Brussels, Music, and Humanity

Amherst College

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of
The Brussels Times, where it first appeared.

Brussels is at its best in early Summer. It has nothing to do with the weather or Spring. The Grand Place is as beautiful as always and Gare du Nord as ugly as it is in every other month. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is still a triumph of the gothic style. And the Quartier Léopold – the European quarter – is still that very same exponent of postmodern architecture and style (or lack thereof). And yet in May something happens to Brussels that transforms it into the capital of beauty for at least a brief moment. It is a concentration of such beauty, talent and aspiration that it lifts the city out of the realm of everyday life. It is the Queen Elisabeth Competition.

Romantic souls tend to believe that true love never dies. “Though lovers be lost, love shall not” – Dylan Thomas wrote in one of his most loveable poems. I like to believe in that too, even though I have witnessed all too often how the bulwarks of reality break the waves of love and know that even the purest kinds of love can be exhausted and lose their energy. Yet it seems fair to say that queen Elisabeth’s love for music continues to live on in the concours that she first organized in 1937, and that to this day makes Brussels and the world, if only for a brief spell, a more beautiful place – perhaps even a better place.

At times I am willing to believe that music makes the world and people truly better. The relationship between music and morality is something that has puzzled philosophers and writers for ages. Some – like Plato – believed that music risks to corrupt the soul. The Hungarian writer Sándor Márai expressed the belief that music is dangerous, because “it seems to carry a larger danger in that it has the power to arouse the deepest emotions in people.” These words were written down in Embers, arguably Márai’s most beautiful novel, in which profound emotions turn out to be profoundly problematic.

Many others though have argued that music awakens humanity in humankind. That it lifts man to higher levels of mutual understanding and that it binds people together. That it stimulates the senses and makes us more sensible and sensitive. Simply put, music makes us better persons.

Such a view was the leitmotif of many of the writings of Vladimir Jankélévitch. The French philosopher – who was also a fairly talented pianist – wrote a great deal about music. He wrote books about Fauré, Ravel, about the expressiveness and morality of music. He held the view that music is a duo of hearts and that it leads to the “disarmament of the hearts” of those who listen and are listened to. Jankélévitch believed that people rarely live their lives to the fullest. Very often we just slumber through life and fall prey to l’ennui: existential boredom. We are not concerned with how best to spend our time, but with how we can let time go by. And yet there are also moments and ways in which we are awakened from the slumber of every day life. Moments that break the banality of being. They are intense and “adventurous” moments that open our hearts and challenge our minds to such an extent that we can no longer have the luxury to be bored and feel as if a deeper meaning in life is lacking. Love is such an adventure. And so is music.

Queen Elisabeth would undoubtedly have been inclined to agree with Jankelevitch. In her correspondence with her friend Albert Einstein she expressed the view that music gives meaning to life, it makes us reach for a world beyond, something more profound and deeper, perhaps even something divine. Moreover, it helps us deal with the whims of fate and cope with tragedy. As is well known, Queen Elisabeth’s life wasn’t destitute of tragedy – epitomized in the untimely death of her husband, King Albert I.

I would love to sympathize with that positive view about music and morality, and maybe I do – I am not sure. But if music really has such a profound moral meaning, if it makes our lives more meaningful and our hearts and minds less empty, if it makes us better persons – are there kinds of music that are better equipped to do this than others? Or does any kind of music possess the same power to awaken people from their existential slumber? Probably not. Probably it is true that not all music has the same capacity to awaken our moral senses. But that might be a dangerous truth, for it entails the view that certain forms of music are better than others. That certain kinds of music might not at all awaken our moral senses, but might even hamper their development. Such a view opens a path down history one should not be very willing to take. It is a path of inquisition and Entartete Kunst, of books being banned and burned, of paintings and painters being destroyed, and of terrible misery.

In the end it is difficult to disagree with the great essayist George Steiner, who argued that art and the humanities don’t humanize at all. Steiner found this hard to accept. He could not fully understand it, and yet he could not deny either that even a man of culture who has a civilized mind can have evil in his heart. Almost moved to tears, Steiner recounted stories of Nazi’s who loved Mozart and Beethoven as intensely as they detested Jews, Slavs and anyone they believed to be Untermenschen. At one and the same day these Nazi’s could kill a couple of people in the morning and go to the opera in the evening. Where are the humanity and the power of music in that? In the face of evil, all that is beautiful is powerless.

About the Author

Alicja Gescinska is a Polish-Belgian philosopher and currently a Karl Loewenstein Fellow at Amherst College. After earning her Master’s (summa cum laude) and then her Doctoral degrees both from Ghent University, she completed her postdoctoral research at Princeton. Her book “De verovering van de vrijheid”, which is a reflection, both philosophical and personal, on the meaning of freedom, was named the best non-fiction book of 2010-2011 by deMens.nu, and it was shortlisted for other literary prizes as well. Gescinska is frequently invited to appear as pundit and speaker and her works are published in newspapers and periodicals around the world.
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Discussion

  • That insane people like concentration brutes love good music does not mean that music does not have power, but that such people don’t understand what they are hearing. There are also other stories, and one I will never forget: how the Jewish concert master of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jo Juda, saved his life in a concentration camp by playing a Bach chaconne for a nazi brute who was going to send him up a tree, together with other prisoners, to shoot them down. The brute broke down in tears and left. Steiner cultivates the idea that the worst evil and the highest art of the West are inseparable, that they both stem from the same core of ideas, which is nonsensical. The humanities humanize everyone who is perceptive enough. Primitive people have lived everywhere and in any period; culture is an attempt to create a space above the dross of low life.

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