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Music and Philosophy

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Title : Music and Philosophy
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Music and Philosophy

There are a number of odd connections between music and philosophy including increasing interest in the field of the philosophy of music. But I keep running across incidental connections like Ludwig Wittgenstein's dislike of Mahler. Reading about the analytical method of Heinrich Schenker, I get the strong feeling that his basic stance toward music is Hegelian (or perhaps Schopenhauerian). Before all of your eyes glaze over, let's figure out what that means.

Schenker developed a kind of musical analysis that delved below the surface to reveal the "deep structure" as it were of how music worked. He showed how, in many 18th and 19th century compositions there is a linear unfolding that is responsible for the structural coherence of the music. If you have noticed that there is a kind of inevitability to the way a piece by Bach or Beethoven unfolds in time, then you are hearing it in a kind of Schenkerian way. His claim is that this is the right way to hear music and music that does not correspond to this kind of analysis or hearing is not good music. Schenker was very much a musical elitist. His methods are often characterized as being about the psychology of how we listen. But I think you could also see them as being akin to German idealism in philosophy, the idea that there is some kind of overarching metaphysical drive underlying reality and therefore, perhaps, music. I'm making no claims of influence either way, of course, just noticing that there is certain harmony of outlook.

What happened in music history is that the creative discoveries in harmony by the French and Italians in the 17th and early 18th centuries were developed by the Germans and Austrians in the later 18th and 19th centuries (to brutally oversimplify things!). They also absorbed the contrapuntal discoveries of the centuries before. The result was the brilliant, charming and expressive language of the "common practice" period that stretches from Bach to Brahms and includes the majority of what we call the classical "canon." This kind of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" is how Hegel characterizes history as a whole.

Towards the end of the 19th century this synthesis started to come apart as people like Wagner and Schoenberg on the inside and Bartók, Prokofiev and Stravinsky on the outside took music in entirely different directions. What philosophical approach might correspond to theirs in music? Well, I haven't decided yet, so please weigh in if you have thoughts...

Perhaps a double envoi might be suitable. On the one hand one of those inevitable sounding syntheses of Bach. This is the E major Fugue from Bk II of the Well-Tempered Clavier played by Glenn Gould:


And this is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper Bayerisches Staatsorchester:




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