The spectre of music as a transcendent artistic ideal figures prominently in the literary criticism of Victorian aestheticism, though the extent to which aestheticism of the movement actually influenced the thinking of British composers has received only marginal scholarly attention. By the first decades of the twentieth century, aestheticism had become decidedly unfashionable even in literary circles, so it is unsurprising that composers of the time would choose to distance themselves from its rhetoric. The prevalence of a certain type of metaphysical conception of the creative act of the artist and intuitive act of the critic, however, may suggest an important remnant of aesthetic influence. Drawing from new critical trends which themselves mirror those of aestheticism, this article posits a revised conception of aesthetic discourse as an activity of self-cultivation, and examines its role in shaping the lives of selected British composer-critics from the early part of the twentieth century. By casting the aesthetic ethos not as a doctrine but as a set of internal practices that inform the creation and subversion of doctrine, the article demonstrates how a ‘relational musicology’ can act as a tool for historical inquiry.