The Musical Work Reconsidered, In Hindsight

How to Cite

Steingo, G. (2014). The Musical Work Reconsidered, In Hindsight. Current Musicology, (97).


Certainly, the concept of the musical work has not always existed. Yet deciphering precisely when the work emerged has proved an immensely difficult task for musicologists.1 In particular, the publication of Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works—in which she famously argued that the work–concept crystallized around 1800—has provoked an endless litany of modifications and outright rebuttals.2 In many cases scholars have retained the gist of Goehr’s argument but have sought to push the date backwards, often to the period of their own specialization. Several scholars of Baroque music have argued that musical works existed in the seventeenth century (although not before) while several scholars of the Renaissance have argued that the musical work emerged during that era (although not earlier).3 Indeed, there have been attempts—although somewhat muted—to locate the advent of the musical work in the Medieval period.4 In particular, the question of whether J. S. Bach composed musical works has received a great deal of attention. Although he died a full fifty years before 1800, several scholars have argued that Bach did compose musical works and have used this argument as a refutation of Goehr’s 1800 hypothesis.5




  1. I would like to thank Roger Grant, David Gutkin, and Emily Zazulia for feedback and conversations about earlier drafts of this article. Many thanks also to Tomas Fogg and to an anonymous reader for helpful comments.
  2. Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music was first published in 1992 by Oxford University Press. (In the UK, the book was printed by Clarendon, an imprint of Oxford University Press.) As Richard Taruskin (2007, v) points out in his forward to the 2007 revised edition, judging by the high price of the first edition “Oxford University Press was evidently counting on selling out a tiny press run to libraries.” Nonetheless, a paperback edition followed in 1994 and in 2007 Oxford issued a revised edition including the forward by Taruskin just mentioned as well as a lengthy new introductory essay by Goehr titled “His Master’s Choice.” I will hereafter refer to The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works simply as The Imaginary Museum. All references, unless otherwise stated, are to the 2007 edition. In addition to being the subject of numerous book reviews and articles (many of these will be referenced below), The Imaginary Museum was the theme of an important symposium held at the University of Liverpool in 1998. Proceedings from the symposium were later published as The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?, and edited by Michael Talbot (2000). This collection contains numerous responses to Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum and includes an important debate between Reinhard Strohm and Lydia Goehr.
  3. Texts that explicitly argue for the emergence of the work–concept during the Baroque include White 1997; Erauw 1998; and Young 2005. German scholars have long located the advent of the work–concept in Nicolai Listenius’s (1549) Musica: Ab authore denuo recognita multisque novis regulis et exemplis adaucta. See, for example, Wiora 1983 and Seidel 1987. (For Goehr’s discussion of Listenius in The Imaginary Museum, see 115–19.) Probably the most sustained recent text to argue for Listenius as the key developer of the work–concept is Perkins 2003.
  4. Here, I am only referring to those who locate the advent of the work–concept at the very beginning of music writing in the West. See, for example, Perkins 2003.
  5. I return to the debate surrounding Bach at great length later in this paper and therefore will refrain from citing the various relevant sources here.