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Formalism vs. Socio-Criticism: Hanslick and Adorno’s Views on Wagner’s Music


  Eduard Hanslick and Theodor W. Adorno, two of the most influential music critics and philosophers of their respective eras, both criticized Richard Wagner for his perceived lack of structured form in his compositions. Despite sharing this common ground, their critiques diverge in focus and philosophical foundation. Hanslick’s objections stem from a formalist perspective that emphasizes the self-sufficiency of musical structures, while Adorno’s critique is rooted in a broader socio-cultural context.

  Both critics also commented on Wagner’s use of thematic material but with different emphasis. Hanslick was critical of the way Wagner’s leitmotifs structured the entire music, seeing them as a compensation for a lack of thematic development and organic unity. Adorno argued that they contributed to a surface-level cohesion that obscured the underlying fragmentation and incoherence of Wagner’s music. For Adorno, this pseudo-coherence was suggesting the ideological contradictions inherent in Wagner’s work and the society that produced it. In order to expand further, I will start looking into Hanslick’s arguments in musical aesthetics.

  Hanslick criticized contemporary aesthetics for failing to separate feeling and sensation. He argues that feeling is distinct from sensation, explaining it as follows: "Sensation is the perception of a specific sense quality ... feeling is becoming aware of our mental state with regard to its furtherance or inhibition.” Hanslick emphasizes that sensation is similar to perception: "Sensation is the beginning and the prerequisite of aesthetical pleasure, and it constitutes initially the basis of feeling; feeling always presupposes a relation between itself and sensation." This clarifies that while sensation is the initial perception of sensory input, feeling is the awareness and interpretation of this input within the context of our mental and emotional state. In other words, sensation is the raw data we receive through our senses, whereas feeling is the internal awareness and interpretation of that data, shaped by our mental state and emotions.

  Hanslick also asserts that specific feelings are defined by concepts. He explains that different emotions are distinguished by their conceptual representations, not by their attributes or momentum. Thus, the same piece of music can elicit different emotional responses from different people, making it unreliable as a means of conveying specific concepts. This idea is well articulated in his statement: "It is that music is incapable of expressing definite feelings; indeed, the definiteness of feelings lies precisely in their conceptual essence." He further illustrates this by saying, "Love cannot be thought without the representation of a beloved person, without desire and striving after felicity, glorification, and possession of a particular object." This implies that feelings are deeply tied to the objects and concepts they represent, and without these associations, the feelings themselves would lose their distinctiveness.

  Additionally, Hanslick argues that music, as an abstract art form, cannot represent specific concepts, ideas, or emotions in the same way that literature or visual arts can. He contends that musical elements do not have inherent meanings outside their musical context, since unlike words or images, musical notes do not directly correspond to specific ideas or objects. He believes that music exists for its own sake and is appreciated for its formal qualities rather than any representational content, and that the beauty of music lies in its structure and form, not in any extramusical associations. Consequently, according to Hanslick, music cannot represent unspecific feelings either, as the terms unspecific and representation are contradictory.

  In summary, Hanslick insists that the relationship between music and emotion is not direct or inevitable, though it is not entirely nonexistent. The loose connection is mediated by an attribute he calls "motion." This motion is "one moment of feeling" characterized by the dynamic flow and progression of musical elements, but not feeling itself. Namely, music can reproduce the kinetic qualities of emotional expression, but it cannot directly convey specific feelings. Thus, while music can evoke a sense of movement and emotional expression, it lacks the ability to communicate precise emotions in the same way that more representational forms of art can.

  It can be further embodied by examining how listeners perceive and interpret musical elements. For example, when a listener feels “sadness” while listening to music, it is not because the music inherently contains sadness. Instead, the listener perceives musical elements and processes the sensory data arising from their relationships. The similarity in motion—for instance, a piece with a slow tempo and descending melodic lines, which can resemble the physical or emotional sensation of feeling sad—can lead listeners to associate the music with sadness, as the musical elements create a sensory experience that the listener then interprets based on their own subjective context. However, the same slow and descending motion in a piece of music might evoke other feelings in another listener, such as peacefulness, nostalgia, or a sense of closure, depending on the listener’s frame of reference. Listeners perceive the musical motions and, through their conceptual thinking, associate these motions with specific emotions. This demonstrates that the emotional response to music is not fixed or inherent but is shaped by individual perception and context.

  Hanslick’s criticism towards the aesthetics of feeling can be seen as a direct critique of Richard Wagner, who insisted that musical elements could represent specific concepts, as shown in his use of leitmotifs. Wagner's approach, which tied musical phrases to specific characters, objects, or ideas, was seen by Hanslick as an overemphasis on concept and emotion at the expense of musical form and integrity. Hanslick believed that Wagner’s music relied too heavily on its extramusical associations, thereby diminishing its value as pure music.

  Hanslick argued that Wagner’s music was overly dependent on these associations, suggesting that this reliance was due to a lack of creative power on the part of the composer. According to Hanslick, "These startle the hearer and behave as if they signify something special, but in fact they signify nothing but ugliness." He felt that Wagner's music attempted to evoke specific feelings and concepts but ended up sacrificing the essential musical qualities that define pure music.

  In his critique of Wagner’s opera "Die Meistersinger," Hanslick described the music as “musical abnormalities,” suggesting that if such abnormalities were to become the norm, it would signify the end of music. He feared that Wagner's approach would lead to a decline in musical standards, prioritizing dramatic and emotional effects over the structural and formal qualities of the music itself. Hanslick’s criticism thus emphasizes his belief in the primacy of musical form and his concern that the integration of extramusical elements could threaten the integrity and creative power of the musical art form.

  Hanslick’s critique of Wagner, particularly his stance against the aesthetics of feeling, can be understood through his fundamental belief that musical beauty lies in its form and structure. For Hanslick, music is an autonomous art form, which means it should stand on its own and be judged solely by its internal logic. He asserted that music should be appreciated for its intrinsic qualities such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre, and that these tone-materials should express musical ideas, which are abstract constructs that exist independently of any feelings or conceptions and are already self-subsistent beauty. Besides, Hanslick believed the primary content of music is tonally moving forms. This means that the true essence of music lies in the way it organizes and manipulates sound to create a coherent and aesthetically pleasing structure.

  Hanslick’s view of music as an autonomous art form is specified in his speculation about the theme. He defines the theme as “the independent, aesthetically not further reducible unit of musical thought in every composition.” He argues that the content of music can be drawn from the theme, as the music must always be manifest in the theme. Thus, a theme in music is a musical idea that is fundamental to the structure and, at the same time, the essence of what the work wants to eventually reveal. The theme then constantly develops in a self-sufficient way, embodying the musical essence of autonomous form.

  As seen above, the content of music is the music itself, which is already formalized. Therefore, the content of music is the form of music, and to separate those two becomes contradictory in that sense. Music without conceptual content does not mean that it lacks any meaning within itself. According to Hanslick’s argument, music has the justification to be recognized as art by revealing its beauty through its own formal logic.

  Meanwhile, Adorno believed that music, like all forms of art, mediates between individual expression and social reality. This mediation occurs through the formal structures and processes inherent in musical compositions. For Adorno, the way a piece of music is structured–its form–reflects both the composer’s subjective intentions and the broader social and historical conditions in which the music is created. 

  Simultaneously, he emphasized the autonomy of art, noting that while music is a product of its social environment, it also possesses a degree of independence. Through formal properties and internal structures, autonomous music reflects and critiques immediate social conditions, providing a mediated reflection on society rather than a direct representation.

  Adorno criticized Wagner’s use of leitmotif from this perspective that each leitmotif requires external explanation to convey its meaning, failing to independently exist on its own. Leitmotif paralyzes the potential for autonomous development inherent in motifs, as it is arranged according to extramusical factors, not developed and transformed according to musical logic. Therefore, Adorno argues that there is no logical development in Wagner’s music, which makes it formless.

  In Adorno’s musical aesthetics, the autonomous development of form is considered as a necessary condition that allows music to achieve independence from society. Based on this autonomy, music can subsequently perform its function as a medium of social critique. Therefore, associating external concepts with music destroys its autonomous form, and rather than revealing the socially critical nature of music, it results in suppressing it.

  He further articulates that the socio-historical characteristics of autonomous musical form are not arbitrarily created or simply disappear, but emerge from the intrinsic nature of the musical elements themselves. In other words, the musical material inherently mediates social implications even before an artist’s intervention. Thus, the socio-historical mediation is inherently present within the musical form itself as long as the artist employs such musical elements.

  According to Adorno, music is not merely a result of a composer's decision to manipulate musical elements. Instead, a composer works within or sometimes against the formal rules that inherently mediate societal influences. By adhering to or subverting these internal formal rules, composers can critique society; when they choose to go against these established norms, they reveal the underlying absurdities and contradictions within the social structure.

  Adorno’s thematic approach is to have the entire musical piece structured cohesively around a central theme, thereby achieving autonomy. However, this thematic coherence is one of the musical elements that also mediates society and history, not the absolute technique that alone guarantees the music's autonomous form. 

  Hanslick’s and Adorno’s aesthetics may appear similar at first glance, but they are fundamentally different due to their distinct views on the purpose of music. For Hanslick, the purpose of music was the achievement of formal beauty, while for Adorno, the purpose was social criticism. However, both of their arguments are based on the autonomous form. They share similarities in the following ways:

  Firstly, both Hanslick and Adorno do not regard music, composed of various sound forms, as merely a sum of physical sounds. They believe that the musical meaning derived from elements such as melody, rhythm, and harmony is not formed when these elements exist as isolated sounds. Instead, meaning emerges when these elements interact and create relationships. Both thinkers understand that musical meaning is produced within the music itself according to its own logic, though they interpret the implications of this meaning differently.

  Secondly, both thinkers are wary of the "effect" of music, which refers to the sensory impact of physical sounds. This effect, if overemphasized, can weaken the intellectual and spiritual significance of music, reducing it to mere sensory stimulation. Hanslick argues that when the sensory characteristics of music are overly emphasized, music becomes akin to a mere physical stimulus. Therefore, the stronger the emphasis on the effect, the less the listener can focus on the beauty of the musical form. 

  Similarly, Adorno sees the overemphasized effect as a kind of gesture that distracts the audience from the formal logic of the music, thereby obscuring its potential for social critique. In other words, when music is reduced to its sensory effects, it loses its ability to convey deeper social and critical meanings. He believes that the gestural effects in music distort the socially critical nature that listeners should ultimately recognize within the music's form. Composing with the intention of creating such gestural effects disrupts the internal logic of the music, meaning the music can no longer maintain its independent status from society. In other words, it indicates that music cannot remain detached from societal functions and thus cannot adopt a critical stance towards society.

  However, their views diverge significantly in terms of musical form and meaning. For Hanslick, musical form consists of the elements that make up music and, in itself, does not carry any conceptual meaning. The purpose of these formal elements is to achieve aesthetic beauty, which is entirely separate from any external references. In contrast, Adorno’s musical aesthetics assert that music inherently mediates social factors and, on this basis, possesses a socially critical character. Thus, the musical meaning Adorno describes goes beyond the boundaries of what Hanslick considers musical meaning. Ultimately, Adorno’s concept of true musical meaning is internal to the music yet simultaneously incorporates external social elements. Therefore, while Hanslick treats musical form as value-neutral, Adorno’s discussion does not.

  Despite these differences, both critics highlight the importance of musical form and caution against reducing music to mere sensory effects. Their critiques emphasize a shared commitment to preserving the deeper significance of music, whether through its aesthetic beauty or its capacity for social critique. This comparison leads to the broader debate on the role of music in society, connecting the formalist and socio-critical approaches in understanding the essence and purpose of musical art.


Hanslick, Eduard and Payzant, Geoffrey. On the musically beautiful : a contribution towards the revision of the aesthetics of music. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co., 1986.

Hanslick, Eduard and Pleasants, Henry. Hanslick’s music criticisms. New York: Dover Publications, 1988.

Adorno, Theodor W. Introduction to the sociology of music. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Adorno, Theodor W. In search of Wagner. New ed. London: Verso, 2005.

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