Aesthetica Preprint, 60 (December 2000)

Lorenzo Lattanzi: The Musical Aesthetics of German Enlightenment

The present volume focuses on the musical aesthetics of two major protagonists of the Aufklarung: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) and Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).
The separation of music from the liberal arts and its insertion among the fine arts on the basis of the principle of imitation raises the problem of the meaning of sounds: what does music imitate? what does a musical composition communicate? Dubos and Batteux had attributed to music the power to imitate the sounds of nature, as well as the feelings and passions of the human soul: the principle of imitation was part of an aesthetics of expression that would later be developed in the musical theories of Diderot and Rousseau.
Merging French approaches with the new British aesthetics of Burke, Harris, and Hogarth, Lessing and Mendelssohn define the system of the arts on a semiotic basis, moving beyond a strictly mimetic conception and locating the purpose of art in the principle of aesthetic illusion. Music produces illusion by placing natural signs - inarticulate sounds - consecutively in time. Lessing and Mendelssohn emphasize the basic temporal dimension of music and acknowledge its performative aspect. They voice the new interest in issues related to performance (together with the more traditional ones related to composition) shown by musicians active at the court of Frederick II (e. g., Marpurg, Kirnberger, C. Ph. E. Bach, Quantz). At the same time, the development of instrumental music promotes a new awareness of the communicative potential of sounds, which can express emotions and ideas without the support of a text. Lessing and Mendelssohn, however, still reveal a literary attitude influenced by the myth of ancient poetry (e. g., the Greek tragedy and the Biblical psalms), as they question the possibility of complete illusion in pure music.