The Birth of Musicology Out of the Spirit of Biology: Guido Adler’s Methodological Commitments Viewed Through the Spectacles of 19th-Century Evolutionary Theories
132 Music Building, free
Reception to follow
Guido Adler’s proposition for a musicological method in the famous article “Umfang, Methode, und Ziel der Musikwissenschaft” (1885) amounts to the first clear definition of the type of German/Austrian academic music research—the “science of music”—that has left an imprint on our own research habits. In the creation of what was then virtually a new academic field, he drew on art history, contemporary philosophy, older music research traditions, and many other sources. For the establishment of his envisioned discipline as a science, the impact of a heretofore less-acknowledged model seems crucial: the evolutionary theories extant in 1870s Germany and Austria.
This paper will review the salient features of Adler’s early methodology, present evidence for his awareness of biological theories, sketch the biological commitments of Adler’s close friends in the natural sciences and the philosophy of science, and explain how the famous bipartite division of musicology into a systematic and historical branch (proposed in Adler’s 1885 article) mirrors a very similar division proposed for biology in 1866 by evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel’s differentiation between sciences of process and stability, and of collective and individual organismic features find their musicological analogues in Adler. On the other hand, Adler wields Haeckel’s categories improperly from the point of view of evolutionary biology, and thus arrives at a chimera influenced equally by philosophical catogories that do not have a place in Haeckel’s theory.
Obviously, Adler’s contact with biology proved fruitful to the discipline of musicology, which was thus established as a serious subject of inquiry at universities. Consequently, musicologists have followed his distinctions and his methodology for the better part of a century. On the other hand, this “classical” way of doing musicology has sustained valid criticism in the past half-century. By way of closing, I would like to explore how this criticism can be reformulated when looking through the spectacles of evolutionary biology in the nineteenth century and beyond.
Benjamin Breuer is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. He was an Andrew Mellon Pre-doctoral Fellow in 2006–07 and has recently given papers on medieval music notation, semiotics, and the baroque concerto. His dissertation explores how ideas borrowed from philosophy and the natural sciences (for example, biological evolution) enrich or limit the methodology of musicology.