthetic, social, religious, and political events and discourses, which together help to establish the parameters of what counted as "quality" humanity. Steinberg's book is also very much about cultural divisions in Europe: north versus south, east versus west, through which he traces one historical constant, the actuality of subjectivity as the commonly perceived fundamental determining principle of both modern being and being modern. In the end, his focus is on self-knowledge and difference, especially as made audible in music.

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