The Contest of Reason versus Sense: Steffani and German Musical Thought, 1695-1725 (Der Disput um Vernunft contra Gefühl: Steffani und die deutsche Musiktheorie 1695-1725)

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


Around 1700 there were fierce debates in German-speaking lands about the nature and purpose of music. Many musicians still adhered to the old view of harmony as a sonic realisation of divinely ordained proportions. Yet there was also a newer view of music as a relativistic art which should appeal to listeners’ senses rather than to mathematical certainty. The debate reached its climax in the polemic between the Hamburg critic Johann Mattheson (in his Orchestre trilogy,1713-1721) and the Erfurt organist JohannHeinrich Buttstett (whose Ut, mi, sol, re, fa,la, tota Musica, 1716, sought to defend the old notion of music as sounding number).

Steffanicontributed to this debate via his Quanta certezza (1695), translated into German as the Send-Schreiben (1699). On first reading the treatise seems to be a conservative statement of Pythagorean views; yet Steffani argues that the emotional power of music comes from its arithmetic basis, and even asserts that all science should be based on sensory experience. In its dual interest in the mathematical foundations and emotional force of music, the treatise shows many similarities with Johann Kuhnau’s writings of the 1690s. My paper contextualises Steffani’s treatise with reference to Kuhnau’s musical thought; explores how both Mattheson and Buttstett appropriated Steffani’s ideas; and discusses some little-known references to Steffani in early German periodicals. I will show that Steffani is one of the most frequently cited authors in German musical thought of the early eighteenth century.


Invited paper at Steffani-Symposium, Forum Agostino Steffani, Schloss Herrenhausen, Hannover
Period20 Sept 2014
Held atForum Agostino Steffani, Schloss Herrenhausen, Hannover / Musikwissenschaftliches Institut der Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover