Aesthetic Formalism

It was the philosophical view of what became known as aesthetic formalism by nineteenth and twentieth century authors such as Eduard Hanslick, Guido Adler, and Theodore Adorno, that may have contributed to the demise of musical improvisation in Western society.

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) was adamant that the beauty in music should not be conflated with the feelings it awakens. Aesthetic pleasure, he said, is the result of an intellectualized approach to the composer’s and performer’s efforts, and he dismissed the act of improvisation as a “coincidence of creation and performance.” This “uncensored discourse, this reckless abandonment of the self to the grip of a powerful spell” cannot be considered artistic because it is “contentless” and has no theme.

Guido Adler (1855-1941), successor to Hanslick at the University of Vienna and arguably the father of ethnomusicology, was a staunch supporter of the art-as-science model with a strict analytical approach to music that left no room for improvisation in his historical and systematic analysis of musicology.

Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) conflated his contempt for jazz with his view of popular music, which he saw as “pseudo-individualization,” a recurring symptom of the movement toward mass cultural capitalism. He suggests that “even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so ‘normalized’ as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization.” While respecting what he referred to as actual improvisation, Adorno felt that jazz improvisation fell far short of this standard. Actual improvisation, he says, “would of necessity have to work down into and through the melodic and rhythmic structure itself rather than merely playing, no matter how adventurously, on the surface.”

Adorno died in 1969 and he had dismissed jazz early in his life choosing not to explore the new found improvisational style of bebop. But his views on both classical and jazz improvisation perpetuated the high expectations associated with the act itself.

Improvisation in the post-classical world was no longer a pleasurable experience accessible to the general population but rather a measurable and quantifiable artistic exercise. It is possible that this popular societal view, a component of aesthetic formalism, tended to discourage and impede participatory engagement in not just music, but in all of the arts.