Unveiling Musical Production: Strauss, Mahler and Commodity Fetishism in the Late Nineteenth Century


History and Philosophy

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This article locates social relationships within late-nineteenth-century German orchestral music by examining orchestration practices and aesthetics. Wagner's innovations in tone colour, Liszt's use of programmes, and Hanslick's formalism all took attention away from orchestra performers and forged a more direct relationship between audience and composer. This article argues that commercial exchange of serious music displaced social relationships between composer, performer and audience into aesthetic dictums. In particular, the widely agreed upon subordination of orchestration and colour to compositional 'content' was a manifestation of the social subordination of performers to composers and resulted in the decreased visibility of performers to consumers. In ultimately breaking from both New German and formalist conventions, Strauss's Don Juan and Mahler's First Symphony brought unwanted attention to orchestration and a renewed focus on performance and performers. In contrast to Wagner's use of doublings, which created timbres without clear instrumental provenance, the orchestration choices of Strauss and Mahler emphasize distinctions between instruments and themes, further highlighting the virtuosic demands they place on performers. Strauss and Mahler made performers into co-producers of their music and raised orchestral colour to the status of content. By employing Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, which Adorno himself largely obscures, this article goes beyond Adorno's and Dahlhaus's analysis of the 'emancipation of colour' to show how concert consumption objectified social relations and hierarchies as issues of mere aesthetic form, while compositions themselves became imbued with life-like subjectivity.

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Nineteenth-Century Music Review

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