Playing with art: musical arrangements as educational tools in van Swieten's Vienna

Thormählen, W. (2010) Playing with art: musical arrangements as educational tools in van Swieten's Vienna. Journal of Musicology, 27 (3) pp. 342-376. ISSN 0277-9269 (print) 1533-8347 (online)


Art played a significant part in the educational ideal promoted by German intellectuals in the late eighteenth century. Gottfried van Swieten, President of the Court Commission for Education in Vienna and librettist for The Creation, was instrumental in developing and promoting the role of art in the moral education of the individual. His encouragement of active engagement with art sheds new light on the common practice of arranging musical "classics" — in particular large-scale vocal works — for smaller instrumental forces around 1800. Van Swieten's writings suggest that such arrangements may be understood not merely as entertaining trifles but as the product of the sociopolitical mores of the Enlightenment. Inviting the direct, interactive experience of art, the arrangement of Joseph Haydn's Creation for string quintet was particularly suited to the moral and social education of the individual. Grounded at least in part in archaic compositional practices, it demonstrated an artwork's adaptability to different circumstances of performance and to the different levels of education of its performers. Moreover, the act of playing the arrangement, one to a part, allowed for the honing of an individual's inner sociable sentiment through collaboration with fellow performers.

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