This essay argues that musicological interpretations of Immanuel Kant’s music aesthetics tend to misread his stance as a defense of artistic formalism and autonomy—traits that, although present in his account of music, in fact reinforce his peculiarly low estimate of music’s value among the fine arts. Kant's position and its subsequent influence can be grasped more securely by analyzing his dichotomy between “free” and “dependent” beauty. Through an exploration of this opposition’s echoes and applications in the thought of three “Kantian” music critics and aestheticians in the two decades after the appearance of the Critique of Judgement—J. F. Reichardt, an anonymous series of articles commonly attributed to J. K. F. Triest, and C. F. Michaelis—this essay argues that Kantian aesthetics as applied in practice involved close attention to the impact of genre, style, function, and compositional aims on the relevant standards of judgment for an individual musical work. The result was not one-sided support for the aesthetic or metaphysical “truth” of absolute music, but a characteristic balance between the claims of “pure” and “applied” art forms—a balance that continued to be maintained in the transition from classical to Romantic aesthetics in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

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