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An Unnatural Attitude

Phenomenology in Weimar Musical Thought

An Unnatural Attitude traces a style of musical thought that coalesced in the intellectual milieu of the Weimar Republic—a phenomenological style that sought to renew contact with music as a worldly circumstance. Deeply critical of the influence of naturalism in aesthetics and ethics, proponents of this new style argued for the description of music as something accessible neither through introspection nor through experimental research, but rather in an attitude of outward, open orientation toward the world. With this approach, music acquires meaning in particular when the act of listening is understood to be shared with others.
Benjamin Steege interprets this discourse as the response of a young, post–World War I generation amid a virtually uninterrupted experience of war, actual or imminent—a cohort for whom disenchantment with scientific achievement was to be answered by reasserting the value of imaginative thought. Steege draws on a wide range of published and unpublished texts from music theory, pedagogy, criticism, and philosophy of music, some of which appear for the first time in English translation in the book’s appendixes. An Unnatural Attitude considers the question: What are we thinking about when we think about music in non-naturalistic terms?

312 pages | 20 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2021

New Material Histories of Music

History: History of Ideas

Music: General Music

Philosophy: Aesthetics


“In these pages Benjamin Steege recovers, at the very margins of the musical sciences, and against all the odds, a Heideggerian moment, the reverberations of which he traces from the 1920s until they all but fade from hearing three decades later. In the depth and breadth of its synthesis, An Unnatural Attitude provides a model for what it means to write imaginatively about music and conceptual thought.”

Brian Hyer, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Between the hard-edged Platonism of musical form and the reduction of musical experience to mere psychological effect, an intricate and reflective style of musical thought emerged in Weimar Germany that was influenced by Edmund Husserl’s novel method of phenomenology. Steege’s deep dive into these forgotten figures—supported by forays into political history, textured close readings, and complete translations of primary texts—is a philosophical feast. It illuminates a complicated strain of European music theory embroiled in evolving debates about musical ontology, cultural difference, and social change.”

Michael Gallope, author of 'Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable'

"Enriched by convincing music-analytical examples, careful handling of philosophical terms of art, and an ethical sensitivity not unlike that of its historical interlocutors, Steege's book—and the writers whose work it examines—is sure to draw attention from music historians and historians of philosophy alike, who will question the relative unfamiliarity of its subject matter and set out to reach out across this gap to explore the models of historical listening it offers."

New Books Network

"Steege's work is an important contribution to music aesthetics."


"Several scholars of the Weimar Republic–period developed a phenomenological style that sought to renew contact with music as a worldly circumstance. Proponents argued for the description of music as something accessible in an attitude of outward orientation toward the world. The first of Steege's four chapters compares musico-theoretical texts and pedagogies by Gustav Güldenstein, Paul Bekker, Arthur Wolfgang Cohn, Herbert Eimert, Hans Mersmann, and Gustav Geiger, who express disappointment with the authority and achievements of psychoacoustics. In chapter 2, José Ortega y Gasset and Günther Stern-Anders argue that Debussy's music enjoins a fundamental reorientation from "inward" to "outward concentration." In chapter 3, Heinrich Besseler prefers community music performances to concerts. Stern-Anders and Eimert continued to express phenomenological interests even after WW II, and chapter 4 presents Stern-Anders's analysis of Eimert's 1962 setting of his Epitaph für Aikichi Kuboyama. Appendixes include English translations of essays by Mersmann, Helmuth Plessner, Bekker, Eimert, and Stern-Anders. Steege's work is an important contribution to music aesthetics."


Table of Contents

List of Examples

Introduction Worldhood and World War

Max Scheler, “Genius of War”

Musicology in the World

From Psychology to Phenomenology

Music in Phenomenological Study

Chapter 1 The Unnatural Attitude

The Acoustical Attitude and the Harmonic Attitude

Beyond Psychologism

“What Is the Phenomenology of Music?”

Chapter 2 Debussy, Outward and Open

An Outward Turn


Being-There-With Music

Letting Oneself Go


Chapter 3 Hearing-With

Case One Aesthetic Hearing (Seventeenth-Century Suite)
Joining In

Vocal Hearing and Instrumental Hearing

Case Two Participatory Hearing (Thirteenth-Century Motet)
Factical Life


The Limits of Community

Chapter 4 Techniques of Feeling
This Is Not a Test

Techniques of Feeling

A Call

Appendix A Hans Mersmann, “On the Phenomenology of Music” (1925)

Appendix B Helmuth Plessner, “Response [to Mersmann]” (1925)

Appendix C Paul Bekker, “What Is the Phenomenology of Music?” (1925)

Appendix D Herbert Eimert, “On the Phenomenology of Music” (1926)

Appendix E Günther Stern-Anders, “On the Phenomenology of Listening (Elucidated through the Hearing of Impressionist Music)” (1927)





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