We enter a weighty, academic world when exploring the title above. It’s a fascinating and consuming aspect of the study of music but one that presents challenges to unpick.
Nevertheless, I am going to attempt to demystify this scholarly pursuit and hopefully draw you further into this field of music in the process. Formalism then comes under the broad category of study called the aesthetics of music.
Formalism In Music
I think it is probably not an oversimplification of formalism if I frame it in the context of meaning and emotion in music. In fact, ‘Emotion & Meaning in Music’, was a highly influential piece of study undertaken by Leonard B Meyer (1918 – 2007).
It was published in 1956 and remains a solid starting place when considering this topic. Meyer was an American composer, philosopher, and author. His undergraduate studies were at Columbia University, where he majored in Philosophy.
As was the case for many men, Meyer’s work was interrupted by the Second World War in which he served.
Soon after, he was reunited with a fellow composer, Aaron Copland, who played a significant part in assuring Meyer a teaching post at the University of Chicago. Meyer’s Doctorial work focused on emotion and meaning in music.
Shortly after the publication of this work, Meyer shot to fame. His arguments were alarmingly persuasive couched in a simple philosophy that resonated with his readers. At the centre of this ground-breaking book was the idea that music happens only as we perceive it.
The music occurs only within us, provoking and stimulating an emotional response. From here, we derive meaning from music.
The key to Meyer’s argument in his 1956 text is in the way he distinguishes formalists and expressionists. (In Meyer’s separation of these terms, it should be noted that he is not referring to the musical movement pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg called Expressionism).
“Formalists would contend that the meaning of music lies in the perception and understanding of the musical relationships outlined in the work of art and that meaning in music is primarily intellectual, while the expressionist would argue that these same relationships are in some sense capable of exciting feelings and emotions in the listener” (Meyer 1956, p. 3).
There are parallels between these distinct musical camps but the vital point to grasp is that Meyer’s work brought this distinction into sharp focus in a way that had not previously happened. This is what makes his book the starting point for a deeper dive into formalism.
What you have probably begun to surmise is that at the heart of formalism, the music itself is nothing more than pure sound. Any emotion or apparent meaning that appears to come from a piece of music derives from each individual’s set of experiences, culture, and so on.
The formalist would argue that any composition considered to have meaning is a result of its form or structure. Interestingly, composers whose music could be thought of as aligning with the concepts of formalism might be Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky.
I mention these great pillars of the world of composers as it is the clarity of their formal structures that effortlessly places them in this aesthetic.
Other composers like Debussy, Berlioz, or even Wagner, whilst their music is carefully structured, are not so easily included as their evocation of emotion and imagery is approached differently.
In Stalinist Russia, Dimitri Shostakovich came under some heavy criticism for his formalist approach to music. It was not something that Stalin regularly did, but unfortunately for Shostakovich, early in 1936, he chose to attend a performance of the opera ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’.
Stalin and his accompanying party left the opera at its close without uttering a single word to anyone. When Shostakovitch, who had been warned about this possible reaction to his work, heard about how Stalin had left, he feared for his life.
What followed next was an article in the Soviet newspaper ‘Pravda’. The title of the famous piece in the newspaper was ‘Chaos (muddle) instead of music’. It dismissed Shostakovich’s music entirely, calling it dissonant and a muddle.
Much of this unfounded criticism continued following the Zhdanov Doctrine (1946) that segregated artistic ventures into democratic (Russian) and imperialistic (American).
Unluckily for Shostakovich, his music still came under unwarranted scrutiny from the Soviet authorities following this political slant for many years.
If indeed Shostakovich’s music can be counted in amongst the formalist aesthetic, it is to its credit and not derogatory.
Certainly, the Soviets were doing their best to suppress what was anti-Soviet government music, but Shostakovich was astute and, particularly in his symphonies, added just enough apparent pro-government music to keep his enemies at bay.
It did mean he withdrew his Fourth Symphony, with its premiere only arriving in 1961.
Historically, the concept of formalism often rests on the shoulders of one man: Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904). Hanslick was a professor at The University of Vienna and an influential music critic.
To place the man firmly in context, he felt strongly that music began with Mozart and finished with Brahms, Beethoven, and Schumann. Hanslick was staunchly conservative in his approach to music and the critical articles he wrote during his lifetime.
Hanslick’s opinions surrounding music were formulated into one book titled ‘On the Beautiful in Music’. In the pages of this book, Hanslick clearly expressed his dislike of the music of Wagner, Liszt, Wolf, and Tchaikovsky, aligning himself with the likes of Brahms and Schumann.
He openly hated what he called ‘the music of the future’, and most vitally opened the aesthetic floodgates by claiming that music that relied on extra-musical sources for its communication rather than its form alone was without meaning.
From Hanslick’s viewpoint, formalism took root and was carried forward into the 20th Century by Meyer. His statement that “The content of music is tonally moving forms” set the ball rolling in ways that he may never have been able to foresee.
Whether you will now perceive the music you hear in a new formalist light would be interesting to know. Of course, the idea of what exactly we can agree on regarding musical form and, thereby, any associated meaning may remain for another discussion.
Formalism presents a stimulating example of how we can view music and many other creative disciplines besides.