Re-visiting the concept of the ‘musical work’, or: Why collaborate with MALMECC? Part I by Soterraña Aguirre Rincón

Series of four posts by Soterraña Aguirre Rincón: Blog post I

Do we need the concept of the ‘musical work’ to make a music history? This is a simple question to which it is not easy to offer an answer. If we answer it restrictively, we would have to say that its use is only relevant for the study of the music of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. But it is also quite possible that we might accept its validity for music from the 15th century onwards. As John Butt pointed out, ‘within the context of the European tradition, there is for many … an essential transhistorical unity implied by the concept of a work’.[1]

CC BY Soterraña Aguirre Rincón NC SA

The ‘musical work’ has been the subject of vibrant and productive discussions since the late 1960s,[2] but the debate has become more widespread since the 1990s, when English-language musicology began to concern itself with the subject. We all remember in this respect the impact of Lydia Goehr’s controversial and emblematic book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).


Goehr’s study dealt with the historical period (the end of the 18th century) in which a specific way of conceiving the musical work (which in the book appears as the only one) became the regulating force of the musical practices of the following centuries. Goehr highlighted the relevance of the notion of Werktreue in the fields of music and theatre. She also underlined the powerful influence that the work concept had in legitimizing certain musical practices over others. Her book without doubt revealed a fissure in the dominant ways of thinking and made room for new arguments and ideas. In my opinion, this was one of its main contributions.


Goehr’s most direct impact came from her claim that the element of time – of history – was a necessary component for understanding the meanings of the term ‘musical work’. Goehr marked the turning point as ca. 1800, the period when – according to her – composers began to conceive of their craft not just as music, but as ‘works’. Hence, we can’t properly speak about the ‘musical work’ before that moment as an aesthetic and regulative concept. This argument has been criticized for creating a certain historical discontinuity and, consequently, for excluding creations such as those by Bach or Mozart from the terrain of the ‘work’.


Theorists such as Polish philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz and British critic Terry Eagleton previously concluded that the concept of the ‘work of art’ had been established during the second half of the 18th century, intertwined with other ideas about art, autonomy, creativity (or genius), beauty, form and aesthetic experience.[3] However, as the Spanish researcher Pilar Ramos points out, ‘Tatarkiewicz was not interested in addressing issues such as the origins, continuity or discontinuity of ideas throughout history, but chose to focus on the various meanings given in each historical period to terms such as creator, work, art, mimesis, etc.’.[4]


In an attempt to clarify this ‘problem’ within the musicological field, and to try to allow space for the ‘idea’ and the ‘process’ of the musical work, in 1998 the symposium The musical work: reality or invention? was organized at the University of Liverpool.[5] On this occasion, speakers belonging to several research fields, such as musicology, ethnomusicology, anthropology or philosophy, shed light on this theme from very different perspectives. All the participants tried to reach an agreement on what a ‘musical work’ is, whether from a timeless perspective or in a concrete historical situation, and some consensus was reached in defining a musical work as ‘discrete, reproducible and attributable’.[6] This is an inclusive conception of a musical work, but it is also somewhat imprecise and therefore difficult to use.


There is no doubt, however, that the concept of a musical work was already used in the 15th century.[7] Several researchers have analyzed this concept. Almost inevitably, they examine it as a progression towards the idea of a musical work of art in the sense understood in the 19th century, differentiating the 19th-century concept from how they believe the concept of a musical work was used and materialized in the fifteenth.


My research team Contrapunto has sought to understand Renaissance music from the perspectives of both observation and analysis. To this end, we designed the project The Renaissance Musical Work: Fundamentals, Repertoires and Practices which I lead.[8] []


Our interest in examining ‘other’ sources, environments and musics that are little used in general music historiography, together with the plurality of methodological frameworks that we use to achieve our objectives, are premises that our project shares with MALMECC. Hence our interest in collaborating and sharing results and experiences.


Soterraña Aguirre Rincón

Profesora Titular in Musicology

University of Valladolid (Spain)





[1] John Butt, ‘What is a ‘musical work’? Reflections on the origins of the “work concept” in western art music’, in Concepts of Music and Copyright: How Music Perceives Itself and How Copyright Perceives Music, ed. by Andreas Rahmatian (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015), 1-22, at 2.

[2] See for example, Carl Dahlhaus, ‘Plädoyer für eine romantische Kategorie: Der Begriff des Kunstwerkes in der neuesten Musik’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 130 (1969), 18-22, or Zofia Lissa, ‘Über das Wesen des Musikwerkes’, Die Musikforschung, 21/2 (1968), 157-82.

[3] Władysław Tatarkiewicz, A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1980). Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

[4] Pilar Ramos, ‘Defraudar la compostura: On Musical Glosses, Musical Works and Authors’, in Making Musical Works in Renaissance Spain, ed. by Soterraña Aguirre Rincón and John Griffiths (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming).

[5] Organized by James Michael Talbot and Constance Alsop. Its results were published as The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?, ed. by Michael Talbot (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000).

[6] See also Giuseppe Fiorentino, The Concept of Musical Work in the Spanish Renaissance: A Lexical Inquiry” in Making Musical Works in Renaissance Spain (forthcoming).

[7] See, for example, Laurenz Lütteken and James Steichen, ‘The Work Concept’, in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth-Century Music, ed. by Anna Maria Busse Berger and Jesse Rodin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 55-68.

[8] Financed by the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness [HAR2015-70181-P].


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