Style and individuality in performance – from Hanslick’s formalism to contemporary perspectives of authenticity

Tiago Sousa

CEHUM – University of Minho, Portugal


In his book, On the Musically Beautiful (1854), Eduard Hanslick outlined the foundations of musical formalism. The author defines music as “tonally moving forms”, thus establishing both the essence and the proper manner of aesthetically appreciating this art. According to Hanslick’s own view, music in itself is unable to represent or evoke feelings. The musically beautiful is absolutely autonomous and any extramusical content we impart to it is purely adventitious.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, Hanslick imbues the performer with an unexpected power of expression:

To the performer it is granted to release directly the feeling which possesses him […] Here a personal attitude becomes directly audibly effective in tones, not just silently formative in them (Hanslick, 1986/(1854),p. 49).

In the face of these words, we must ascertain to what extent can a performer’s expressive contribution be dissociated from the musical beauty of his performance, through which we are supposed to access the musical beauty of the work itself. In fact, I argue that such a dissociation is not possible. In my communication I will present an argument that demonstrates the incompatibility in granting an expressionist inclination to performance while maintaining a formalist conception of the musical work itself.

How can we address this? To shed light on this matter, I shall consider some contemporary positions I find relevant for this debate by Stephen Davies, Julian Dodd and Peter Kivy. We can enumerate, broadly, three evaluative dimensions of a performance, or three kinds of “autenthicity”:

1) Identity/ontological dimension. The value of a performance is linked to its degree of adequacy to the composer’s normative prescriptions, which establish it’s ontologically identity (cf. Davies, 2001).

2) Interpretive dimension. The value of a performance depends on its degree of adequacy to its “essential musical content” (cf. Dodd, 2018, 2020).

3) Creative/artistic dimension. The value of a performance depends on the artistic contribution the performer introduces as a unique and personal element (cf. Kivy, 1995, 2009).

The dimension most closely matching the role Hanslick ascribes to the performer is the last one, defined in great detail by Peter Kivy by use of the notion of “personal authenticity”. Kivy considers the performance as a work of art in its own right, built upon the composer’s “original” work. We may then ask whether there will be a sense of “personal expression” inherent in the creative-perfomance act that is compatible with the constraints of formalism. Kivy claims that it is a mistake to conceive “personal authenticity” as “sincerity”. He seeks to explain that, even if authenticity is “personal”, it does not imply any representation of “personal feelings”, because we can see it as a result of the individual, unique and unrepeatable aesthetical creative power, idiosyncratically characteristic of the performer.

I will attempt to argue that Kivy’s argumentative expedient of conceptual dissociation between what is artistically personal and what is emotionally personal is also present in On the Musically Beautiful, through an analysis of the Hanslickian notion of “style”, the key notion that could resolve the theoretical tension between form and personal expression.

Keywords: performance; authenticity, formalism, Hanslick, Kivy, Davies, Dodd


Tiago Morais Ribeiro de Sousa is currently working on his PhD in the Philosophy of Music at the University of Minho, Portugal, where he also lectures in Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art. Has published articles in this area, evidencing an article of 2017 published in The British Journal of Aesthetics, entitled “Was Hanslick a Closet Schopenhauerian?”. Additionally, he has a BSc and MSc in Electrical and Telecomunications Engineering from the University of Oporto, a BMus in Classical Guitar and an MA in Music, both from University of Minho. He regularly works as a teacher of classical guitar and occasionally performs as a classical guitarist.