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Book Review

Volume 13 • Number 1

Spring 2006


How to Make a Metronome from a Musket Ball and a Piece of String


by Annette Richards

Richard Will. The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi, 329pp.

Instrumental music was the subject of intense debate in the second half of the eighteenth century, and it has proven fertile ground for musicologists at the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first. As formalist accounts of late-eighteenth-century instrumental music, based on the ideology of absolute music, have ceded place to interpretive studies grounded in contemporary notions of rhetoric, aesthetic theory, or social practice, canonic and noncanonic works of the period have emerged over the last two decades in a multiplicity of new lights. If instrumental music occupied an ambiguous position in criticism and aesthetics for much of the eighteenth century, how much more precarious was that of an instrumental music that openly advertised a dependence on the nonmusical—music that came supplied with a verbal explanation to indicate its meaning. With texts that might range from a short title naming a mood or feeling to longer descriptions that implied or specified an accompanying narrative, “characteristic music” in the period between 1750 and 1815 “encapsulated a paradox whereby music was considered to be at once meaningful and indefinite,”as Richard Will's persuasive study of the characteristic symphony explains (p.2).

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