Reason without principles

Dr. Charles Burney, (1726–1814), music historian, wrote a General History of Music that was issued in four large tomes between 1776 and 1789.  At the beginning of volume three he inserted an “Essay on Music Criticism”.  As the third volume was treating about the most recent history, Burney thought that he should define and explain his criteria of criticism, before writing about all the more or less contemporary composers. The intended audience was of course among scholars, composers, musicians.

According to Burney, everybody is different in taste: “music is the art of pleasing by the succession of … sounds”. But as every listener has a different background in knowledge, one can be pleased or dissatisfied by the listening experience. Less we understand and we know that kind of music, less we like it.

We will have pleasure when intellect and sensations are equally involved. From Burney’s point of view, there is no pleasure if there is not a deep understanding and knowledge of what we are listening to. The understanding of music through the knowledge of the composition processes and of the history and the aesthetic of this art increases the pleasure in listening and allows a conscious criticism.

Criticize without knowledge of the facts will lead to an inaccurate and biased criticism: one will tend to appreciate what is known and despise the unknown, what isn’t known well enough and cannot be understood.

“Reason without principles” means “reasoning without knowledge of the facts”, discussing without the necessary knowledge to do so.

Although Burney’s Essay was written in the XVIII century,  his thoughts are very contemporary. Nothing has changed from that time and probably nothing will change in the future for the music, if musicians will not fill the gap between their and the audience’s knowledge.

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