In 1895 the critic Édouard Dujardin reviewed a production of an Offenbach opera in a brief article titled “De la Périchole et de l’Absolu dans la musique.” That Dujardin invoked the term “absolute” in a discussion of a stage work suggests that, for him, “the absolute in music” was defined by something other than the presence or absence of texts. Moreover, that Dujardin uses the phrase “absolute in music” rather than “absolute music” suggests the terrain of the absolute was not exclusively musical. This article reveals that the word “absolute” had a rich and varied history in French intellectual discourse of the nineteenth century. By placing the writings of music critics alongside those of philosophers such as Victor Cousin, Auguste Comte, Hippolyte Taine, and Étienne Vacherot, I show that the word “absolute” evoked decades of ideological tensions—between Catholicism and secularism, between faith and positivism, and between monarchy and constitution—stemming from the culture wars of post-revolutionary France. Dujardin and his colleagues effectively made music criticism another arena where these battles were fought.
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