Remedy or Disease? Romantic Perspectives on Music

  • Berenike Schröder
Schlagworte: Hoffmann, E. T. A., Musikästhetik, Wackenroder, Wilhelm Heinrich


Around 1800, aesthetic debate suddenly places music at the very top in the hierarchy of the arts, even superseding poetry: This has become a commonplace not only in scholarly discourse. The protagonists of this re-arrangement of the artistic disciplines are Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Tieck. In their programmatic texts, they state that music is to be free and absolute and stress its metaphysical quality and its close relation to the supernatural. Furthermore, music is supposed to be no longer dependent on the other arts, and music releases the listener or the musician from prosaic everyday life. As Wackenroder writes in Die Wunder der Tonkunst, music is „das Land des Glaubens […] wo alle unsre Zweifel und unsre Leiden sich in ein tönendes Meer verlieren.“  It is „eine kleine fröhliche grüne Insel, mit Sonnenschein, mit Sang und Klang, – die auf dem dunkeln, unergründlichen Ocean schwimmt.“  And what is more, in Wackenroder’s words music is even described as „die heilende Göttin”  All sickening thoughts which, according to Wackenroder, are the illness of mankind vanish with a piece of music, making our mind sane again. Literary romanticism here recurs to a long tradition that reaches back to the classical ages in Greece and Arabia: Music is used as a remedy for curing illnesses of various kinds. In classical antiquity, Apollo is the god of music, poetry and dancing as well as the god of healing. He was also named “Iatros” (physician) or Apollo Medicus.  As Bruno Meinecke puts it most clearly: “Music and medicine therefore were intimately commingled in his [Apollo’s B.S.] divine nature as an integrated unity.”  Orpheus as a bard and demigod was also said to be capable of curing diseases by means of his music. “Through the medium of poetry, music, and medicine, he too applied salutary remedies to soul and body.”   Thus, music in history is part of treating physical illness on the one hand, but on the other hand is more and more considered to provide a remedy especially for mental deficiencies. Music is meant to improve nervous disorders and sometimes it is even prescribed as a regular medicine.  As we will see in Hoffmann’s text Die Genesung, there is a connection between the ritual healing processes in the temples of Aesculapius and the setting of the forest in which the old man regains his health.