The Trouble with Goodness

Nothing Is a Matter of Course

Reports on the life and mission of orchestras and other institutions of classical music in our time make for vexed, sometimes dispiriting, reading. If you attend to them, as I have of late, you are likely to come across ledes like the following:

Orchestras Feeding America is a project that has seen over 250 orchestras from across the country collect nearly 450,000 pounds of food. The efforts of these orchestras have helped spread the word about how and why orchestras are so necessary to their communities, beyond providing amazing music.

Another press release from early this year reports on an orchestra that has received a grant in “recognition” of its “innovation and dedication to increasing its relevance to the community.” The increase in relevance specifically refers to a partnering of Music in the Mountains (an orchestra) with the Sierra Streams Institute to work with young people in order to compose “a piece of music that responds to their experience” of learning about the plight of wild salmon. Elsewhere, one hears calls for orchestras to “reinvent” themselves in the face of “diminished legitimacy and relevance in a world that has changed more in the last 30 years than at any time in the last 5,000.” We must turn “the whole edifice on its head,” by “redistribut[ing] musicians’ activity from the central concert hall to the communities where people live.” This will “democratiz[e] the art form and tak[e] it away from its elitist roots.”

Jesse Rosen, the President of the League of American Orchestras, comments on these innovations as a turning from a “self-referential, inward-facing assertion of excellence” as the mission of orchestras toward “statements of value and impact for people in orchestras’ communities.” In the League’s magazine, Symphony, Polly Kahn gives us a fuller sense of how this recalibration of mission finds concrete expression. She writes that increasing numbers of American orchestras

have transcended the traditional role of orchestras in communal life. These institutions, of course, stay true to their core purpose of sharing a great body of musical literature. But they are driven simultaneously by a growing sense of connectivity and responsibility to community, along with a desire to engage actively with an ever-more-diverse populace.

This engagement includes the deployment of musicians to hospitals and other places of care for music therapy; the mingling of the professional with the late-in-life amateur; drum circles as part of correctional programs for youth; and programs to commemorate wounds in the American political fabric, to console communities in the wake of natural disasters, and to bring about social change. Of this last role, Kahn opines,

it’s perhaps too easy to think of orchestras as solely inhabiting the world of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Stravinsky. But just as these artists responded to and challenged the cultural and political assumptions of their times, orchestral music today increasingly crosses musical genres and addresses significant social issues of our time.

Elsewhere, two scholars of music education (Carlos R. Abril and Brent M. Gault) offer advocacy strategies for the establishment or defense of music programs in schools, recommending that interested parties “highlight the transferability of skills” gained from training in music to “extramusical” contexts. Most of us are familiar with the old claims that training in the performance of musical instruments may enhance a child’s math abilities. These authors indicate other transferable skills, ranging from the “promotion of cultural understanding,” listening skills, and physical coordination, to language literacy, “sensitivity to unique individuals,” and the cultivation of creativity.

To list these revisionist accounts of orchestras’ missions and strategies for gaining a foothold in communities and schools in this manner is, I think, to invite cynicism. We hear that orchestras are amazing as they solicit food donations for the hungry, and wonder whether there are not less amazing but more efficient means of accomplishing that goal that, on balance, render musicians superfluous to the enterprise. Is it not the case that anything orchestras do “beyond producing amazing music” is an extrinsic rather than intrinsic, “core,” or essential activity? By definition no quantity of extrinsic activity, no matter how much we admire it, could tell us much of anything about the worth of the intrinsic one. We are left unsure how orchestras could be “necessary to their communities” if it is not in virtue of the main thing they do, and if “providing amazing music” is not the one thing necessary to an orchestra, then we wonder if what we call an orchestra might in fact be something else. So also, on hearing of grant dollars for an orchestra to help young composers tied to a very specific ecological project, we wonder whether the cultivation of the art of composition and the public interest in efficiently saving the salmon are not both vitiated in one fell swoop.

We sense indeed the rightness of Rosen’s, Kahn’s, and others’ observations, which imply that just as music would not be performed if there were no one to hear it, so should the communal work of an orchestra be ordered in a meaningful way to the life of the community that properly constitutes its audience. But these authors worry, as do we, when we hear musical “excellence” replaced by communal engagement, as if these were necessarily opposed missions. If that were the case, then there is something wrong either with the canons of musicianship or with the communities they are meant to serve. It does not lay this anxiety to rest to hear the president of a conservatory proposing orchestras should hire performers based on “virtuosity, of course” but also on “a whole magical package” of other skills, such as “entrepreneurship,” that might be offered to “an institution and its community.” In an orchestra’s effort to serve “as an agent of social change,” to quote Kahn again, will it also screen musicians for not just virtuosity but a commitment to the hour’s particular sense of what in society must be changed? If so, the perceived social function of music will inevitably come to determine what kind of music orchestras perform: only those with a political valence supposed to bring “change” to an “evolving” society will be played. The canons of great music will not disappear, but will simply be reconfigured to exclude whatever the imaginations of conductors cannot harness for a specific didactic or political movement.

A similar ambivalence haunts the strategy of selling schools on the “transferability” of skills first gained in musical education. If learning the violin helps one’s skills in mathematics – to return to an example with which, as we shall see, I am finally sympathetic – might we not also say, “Very true, but what also helps with a child’s math skills – even more so and more directly – is the study and practice of mathematics.” That objection admits no answer, while the notion that “sensitivity to unique individuals” is a skill acquired through music would seem to rely on a cloudy understanding of the word “skill” and a stereotyped one about both the lives of composers and musicians and the relationship of their lives to their art form.

As I have admitted, this style of listing invites cynicism, but so do, it must be said, many of the formulae used to express these accounts of the new mission and strategy for orchestras in an age supposedly characterized by “democracy,” “diversity,” and demands for “[r]elevancy and legitimacy.” The authors I cite face a daunting task in which they acquit themselves honorably: to insist upon the essential function of orchestras while casting their work in a manner that will draw needed grant dollars from philanthropic organizations unhappily settled on seeing their generosity validated by quantifiable fruits. In most cases, they do not fail to underscore or at least mention, in Kahn’s words again, that “the creation and presentation of music is, of course, the core of what orchestras are.” That phrase, “of course,” appears elsewhere in Kahn’s article and in others I have cited. It means, “goes without saying,” “a matter of course,” something that can be taken for granted by everyone.

But, and here is why such words can be dispiriting, the whole occasion of these apologetics in our time is that the intrinsic goodness of orchestras is not a matter of course. If it is something that usually passes unexamined, it is not something that carries much evidential power in our day; it is not something simply understood, but rather an assurance that crumbles in our fingers as soon as we handle it. I envy no one the task of having to articulate to the satisfaction of a granting institution why the “core” or essence of an orchestra is something worthy of its dollars. Far easier would it be to appeal in passing to residual sentiment about the “joy,” “vitality,” and “health” wrought by orchestral music, or to make half-literal, half-metaphorical appeals to music’s power to involve “the brain, body, and heart,” as one hurries on to enumerate the various assessable goals that will be realized beyond them: the violent will be pacified, the sick consoled, the salmon saved, the hungry fed, the backward reformed, the children sensitized, the elite diversified, and the stodgy made relevant. We simply have more words to describe such things and, more to the point, their goodness really does go without saying – because who among us does not value “change” or “relevance,” those empty words into which anyone can pour his dreams? Furthermore, we do not even need to say them; all we have to do is count them.

My concern this afternoon is not to deprecate these or other strategic efforts to preserve the life of orchestras in our straitened times. I have benefited from reading about them. Rather, I would like to consider the climate of opinion that has made such strategies seem necessary in the first place. Thanks to developments that have been underway not for years but centuries, persons in our time find it impossible to credit the idea of intrinsic goods. Things may be good for something, this we readily see, but we become at best uncomfortable and at worst incredulous that anything should be good in itself. If this is correct, then orchestras are in a dire condition indeed. We cannot appreciate those things that are most properly good simply because they are good in themselves. Faced with this often evasive denial of the goodness of things, we scramble to achieve the impossible: to establish what was formerly held as an intrinsic good exclusively by appealing to effects extrinsic to it. Lacking a qualitative hierarchy of goods, we multiply quantities of useful outcomes. In such an effort, we may generate many words, words that flatter our sentiments, but words that will not bear reasoned examination and so invite our cynicism.

I wish to explore the origins and reasons behind this lamentable modern incredulity and to help us understand the traditional alternative to it, which insists that those things are greatest and most worthy of our support – loving, intellectual, and financial – that are good in themselves and good in their effects. My first task is a general one then: to explain what it means for something to be good, so that goodness might cease to give us such stuttering trouble and embarrass us into hasty appeals to things outside it.

My second task will be to consider the particular goodness of orchestral music. As it happens, music has historically been thought to be one of those intrinsic goods known as the liberal arts that does indeed transform its listeners. On more than one classical account, it liberates the mind – but to what end? To effect political or social change? Sort of. For, according to the tradition on which I shall draw, music transforms the soul and liberates the mind so as to make it capable of recognizing and adoring what is most truly good in itself. If ours is an age that cannot recognize things as good in themselves, then the most radical social change in which advocates of music can engage will to be just this: to help others to see, to desire, to seek, to become adequate to, and to rest in that which is simply good. Music provides us one powerful instance in which good effects, fruits as they are called in the tradition, can be realized only because they are what I shall call a further diffusion of what is already a good sufficient unto itself.

The Three Kinds of Goodness

Let me begin by recalling the classical account of goodness, with which many of you will be familiar. According to the ancients, we generally recognize three basic kinds of goods in the following order: the pleasant, the useful, and, finally, that which is good in itself.1 The lowest and most common species of good is the pleasant; whatever gives the mind or body a pleasing sensation, insofar as it pleases, must be good. No one asks, “Why would you want to feel pleasure?” because pleasure in itself provides its own validation. We simply enjoy the taste of good food and drink, the feeling of exertion in sport and the caress of another. For all that it sounds as if the pleasant were ultimate, however, we see that pleasure is neither the only type of good nor even a sufficient denomination of goodness to allow us to understand the various competing goods among which even someone given over to a life of pleasures would have to choose.

I said a moment ago that pleasure is low and common, and for several reasons. First, and perhaps least compelling in our day, for reasons to which I shall return, pleasure is thought a low good because it can be had in common with all persons and with other animals. Aristotle complains that the life of pleasure is “completely slavish,” belonging more properly to “fatted cattle” than to free men.2 Second, we treat pleasure as “for the sake of activity and not conversely” in at least two respects.3 On the one hand, some pleasures are had only so that we can resume some activity in which we are primarily engaged; we may take, for instance, a cold drink, before returning to our labors on a hot day. On the other, those pleasures apparently enjoyed for their own sake we do not hesitate to set aside for the sake of other activities which we find to be either presently more necessary or absolutely more important. If that were not the case, our age would know only permanent weekends and would know – happily – far less about the abysmal humor regarding Mondays, when we wrench ourselves from rest back into the grind of necessity. Third, we can recognize that some things that genuinely give us pleasure, and therefore are good in that respect, are bad in another; pleasure therefore must be under- or even uninformative about the goodness of the thing that pleases. We do not purposefully drink cyanide, for instance, just because it happens to be laced with sugar and lemon, as do we forbid ourselves many other pleasant goods because they come as mere effects of things we positively identify as evils. In general, we often easily choose between two things equally pleasant based upon a perception of some other differentia of goodness.

This last point leads us to a vista where a higher form of goodness emerges. For, if pleasure is under-informative about the thing we denote as good insofar as it pleases, then it is probably the case that there is a kind of good beyond pleasure. The category of the useful comprises all those goods whose chief attribute is their pointing beyond themselves. They are not good in themselves, or not sufficiently, but are primarily desired for the sake of something else. We can recognize a purely useful good by the fact that we would not pursue it were some further good removed from view. It is hard for us, for example, to imagine anyone performing the tasks of a certified public accountant were it not that some reward, or the avoidance of some punishment, lies at the end of them. Thus, useful goods lack some of the self-evidence of the pleasant. We need to know what it is good for, before we recognize a useful good, whereas pleasures are so self-evident but incomplete in their goodness as to leave seeming inadequate our language and reason alike. We find the question, “Why pleasure?” absurd, and when we try to answer it we usually fail. “I guess you had to be there,” we conclude, throwing up our hands in frustration.

The useful, on the other hand, seems especially communicable. To demonstrate something is a useful good, we have only to propose a purpose beyond it and show how the given thing will help us attain it; this is an easily recognized and an easily explained criterion. A useful good is a means to something, and as a means it may seem to lack in goodness in itself but it is also easier to account for its character. Nearly every occupation in our day, from investment banking to the tying of balloon animals while wearing a clown costume, can be easily justified along these lines. “Why would you do something so unpleasant and humiliating?” someone asks. “It’s a living,” we reply. We have to make a living – though for what reason, I shall contend, we have trouble discerning, but nevertheless. Therefore, whatever is useful in making it is good.

If the useful always stands in reference to some other good beyond itself, it must be pointing to something or it would be neither useful nor good. As Thomas Aquinas observes, not all goods can be useful, because that would involve us in an infinite regress wherein every useful good was in fact useless. There would be no final term for which and to which all other goods are subservient.4 I shall return to this claim further on, but for the moment it will serve to indicate a third kind of good. If we can decide between different kinds of pleasant goods, because they have an element – let us call it X – that makes some of them more desirable always, some of them desirable some of the time, and others undesirable despite the pleasure they afford – we may be tempted to identify X by saying that some pleasant goods are more useful than others. But, if we then say that one pleasant good is more useful than another only for the sake of some further pleasure we are begging the question. There must be some kind of good that is comprehended by neither pleasure nor utility, but, to the contrary, stands essentially above them and comprehends them.

Whatever such a good is, it will not be as self-evident as pleasure, because we must look beyond pleasure to perceive it, and we may even find pleasure obscures it to us. So also, we may more readily understand useful goods, but if we can recognize them, we must also sense, however vaguely, some good in itself that gives them their useful and good quality in the first place. Traditionally this sort of good is referred to as a bonus honestum, a good deemed honorable or moral in itself.5 But how can this be? we ask. What is a good in itself good for? The only possible answer has to be that an honest good has the character of a term or end: it is the place where a chain of for-sake-of-whiches finds its end. Anticipating our resistance to this notion, Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.6

The sufficiently good in itself is beautiful. Just as pleas-ant goods seem at first self-evident and self-justifying, so that which is an unqualified good in itself elicits a kind of immediacy once it has been recognized for itself. On Aristotle’s account, the idea of the beautiful helps us to understand this, because nothing stands between us and our encounter with the beautiful (it is immediate in that sense), but we may not instantaneously perceive something as beautiful; we can be helped to do so by different means of instruction, and once we do it admits of rational explanation.7 Above, we considered accountancy as a useful good; we see examples of honest goods in such things as the courage of the soldier, where there would seem to be something intrinsically beautiful in the power to act in the face of real danger, when it is possible, however unlikely, that such danger can be overcome. That courage, so good in itself, by its own virtue may bear fruit in victory in war, the glory of reputation, or the immortality of remembrance. One would desire to possess courage even if one were not a soldier. So, also, in the case of the professional natural scientist, though his applications for grants may come to an end upon his retirement, he may still continue to study his subject because of the beauty perceived in the acquisition of knowledge. The study seems good in itself and in the new knowledge it breeds.

An honest or intrinsic good is something that is desired for its own sake – for the beauty of it, Aristotle tells us. From this I draw three observations. First, something may be desired primarily for itself, and yet still admit of other goods beyond itself. Thus, an honest good need not be an absolute good, but only absolute in some particular order of reality. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain coined the term “infravalent goods” to define those things that are primarily desired for themselves in one particular order, but which ultimately stand in subordinate relation to a good beyond themselves, all culminating in one absolute and transcendent good that orders all the rest.8 Second, to be an intrinsic good entails above all being the term – the final point – of a sequence. But, third, that which is sufficiently good in itself is often recognized because of a quality often described as gratuitousness, fruitfulness, or self-diffusiveness. That alone which is sufficient unto itself is also ecstatic or self-transcending. Here lies the explanation for why the good in its goodness is beautiful.

Taken together, these observations suggest what it means to talk about goodness per se, and of its specifications as pleasant, useful, or honest. When we talk about goods, we are always talking about ends and the different ways things and actions can stand in relation to ends.9 Though things and actions can be good in different ways, in every case goodness is defined in terms of final purpose: the end of pleasure, the instrumental end that leads immediately beyond itself to another end, or the end that brings to term a sequence, in a certain order or absolutely. Whenever we speak of goods, we have to have in place a conception of purpose or finality – what the ancients called the idea of final causality, where the why or for-sake-of-which of a given thing or action is understood. This holds not just for useful goods, which are good only insofar as they have a purpose beyond themselves, but also, as we have seen, for honest goods which are their own ends. An intrinsic good is not something that is useless or purposeless in the sense of being without-end, but something that is undertaken for itself and to which other things or actions may be ordered as a final cause – a final why. They are their own fruit (frui), and they are fruitful, so that what they give birth to seems to draw us at once beyond and back to their goodness.

Modernity’s Stripping of Goodness from Being

Perhaps already it becomes clear why our age has trouble with goodness. It has been a truism since the seventeenth century that rational or scientific knowledge can tell us nothing about final causes. To wit, in the eyes of our contemporaries, final causality is not even an object of knowledge. As Etienne Gilson wrote, speaking of this revolution, the modern thinker says, “Scientists never ask themselves why things happen, but [only] how they happen.”10 This constitutes a radical shrinking of the sphere of rational knowledge.

Its early advocates converged in this project often with radically opposed intentions. The early modern philosopher and naturalist René Descartes, for instance, would assert that, because our natures are “very weak and limited,” while God is “immense, incomprehensible, and infinite,” our knowledge will always be inadequate to God’s intentions. “For this reason alone,” he writes, “the entire class of causes which people customarily derive from a thing’s ‘end,’ I judge to be utterly useless in physics. It is not without rashness that I think myself capable of inquiring into the ends of God.”11

As I understand Descartes’ larger scientific project, the following ambitions led him to this claim. In his Meditations he sought primarily to establish the existence of an all-knowing and good God in order to vouchsafe the intelligibility of the world. Such a god would give the extra-mental world stability and our knowledge of it reliability. But, he sought also to divide absolutely theology, the knowledge of God made possible by revealed religion, from the knowledge of nature made possible primarily by experimental observation and mathematical analysis. In The World and elsewhere, he sought to provide an account of the natural world and its functioning based entirely on its internal mechanisms. As Blaise Pascal would write, God served as a “fillip” to put the world in being and ensure its knowability; God also must concur in the universe’s continued existence; but, for Descartes, there is no role for God interior to the universe – with one possible exception.12 Closed though it is on three sides, as it were, the Cartesian universe would seem to be open-ended. Its internal mechanisms would seem to reach out to God through their purposiveness.

By shrouding God’s purposes is infinite mystery – and not just his ultimate purposes, but any and all purposes, including even those that seem observable – Descartes is able entirely to enclose his universe. One needs only a knowledge of its mechanisms to understand fully all of its contents. In effect, Descartes excludes from the purview of human reason and physics anything but the knowledge of mechanisms understood as instrumental goods. Scientific research may thereby continue to ask how things operate without impinging on the existence, goodness, or purpose of God. In his effort to preserve these things as transcendent realities, Descartes in fact reduced them to postulates outside of knowledge per se. The first two may help establish the possibility of the knowledge of physics, but the third is not part of that knowledge, and in fact all rational knowledge (i.e. knowledge outside the innate ideas of the necessarily good God’s existence, our existence, and the world in which we may reliably believe) ultimately is reduced to the realm of physics.

Writing during the same period of early experimental-scientific enthusiasm, Thomas Hobbes would also exclude the knowledge of ends from physics, but not because the will of God was for us obscured within the abyss of its infinite mystery. Rather, to speak of ends was an act of absurdity; it was tantamount to misunderstanding the nature of reality as such. “When a body is once in motion,” Hobbes writes early in Leviathan, “it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally.”13 The “end” of a body’s movement comes not when it reaches the goal of some intension, the final cause to which it was ordered, but only when some other body reduces its motion to zero by an act of interference. Hobbes was a materialist; he posited that only bodies were real entities, and that therefore reality as such was reducible to material things and their motions. There is no place inside his universe for intentions, purposes, or final causes; and, in contrast to Descartes, there is nothing outside his universe.

What reason could know was only that immanent mode of causality we would identify with instrumental goods. Human beings can only conceive of finite, that is to say material, things, and they can understand them in two possible ways: they can see something has been effected, and so speculate as to what brought it into effect, or they can imagine some material body and speculate as to what effects it might be put.14

We might interject at this point that it is absurd to speak of a world composed exclusively of instrumental goods, because all such goods derive their identity from being good for something that is the end of a train or sequence. Descartes postpones indefinitely this conundrum by putting finality beyond our knowledge. Hobbes precludes it by setting goodness outside knowledge altogether. In Leviathan’s subsequent exploration of human nature, he undertakes to render goodness absolutely relative by making it entirely dependent on an individual body’s will or appetite. A good, he says, is “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire.”15 To pronounce something a good tells us nothing of the thing itself, but only of the interior and hidden or exterior and visible movement of a body toward it.16 All the words we use to characterize various kinds of goods operate in this way: they describe not the thing referred to but our evaluation of that thing. So, the worth of a given human being is just so much as one might give for the use of his powers.17 Honor and dignity constitute merely private and public recognitions of this price we place on a person’s capacities. None of these qualities inhere in the person valued, honored, or praised.

Hobbes’ ambition in this reduction of goods to value, and values to the human will, is to inaugurate a new science of politics, and so he ultimately leads his reader to a theory of justice that does not require the identification of anything as in itself a good. Thus, justice, for Hobbes, comes merely to the honoring of contracts: it is strictly “commutative.” To be just is to follow an agreement to which one has previously consented.18 He dismisses as absurd the notion of distributive justice, wherein certain things are owed to a person, not in virtue of a contract, but simply in virtue of who he is in himself. All goods must therefore be instrumental, because a good is always either a means to get what we want, or the thing wanted, but there is no rational reason we should want one thing rather than another.19 Our wills are opaque to reason, in fact. They have no intelligible content. And so, again, we can ask how things come to pass, but to inquire into why is to misunderstand the nature of the human person, of knowledge, and of reality in all its monstrous and mechanical clutter.

In the vision of such modern thinkers, we are shown either a world stripped of intrinsic goodness for us or per se. As the philosopher Iredell Jenkins argued many years ago, Descartes, Hobbes, and others operate from the postulate of an impoverished reality, which he defines as “the settled conviction that nature is in fact much simpler and barer than it appears to us in experience.”20 Quality vanishes; only quantity remains. Whatever cannot be counted cannot be an object of knowledge – and is at best a private appetite and at worst an absurdity. This is the world into which we have been born. As Hobbes reminds us, human beings are indeed full of appetites; we find many things good, in our experience. But we deny that any such things could be rationally defended as good in themselves and for their own sakes.

With Descartes and Hobbes, we tend to look upon the world as a self-enclosed system of mechanisms that we understand as a series of means or instrumental goods, as things we may value but which are stripped of any intrinsic worth. How do we understand the world and our appetites in such a vision? Critics of the modern vision have reached a general consensus on three basic qualities. Firstly, we tend to strip things in reality down to their quantifiable elements. What can be enumerated, subjected to mathematical analysis, counts as knowledge; what does not does not; the realm of mathematical values somehow stands above and free from the dubious valuations of taste and appetite. Thomas Aquinas, centuries ago, explains why. All number entails an abstraction from being and existence, but only being and existence are goods. Therefore “mathematicals,” as he calls them, are neither good nor evil.21 As Jenkins notes, the modern mind tends to understand reality in terms of quantity. Rather than treating number as an abstraction from what is real, we take it as the final determinant of the real. There is no place for goodness in a mathematical universe.

What becomes of our desires in such a world? This question is answered by the second and third qualities, which will at first seem incompatible. We see, secondly, that the modern mind, having lost the sense of intrinsic goods, but needing its pursuit of instrumental goods to be directed somewhere, would seem to have arrived at hedonism. We would seem to pronounce pleasure the highest good. Pleasure, as we considered earlier, has at least the quality of self-evidence about it, and, in our time, it would seem we recognize no higher authority, so that, once a thing is pronounced as desirable because it pleases us to desire it, no rational appeal can be made against this desire. As Gilson and E.F. Schumacher recognized long ago, this leads to an absolutization of desire, in which everything we want becomes an unquestionable good. It becomes in fact a little god, one of myriad idols at whose altar we worship so long as we like, and whose deity deflects the unbelieving with inane indignations along the lines of, “What gives you the right to tell me what I should like?”22

This second quality does not stand alone, but has as its obverse a third: if our desires are absolute, nonetheless their objects are not and, further, the desires themselves are understood as indefeasible by the reason because they are simply outside the reason altogether. This is what most persons mean in our day when they say that goodness is “subjective.” They do not mean that it is a reality that inheres in the intellect rather than in things themselves, but that it does not even inhere in the intellect, because all real knowledge is of quantity. They mean what Hobbes means, that our desires tell us nothing except that we desire. Our understanding of what is good is therefore locked away entirely in the opacity and the privacy of the appetite and can have no public status as something known, shared, and therefore potentially binding on the minds of others. We waste our time trying to understand what we want or what we should want. The only use of reason is to figure out how to get what we already find ourselves wanting or to ensure ourselves against future desires. We feel acutely why Hobbes reduced politics and justice to a relative contract. He saw with clarity that knowledge pertaining to means is clear and communicable, while reason knows nothing about ends, and all talk of them ends in absurdity.23

Taking these two qualities together, we see that goodness in our day is something absolutely worthless and jealously guarded. Our desires are divine and unquestionable for us, and yet empty and insignificant for the world at large. Only instrumental goods slip between this Scylla and Charybdis. They are eminently knowable as means, formulated thus, “Y is a means to attaining X. If you desire X, then you will also desire Y.” We may not know if anyone desires, or should desire, X – indeed, we lack the intellectual equipment even to ask – but we do know that Y is instrumentally ordered to it.

The Finality of Finality

My argument thus far has avoided appeal to a more conventional way of understanding the modern stripping of goodness from reality that ensued from the denial of final causality as an object of knowledge, but I would like to turn to it briefly as a means of arriving at a final understanding of goodness, before I come to consider the particular good of music. Since Aristotle, four types of causes of things have traditionally been acknowledged.

First, the material cause, which comprehends the material substrate of which a given individual thing is made. The material cause of a podium is usually wood, for instance. Second, the formal cause means the idea giving specific form to otherwise formless matter. The idea of podium in the manufacturer’s mind is the formal cause of the podium. Third, there is the efficient cause. The act of the manufacturer in joining form to matter effects, or brings into actual being, the podium itself. And, fourth, there is the final cause – again, the reason for something’s being brought into being, its why or purpose. In Gilson’s formula, the first three causes can be objects of rational knowledge, because they speak of how something comes into being. The final cause – as a why – cannot.

True in a way though it is, such a formulation conceals something from us. All inquiry into causality, all rational inquiry, though it may appear to restrict itself to material, formal, or efficient causes, is ultimately ordered as an inquiry into finality. To put a provocative point on it, all inquiry into truth is in fact a questing after goodness. This includes the inquiry of the physicist’s laboratory as much as that of the engineer, philosopher, or theologian. We would not consider a manufacturer of glass hammers, to use a classic example, to know much about hammers. In post-Darwinian biology, we do not claim to understand a genetic modification until we understand why – for what end – it is selected. As the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker has observed, in his field of inquiry, the criterion of new knowledge is whether a given experiment reveals what he calls a “Darwinian payoff.” Claims about the means of a genetic selection do not suffice; one must be able to show a causal link to some end; every phenomenon must be shown as serving an evolutionary purpose, or the claim does not meet the bar of knowledge. All rational inquiry is into the why of things – into what makes them good. The other three types of causality might best be understood as sub-species of final causality.

Thomas Aquinas reveals this identity of knowledge with value, or rather, truth with goodness, in his discussion of the goodness of things. He says everything may have a threefold perfection or goodness,

First, insofar as it is constituted in its existence. Second, insofar as the accidents necessary for its perfect operation are added to it. Third, the perfection the thing has insofar as it reaches something else as its end.24

When we call something good, we may be saying any of these three things, and here I reverse Aquinas’s order: it has reached the end beyond itself toward which it, by nature, moves; or that it has attained all the incidental qualities necessary to its acting, or moving, fully and according to its nature; or that a thing has been brought into being, that it has become what it is only as the final cause of some anterior intention. In all three cases the good is understood as a kind of end.

What we may find most remarkable is the first sort of goodness he mentions. How can the claim that something is good insofar as it exists be anything more than a postulate or a leap of faith that an incomprehensible God has some secret purpose in mind of all things? That things, of no value in themselves, may yet be harnessed for some end obscure to us? We have the answer already sealed in the concrete example of the glass hammer given above. All forms of causality – the matter of something, its form, the agent that brings it into being – have the bringing into being of something as their own final cause. A glass hammer may be a lousy hammer, given the final cause of hammers to drive iron nails into wood, but it is nevertheless the good sought, the final cause, that leads an agent to dispose the glass into the shape of a hammer. The brute fact of an existent thing is itself always the end of an operation; it is not a reality onto which we may project a value, but an intelligible good in which being and goodness are identical.

We only know as much about the cause of anything as we know the ways – and I underscore the plural here – in which it is good. Goodness is the principle that makes reality intelligible. No goodness, no truth. No truth, no knowledge. Contrary to Hobbes, then, it is absurd to say we could speak intelligently of reality without attending to causes. And, contrary to Descartes, to restrict our knowledge of things to mathematicals is in fact to restrict our knowledge to a world of shadows and abstractions and to say very little about the world in which we actually live. We may have trouble acknowledging intrinsic goods, because we have an at best shaky confidence in our capacity to know the truth about things. But, insofar as we claim to know anything, we should to that same extent be able to affirm the goodness of things and to deliberate about the relative magnitude of the various intrinsic goods that populate our world.

I have asserted that Aquinas solves this modern trouble with goodness for us, and so I shall let him answer two weighty objections to his claim. One might say, with Hobbes, that we know things are in motion, not why they move. It is a law among us now that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Aquinas would reply that, first, “body” is a genus, an abstraction from individual existing things and not a thing in itself. It may well be that bodies in principle move without end, just as numbers may be counted without being good. Such is the character of abstractions – that they are abstracted specifically from the being that exists in reality as a point within a series of causal relations, of finalities. All actually existing things do move, this we grant, and they move for a purpose, because if there were no end at which to aim, or if the aim were infinitely distant, nothing would begin to move in the first place.25 The specific difference by which we tell one thing from another is also the determinant of the ends toward which different things – bodies or otherwise – move.

To all this, one may reply, what about chance? Cannot all things move endlessly, because set in motion by some fundamental fluke in reality? Aquinas replies, we can only understand chance relative to the normative goodness of nature. We see that a given nature normally pursues a specific end; we know natures primarily by the end that they pursue “always or for the most part.” If all things moved according to chance, then we could say nothing at all about things, because all things would be absolutely different, unrepeatable in their individuality. But, if all things were unique, we could not say that they were caused by chance. We would have no basis for the assertion. We perceive chance only in its departure from a given nature’s norm characterized by its failure to pursue that nature’s end. If we admit as a hypothesis that chance rather than purpose governs all things, we must also admit that we could never know anything about it. But the problem that confronts us is not a world professedly agnostic about all things as such, but only about the goodness of things. I have tried to show that such a world is abysmal, because it is incoherent. It claims you can know the truth without even affirming the existence of goodness. I have countered that the truth of things is their goodness.

Music as Honest Good and Liberal Art

We are now in a position to draw these reflections on goodness per se into the contemporary world of apologetics for classical music and the social value of orchestras. We are accustomed to thinking of music as a fine art, and the actual performance of music is indeed a fine art. The practicing musician produces something outside of his activity, the music itself, so it is by definition an art; and the product is not immediately put to some other use, so it is a fine rather than servile art. But let us distinguish the act of the musician from the understanding of music, whether it be the creative knowledge of the composer or the receptive understanding of the auditor. These have traditionally been understood as among the liberal arts. So, if we are to understand the good of music, we shall have to understand it not primarily in terms of the musician who performs it, but in terms of the minds that come to know it; that is, what makes music one of the liberal arts?

The liberal arts, the arts of the free, are those practices of the intellect that may be learned, are an activity complete in themselves, and do not primarily serve to produce something outside of their activity. They are free from external product, and that suffices to distinguish them from the servile arts. They are also free in a positive sense that we are now prepared to appreciate: they must be good in themselves. The practice of thought of a particular liberal art must be worthy of undertaking for its own sake. One feature of liberal education is, therefore, the training of mind and desire so that we will recognize and seek things that are intrinsically good, with the liberal arts themselves being chief among those goods. Philosophy, for instance, entails the pursuit of true ideas as good in themselves, but their pursuit is itself an orientation and way of life that is also intrinsically good.

One further characteristic of the liberal arts, first intimated in the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, but systematically developed in the early medieval writings of St. Augustine, is that the practice of the liberal arts orders the mind and appetites not only to themselves but to an effect that naturally follow from their own goodness. Like all honest goods, the liberal arts bear fruit. Augustine claims that the ordering of the soul that the liberal arts enact leads not only to an knowing and loving rest in intrinsic goods, but to the soul’s journey through those goods up to the absolute and unqualified good in itself who is God.

This argument of Augustine’s often gets discussed in terms of the liberal art of mathematics. By engaging the intellect in the pursuit of “measure, number, and weight,”26 Augustine proposed, mathematics leads the mind to perceive the qualitatively distinct kinds of numbers out of which are constituted material bodies, abstract thoughts, creative acts, pleasures, memories, and rational judgments.27 This numerical hierarchy leads from bodily creatures to intellectual creatures and prepares the mind for the perception of the uncreated and unconditioned Good of all things. Mention of mathematics may lead us to a conclusion it did not lead Augustine: namely, that this would be a purely intellectual exercise at an abstract remove from reality and from the goodness for which I have been arguing. Rather, Augustine’s argument on this point appears in the De Musica, his study of music as a liberal art. In music, he suggests, we perceive that numbers subsist in form, in order, proportion, and harmony. Attention to music is attention to the manifestation of intellectual order in sensible being. It is perceived by the ear and experienced only through the cooperation of the bodily senses, the reason, and the memory. In this, it stands in contradistinction to, say, a work of sculpture, which might seem to be comprehended whole by the eye alone, and even to ravish the sight to the exclusion of the mind. Although music may sometimes threaten a similar ravishment, it manifests in an especially clear way the union of mind and sense, idea and being, more so than either pure mathematics or any plastic art form.

As is the case with nearly everything, music may first present itself as a pleasant good. But, in its drawing of the numbers that inform reality into a distinct form, it reveals itself as good in itself. This act of ordering number and idea into audible form, first, beguiles the mind and brings it to rest in the form of the musical work, but, second, it helps to order the mind, schooling it in the perception of the measurable heights and depths of reality. This fruitfulness of the good of music aids the mind in its ascent to a knowledge of the Good itself. Like every liberal art, it constitutes a practice good in itself and it initiates our minds into the contemplation of that final cause in light of which alone we can understand the meaning and destiny of ourselves and of all things.

If this classical and medieval account of music is correct, it actually answers many of the criteria implied in the apologetics for classical music and orchestras I reviewed at the outset, but bests them by restoring to its center the essential goodness of music – highlighting what has too often been only glossed over with a hasty “of course.” By considering music as a liberal rather than a fine art, we endorse the revised understanding of the mission of orchestras as centered less on virtuosity and more on engagement of the community in a practice of education and intellectual freedom that is good in itself and good in its effects. It emphasizes that classical music is a distinctive good in its capacity to unite the most abstract powers of the intellect and the experience of the senses into the contemplation of a whole ordered for beauty’s sake. It also emphasizes the “transferability” of the skills music cultivates, explaining perhaps why it is there should be an observable correlation between the understanding of classical music and the understanding of mathematics. One fruit of the intrinsic good of hearing and understanding music is its ordering of the mind to the perception of the full scope of being, to number, to form, and to the Good itself.

Finally, if the modern condition is as I have described it, our society is one that publicly recognizes only useful goods while it privately absolutizes pleasant ones. In such a society, one would expect to find a populace jealous of liberty regarding its own pleasures, while full of anxiety about maximizing utility so as to bring the “greatest good to the greatest number.” It is in concession to that anxiety that apologists for orchestras and classical music attempt to make the case for their usefulness as philanthropic entities and as agents of social change.

Let us conclude with a paradox on this point. In a society that knows only pleasant and useful goods, to insist upon the reality and self-sufficiency of intrinsic goods, to insist upon the absolute truth of such things and upon the necessity of recognizing and understanding them for the sake of human happiness – that strikes me as a profound act of social engagement. Nothing could be more counter-cultural, nothing more shocking, than for the orchestra in the concert hall to arrest the pursuit of mere pleasures and mere utility in our day by bring audiences into the dynamic stillness, the fulfilled rest, the pleasure beyond mere pleasure, and the fruit beyond mere utility, that occurs whenever we are in the presence of that which is genuinely, honestly, simply, good.


1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1156a.
2 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 10956.
3 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.27.
4 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.25.
5 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.5.6.
6 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a.
7 Cf. Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8.
8 Jacques Maritain, Collected Works of Jacques Maritain Vol. 11: Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence (Trans. Otto Bird, et al. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996),246.
9 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a; Cf. Aristole, Politics, 1252a, and Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.2.
10 Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy Second Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002): 112.
11 René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing), 82.
12 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (), §76-77.
13 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994): I.ii.2.
14 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.iii.5 and 12.
15 Hobbes, Leviathan,
16 Hobbes, Leviathan,
17 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.x.16.
18 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.xv.14.
19 Hobbes, Leviathan,
20 Iredell Jenkins, “The Postulate of an Impoverished Reality” (The Journal of Philosophy 39.20 (24 September 1942)), 535.
21 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.5.3.
22 See, E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 59.
23 See, Schumacher, 58.
24 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.6.3.
25 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.2.
26 Robert J. O’Connell, S.J, Art and the Christian Intelligence in St. Augustine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 55.
27 Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God (), 2.10.


Tonal Affinities and Their Denial, Part I

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the first part of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.

Nearly a century after Arnold Schoenberg averred it to be the future of Western art music, dodecaphony remains the single most startling turn in the history of music – any music. Its advent in 1923 was, as the late composer George Rochberg once pointed out, the only occasion in the history of any known culture that tonality – in the general sense of pitch hierarchy, not the specific signification of the major/minor system – had been denied. It is my two-fold purpose to show that 1) The denial failed, because it is an acoustic impossibility, and, more importantly, 2) The attempt at denial, and the belief system built around that attempt, corrupted the vitality and creativity of Western art music, leading to its present marginalization. Along the way, it will be necessary to expose the philosophical roots of what musicologist William Thomson has called “Schoenberg’s Error,”1 and to suggest some alternatives to that thinking.

What I have called dodecaphony is often referenced as “twelve-tone” (in the UK, “twelve-note”) music and is frequently used in tandem with the related but altogether different word, “serialism.” Schoenberg’s innovation arrived in these two different parts: Dodecaphony was the idea that all dozen tones of the chromatic scale should be employed by a composer before any were repeated, while serialism was a mode of compositional procedure in which the twelve tones were laid out in a row or series, and then manipulated formally via ages-old techniques of inverting, reversing and transposing the rows. Serial composition, in other words, was a most efficient way of ensuring that the essential aesthetic of dodecaphony – the lack of tonal implications in the relationships among pitches – was adhered to.

Here is Schoenberg, recalling in his essay, “Composition with Twelve Tones,” how he came up with his inventions:

After many unsuccessful attempts during a period of approximately twelve years, I laid the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies. I called this procedure ‘Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another.’ This method consists primarily of the constant and exclusive use of a set of twelve different tones. This means, of course, that no tone is repeated within the series and that it uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, though in a different order. It is in no way identical with the chromatic scale…..[The method involves ordering the twelve tones of the chromatic scale into a row, known as the Basic Set, and using that row and its properties exclusively throughout the composition in question.]2

(Emphases Schoenberg’s.)

The bold statement “twelve tones which are related only with one another” is the crux of the watershed that was Schoenberg’s aesthetic. By “related only with one another,” Schoenberg meant related solely by virtue of being placed in positive relation to each other; as John Cage would later explain it, tones in Schoenberg’s method (and in Cage’s) are “related” in the sense that one piece of furniture in a room is “related” to the other pieces of furniture in that room – they are all in proximity to each other. “Related” in the old tonal sense had meant related to each other hierarchically, as parts of some larger tonal scheme, precisely the thing Schoenberg was seeking to dissolve. This might better be called a “non-relationship” than a relationship; and of course, it is possible to posit non-relationships, at least in the abstract. It is possible to toy with the idea, for example, that each color exists independently of all other colors, that green and purple and orange are not part of a spectrum, but isolated phenomena, and to create a color theory based on that idea. If that were done, however, it can be assumed with relative certainty that the theory would not be taken as anything other than a fanciful “as-if.” Put forth as a universal concept, it would be denied vigorously as clearly and incontrovertibly false. Dodecaphony, by contrast, was hailed as a step forward in an inevitable progression toward a new music.

Why? How was such an aesthetic, asserted without any intellectual or empirical support, accepted as orthodoxy for decades? And why have the acoustic premises of dodecaphony, which are, as is easy to demonstrate, utterly false, never been flushed from music history? Why, in other words, are dodecaphony and the developments that followed from it considered a legitimate part of music history, instead of an aberration in need of correction? There must be some core idea at work that lends the air of being true to abstract assertions like Schoenberg’s, whatever their status in the world of empirical experience. Prior to that, though, there must exist misunderstanding, at a most fundamental level, of what is meant by some of the vocabulary attached to this discussion. Take for example, the word “chromatic.” A typical music critic’s description of dodecaphony generally assumes “chromatic” to apply. Of course, it does not. “Chromatic” has meaning only in contrast to “diatonic,” and both rely for context on the major/minor system of key centers. Music is diatonic when deployed in a particular key of seven tones – major, minor or modal – and becomes chromatic when it slides between those seven, “borrowing” pitches from other keys. When all possible pitches, diatonic and chromatic, are assembled, we have the “chromatic” scale, though in truth it is a diatonic scale (any diatonic scale, depending on where the set of twelve stops and starts) with chromatic embellishments added. What Schoenberg did was to treat the chromatic scale as independent of its origins in the diatonic scale, to employ the twelve tones merely “as a collection of materials,” as Thomson explains it. Dodecaphony is not chromatic any more than it is diatonic. It is, strictly speaking, neutral.

The roots of dodecaphony are generally traced back to Wagner, and especially to Tristan und Isolde, which might with good reason be called the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason was a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score was a turning point in Western music, and for a similar reason. Kant’s text famously placed a limit on what we might know; the synthetic a priori meant that experience is shaped by the categories that populate our consciousness, and therefore we cannot know “the thing-in-itself.” Centuries of assumptions to the contrary were overturned, even made to look naive, by Kant’s observations. Likewise, the harmonic ambiguities of Wagner’s music revealed the foundation of the tonal system developed in Europe after the Renaissance to have been built on sand. From the late Renaissance to the middle of the 19th century, the system of major and minor keys had held the place of an absolute. Systematic tonality defined music-making with its hierarchies of pitch classes. But in the early pages of Tristan rose a chord that would become infamous as the machine of that system’s overthrow. In Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton lectures for 1973, Leonard Bernstein dramatized the seeming anarchy created by the Tristan chord:

What key are we in? Or no key at all? Did that cadence on the dominant seventh indicate A minor? But the dominant never resolves to the A minor tonic. Instead, there is a long pause, and the phrase is repeated, higher, more intense, with the rising minor sixth now stretched, transformed to a major sixth, again ending on a dominant, but in a different key.3

Bernstein continues, astonished at every turn by Wagner’s ability to suggest multiple possible keys – or no key at all – at once. One needn’t understand the technical harmonic terms to catch the thrust of what Bernstein is saying: From the moment of Wagner’s Tristan (1868), harmonic stability can no longer be taken for granted. After Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself.” One might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.”

The reason for Wagner’s manipulation of tonal ambiguities cannot go unmentioned. Shortly after writing the libretti to the four music dramas of his Ring of the Nibelung and commencing the scoring of the first of them, Wagner read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. Never before had a composer been so directly influenced by a philosopher. Previously a committed revolutionary, Wagner now saw the world as illusory, a chimera of pain followed by extinguishment, the only conceivable moral path being that of Buddhist-like renunciation.

And so, the music for the last three of Wagner’s four Ring installments, and especially the music for his next serious music drama, Tristan und Isolde, pushed tonality in the direction of its seeming dissolution, analogue to the Schopenhaueresque theme of renunciation. What could be musically more illustrative of the illusion of material reality than the unraveling of the music itself? What could be dramatically more effective than a libretto in which the characters attempt to maintain the lie of creating a new world through political and ethical reform, while the music denies this possibility in its very nature, seeming to dissolve the world of sound through sound itself? Of course, the actual unravelling of music would not be possible. To do that literally, to eliminate music, would be, perhaps, to tell the singers and musicians to go their own way and sing and play whatever they wish (a notion to keep in mind when we trace the lineage of Wagner’s influence). No, the depiction of disillusion, the musical portrayal of abjuration, could not consist literally in the removal of music, but rather the employment of music to the end of suggesting that the real world is illusory.

There is a doubling-back here that is fascinating. In order for Wagner to sketch this portrayal of a world of illusion, it was necessary for him to employ musical skills, which were in turn assumed to be non-illusory. In other words, systematic tonal music (the only music at the time) was based on the deployment of notes in perfect hierarchical relation. By manipulating this relation so as to undermine the sense of hierarchy, by employing the sort of harmonic ambiguity related above by Bernstein, Wagner was able to suggest that the relation did not exist – that tonality, and by extension, the world of the senses, was indeed a world of illusion. But this suggestion of illusion rests in turn for its effect on tonality’s non-illusory validity! The point cannot be overemphasized: Wagner did not deny tonality in the Ring and his later operas; rather, he masterfully exploited its potential for ambiguity via extreme chromaticism, painting in music a world in which every sensible thing – including tonality, the very thing doing the painting – does not “really” exist. Little wonder that Claude Debussy called Wagner “the poisonous old magician,” and that W.H. Auden, saying the same thing with an opposite normative twist, dubbed him “the greatest genius who ever lived.”

Schoenberg was the most devoted advocate of Wagnerian extreme chromaticism. Yet he also took great exception to the formal ramifications of that innovation.4 His objection lay along the same lines as his admiration, because the very ambiguity that forged a new harmonic language had also dissolved the traditional structures of Western art music. For example, in a fugue, a subject or subjects are submitted to contrapuntal development over a series of overlapping statements in different keys. Sonata-allegro form presents an expository section that explores themes in contrasting keys, followed by a development that at length returns the themes to the main key of the piece, etc. Without stable key centers, these forms and others were rendered inchoate. Schoenberg, then, sought to impose structural norms on the new language of harmonic ambiguity. He viewed increasing harmonic ambiguity as historically determined and therefore inevitable, but the accompanying dissolution of structure could not stand for long.5 From the late 1890s through the first two decades of the 20th century, Schoenberg pushed Wagnerian harmonic ambiguities to their limit, eventually composing what is sometimes called “atonal” music, but which Schoenberg dubbed, with greater accuracy, pantonal music. Pantonality consists in the avoidance of single-tonic tonal implications altogether, as opposed to the ambiguity of Wagnerian chromaticism. The razor-thin line dividing one from another is difficult to define. It is better illustrated, ideally, by listening to Schoenberg’s major scores, from the clearly Wagnerian Verklarte Nacht (1899) to the doubtlessly pantonal Gurrelieder (1913).

Eventually, however, the ambition of avoiding single tonalities, and the mentally draining task of note-to-note decision-making that such avoidance entailed, overwhelmed Schoenberg. His solution: “He opted for Wagnerian chromaticism, but then he relentlessly adapted it to creations of Brahmsian autonomy.”6 In the final number of the four piano pieces making up his Op. 23 (1923), Schoenberg deployed the system that Theodor Adorno would call “a comprehensive principle of construction…transformed into an a priori form,”7 and that American composer George Rochberg, after first embracing and then vehemently rejecting it, would term “the pathology of the 20th century.” Borrowing from his hero Brahms the intense manipulation of short melodic motifs instead of long-lined melodies, Schoenberg struck on the idea of treating each pitch sui generis, without reference to any wider concept of “tonality.” Treated thusly, the composer could manipulate cells of notes in an abstract manner, shaping form, not from harmony, but from “objective” patterning.

This was the “Wagner” half of the undertaking. The “Brahms” half consisted of creating a structure to house this new chromatic vocabulary: the variation of the rows by transposition, inversion, and retrograde procedures; in other words, serial composition. In this way, a single row could generate 48 different twelve-tone statements for the composer to manipulate. The result was no longer simple pantonality, but anti-tonality: a sonic struggle to reverse how tones had related to each other throughout centuries of Western art music. To review how this had worked, we can conceive of each of the twelve tones in the collection of chromatic scale as capable of receiving what Thomson calls “pitch focus” to become a tonic. Therefore, each note is a tonic, or a dominant, or a subdominant, etc., depending on which note among the twelve receives pitch focus. Focus on a B-flat as tonic, and F is the dominant. Focus on the F as tonic, and B-flat becomes sub-dominant. On and on this relational interchange goes, and as the focus shifts, the same B-flat that was tonic to itself and subdominant to F becomes dominant to E-flat, a major third to G-flat, a second (the supertonic) to A-flat, etc. It is a kaleidoscope of shifting pitch relations that eventually produces twelve major and twelve minor scales. Such is the syntax of the major-minor system: the deployment of pitches in relation to each other as multiple, interlocking hierarchies. The hierarchy is fluid (giving it the inherent potential for ambiguity so brilliantly exploited by Wagner) because any of the twelve notes can “take turns” being the home pitch, or tonic; in other words, a piece may be in any one of twelve different keys (twenty-four allowing for major and minor deployments), and may change key from passage to passage, or even measure to measure.

This is how each of the twelve tones functions in tonal music – taking turns in a game of sonic hierarchy, playing roles from royalty (tonics and dominants) to peasants (neighboring chromatic tones, perhaps), complete with the possibility of revolution in the form of key changes. Taken as a whole, however, the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are just a vocabulary lacking a syntax, a syntax added only when a single note receives pitch focus and is “made party to hierarchical relationships” by this focus, as Thomson puts it. “As a construct, the chromatic scale is nothing more than a useful representation of pitch resources, a listing of ingredients,”8 lacking the tension of hierarchy that underlies the phenomenon of tonality. This is demonstrable by the fact that the chromatic scale can start on any note and the resulting scale will have the same note-to-note relationship as if one started on any other note. This is not true of the major and minor scales, for which note-to-note relationships must change as the tonic moves from one pitch to the next. Even the whole-note scale, developed to intensity by Debussy, has two possible, mutually exclusive iterations (CDEF#G#A# or C#D#FGAB). But the chromatic scale has only one.

This was exactly what Schoenberg sought to exploit in the idea of dodecaphony: a flat assemblage of notes without hierarchy. No more concern about which key(s) might be present, because the 12-tone row banishes all keys. No more worry about note-to-note procedure, because by avoiding all possible tonal connections in the very form of a piece, one’s path to atonality is smoothed. Manipulate the 48 possible permutations of your original twelve-tone row, and you have composed without fear of having made connections between notes, save in the positive sense that the notes are gathered in proximity to each other (“twelve tones which are related only to one another”).

But there’s an obvious problem. The same flatness of relationship that made the chromatic scale fodder for “equal” treatment of tones divorced it from syntax; indeed, the two statements – “lacking hierarchy” and “lacking syntax” – are restatements of each other. The chromatic scale, played sequentially or arranged as a row, is inherently non-syntactical, and music – all music of all cultures at all times in history to which we have access – had, until this moment in Western history, always exhibited a syntax deriving in some manner from the inherent hierarchic implications of the overtone series. This derivation was not theoretical, but practical. As Thomson writes, it came from “people opening their mouths” and singing.9 Vocal practices were later transferred to instrumental ones. To take a representative example from outside the Western tradition, the drone of the Indian sitar results from the direct observation of the acoustic fact of hierarchical pitch-relations. Six or seven of that instrument’s 17 to 20 strings are fretted, and the player plucks these to produce tones. But the remainder are free-floating strings intended to vibrate along with the pitches produced by the player. They ring in sympathy in accordance with the pitch played; in other words, when a fretted note is played, the amount of resonance exhibited by any certain string will depend on its place in the overtone hierarchy of the plucked note. If the note played is, for example, a “D” (in Western nomenclature), then any string tuned to “A” will resonate boldly, as that is the first pitch in the overtone series of “D” after other “Ds.” A string tuned to “B” will resonate less boldly, and one tuned to “E” still less so, etc. As the player moves from note to note, each individual, sympathetic string resonates at varying levels of intensity, depending on its place in the pitch hierarchy of the note played. This makes the color of the sound shift constantly as the overtone series glides from note to note, altering the hierarchy of its pattern with each change of the fundamental tone.

We must stop here to consider the difference between the two different, but related meanings of “tonality.” As we have noted, all musical cultures, prior to the advent of dodecaphony, have in some manner involved relating notes to one another in a hierarchy. Europe’s major/minor scales and India’s ragas are but two examples. Native America’s cedar flute tradition employs a minor pentatonic scale; traditional Chinese string instruments are played according to the ratios of 1/2, 1/3, 2/3, etc., ratios exactly correspondent to the overtone series. There are no exceptions. It is in this broad sense that all music (except dodecaphony, apparently) is tonal (first meaning): its practice relates in some manner to the inherent hierarchy of the overtone series. But Western musicians often use the word “tonality” to refer to the major/minor scale system that was modern Europe’s particular response to the overtone series (second meaning). This was how Schoenberg meant “tonality,” when, for example, he contrasted it to Europe’s earlier modal system of organization, which involved fewer notes and a less definite sense of the tonic pitch. (This is why medieval chant, which is modal, sounds “floating.”) Modality was tonal in the first sense, like all other music. But it was not tonal in the second sense of exhibiting major-minor scale relationships. Thomson points out that Schoenberg declared modality to be “pre-tonal” (implying the first meaning) because it lacked the diamond-hard relationship of dominant to tonic that characterizes tonality (second meaning). This conflation of tonality/first meaning with tonality/second meaning is all the more confusing because, in its first meaning, tonality allows no “pre-tonal” state; it is an always-already reality of pitched sound.

So, by abandoning tonality in the second sense of the Western major/minor system, and substituting for it a system that expressly undermined any other possible tonal connections in the first sense, Schoenberg made in essence the claim that Western tonality was the only system of tonality-in-the-first-sense that mattered. Tonality-second-sense was the only possible ultimate expression of tonality-first-sense; therefore, Schoenberg reasoned, the time had come to abandon tonality in both its meanings. The advent of serialism, far from being the liberating act its champions professed it to be, was actually a bold example of Eurocentric hubris. Schoenberg conceived of “tonality” narrowly, only in the sense of the European major/minor system, and his (seeming) innovation of dodecaphony was announced from within this system alone. A pall of cultural hegemony hangs over dodecaphony, confirmed by Schoenberg’s most infamous statement regarding his invention of it, from a letter to a friend in 1923: “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”10 Boastfully nationalistic, the statement is also made tragically poignant by the fact of Schoenberg’s Jewish heritage, in light of the coming Holocaust.


1 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error.

2 Arnold Schoenberg, “Composition with Twelve-Tones” (1941), Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein, ed., trans. by Leo Black, Faber and Faber, 1975, p. 218.

3 Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, Harvard, 1976, p. 231.

4 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, passim.

5 Note, as this description progresses, a dialectical triad expressed. Tonality (thesis) contains its own self-contradiction as ambiguity (atonality as antithesis), resulting in the synthesis of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony.

6 Ibid., p. 175.

7 Quoted in Stefan Muller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, Polity Press, 2005, p. 118.

8 Ibid., p. 88.

9 Ibid., p. 142.

10 Arnold Schoenberg, quoted in Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz. 1977Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, trans. by Humphrey Searle. Schirmer Books, p.277.


Tonal Affinities and Their Denial, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the second part of a two-part series. You can read the first part here.

It is at last clear that Schoenberg’s error was to ignore the inherently hierarchical nature, not just of Western tonality, but of pitched sound itself. It is hierarchy that makes the lower relations among overtones perceived as “consonant,” while the upper partials are heard as “dissonant.”1 It is hierarchy that puts a melodic line in the foreground and its accompaniment in the background. It is hierarchy that links pitch to duration, making it impossible, outside of pure abstraction, to consider a pitched sound separate from how long it endures in time. It is possible, of course, simply to assert outright that hierarchy is of no importance. It is also possible, in designing aircraft, to assert the notion that airfoil is an arbitrary construct, and to design aircraft that ignore the principles of airfoil, and to contemplate these designs in purely abstract fashion. But if these designs were materially realized, the resultant aircraft would not fly. Similarly, music designed along principles that contradict the ontic realities of pitch hierarchy and the perceptual requirements of human psychology can be contemplated abstractly, but the sounds thus produced will not “fly” – that is, it will not be perceived as music, and if it is not perceived as music, it is quite possible that it is not music. This observation is controversial only because its application is potentially conservative.

Consider the following three sets of English-language words:

My cat Luna has thick black fur and a cold wet nose.

Has cat a fur and thick Luna nose wet black my cold

Luna My fur has thick black cat nose and cold wet a

The first group of words comprise a standard English sentence conveying information about a cat with the proper name, “Luna.” From this we know that Luna belongs to me, and that she has black fur and a nose that is cold and wet. The second arrangement of the same twelve words has been deliberately re-ordered so as create zero-to-minimal syntactical sense. It is a word-row, devised with the end in mind of treating each word as a thing-unto-itself. Syntactical relations between any two consecutive words were avoided, though “thick/Luna/nose” come dangerously close to forming a semantic trio. The third set was ordered via a process of tossing a coin (a quarter). I divided the initial sentence into two parts of six words each: “my cat Luna has thick black” and “fur and a cold wet nose.” I flipped a coin to determine which half the first word in the new sequence would come from: heads for the first set and tails for the second. I narrowed the choice down further with each successive flip until the sequence reproduced here emerged.

It is fair to say that the second and third sets are very much alike, as neither can be construed as exhibiting syntax of any sort, and therefore neither conveys information. An English speaker reading the initial sentence would have no trouble connecting noun to verb to modifier, etc. But in both the second and third sets, while the reader will recognize parts of speech – “cat” as a noun, “my” as a possessive, etc. – the words cannot, because of their lack of syntactical order, be made to fit into any syntactical scheme. What Schoenberg did with pitches was similar to what I have done with the second set of words above. True, Schoenberg chose his rows from among a chromatic scale that was already, in and of itself, a flat collection of materials, but his dodecaphonic/serial method took special care that this flatness should be maintained as the dozen were deployed in the non-sequential order called a series or row. This does not occur outside a specific set of imposed rules. If, for example, I were to choose from among the twelve chromatic pitches, without reference to any rules, a series of pitches using only my ear as guide, there is a good likelihood that the same intuition which makes humans sing certain groups of notes together but not others would lead me to pick tones that suggested a triad, perhaps, or pyramiding fifths, or some other grouping related to the overtone series. Even within the constraint of having to play all twelve tones before playing any of them twice, it is possible to choose pitches that suggest tonal hierarchy, which is why Schoenberg cautioned serial composers to avoid thirds and sixths in their rows, and how Alban Berg, Schoenberg’s student, managed to compose the only serial works that have entered the repertoire precisely because they contradict that edict. (The row governing Berg’s Violin Concerto is so tonal-friendly that it allows the interpolation of a Bach Chorale.)

In the third set, the method has changed, but the result would be equally frustrating for any English-speaker trying to make sense of it. The process of choosing words at random, using a decision-generating device like a coin flip, would seem to be the opposite strategy from carefully selecting words according to a set of rules. And yet, the results are surprisingly similar. Written words are visual representations of the sounds in spoken language, which must, to be language, incorporate syntax. When they are used outside that definition, it is arguable that they are no longer words-as-such. A coffee mug used to plant a violet is a flower pot. Mathematical symbols used to adorn a shower curtain without regard to their function are decoration. And words arranged as patterns – randomly or consciously designed – are, perhaps, objects for some kind of contemplation. But they are not words. There is nothing at all wrong, of course, in converting a coffee mug to use as a flower pot, and mathematical symbols may look elegant on a shower curtain. At issue is the idea of continuing to call the mug a mug and, even more pertinently, the claim of doing mathematics by arranging them for strictly visual purposes. If putting cosigns and tangents willy-nilly on a piece of cloth is not mathematics, how is it that playing notes without regard to their function in music is music? All serialist and most aleatory composers employ pitches that were originally intended to form musical scales, the salient feature of which is the tension created by the hierarchy of relative weights given to those pitches (the tonic, the dominant, the subdominant, and so on down the line), to the end of creating sonic patterns that ignore the hierarchical pitch arrangement that originated the pitches-as-such. (This should remind us of Wagner’s use of tonality to suggest that tonality is invalid, mentioned earlier.) It would seem, then, that serial and aleatory musics are more accurately called “anti-music.” But again, this approach is controversial, as it results in a conservative, even reactionary aesthetic. If we are allowed to say that serialism is not “really” music, why not “that hip-hop crap ain’t music”? This is the usual form taken by the fear that too-precise a definition of an art will narrowly restrict artistic freedom.

Our third example above is there to illustrate the eventual product of Schoenberg’s thesis: aleatory music. The two processes – Schoenberg’s careful plotting of tone-rows and the tossing of coins associated with John Cage – could not, prima facie, be further apart. Yet they each result in the use of pitched sound as something other than pitched sound-as-such, just as the second and third arrangements of words in the verbal examples above used words other than as words. Cage acknowledged Schoenberg as his master, and with good reason. A brief historical sketch of Western art music post-Schoenberg to Cage illustrates the relationship:

Serialism reached its peak in the 1940s and ‘50s, as the music of Anton Webern, Schoenberg’s pupil, achieved a startling level of chic. Every composer who wanted to be au courant tossed aside Stravinskian neoclassicism for the sonic pointillism of Webern – even Stravinsky, whose “conversion” to serialism in the late 1950s was taken as the final fall of all musics but the serial.

By the time of Stravinsky’s “conversion,” plain serialism was already old hat. In 1951, a young Parisian named Pierre Boulez had proclaimed “Schoenberg is dead” (he had in fact just died, his death possibly linked to an anxiety attack over the digits of his age [76] that year – 7 and 6 – adding up to 13; Schoenberg, the inventor of 12-tone music, suffered from extreme triskaidekaphobia) and proceeded to move “beyond” serial procedures. Boulez’s advance took the form, however, not of rejecting serialism, but of expanding it to cover all aspects of music. Serialism ordered only the twelve pitch classes, but Boulez’s “integral serialism” commandeered the ordering of music’s other parameters as well. For instance, a dynamic “row” might be assembled thusly: f, ppp, mp, ff, p, mf, fff, etc.. So, if the piece being composed began forte (f), its next dynamic would have to be pianississimo (ppp), and the next one mezzo-piano (mp), and so on. A score composed for, say, violin, trumpet, vibraphone and double bass would likewise have the pitches of its tone-row performed by a parallel series of timbres: If the bowed violin played the first note of the series, then the second note might be played by the trumpet, the third by the double bass pizzicato, the fourth by the violin pizzicato, the fifth by the vibraphone, the sixth by the double bass bowed, etc. And of course each one of these was at a different dynamic as per the dynamic row we have described. So if the first hexachord of the pitch row was, say, DA#AD#BC#, the dynamic row might be f-mp-ff-pp-ppp-fff, and the timbre row violin pizz./trumpet/vibraphone/double bass bowed/violin bowed/double bass pizz.

This is a marvelous game and entertaining for the composer who plays it. The result can yield an idea or two that might not have occurred to the composer in the normal (non-serial) process of composing music. But its expressive potential is extremely narrow – in fact, the whole point of the process is to turn the usual (in Western terms) expressive voice of the composer over to the process itself. The composer chooses the various rows, but then the interlocking rows are left on their own to manufacture the relationships (in the new, positivist, Schoenbergian sense) of one pitch/timbre/dynamic to another pitch/timbre/dynamic. Control no longer belongs to the composer, who is but a sort of manager of the process.

But our example is missing one important factor. For, just as dodecaphony abolished tonal pitch relations, integral serialism abolished the beat. Analogous to Wagner’s blurring of key centers, various composers in the early 20th century had ruptured the familiar beat patterns of two, three, and four counts with complex patterns that shifted, perhaps, from five to two to seven to one-and-a-half to nine. The beat was “all over the place.” Why not simply get rid of it? The positive aspect of rhythm is simple duration. Therefore, it’s possible to posit durations as related only to each other, and not to the hierarchic arrangement of metered beats. For our set of pitches-with-timbres-and-dynamics above, let’s add durations in the mode of fully integral serialism. I choose for my duration series: an eighth note, a half note, a dotted eighth-note, a quarter-note, a whole note, and a sixteenth note. This actually leaves some room for personal decision-making, as the durations may overlap.

Integral serialism’s aesthetic domination was brief and its pure practitioners were few. Boulez and the American Milton Babbitt were its most prominent figures, and a few years in the 1950s were its heyday. Waiting in the wings was a young American musical artist grown unsatisfied with his own innovations, which were primarily related to timbre. John Cage’s invention of the prepared piano – a piano with erasers, bolts, wooden dowels, etc., stuck between its strings – made possible the presentation of varied colors on an acoustic piano that normally would have required electronics. Cage achieved a certain fame with this and with his whimsical early compositions, but he was restless to push back what he felt was a Western aesthetic bound up with ego and with fake “self-expression.” Cage wanted the subject out of the picture altogether, and when he encountered integral serialism, the path became clear. In integral serialism, the order of things is pre-determined by rows set in place by the composer, but then “let loose,” as it were, to generate music by means of a neutral playing-out of the material (as illustrated above). Why not then also remove control of the originating rows, as well? Instead of shaping a row of twelve tones and other rows of different dynamics, etc., why not simply generate sounds by chance? It was a brilliant move, and while Cage probably did not think of it this way, it is possible to look at it as, in essence, calling modernism’s bluff. You want notes unconnected to each other save by their mutual proximity? Then throw some dice and let it go at that.

Boulez and Cage were musical allies for something like two minutes. As soon as Boulez understood what Cage was about, he withdrew his approval. Composerly control was apparently important, after all, though it is difficult to see why, given the premise that isolated pitch/duration/timbre/dynamics were the ideal. The difference between the isolation created by conscious row manipulation and that created by pure chance was illustrated in the manipulations (above) of the sentence about my cat. For all intents and purposes, there is none.

The line of thought from Wagner to Schoenberg to Boulez to Cage can now be neatly sketched:

Wagner: It is possible to obscure the sense of key center, making the listener unsure of where she is, tonally.

Schoenberg: Then let’s be rid of tonal relations between pitches altogether and create a music without the background presence of hierarchic connections.

Boulez: If it is acceptable to abandon tonal pitch-relationships, then let’s go a step further and free ourselves from the supposed expressive relationships involving color and dynamics. Most importantly, let’s do unto duration something analogous to what Schoenberg hath done unto pitch. Down with the measured count! Let us free duration from the hierarchy of the beat.

Cage: You’re right! There exist no inherent relationships among tones, durations, or anything else. Nor are pitch and duration, etc., even necessary to what we might call “music.” Music is sound listened to inside a frame, nothing else. Listen to traffic and frame it as music, and it is music.

It’s a short intellectual distance from step two to step four, and it was a brief historical distance as well. Schoenberg died in 1951. The following year, Cage conceived his iconic piece, 4’33”, which calls for the performer(s) (any instrument or group of instruments) to remain quiet for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, while the ambient sounds of the audience and the hall produce the work of art. 4’33” is consistently referred to as a piece of music, and is even published and available for sale at $5 and change. (The idea of copyrighting a set of instructions without any determinate content is the concept of intellectual property at its most audacious.) With it, we have arrived at a place in which, not only are pieces that operate on premises opposite to how we hear pitched sound considered legitimate and even historically necessary, but sound itself is considered equivalent to music, provided it is labeled as such. It is nominalism unchecked, and it is taken today by mainstream academic and popular commentators as common understanding. In Music, Language and the Brain, Anirrudh Patel defines music as “sound organized in time, intended for, or perceived as, an aesthetic experience.”2 With the possible exception of objections to the word “organized,” which to a Cageian smacks of egocentric control, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking serious exception to that definition, even though it literally means that, if I cough and burp, organizing said sounds by initiating the cough and controlling the rate of the burp’s emission, and this subsequent experience provides me what I or another person perceive to be an aesthetic experience, then I have made music. Lest the reader think I am setting up a straw man, Patel also says, bluntly and with the full force of seeming authority: “(I)t is quite clear that there are no sonic universals in music, other than the trivial one that it must involve sound in some way.”3 Noise is only noise when called noise; the same sounds called music are music. At the conclusion of his book, Thomson puts it another way, a reframing of Patel’s commonplace that exposes its absurdity. The ultimate utterance about music, given the legitimacy of the line of thought from Schoenberg to the avant-garde, Thomson observes, is simply: “There are sounds.”4 Thus are nominalism and materialism complicit in the same dead end.

But are there even sounds? If music doesn’t exist qua music, but is merely sound framed as music, how can the skeptic be sure that sound itself exists? Pure skeptics, indeed, find a belief in the existence of sound to be quite ridiculous. Sextus Empiricus propounded this in the Second Century CE. The argument, in his “Against the Musicians,” amounts to saying that just because vibrations in the air are registered by ears as sound does not lend existential status to sound as such; sound remains merely an experience, not an entity.5 This is the same argument used by those who say that music does not exist as a category separate from sound: “Just because certain sounds are registered by ears as music, over and above sound, does not lend special existential status to music as such.” Once a concept is denied as having any status over and above its material ground, then any other concept attached to that material ground is immediately suspect as well. A vibration in the air is measurable by means other than ears. Therefore, this line of argument goes, “hearing” as such, and “sound” as such, are superfluous; their phenomenal existence apart from the strictly material fact of measurable vibration is an empty concept. Consistent materialism, this illustrates, must result in the erasure of the subject entirely, or the subject is opened to the possibility of qualifying material facts in terms of its experience, thus giving the lie to materialism as such. Most materialists, however, ignore the fact that sound is not a positive fact; that it is not strictly material, but always already an experience. Both true skeptics and metaphysicians recognize this, and come down on opposite sides of it. The skeptic says, in essence: Sound is already an experience, and as such lacks real existence. The metaphysician says: Sound is an already an experience; therefore, let us start with that. Music, too, is an experience, and the experience of music-as-such is separate and different from the experience of sound-as-such. The materialist cannot claim that “music is just sound” and at the same time resist the observation that “sound is just vibration.” Ears are not required for the material phenomenon of frequency to occur, and therefore the materialist who claims that music is nothing more than sound must also claim that sound is nothing more than disturbances of the air. Neither music nor sound can be said to exist as-such, because to make either claim is to introduce a subject, and as soon as a subject is introduced, non-material axiology necessarily shows up. There is no subject without the affect of value. To rid philosophy of one is to rid it of the other.

Having seen where things led, from the first sounding of the Tristan chord in 1868 to silence/noise-as-music less than a century later, we are at last in a place to consider Nietzsche’s famous rejection of Wagner for what it truly was: A rejection of the very future we have outlined, a future Nietzsche saw coming. Modernism, as he said repeatedly, would be the death of Man, save Man’s rescue by the Overman. Only, what was modernism? What idea or philosophical approach distinctive to 19th-century Europe was so powerfully destructive that it stood to bring Western civilization itself to an end? Nietzsche notoriously swung wide at every figure in sight, from Plato to Christ, but modernism was not one of these easy targets. His attempt to pin down modernism in music takes this potent form in Human, All Too Human:

The artistic objective pursued by modern music in what is now, in a strong but nonetheless obscure phrase, designated “endless melody” can be made clear by imagining one is going into the sea, gradually relinquishing a firm tread on the bottom and finally surrendering unconditionally to the watery element: one is supposed to swim. Earlier music constrained one – with a delicate or solemn or fiery movement back and forth, faster and slower – to dance: in pursuit of which the needful preservation of orderly measure compelled the soul of the listener to a continual self-possession: it was upon the reflection of the cooler air produced by this self-possession and the warm breath of musical enthusiasm that the charm of this music rested…. [Endless melody] endeavors to break up all mathematical symmetry of tempo and force and sometimes even to mock it; and he is abundantly inventive in the production of effects which to the ear of earlier times sound like rhythmic paradoxes and blasphemies. What he fears is petrification, crystallization, the transition of music into the architectonic – and thus with a two-four rhythm he will juxtapose a three-four rhythm, often introduce bars in five-four and seven-four rhythm, immediately repeat a phrase but expanded to two or three times its original length.6

And then comes the prescient intuition of what may come from all this, the sort of foresight that earns Nietzsche the label of cultural prophet: “A complacent imitation of such an art as this can be a great danger to music: close beside such an over-ripeness of the feeling for rhythm there has always lain in wait the brutalization and decay of rhythm itself.”7 (Emphasis mine.)

There it is, from 1878, a vision of integral serialism’s arrival seven decades hence. One wonders why Nietzsche did not apply his observation to harmony as well as to rhythm, and indeed one can substitute the word “harmony” for “rhythm” in the sentence above and it is just as accurate a prophecy. Nietzsche had begun his intellectual life six years prior as Wagner’s champion in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. He had perceived the dramatic impact of the older man’s music as Dionysian antidote to the Apollonian “petrification” of the music of the day – something Nietzsche, too, feared. (And rightly so. Mid-19th century academic music was a frigid landscape.) But now, Nietzsche saw, Wagner’s way out of things was capable of producing something much worse than a temporary freezing up of music’s creative urges: it had the potential of leading to the dissolution of music itself.

In this light, Nietzsche’s rejection of Wagner in favor of Bizet can be understood, not as some kind of angry filial punishment of the father figure, nor as the frantic grabbing for a life-preserver in the middle of a churning Wagnerian sea, but as the conscious turn of a sharp musical mind from swimming-into-musical-nihilism to standing on solid ground. Nietzsche chose to turn his back on Wagner’s innovations because he saw in them the seeds of a future in which music itself would die. Was he really so wrong?


1 Schoenberg put this distinction to one side, re-positioning consonance and dissonance along a continuum, with consonance more and dissonance less “comprehensible.” Yet this does nothing other than restate the distinction. It relieves the distinction of bifurcation, but only by arranging for consonance and dissonance as hierarchy in another form. Even so, Schoenberg writes as if the consonant-dissonant continuum eliminates hierarchy itself.

2 Aniruddh D. Patel, Music, Language and the Brain, Oxford University Press EBook (2008), 2.2.1.

3 Ibid., 2.2.1.

4 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, p. 196.

5 Sextus Empiricus, Against the Musicians, trans. By Denise Davidson Greaves, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human. Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, (1986) Cambridge University Press pp. 275276.

7 Ibid., p. 276.

Just for fun

Brussels, Music, and Humanity

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.


Why You Won’t Find the Meaning of Life

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece, though it may at first glance appear unrelated to our work, is nevertheless both relative and highly important because it raises the challenges presented to classical music and its institutions by the reining cults of Originality and Youth, and it suggests also the answer to them. It is reprinted here with gracious permission of the Asia Times, where it first appeared.

Much as I admire the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who turned his horrific experience at Auschwitz into clinical insights, the notion of “man’s search for meaning” seems inadequate. Just what about man qualifies him to search for meaning, whatever that might be?

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht warned us against the practice in The Threepenny Opera:

Ja, renne nach dem Gluck
Doch renne nicht zu sehr
Denn alle rennen nach dem Gluck
Das Gluck lauft hinterher.

(Sure, run after happiness,
But don’t run too hard,
Because while everybody’s running after happiness,
It moseys along somewhere behind them.)

Brecht (18981956) was the kind of character who gave Nihilism a bad name, to be sure, but he had a point. There is something perverse in searching for the meaning of life. It implies that we don’t like our lives and want to discover something different. If we don’t like living to begin with, we are in deep trouble.

Danish philosopher, theologian, and religious author Søren Kierkegaard portrayed his Knight of Faith as the sort of fellow who enjoyed a pot roast on Sunday afternoon. If that sort of thing doesn’t satisfy us, just what is it that we had in mind?

People have a good reason to look at life cross-eyed, because it contains a glaring flaw – that we are going to die, and we probably will become old and sick and frail before we do so. All the bric-a-brac we accumulate during our lifetimes will accrue to other people, if it doesn’t go right into the trash, and all the little touches of self-improvement we added to our personality will disappear – the golf stance, the macrame skills, the ability to play the ukulele and the familiarity with the filmography of Sam Pekinpah.

These examples trivialize the problem, of course. If we search in earnest for the meaning of life, then we might make heroic efforts to invent our own identity. That is the great pastime of the past century’s intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre, the sage and eventual self-caricature of Existentialism, instructed us that man’s existence precedes his essence, and therefore he can invent his own essence more or less as he pleases. That was a silly argument, but enormously influential.

Sartre reacted to the advice of Martin Heidegger (the German existentialist from whom Jean-Paul Sartre cribbed most of his metaphysics). Heidegger told us that our “being” really was being-unto-death, for our life would end, and therefore is shaped by how we deal with the certainty of death. (Franz Kafka put the same thing better: “The meaning of life is that it ends.”) Heidegger (18891976) thought that to be “authentic” means to submerge ourselves into the specific conditions of our time, which for him meant joining the Nazi party. That didn’t work out too well, and after the war it became every existentialist for himself. Everyone had the chance to invent his own identity according to taste.

Few of us actually read Sartre (and most of us who do regret it), and even fewer read the impenetrable Heidegger. But most of us remain the intellectual slaves of 20th century existentialism notwithstanding. We want to invent our own identities, which implies doing something unique.

This has had cataclysmic consequences in the arts. To be special, an artist must create a unique style, which means that there will be as many styles as artists. It used to be that artists were trained within a culture, so that thousands of artists and musicians painted church altar pieces and composed music for Sunday services for the edification of ordinary church-goers.

Out of such cultures came one or two artists like Raphael or Bach. Today’s serious artists write for a miniscule coterie of aficionados in order to validate their own self-invention, and get university jobs if they are lucky, inflicting the same sort of misery on their students. By the time they reach middle age, most artists of this ilk come to understand that they have not found the meaning of life. In fact, they don’t even like what they are doing, but as they lack professional credentials to do anything else, they keep doing it.

The high art of the Renaissance or Baroque, centered in the churches or the serious theater, has disappeared. Ordinary people can’t be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to). The sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture. That is not the worst sort of outcome. One of my teachers observes that the classical style of composition never will disappear, because the movies need it; it is the only sort of music that can tell a story.

Most people who make heroic efforts at originality learn eventually that they are destined for no such thing. If they are lucky, they content themselves with Kierkegaard’s pot roast on Sunday afternoon and other small joys, for example tenure at a university. But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it.

He recalls the rex Nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Nemi, who according to Ovid won his office by murdering his predecessor, and will in turn be murdered by his eventual successor. The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style.

The only thing worse than searching in vain for the meaning of life within the terms of the 20th century is to find it, for it can only be a meaning understood by the searcher alone, who by virtue of the discovery is cut off from future as well as past. That is why our image of the artist is a young rebel rather than an elderly sage. If our rebel artists cannot manage to die young, they do the next best thing, namely disappear from public view, like JD Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. The aging rebel is in the position of Diana’s priest who sleeps with sword in hand and one eye open, awaiting the challenger who will do to him what he did to the last fellow to hold the job.

Most of us have no ambitions to become the next Jackson Pollack or Damien Hirst. Instead of Heidegger’s being-unto-death, we acknowledge being-unto-cosmetic surgery, along with exercise, Botox, and anti-oxidants. We attempt to stay young indefinitely. Michael Jackson, I argued in a July 2009 obituary, became a national hero because more than any other American he devoted his life to the goal of remaining an adolescent. His body lies moldering in the grave (in fact, it was moldering long before it reached the grave) but his spirit soars above an America that proposes to deal with the problem of mortality by fleeing from it.

A recent book by the sociologist Eric Kaufmann (Will the Religious Inherit the Earth?) makes the now-common observation that secular people have stopped having children. As a secular writer, he bewails this turn of events, but concedes that it has occurred for a reason: “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.”

Traditional society had to confront infant mortality as well as death by hunger, disease and war. That shouldn’t be too troubling, however: “We may not be able to duck death completely, but it becomes so infrequent that we can easily forget about it.”

That is a Freudian slip for the record books. Contrary to what Professor Kaufmann seems to be saying, the mortality rate for human beings remains at 100%, where it always was. But that is not how we think about it. We understand the concept of death, just not as it might apply to us.

If we set out to invent our own identities, then by definition we must abominate the identities of our parents and our teachers. Our children, should we trouble to bring any into the world, also will abominate ours. If self-invention is the path to the meaning of life, it makes the messy job of bearing and raising children a superfluous burden, for we can raise our children by no other means than to teach them contempt for us, both by instruction, and by the example we set in showing contempt for our own parents.

That is why humanity has found no other way to perpetuate itself than by the continuity of tradition. A life that is worthwhile is one that is worthwhile in all its phases, from youth to old age. Of what use are the elderly? In a viable culture they are the transmitters of the accumulated wisdom of the generations. We will take the trouble to have children of our own only when we anticipate that they will respect us in our declining years, not merely because they tolerate us, but because we will have something yet to offer to the young.

In that case, we do not discover the meaning of life. We accept it, rather, as it is handed down to us. Tradition by itself is no guarantee of cultural viability. Half of the world’s 6,700 languages today are spoken by small tribes in New Guinea, whose rate of extinction is frightful. Traditions perfected over centuries of isolated existence in Neolithic society can disappear in a few years in the clash with modernity. But there are some traditions in the West that have survived for millennia and have every hope of enduring for millennia still.

For those of you who still are searching for the meaning of life, the sooner you figure out that the search itself is the problem, the better off you will be. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh in the third millennium BC, our search has not been for meaning, but for immortality. And as the gods told Gilgamesh, you can’t find immortality by looking for it. Better to find a recipe for pot roast.


In Defense of Elitism

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at the University of Baltimore’s Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics as part of our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. You can also view the video of this lecture here.

There’s a very famous phrase, “the tyranny of the majority,” that was introduced into political discourse by two near contemporaries in the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French writer who wrote Democracy in America, travelled around this country trying to understand how it is that people can survive without an aristocracy. He was amazed to discover that they did, he being a member of the aristocracy. And while he thought that human life could change in a democratic direction, he discerned a permanent danger, which he described in these terms: the tyranny of the majority – that is to say, the danger that every public decision will be taken by the majority for the majority and disregard both the rights of minorities and the possibility of disagreement. He discovered that in America this tyranny of the majority had not emerged. So he asked the question, why?

John Stuart Mill, the famous English political philosopher, issued a similar warning. He worried that if one had a real democracy, which was then beginning to emerge in England and had already emerged in America, individuals, minorities, and legitimate groups would lose protection against majority opinion. And, as we know, majorities have more power than minorities. If they have the power to impose their views, then what happens to the minorities? What happens to the people who disagree?

Both Tocqueville and Mill recognized that a true political order can only exist if there is discussion about the issues of the day. There can only be discussion if there is legitimacy of disagreement. But people don’t actually like disagreement. So how do you make disagreement possible? How do you get the majority to accept the fact that there are people who are not part of it?

And it was understood, in America at least, that you need a constitution that in some way stands above popular sentiment and also sets a limit to it. There are many reasons for this, but one in particular is what I call “the liberal fantasy”: the fantasy that people are basically nice, whereas power and privilege are nasty. And so we mustn’t have these powerful things like constitutions or rule of law, people who hold judicial office, or people who stand above the majority and tell them what to do. That’s because people, being basically nice, will always do the right thing as long as you leave them free to do so.

Now, most of you are young and have not yet had the full experience of the nastiness of other people – or the nastiness of yourselves. But there are plenty of opportunities out there, and that will, no doubt, change over time. Although some powers and purposes are nasty, others are necessary in order to make people nice. Incidentally, I think that’s part of what education is: we hope that you young people will emerge from your time here in some measure improved – not just having more knowledge, but having perhaps more ability to get on with others, to make your mark in society, to cooperate, to be the kind of person who doesn’t have to punch somebody in the face in order to have his way.

So people, in general, need managing. And I think all political philosophy needs, in the end, to reflect on what it is in human nature that creates this need for managing. There are certain aspects of the human condition which people are reluctant to think about. You are all reluctant to think about things in yourselves which you know not to be agreeable to yourself and to others. But there are also general features of the human condition which we find difficult to think about.

The first is envy and resentment. People feel resentment towards the goods, the status, the talents of others, and this is normal. Nietzsche, the German nineteenth-century philosopher who I’m sure you’ve encountered in one aspect or another, thought that ressentiment – he used the French word for reasons of his own – was the default position of human communities. In the end, it’s resentment that makes the world go round, and it’s why the world is so awful. And Nietzsche didn’t really belong to the world himself. He was a curmudgeonly kind of guy. He advocated a much more solitary approach to things than most of you would be able to manage. Leaving aside his so-called ‘positive philosophy,’ I think most people would recognize that he’s onto something. Sure, people resent each other, and one thing we most resent in others is the fact that they are doing better than we are. And that resentment is going to be always there – especially when we’re in close competition for something that we really want. We’re in competition for, say, a job or a lover or a social position or status, and we see the other person get it. And we can’t control what we feel.

There’s another part of people that needs managing, however. This was much more interesting to John Stuart Mill, and it is the desire for orthodoxy. Mill believed that orthodoxy, rather than freedom of opinion, is the default position for human societies. He believed that orthodoxies prevail and that we take refuge in them. We know that if we repeat what everybody else is saying, even if we don’t believe it to be entirely true, nevertheless we’re safe, we’re not going to be attacked. And to stand out and say the thing that is generally disapproved of, even if it’s staring everybody in the face, requires courage.

Another feature of the human condition, which has been much emphasized by the French philosopher, critic, and anthropologist René Girard, is that we have an inbuilt need for scapegoating, for persecuting the heretic. If society’s in a difficult position, people are at loggerheads with each other, they’re not able to agree about some issue of the day, or perhaps there’s some threat facing them, it helps in a way to find a person to blame. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t actually to blame; we get hold of him and we persecute him, and we all unite against him and we all feel good about it. We all feel that we found the trouble and we’re getting rid of it. This is what Hitler did, of course, with the Jews in Germany in the inter-war period: he said, “Don’t worry. The reason our society is in total chaos is not because I’m in charge of it. On the contrary, it’s because of all those Jews who are uniting against us, conspiring to undermine the pure behavior of the Aryan majority. So we’re going to persecute them and get rid of them.” And I think if you look back over history, you will see scapegoating as one of the most important features of human society.

And all these three features point to the fact that forgiveness is hard for human communities and hard for individuals. It is difficult to forgive people for being better than yourself, to forgive people for standing out with an opinion of their own, to forgive people for just being the heretic. And penitence is rare. People don’t very often confess to their faults, nor do they undergo any kind of penitence or repentance in order to atone for them or to make amends. And I think you all know this from your own life. And we also know, however – partly because of our Judeo-Christian inheritance – that forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to the kind of social order that we enjoy. People can live at peace with each other in this society because they are ready to forgive others’ faults and to confess to their own faults.

Now, in the light of all these, you can see why it is dangerous to be – or to aim to be – a member of an elite. And in America it’s a fairly normal thing to apologize for being such a thing. Apology is an excellent thing, but it can be taken too far. You’re all used to the American habit of apologizing when someone bumps into you in the street – you spontaneously take the blame for everything that’s going wrong in order to have a kind of preemptive, peaceful relation. Apology in America is a kind of peaceful exit from the ghastliness of human society. Whenever it thrusts itself upon you, you say, “Sorry, sorry,” and you move off. Well, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but of course it doesn’t solve all problems.

The consequences of those features of the human condition are that, first of all, there is a kind of clamour for equality – and this is obviously the case, especially in this society. In every sphere today there is a desire to equalize. People don’t like hierarchies and privileges, and there is a natural disposition to say that they’re not deserved. When anybody claims some kind of hierarchical position, the question is raised, “Who is he? Who does he think he is? And by what right does he claim this superiority over me?” And hierarchical organizations, therefore, such as the Catholic Church, are attacked frequently as anachronisms. People say, “That was fine in the Middle Ages, but we don’t need things like that now – in fact, they’re somehow inherently incompatible with the kind of society that has evolved since.” And the Catholic Church, as you know, I’m sure, is suffering from this – and from other things, too – because people don’t accept this idea that there’s an authority handed down from above, embodied in the person and the office of the Pope and filtering down through all the bishoprics and so on, to the ordinary worshiper. In opposition to that idea you have the Evangelical churches that want to bring everything up from below, saying that the Holy Spirit visits us all equally.

Then again, wealth and privilege, culture and intellect, are all targets of resentment in our society. This is because it’s very hard to take pleasure in assets that you do not share. To take pleasure in somebody else’s good fortune is a rare thing. It involves a work of forgiveness: you have to forgive him for being better than you, for getting the girl that you wanted, and so on. And, as I say, forgiveness is rare. And yet, it is one of the traditional virtues of the American people to take pleasure in somebody else’s success. And I think this is one of the things that makes this society so hopeful. In Europe, it is extremely rare for people to take pleasure in any success except their own. And even then, the first thing that they do with their success is hide it, in case anybody else should know about it. Here, however, being successful, you go out and say, “Yeah, I’ve done it!” And other people who haven’t done it will nevertheless pat you on the back and say, “Great, I’m really pleased for you.” That’s partly because people in this society do recognize that there are opportunities for themselves as well. The sight of somebody achieving something reassures them that maybe one day they’re going to achieve, too.

But, because of the legacy of resentment and because forgiveness is rare, there is a desire to bring down the mighty and to make distinction either nonexistent or worthless. Not in every sphere – and I think this is extremely interesting. In sport, for example, talent is still universally recognized and widely praised. In some way, we feel we are not judged by another person’s sporting success. I would never have had a chance at American football, or indeed at any sporting enterprise, so I don’t worry. I measured my life so that I don’t compete in that sphere, so to speak. But it’s a very interesting question: why people in general don’t really worry much about distinctions in the realm of sport. One suggestion is that it’s so obvious there – that there couldn’t be a realm of sport if there weren’t people who excelled at it, and how could you possibly play a game if you didn’t have the goal of succeeding? It’s built into the very enterprise. But people doubt that it’s built into other enterprises which are really important to us.

There’s a downside to all this. The German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that in every human community there is a motive for the debtors to gang up to dispossess the creditors. And we see this happening in the political process, too: the majority will vote to dispossess the successful, because they believe that wealth doesn’t really belong to those people who’ve got it. Rather, it’s a social asset and it should be distributed more fairly. And through the state we can distribute it more fairly. We can tax the rich and distribute it amongst the rest of us.

And many political philosophers justify this – not quite in the crude terms that I’ve just uttered or the terms that Weber uses. Weber is just speaking the truth. Political philosophy is a wonderful tapestry of lies designed to hide this kind of truth. But John Rawls in his famous book on justice essentially thinks in the same way: wealth is a social asset and it is not owned until it’s distributed. Moreover, it has to be distributed according to a plan which takes account of the social needs of all people, and which, of course, has therefore to be put into action by the state. So, because of this feeling that assets are really in some way socially owned, the majority of people vote not only to redistribute the economic assets of society but also in some way to abolish the threat that is posed by universal education.

There’s been a move towards a curriculum without distinctions – so that everybody gets an ‘A,’ everybody emerges with an honors degree. And this, of course, has the effect of downgrading the value of a degree to the point where maybe there’s no reason to have one anyway. This poses a kind of threat to the education that you’re working so hard to achieve. I know you’re working hard or else you wouldn’t have come here today. You’re working hard not to be given a worthless document, but to be given something which actually shows that you’ve achieved, that your work was worthwhile.

But again, the majority can’t easily distinguish genuine culture, which is the province of a minority, from fake culture, which we can all acquire. And this is something which much concerns the advocate of classical music, because he knows that the classical tradition of music contains within it precious achievements, precious knowledge, and a precious world of feeling which requires a certain effort to enter. Many people say, “No, let’s not bother with that. Let’s just stay with Lady Gaga.” But, without saying anything about Lady Gaga, it is, nevertheless, worthwhile to make that effort. Until you’ve made it, though, you don’t know why. There are a lot of things like this in human life: you know the value of something only when you have become acquainted with it. But to get acquainted with it, you’ve got to be persuaded of its value. It’s a kind of paradox, isn’t it? It’s like Groucho Marx’s famous paradox of club membership: “Why should I belong to a club that would have me as a member?”

As a result of these things, people begin to suspect the whole idea of judgment, concluding that it’s wrong to be judgmental. And the judge is becoming a kind of social outcast in our society. There are some consequences of this fact. One is the attempt to seize and redistribute the assets of the successful. The problem with this, of course, is that it penalizes success so that the assets are no longer there. And this is what we saw in Communist Europe: the confiscation of all the profits of any enterprise led to the disappearance of those profits, so there was nothing to redistribute in the end and society became poorer and poorer. But nevertheless, the majority clamours for more, which, as a result, forces governments to borrow from the future. We must have what we’re used to – not just the opportunities, but the entitlements that our government has promised us, even though there are less and less economic assets from which to renew those entitlements. And we’ve seen this in our societies all through the Western world, too – this borrowing from the future, about which many people are now extremely alarmed. What happens when the creditors say, “It’s time to pay us back”? We saw what happened in Greece and Portugal recently. Greece was rescued, of course, by the European Union, but only by transferring the problem to the rest of the Union. The problem hasn’t actually gone away. So there’s a growing indebtedness and a looming fiscal crisis, and most people would say that the day of reckoning has to come. And we don’t know what it will look like.

Another consequence is the destruction of high culture – the kind of culture that universities should be committed to purveying. Few people have a critical understanding of their own motives. The appetites trump reflection. And people are always looking around for the other person who is really to blame. And this leads in turn to hostility towards distinction in all its forms and a kind of expanding culture of mediocrity. “It’s okay to be what I am, and I don’t care if you think you’re better than me. I’m just happy as I am.”

But there’s an upside to all this. We can get through it. We all know that if you keep your head down, people will leave you alone. And that’s already at least a temporary solution to the problem. I, unfortunately, throughout my life have not kept my head down, and it’s a very bruised part of my anatomy. But it’s still here and I’m soldiering on. And now, having entered my seventies, it doesn’t really matter much what happens to me.

More importantly, we have accepted the need to protect minorities, even educated minorities. And that’s because we recognize in our hearts, especially if we have children, that we want opportunities not only for ourselves but for them. And therefore we do need a culture in which success is distinguished from failure. We may not know what sphere our children are going to be competing in, but nevertheless we do know that there is a difference between success and failure and we certainly don’t want them to fail. So people are not totally committed to mediocrity. I think all parents have a desire for standards in education. And all people who are making a sacrifice to achieve an educated worldview themselves accept that there must be standards. Why else would they be they doing it?

Moreover, parents are competitive. Competition lies in the nature of the reproductive process. Reproduction is not yet a thing of the past, which I’m sure you realize because here you are in this room. I know it doesn’t get a good press today and the numbers are going down, but, still, people do regard reproduction, if only as an unwanted byproduct, as something that happens. And then there those children are, and we do want them to succeed. Competition lies in the very nature of this process. Everybody in the room who has children knows this. You’re in charge of the life of this thing, you’re going to protect it, you’re going to make sure that it’s okay. And that is an essentially competitive attitude because the world is harsh. Real egalitarians, people who believe that equality is everything, tend to be childless – or else, like our politicians, they secretly secure advantages for their children while imposing mediocrity on everyone else.

So, I’ll offer a few defenses against mediocrity. As I say, minorities have rights, and one is the right of association. The right of association serves to protect their assets. We have a right to set up schools and colleges of our own. In a majoritarian culture, these two are under threat – in my country of Britain, they are under threat. Under a Labour government it may not be possible for private schools to exist anymore. But as long as we think there is a right of association, people will get together and try to rescue themselves. And that’s how things perhaps should be.

The lesson of the 20th century, however, is that everything beautiful has been prepared as a sacrifice. If you look back at what happened to Europe in the 20th century – if you look back at the most beautiful culture that has existed, really – you’ll see that everything beautiful in it was sacrificed. Not just the people, but the cities, the institutions, the beautiful systems of law that we inherited, everything was sacrificed – except in Britain, and even there it was fatally damaged. And I think that this is something that all human beings must acknowledge in the end: that everything beautiful is prepared as a sacrifice.

But we must go on, and to some extent we can. We should devise constitutions that contain something of the old idea of inheritance – constitutions which are obstacles to majorities so that they can’t tyrannize over the minorities that want to improve themselves. Then we need a kind of political discourse that conceals this fact from the majority. This is where things become difficult. You have to tell, in the end, a few lies. You have to say, “Of course, this society is all about equality.” And Americans have always said so even though they have a constitution which was carefully designed to prevent that from being the sole truth. The American constitution was designed to protect minorities, to protect people’s abilities to advance and to obey stricter standards than would be available for the majority alone.

And that’s the hardest task, but I think young people go along with it. They instinctively want to regard their activities as achievements. Meanwhile, however, you have to practice the art of concealment. There’s a beautiful Arabic word for this: taqiyya. It was introduced into the thinking of the Shiites in the Middle Ages in Iran, when they were living under Ottoman or Sunnite rule which forbad their particular form of religion. And the word taqiyya comes from their word for holiness, actually. They said, “You must practice these things: whenever confronted by another, learn how to say that you believe exactly as he believes, that you live your life exactly as he does. And inside, suffering plaintively but not revealing itself, is that soul which knows the truth.” Granted, that’s an exaggerated way of describing the condition of people like me, but it is still the case that one must make an effort to conceal sometimes. Now I’m not making an effort to conceal what I think so I’m in a dangerous position. I might become like that sacrificial victim, the scapegoat.

But this is the problem that afflicts us. The advice that must be given cannot easily be given openly. And you have to conceal your distinction in many circumstances of modern life. You don’t necessarily let on that you are less ignorant than your neighbor. Don’t confess to your culture or make any effort to criticize his lack of it. Joyfully condemn yourself as an idiot like him. One of my old students from Princeton came to stay the other day. He’s working at a high-flying financial institution in London, and I said to him, “Well, that’s great, what you’ve got there. It’s terrific. It’s worth all that effort you put into learning classical languages and the works of Goethe in German and all that philosophy I taught you.” And he said, “Yes, but much more useful was learning to talk about football because it’s the only thing they talk about in the office. Once I let slip a remark about Goethe and it became very clear that my career was on the line.” I replied, “Yes, of course, but didn’t I tell you about that?” And he said, “Yes, sorry, but I forgot.”

In the end you have to humbly confess to the right of the other as a member of the majority to determine the future of the society that includes you. You don’t let on that you have the secret desire to pass on another kind of culture. So, what kind of culture? These will be my concluding remarks.

I think we do want to pass on, especially in universities, a culture that is based in knowledge and in the distinction between real knowledge and mere opinion. Obviously, it is very difficult for you personally to distinguish among your opinions the ones that are real knowledge from the ones that are not, because they’re all the same from your point of view. But, in the context of open debate in a university, you’ll come to realize that your opinions have different weight. Some of them are fragile and mean nothing. They don’t go into the balance of discussion in an effective way. But some, when you put them forward rightly, you can get others to believe in and to accept, because they are founded in something else.

And this knowledge must make judgments and set standards, it must distinguish the true from the false, the good from the bad, the virtuous from the vicious, and so on.

It must respect, I think, institutions, inheritances, and enduring traditions. That is one of the difficult things for people of my generation to put across to people of your generation. Obviously, the institutions that I inherited have changed an awful lot over the fifty years that I’ve been conscious of them. But I still believe, not in the value of all of them, of course – some of them have changed and some of them have been got rid of rightly – but nevertheless I believe in their core inheritance that’s responsible for me standing up here now and speaking my mind. And I want to pass that on. And I think it can only be passed on if we respect the idea that it’s already there.

It’s there because it’s been bequeathed to us by people who made sacrifices in order that it should occur. And we I think should learn to honour those sacrifices and to do our part in passing on these institutions and traditions in our turn. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything about them. We have to, on the contrary, make our own living contributions to them. And they have to be amended in lots of ways.

But I think, above all, we have to keep alive the collective memory of what we are as a people. That doesn’t reduce to merely what the majority of people presently happen to want. In America, especially, the demographic nature of the country changes rapidly from generation to generation, and yet there is a sense that we belong together and that we share the thing that we’ve inherited. We want to change aspects of it, but nevertheless without it we wouldn’t be peacefully together in the same place. And I think this involves an active work of memory in which we confront some of the bad things that have happened and nevertheless rescue from them the good things that we want to perpetuate. I think this collective memory must, in turn, be open to the idea of achievement and to the aspirations and ideals that people can still have in the changed circumstanc


Music and the Transcendental

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the keynote address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. You can also watch the video of the address.

I’m greatly encouraged by this initiative to actually bring into public awareness just what matters about the symphony and what its place in modern cities should be, what its place in the surrounding way of life and the culture generally should be, and how we can support and give meaning to it. What I shall talk about today are some philosophical ideas about music itself, in particular about classical music, and why we think it is such an important thing. And it’s a difficult area for many reasons.

People who love music often find it extremely difficult to talk about it, to say what it is that they love in it; and people who dislike it nevertheless think that they have very good reasons to do so. And there seems to be no forum of debate in which people can try to come to some agreement as to why music has the importance that it has in our society. I’m going to say a few things about that and also about the theme that I have put in the title.

I think we have to begin from this idea that we’ve inherited a listening culture. Listening is not an easy thing itself to define. There is such a thing as hearing. We hear music all the time around us, but most of us don’t pay attention to it – partly because most of it is not worth paying attention to. But there’s also overhearing and that is a very common experience. Wherever we are – in restaurants or in the Metro or wherever – we are overhearing music coming at us from all angles, and we are learning how to ignore it. Music wasn’t originally designed to be ignored. But we live in a society where, if we don’t learn to ignore it, we can’t also learn to listen to it. This puts an enormous strain on us and it’s one reason, of course, for the existence of these special places like symphony halls where one can insulate oneself from the surrounding world.

I totally endorse everything that Léon Krier said to us about modern architecture and the way in which it has created alienating spaces where it should create spaces where we’re at home. And I think of all spaces where we should be at home, the symphony hall is the most important. Many of us have this sense that musical experience is of supreme value and that musical experience of the kind I’m going to be talking about – the kind that involves listening – has been extremely important in our civilization.

Western civilization is in many ways a musical civilization. Music has had a place in our civilization which it has never achieved elsewhere. Of course, all people everywhere sing and dance. Dance in particular has a profound social meaning, and without it most societies in the past could not have really held together. But dancing is a very different thing from just sitting and listening, and we have this long – perhaps a thousand-year-long – experience of just sitting and listening for long moments, and doing so in company. We detach music from collective singing and dancing and make of it what you might call a spectacle or auricle, an occasion for simply sitting together and listening. Though detached from those natural social forms of musical order like singing and dancing, it is still a social experience. It is something shared. Even when you’re listening on your own, there is an implicit sharing going on you. You don’t think of yourself as “me, alone, listening to that.” You are, as it were, representing your ideal group of fellow listeners for whom this is a communal experience. You’re being returned in some way to a deep social experience within you.

There are many threats, however, to this listening culture. In particular, there is growing around us a habit of merely hearing music, or merely overhearing music, and of having to fight music off so that you can listen. The music that you hear in most restaurants today is not music that you could listen to without going mad. Or if you if you did start listening to it then of course the whole purpose of the restaurant would be defeated, too. It is there simply to fill in the silence that would otherwise, people fear, be engendered between the people sitting at the tables by the fact that they’ve forgotten how to speak. That is only one place in which music intrudes, but it intrudes in so many other ways and so many other places that we do have to learn the habit of ignoring it. And that gives us a real sense that learning to listen is not something that can be achieved simply by doing it. We need to rehabilitate ourselves to a particular culture.

I want to say something in connection with this about the idea of the sacred. We all have this conception within us that certain moments, certain events, certain ceremonies, and certain social occasions stand outside the ordinary run of events. They are not simply day-to-day events, but somehow they are places, times, or occasions, which take us outside ourselves and point us to another world – a world which, whether or not we even think it exists, is nevertheless there in our imaginations and beckoning to us. And this of course is something that we experience in collective worship – those of us who are believers or are attached to a particular faith. And we recognize it as contained within liturgical words and the habit of chanting. I think it’s worth thinking about this experience, even if it may not be an experience we repeat each week in church, or mosque, or synagogue, or wherever. Nevertheless, for all of us there is deep in the unconscious memory this sense of the ceremonial presence of the divine and our collective attention to it. In this moment, our attention is turned towards the altar, and the altar is a kind of ‘no place.’ It’s a place within our world which is also nowhere because there’s nothing at it. The thing that is there is in some deep sense elsewhere. It lies outside our world. It’s not of this world.

This idea that we collectively turn our attention to something that is, as it were, absent but also for that very reason present – this paradoxical sense – is something that I think we inherited from the primary religious experience of humanity. And when this occurs in the normal ceremony of worship, the words and the music seem to fill the void that is there. It’s a very important feature of our civilization that religious worship has almost always been a matter of music as well as words. The words are formalized. Often they are words in a foreign language, words that have been inherited from a dead language. They’re not there specifically so that you should understand every nuance of them. They are there because they are correct, they sound right, they’ve always been said. But it’s the music for many of us that fills the void, that turns our attention to the altar, which is the ‘no place’ that is also a place. And through this singing we summon the real presence of the god, but we do this only because we have precise words and precise songs – the right words and songs. And that is what we have inherited.

Chant: “Salve, Regina”

This experience that we have of the sacred moment in which we are addressing this ‘no place’ at the altar with music and ritualized words is, I think, always in the back of our experience when we enter the concert hall. This is, as it were, the original experience from which we are downstream. And this experience of the real presence of the sacred, the sacramental, the consecrated, is a shared experience – even if you encounter it alone. When you walk into a church in a quiet, rural place and you’re alone in that church, you are for that very reason not alone. You are being addressed from nowhere, but as a member of something. So you adopt precise steps, precise tones – you speak in hushed tones and you look around yourself always for the precise words and precise gestures that would make your presence there into something acceptable. But I think music captures something of this ‘no place’ experience – the ‘no place’ where it all takes place. And that’s because it moves in a space of it’s own. In listening, we stand at the threshold of this space, and this is a philosophical point which is sometimes quite difficult to put across. Let me just give you a few thoughts.

When we listen to music – and perhaps not when we’re playing it or even singing it, but just listening – we experience a sense of things moving. The theme moves up and down in a one-dimensional space that is represented in the bar lines of the score. And it moves from one place to another. The opening theme of Beethoven’s third piano concerto, for instance, moves from C to E-flat to G and it comes down again. So between those notes there is a movement that you hear, but it’s an imaginary movement. The notes themselves are simply sounds if you think of them in real, physical terms. There’s a sequence of sounds but we hear in that sequence a movement up and then down. It has a certain force to it. It has a certain speed, and the sounds themselves have weight. As it goes down that C-minor scale to the tonic, you feel the weight increasing: you think, “It’s got to go further, it’s got to go further.” And then Beethoven stops it. With a couple of dominant-to-tonic commas, he stops the music in midstream.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

And musical sounds have all kinds of spatial features like opacity and transparency. The chords in a Debussy prelude might sound to you totally transparent, as though you could hear what is coming from behind them. There’s also a gravitational force in music: things seem to be, as it were, attracted to each other. They seem to drag things behind each other; they coalesce. Think of the beginning of Brahms’s second piano concerto where the horn announces the first phrase of the opening theme and seems to drag the piano behind it, after which, then, the piano takes over from the horn and completes the phrase. The piano is in one part of the concert hall, the horn in another part. There is no physical interaction between them, but in the notes that you hear, in the musical line, you hear a gravitational force which is making those two things cohere and move together.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2

This is all by way of suggesting that music in the listening culture to which I’m referring is organized spatially even though it isn’t in a real space. There is no actual space comparable to the physical space in which you and I live that contains the music. The music itself is creating that space and it’s creating it in your imagination. So the musical experience has some of this character of being nowhere. It’s creating a space of it’s own, which is not part of physical space and of which we are privileged witnesses through our ears, so to speak – but into which we ourselves cannot enter, either. It is something like the way that we sense a real presence around us in the sacred moment, but one that’s addressing us from ‘no place’ where we are.

This raises the question of how we find meaning in music. What kind of meaning do we find and how important is it to us? Does this help explain the incredible weight that has been given to the musical experience in our culture? Obviously, music can occur in conjunction with words. Music is used to set words and many people think that that is the primary way in which music acquires meaning – through word setting. You have a poem on the one hand, you have the musical setting on the other hand, and somehow they come together in the experience of these things. We hear the music perhaps as an illustration of the words or expressing the same thing that the words express. Those of you who are familiar with Lieder, especially the Schubert songs, will recognize that there is something consummate in what the music can provide to a very simple poem by way of translating it from a naïve expression of something into a kind of perfected drama. But what exactly is going on here? I want to say that it’s not just an identity of expression, but much more to do with the fact that the music provides appropriate gestures because it’s moving in this imaginary space that we ourselves are imagining in hearing, that we are surrounding the words with the gestures which in some way complete them. It is as though the music is observing the words with a sympathetic gaze. It is standing next to them and moving with them.

And I think for this reason, contrasting words can be set to the same music. In many of the Bach cantatas you will find that the composer uses again and again some of the themes and structures which appeal to him because they fit into the musical context. And they seem absolutely appropriate even though perhaps the emotions suggested by the words are completely different on each occasion. Many people think this a proof that music really doesn’t express emotion at all – that it can be used in these completely contrasting ways suggests that really, after all, it’s an illusion on our part and that we attribute emotional meaning to the music. But I think that’s not right. If we see the music as observing the words, sympathetically responding to them with the gestures that are appropriate to them, then of course it could be making the same movements in response to contrasting emotions in the words. What it is doing is providing those words with a context which enables us to identify with them.

In the supreme examples, however, we want to say that the music is in some way picking up the words and taking them to another place – the ‘no place’ that is also a sacred place. Here I would play for you Bach’s famous aria from the St. Matthew Passion, “Erbarme dich, mein Gott,” which perhaps many of you know. It opens with a violin obligato, one of the longest melodies that have ever been composed, simply introducing, before any words have been uttered, the state of mind that Bach wishes you to understand. And it’s a very complex state of mind. That moment in the St. Matthew Passion occurs just after Peter has a heard the cock crow, and has remembered the words of Jesus who had told him that before the cock crows he would betray him thrice. And he goes out and weeps bitterly. It’s a beautiful recitative setting of those words followed by this extraordinary violin melody in 12/8 time. And you don’t know yet what is going to be said next. But what is said by the words is something very strange: it’s not a direct comment on Peter’s emotion, but a general plea for mercy from God. “Have mercy on me, my God.” In other words, “Recognize that I live in a state of sin and that I will always fall short of what is required of me.”

Bach: “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”

Because music can have such an extraordinary emotional power of its own, independently of words even if it can be put to the use of words, there arose at a certain stage in the history of our civilization the idea that the real meaning of music would be best identified if we could separate it from words altogether. A certain distinction was made in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century between music that is applied and absolute music. Absolute music was thought to be the true music – the music which is not put to use in setting words or in accompanying a dance or in managing the conduct of a drama or any of the normal uses to which music might be put. Absolute music is just there for its own sake and in its own right. And that, surely, is the music of the concert hall: music which is simply played, which we attend to in reverent silence.

The word absolute was very appealing to the German romantic philosophers and poets who first put it forward – partly because it is a philosophical word. It seems to denote something which has purified itself of all pollution from the surrounding day-to-day reality. It’s as though this kind of music is lifted out of all its applications so as to reveal what it is in itself, in its essence. It reveals its intrinsic meaning. Now, whether you can make full sense of that is one of the great questions of musical aesthetics. And I’ll just say one or two things about it because I think, again, this is part of trying to understand why music has had the enormous significance that it has had for us.

The first point to make is that music is not a representational art. I think this is not often seen quite as clearly as it should be seen. Painting, as you know, is a representational art in its highest forms. It is an attempt to depict reality. It shows the world in a certain light, but the world that it shows is independent of the painting. You look at the painting and you see through the painting to another world – not always, of course: with modern abstract art you don’t have that experience. But that’s one reason for thinking that modern abstract art is a kind of degenerate case. In the central case, painting is there to represent something other than itself. And the same is true of literature and poetry. But in the case of music, this is not so. Although music can be used to set words, although it can be used to accompany a dance or to present a drama, in the case that really interests us – where we think that we are concentrating on the music itself – it doesn’t represent things, or if it does represent something it’s only itself. It is just there, as an object of attention. There are cases, of course, where music imitates sounds other than musical sounds. In Debussy’s La Mer you have attempts to imitate the movement of the sea in various conditions. But suppose somebody said to you that, although he loves Debussy’s La Mer, he can’t see any analogy with the movement of the sea. You wouldn’t say for that reason that he had misunderstood it. There are many forms of imitation that you don’t have to latch onto in order to understand the movement in the music. If music were a representational art you’d have to understand the subject matter in order to understand the music. And I think it’s very, very rare that that is required – that you, as it were, understand the music in terms of something else.

And again, music isn’t a language, either. It’s like a language in certain respects, but you couldn’t use music in order to conduct a conversation. When you hear in many of the Haydn and Beethoven quartets that kind of conversation-like music, as though the instrumentalists were responding to each other in the way that people do when having a friendly conversation, it’s not an actual conversation that you’re hearing. There is nothing other than the music that they are saying to each other. There is no exchange of information. It’s just something that’s very like a conversation going on. Even so, of course, music does have a kind of syntax – that is to say, there are rules that seem to have emerged over time to which we get habituated. And every note in music builds up certain expectations as to what will follow it. This is particularly true of tonal music. One of the things that worries us about atonal music is that we don’t have expectations as to what will follow any particular note in a melodic line or any particular harmony in the accompanying chords. But with tonal music, precisely because of the tonal syntax, we do have those expectations. So there is a background syntax that we seem to be able to grasp and it carries us forward through the music. It seems to be intimately connected with the meaning of the music. And in that sense, music is like a language.

But this syntax is not conventional: it’s the effect of use and not the cause of it. In language, syntax is entirely arbitrary. You can make your own rules – and there are many artificial languages of which this is true. Each language has different rules for constructing a syntactically correct sentence out of the parts of it. But in music, syntax is not conventional. There is something natural about the syntax that has emerged over the centuries in tonal music. It wasn’t somebody’s choice to create the relation between the dominant seventh and the tonic which makes the tonic such a natural successor to the dominant seventh. That’s something that we’ve learned to hear, and if you try to remake the code so that that particular convention – that syntactical rule – is denied, you’ll find that your audience won’t follow you. So it’s like the syntax of language in a way, but not conventional.

Bach: Cello Suite No. 1

There is nevertheless a form that emerges from the use of this syntax, and musical form is one of the most important features that interests us in this so-called absolute music – music which is there for its own sake and is not applied to anything else. And as in architecture, the parts of music answer to each other. Léon Krier in his lecture showed us some very wonderful examples – in his inimitable draftsman’s style – of architectural elements in which the parts enter into relation with each other, and how by altering the dimensions the relation is in some way distorted. Another meaning entirely begins to attach itself to the architectural form. But without the meaningful parts, the architectural form would have no meaning at all. It’s because there are moldings that you can divide a wall into meaningful areas and see whether they correspond to each other proportionately. It’s because a column has a capital, a base, and all the moldings around them that you can understand the relations between its parts and obtain a sense of harmony between them. And I think that one of the great errors ­– to add to what Léon said – of modernism is to think that you can understand the architectural form without the meaningful parts from which the building is constructed. On the contrary, you end up with buildings which, because you have no meaningful parts, have no shadows with which to measure them. I think something similar is true of music: musical form isn’t just an overall, liquid assembly. It’s generated, bit-by-bit, from meaningful details. It is only there because we have this syntax which enables us to understand the parts.

But there is a mystery, as well, to musical form. It’s not just a matter of following certain rules. The traditional forms of music were constructed according to rules. There’s a rule for constructing the perfect sonata form movement. There are rules for constructing fugues, and so on. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that you obey these rules that the resulting piece of music will have real musical form. Clementi’s sonatas and sonatinas, which all of you learn when you begin learning to play the piano, are full of perfect sonata form movements which are deeply formless. There’s nothing that happens in them. There is no real tension built up at the beginning which takes them through to the end. But they’re charming and very useful to piano teachers. In Scarlatti, you have these defiant violations of the traditional forms. Those little sonatas of his which seem from the technical point of view entirely formless are nevertheless perfect little miniatures – perfectly formed in the sense that everything given at the beginning takes you inexorably through to the end, and there isn’t a redundant element in them. This is true, too, of the great formal masterpieces like the sonata movements of Bruckner’ symphonies. But there could be formal perfection, also, without conventional form when there is no reference to any particular system of rules for generating a musical movement – as in the three movements of Debussy’s La Mer, each of which is formally absolutely perfect in the sense that I’m intending, but has no real reference to the traditions of musical structure. This is similarly true of Beethoven’s late C-sharp minor quartet.

So why should we be interested in form in this case? This is a deep question, which is extremely relevant to the whole idea of a listening culture. When you go to a concert to listen to something, you go not just because it’s live music and otherwise you only get it on your iPad or whatever. You’re going partly because the form seems so much clearer when you can engage with your eyes and with your sense of space with the individual components, the individual musical lines, that go to compose it. I think this is one of the most important aspects of the listening experience – when you’re in the presence of the players – that in some way you see and hear and are surrounded by this coming-together of separate currents of energy into a comprehensive form. And this interest is not simply the result of taking an aesthetic attitude – in other words, of attending to the thing – it goes deeper.

We have a deep interest in form. We require the parts in a work of music to answer to each other. And, as I said, part of the disaster of modernist architecture lies here. It reminds us that we are at home with form but we are at sea with the formless. If you look at the city with which you are familiar, you have a very good example of this: Baltimore is one of the few American cities that hasn’t been yet entirely destroyed. It’s got another five or six years of life. You’ve got whole sections of the street where you see buildings that were made in very different sizes and of very different materials, but all attempting to produce form out of matching parts or out of parts that respond to each other. Then they’re interrupted by utterly formless blocks which have bulk but no detail. And we’re not at home with those other things.

Form seems to be a fundamental need of the human psyche. Why is this? I’ll offer just a very rough suggestion, which is that our lives are incomplete and we are constantly embarking on things – adventures or just a walk around the block or a conversation with a friend or something bigger like a love affair or whatever. We embark on these things and it quickly dissipates in chaos or incompletion. Something interrupts it. Nothing comes properly to an end, and then a sense invades us of the futility of things. “I should have done that properly. I didn’t bring it to a conclusion. It is simply the ragged ends of something that I began but couldn’t actually bring to any effective conclusion.” In everything we do we are aiming to get somewhere, but we never seem to arrive there.

Perhaps one of the things that art can do us is to provide us with a destination. When we enter a work of music, so to speak, we’re taken up by it and it’s moving us towards a destination of its own. Because in some deep sense we’re identifying with the movement in the music, we hear it as bringing to completion the gestures that originated in us. We follow these gestures and episodes to their completion. And there’s a sense that, after all, these ragged ends of human life don’t have to be just ragged. They could, in some ideal world, find a conclusion of their own; and we are, similarly, beings who do have it within us to arrive at our destination. You can think of your own examples of that, but to me, a very effectively example is the first movement of Brahms’s fourth symphony, which starts off with a very obvious gesture: a descending third followed by a rising sixth. And growing out of that gesture is another one of the same kind, and then you gradually realize that this gesture has penetrated the whole orchestra and has taken on a life of its own and moves through successive blocks of thematic material until finally it reaches its inevitable fulfillment ten minutes later.

As well as our desire for form, we also have a hunger for meaning. Music, as I said earlier, is not sound. It inhabits sound in the same way that a face inhabits a picture. It’s there in the sound; we hear the movement in the sound through entering that imagined space. What we’re hearing, judged as a physical object, is just sound. But the music is not that sound. It is the thing that we hear in it. So we’re always listening for something that speaks to us through the music – a kind of disembodied voice in an imagined space. And that voice is in the world but not of it, to use the religious language. It is speaking to us, but not from any space in which we ourselves stand.

Nevertheless, we judge it. If we’re listening, we want to know if it’s saying something serious. And if it’s serious, from what psychic region does it come? We have the impression often that truly serious music has, as it were, put its ear to the ground and heard the far-off murmur of the infinite. And that’s the kind of experience you have obviously from things like the openings of Bruckner’s symphonies and the famous opening of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in which the music is saying, “Look, something is speaking through me from far, far away – and you must put your ear to the ground just as I am doing.”

This connects in my view with our experience of each other. To understand an experience, of course, is not necessarily to justify it. But we still have to understand this experience that we get from music. And one way of understanding it is to see its relation to our everyday experience of each other. What I want to say is that the reaching for the transcendental is actually an everyday event for human beings. It isn’t something unusual because it’s what we are doing all the time with each other.

When I encounter another person, as I encounter you or as you encounter each other, whether in conversation or just simply standing and looking at you, I have a sense that there is a kind of barrier between me and you. There you are looking at me, speaking to me, but the thing that you really are – the ‘I’ behind that barrier – is not something that can ever be made visible or tangible to me. And yet I’m constantly reaching out to try and take possession of it, to try to be in full contact with you. And I, too, stand behind such a barrier. I know that you’re looking at my face and you’re listening to my words, but I also know that in some deep sense you can’t actually enter that space from which I address you.

We have to reach across this barrier. Otherwise, what is the point of human life? Everything that we do and hope for depends upon crossing that barrier to the other and being at one with him or her. So we do reach across it, and when we’re doing things together of the right kind, we can forget that barrier. We have a sense in communal activities that the barrier has dissolved and that the various ‘I’s have melted into a ‘we.’ And I think this dissolving of the barrier between us occurs especially in our shared attention to the ‘no place,’ as in the religious experience when we’re all attending to the altar, that ‘no place’ which is a place nevertheless.

I suspect that something similar is going on also in the concert hall. The music is, as it were, speaking for us in our communal assault on the silence that is being created in the concert hall, and we are with it in trying to get through to what it is that’s speaking through that silence. I think the sense that we find in music a transcendental voice that we can engage with and enter into communication with is something that has its origins in our everyday need for each other. And that’s part of its significance for us.

Now, I think I’ll say a little bit more. I think I have more material than I can possible present to you, but I shall carry on for a bit more. We’re all familiar with the facts of human sympathy: that we can be at one with another person in his joy or grief, and likewise we can feel sympathy for animals, for nature itself – we can be at one with the natural world in the sense that we feel a harmony between our emotions and our will, our desires, and the context that surrounds us and inspires those things in us. And when I feel sympathy with another person, I enter into his state of mind. “I know what it’s like to feel as you do.” We don’t necessarily know how to put it into words, but often in extreme moments of sympathy, especially those which are of real value to us, we have this sense of knowing from inside what the other person is feeling. And there is a kind of vindication of our own life in that. The fact that that is possible brings home to us the other dimension of our being, where we are at one with others.

Music can also shows what it is like to be in a condition for which we have no words. In Fidelio, when Leonore and Florestan are finally aware of each other’s presence they sing that famous duet O namenlose Freude! (O Nameless Joy!). And the music really does express a joy of the kind no words could possibly capture – and indeed probably of a kind that only somebody as solitary as Beethoven could think really exists. Nevertheless, the music, as it were, gives us that first person perspective on this otherwise unknowable thing.

In a similar way, much music reaches towards the transcendental – reaches beyond the limits of this world to the kind of archetypes from which we think our own feelings and states of mind have descended. And perhaps this shared moment of reaching towards the transcendental is what we ultimately wanted from music. That is one of the real questions: Is it so?

Well, I’ll conclude with a philosophical thought about ‘about.’ My feelings are directed from the ‘I’ towards the ‘you.’ This is what philosophers call an intentional relation, not a material relation. I feel maybe fear, love, shame, or whatever towards you. And it may be that I feel this even though you don’t exist. It’s unknown to me that you’ve been killed, but still my feeling is there. The feeling is a going out towards the other which doesn’t necessarily depend upon the other’s existence or anything that’s going on in the other.

And this feature of our states of mind – their intentionality – is something that philosophers regard as, in many ways, marking out the human condition from everything else in the universe. Here we have these extraordinary conditions that we undergo which are in some way incomplete. They’re reaching out from us; they are unsaturated. They’re looking for the object that will fulfill them and complete them. We have this sense all the time with each other – that we’re reaching out in that way – and I think we have this in music, too. When we’re listening properly, surrounded by others who are doing likewise, and imagining that space in which the music moves under impulses of its own, we hear the music, not just moving as a physical object might move, but having intentions of its own, reasons of its own. It’s got a reason for moving from C to E-flat, just as we might have. It is a kind of master of its imagined space.

Important works of music exhibit in that way a kind of freedom and completeness to which we aspire in our own lives, but which we don’t obtain. For this reason, I think we think of music as having an ‘aboutness’ of its own. It’s not just there, the movement of sounds in imaginary space. It is itself responding to something that we can’t directly perceive or know – in just the way that we can’t directly perceive or know each other. It is, if you like, a source of feelings which belong to it. It’s as though it is about something even though it’s not something that we could ever ourselves engage with or know directly.

And I think it’s this feature of music – this capacity it has to lift up our hearts, to take us into a world where we, too, can imagine being complete in our emotions, to take all our emotions to their conclusion, and to rejoice in them as they are – that is perhaps the most important experience of the concert hall, and one which is threatened wherever the listening experience is threatened by invasion from the noise that surrounds us.

So I would give these as my philosophical reasons for thinking that music not only gives us a sense of the transcendental, but is a part of our lives that fulfills us and depends upon the whole symphonic concert hall tradition in order to be the thing that it is. I’ll stop there. Thank you.


Beauty and Desecration

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a transcription of the plenary address delivered by Sir Roger Scruton at The Power of Beauty Conference, hosted in October 2014 by the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.
It is reprinted here with their gracious permission,
and we encourage you to watch their video of the address.

Just to say a few general philosophical things to begin with about why beauty matters: We live in a world in which utilitarian values are not just triumphant but for many people the only values that there are. There seems to be no sense that things can have a value which is not a form of use. This means that all of us are engaged all the time in what some philosophers call instrumental reasoning. Whenever we’re asked to justify something we try to find a purpose for it – we justify, for instance, the shape of this room in terms of its purpose, which is to gather people together to listen to a lecture. If it’s not very efficient at that, then the room has not actually achieved what it set out to achieve.

In all our activities we are familiar with this kind of reasoning, but what other kinds of reasoning are there? We know perfectly well that instrumental reasoning can’t be the only kind because if something is a means to an end, there has to be an end that it’s a means to. That too needs a justification. So we do reason with each other – rather insecurely but nevertheless we do reason – about the ends of our activities, what our goals are, and whether we should be pursuing the goals that we pursue. This is especially true in activities like building – building a room like this, or setting out on a career, and so on – in which there is a long-term project involved and an end point that you can’t very clearly envisage.

When you set out to build something you can’t clearly envisage the end point just from a ground plan. You need some conception of not just what it will look like but what it will be like to live with it. Only if you know what it’s like to live with it will you be justified in building it. Here is an example of a simple activity in which aesthetic reasoning is fundamental. One reason why modern architecture is such a failure is that people don’t do this. They don’t try to envisage what it will be like to live with the product of their building, only what its capacity is for the number of people assigned to it, and so on. Reasoning about what it’s like to live with something means bringing the end of your activity forward into the present so that you sense its being, as it were, with you in the moment where you are. And that is one of the roles of beauty and of aesthetic judgment in our lives: to do just that.

In another area, of course, we argue about our ends from a religious point of view. We know that people have this conception of the meaning of life, as lying in some way beyond life – either in the transcendental or in the afterlife. And this meaning is sometimes revealed in the present moment, the moments which people are apt to describe as sacred: the moment of liturgy and worship, the moment of revelation, of reading a sacred text, and so on. Perhaps being blessed with that experience is what Saint Paul described as the peace that passeth understanding.

That’s a very powerful emotion and a powerful experience if you can obtain it. But of course we live in a world where not everybody does obtain it or even seeks for it. And increasingly the surrounding culture either ignores that sort of thing or denigrates it. So it’s very difficult to explain to people who are immersed in the secular culture today exactly how you would think about justifying the ends of existence and not just the means. We need some other notion of the real presence in our life of the meaning of things if we are going to be able to justify to others who are skeptical exactly what it is that we want them to do. I think this is our situation today.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1889

Here is a picture, a landscape by Renoir. There’s no particular reason for me to have chosen this landscape – and all landscapes presented on PowerPoint are hopeless anyway, because, as you know, it’s backlit and it doesn’t contain the texture of the paint, and certainly not that of the canvas. Still, you see in that a particular artist’s attempt not just to present a little bit of la douce France, which everybody loves, but also to make you love it, too. And whatever goes on in that landscape is imbued with a sense of peace and order and it takes from the surrounding colors the vitality that makes life meaningful. Renoir, like other Impressionists, painted a world to which we belong. Belonging is an all-important aspect of human experience. Not everybody has it, and of course our jails are filled with the people who don’t. Most people in this room, I imagine, got here without criminal offenses, and feel that they do instinctively belong in the world and are in the business of trying to make that belonging more rooted, more permanent, more wound together with coexistence with their fellows. That of course is part of what education is about. And that’s what you see in that beautiful landscape by Renoir: a painting of ordinary fruit trees and an ordinary mountain in the distance, and so on – but painting it all as part of the world to which we belong.

For Renoir and his contemporaries, it was a post-religious world. They were very much people of their time who were skeptical about religion. And in any case, they regarded it as their duty as painters to show that it is this world and not the next that matters. It is quite hard to paint the next world, as you can imagine. It has been done in words by Dante, and a few painters have tried to follow him, but for the most part it has been a failure. Nevertheless our world is not that bad. It is imbued with its own tranquility, and that tranquility can reside in perception itself. That’s what Renoir was telling us: stop, stand still, look. In that perception you will see that this thing in front of you has a meaning all of its own, a meaning which justifies you being in it and reminds you that you belong to it. There’s a moment of standing still that we all can achieve and in which we can let the otherness of the world dawn on us. It’s something other than me – not just imagined by me, but there in front of me and including me nevertheless.

When painters do this – the painters of modern life, as Beaudelaire called them – they don’t behave as photographers behave. This is something very difficult to explain to people these days as everybody goes around with this criminal object in their pockets immortalizing the ephemera of their existence, and as a result desecrating it with their own trivial perceptions. Renoir wasn’t doing anything like that at all. He wasn’t pointing a camera at this landscape. Maybe the landscape didn’t entirely look like that. He was trying to extract from it what it means, not just from a perceptual point of view but also spiritually.

We live in a time when there is much ugliness around us and much desecration – in many ways, a deliberate making ugly of things, or a carelessness as to whether things should be ugly or beautiful. And many things that we regard as beautiful we discover to be desecrated not just by the way we treat them but also by the works of art which are supposed to celebrate them. We know this obviously from our experience of the human form. The human form is all-important to us because it is the primary locus of meaning, the thing that means most to us in the world. The human face and the human body come before us imbued with the life of the spirit. But we can also, as we know, desecrate them – as they are desecrated by pornography and such things, which turn the subject into an object. And being turned into an object is essentially to lose one’s spiritual value.

Part of what lies behind this is a growing obsession with power. Power is the great commodity that is as it were transferred from person to person in the world we are creating. Many people would say, here is old Scruton up in front of an audience enjoying his power. You are transferring to me that power, the power to hold your attention and to infect you with my reactionary attitudes. This power is something that I have not yet justified to you. Many scholars influenced by people like Foucault will say that I couldn’t justify it. The institution is structured by domination, and I’m enjoying that domination and triumphing over you, the victims who are sitting before me. Now, you don’t actually believe that because you know that you are sitting there willingly, but nevertheless you can redescribe the whole of the world in that way. You can take the most innocent thing – the love of a mother for a child, or a child for a mother – and there’s power in that too. If there weren’t, the mother couldn’t protect the child. But yet, it’s not the power aspect of it that’s important here, it’s the love aspect. All our loves create powers.

In all the things that matter to us most there is that element of power. Of the tranquility that Renoir is trying to put across to us in that painting, many of our literary and artistic critics today would ask the question, “What does this tranquility conceal? Who is using it, who is gaining, who is losing?” And you can imagine the text in Modern Language Review which will analyze that painting and try to persuade you that it is there as part of the hegemony of the bourgeois class, representing nature as a place that endorses its comfortable and relaxing attitudes, excluding the truth about labor, which went into creating those fruit trees in the first place – in other words, legitimizing the power of the French bourgeoisie over the French proletariat. In that way Renoir becomes part of the ideology which is being imposed upon us by our Western culture. We need to liberate the oppressed, the victim, from beneath this ideology. And the victim of course will turn out to be whoever the current obsession is – probably working-class women in this particular case.

When you start thinking like that, nothing is as it seems. It’s as though there’s a reality behind everything and that reality is the power that people exercise over each other. And that’s why beauty is a kind of deception – because it’s always concealing those real relations between people in which one class or one person or one group has dominion over another. But of course for the Impressionist painters that’s all nonsense. For them, seeming is everything. What Renoir was trying to do in that painting is to remind you of something that you would otherwise not notice: namely, that the world does seem in a certain way to you and that’s what it really, really is – in other words, how it comes across to you in your immediate perception when you’ve stopped all the instrumental reasoning, forgotten all the powers and the projects, and just look. But because of this obsession with power, people do wipe away the face of the world so that the way things seem is no longer available to us, and that means that beauty is no longer available to us, either.

Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995
Chapman brothers: Zygotic acceleration biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model, 1995

Here’s an example of a work of art, if you can call it that, which was created by two brothers. It’s quite normal now in the products of the British art schools for people to do joint works of art like this because that way you get rid of the romantic idea of the artistic genius who has something special to say. You’re doing it together with someone else. And of course, the purpose in this case is to make the human body repulsive, into a kind of liquid, standing in these childish Mary Jane shoes with all the parts deformed – penis instead of nose and things like that. What its point is can only be understood if you realize that these boys were brought up in an art school which tells them that the purpose of art in not to beautify life, in no way to replace the sacred moments that religion might have given us, in no way to give you a sense of the meaningfulness of things. On the contrary, it is to deconstruct those things, to show that life is essentially meaningless, and you can best do this by taking the human body and making it repulsive.

Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998
Tracey Emin: My Bed, 1998

We all know of Tracey Emin’s famous bed – which last changed hands at two million pounds – in which she presented, well, her bed – after she had got out of it, of course, and with all the debris of her night’s dissipation lying on the carpet around it. And there it is. It’s in the Tate Modern Gallery now, its permanent resting place, although of course those sheets are going to rot away quicker than most sheets do. I want to contrast it with another bed, which I mentioned in the film I made about this: Delacroix’s bed. Delacroix, as you know, is a great French painter from the Romantic period, who is also a highly learned and interested cultural figure, perhaps one of the greatest of the nineteenth-century cultural figures in France.

Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828
Eugène Delacroix: Un Lit Defait, 1828

Here is his bed. This isn’t an actual bed, of course, this is a painting of a bed. In painting it, he has tried to transfer into the bed some of his sense of the value of lying in it, of being the thing that was in it, and also what it meant to wrestle with the sheets in that way. A comparison of these two does help you to understand a little bit about what’s gone wrong with art today. Tracey Emin’s bed presents itself but obviously nothing beyond itself; it just is there. Delacroix’s bed presents something other than itself. It’s a life that’s been translated into those fabrics, a perpetuation in another form of a spiritual wrestling, which we know from Delacroix’s life and his other paintings – that wrestling with fabric, with reality, the flexibility of this world, and the attempt to impose upon it a meaningful human form, if you like, a testimony to the spiritual life with which we invest all the objects that we’re in touch with. So he was looking for a kind of harmony, order, even a redemption in the shape of those sheets. He’s searching for the trace left in them by the spirit, which will be a meaning beyond the present moment. Here we’re talking about the difference between an attempt to represent life, which is also a transfiguration of a life into something which is a permanent record of the spirit, and the mere debris of a life. Once you see it you realize that only the first of those is a genuine artistic activity.

However, we’ve entered this period in our history where ugliness has become a kind of cult – not ugliness as such but more transgressive ugliness, like those melted-together human figures of the Chapman brothers. It’s an ugliness that pollutes or negates some familiar ideal or value. Transgression is something which also has a certain appeal, especially to younger people. It’s an act of self-affirmation that frees itself from judgment. The transgressive gesture is one that says, “I don’t actually care whether you judge me or not. I’m going do it and I’m going to affirm myself against your judgment, and that is in itself a liberation.” I think we’ve seen this in every sphere of human endeavor since the 1960s: the assumption of the freedom to offend, the freedom to annihilate other people’s vision of what matters, and to show that the values for which other people live don’t count for you. That’s a stage which obviously all of us have to go through at certain points in our lives. We have to fight against our parents, fight against institutions, fight against the people who seem to be preventing us from being what we truly are and going out into the world and claiming it as our own. In the normal run of things that’s not a particularly bad thing to do because, after all, once you’re out there in the big world, feeling the winds of change around you, you realize that you are actually on your own and that it was a terrible mistake to be so offensive to the people you need, and gradually you work your way back to them. You reassume possession of them in their view and you are reconciled and forgiven, as in the famous parable of the prodigal son. So there’s a paradox in this position of assuming the freedom to offend: it’s only because other people’s values count for you that you can be exhilarated by defying them or disavowing their ideals.

William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953
William de Kooning: Woman III, 1953

Nevertheless this is certainly what artists at a certain stage did. De Kooning was a paradigm of this. He’s an artist who, I think, has largely been seen through now, except in America – and the reason why he has not been seen through in America is that a lot of money has been spent on his pictures. So museums, art critics, and private owners conspire together to make sure they are not going to lose the two million dollars that they spent on them. If you can keep the values up, your museum is still worth what you invested in it. This is just called Woman, and it’s his representation of what a woman fundamentally is. All those ideals of womanhood which you might have entertained in your self-deceiving moments are as nothing compared with this representation.

And here is another instance of this way of approaching our ideals. Rusalka – some of you may know this great opera by Dvorak – tells the famous story of Ondine the water nymph who falls in love with a mortal. And it’s a beautiful, romantic story not only about the mystery of woman but also about the importance of chastity and purity in preparing a woman for love, and the danger in which she is put by that. And of course this is symbolized by the fact that there she is living in the water. If she comes out of it, is that the end of her? And if she tempts the mortal into the water, is that the end of him? This story has been told many times, but never as well as by Dvorak. This is the production that Covent Garden made of that opera in which Rusalka, the pure water nymph who dreams of an erotic relation which no water nymph is allowed, is a prostitute and the water is the bath in which she is lying, expecting the stream of lovers. And for reasons that can’t be explained she sings an aria to the moon.

Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir
Covent Garden: Rusalka, 2012; Image by Alastair Muir

Now that’s simply one example of a very ordinary occurrence in opera productions today. The idea in so many opera producers’ minds when given a romantic fairy tale like this is of course to desecrate it if you can, and also to bring in sex, violence, and all the usual stuff in order that the audience you have trapped there – an audience of ordinary, decent middle-class people who spent a couple hundred dollars for the ticket – well, you can really give them a hard time. You’re never going to get them there in any other way because they came for this beautiful romantic legend – and they won’t come again, but you’ve got them for a couple hours anyway. This is the way in which opera productions tend to go now. Why did all this come about?

I think we can’t understand this great movement to desecrate works of art like that if we don’t attend a little bit to the phenomenon of kitsch and the distrust of beauty that arose because of kitsch. The Romantic movement that arose, as you know, at the end of the eighteenth century and dominated all of art through the nineteenth century was a movement away from beauty, the homely sorts of beauty that appeal to ordinary people and that don’t seem to threaten them. There was a movement toward the sublime, presenting great tragedies rather than sweet fairy tales, emphasizing the difficulties of human life, the difficulty of emerging from a life of oppression, and so on. We have many great works of Romantic art which focus on these fairly negative aspects of the human condition but try to find beauty in them nevertheless. All this is epitomized in Beaudelaire’s famous poem to beauty, which I recommend you to read, Fleurs du Mal. There was a movement away from the beautiful and at the same time a fear of the sweetness that beauty can bring into our lives. Isn’t there a kind of deception involved in that? If life really is as bad as we all know it to be, isn’t art deceiving us by trying to make us accept it and find sweetness and consolation in it? Maybe there is no sweetness and consolation. Maybe art should have another role, that of showing the truth to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to perceive it. If art concentrates on beauty, isn’t it going to degenerate into a form of lying, a form of faking things?

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486
Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus (detail), 1486

I’ll give you a contrast between two Venuses. Everybody knows Botticelli’s Venus, who is so detached from the world, and I contrast him with the Venus of Bouguereau, being the famous salon painter of the nineteenth century in France who was a wonderfully accomplished painter in the style of Ingres, but a question mark inevitably is placed over him because of this sweetness and gentleness and also the perfection of everything he did, which seemed to many people to be a kind of lying. Beaudelaire expressly defended Manet against Bouguereau because Manet was showing us life as it is without any of this cloying sweetness. You all know Botticelli’s Venus, not an easy way to show it, but in that face you see a particular conception of what the erotic is. Botticelli was a Platonist, who believed as Plato did that beauty is an object of desire but it’s also a gateway to the transcendental, that you understand what beauty really is if you follow through that gateway, leave behind your earthly desires, and unite with the spiritual condition from which they originally spring.

William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879
William-Adolphe Bougereau: The Birth of Venus, 1879

This face for him was not an object of sexual desire but an object of a sexual desire that had been transcended. She was Simonetta Vespucci, who was mistress of his prince Lorenzo de Medici, and therefore unobtainable anyway. The thought in this Venus is the symbol of the erotic as Plato conceived it, something to be transcended into the spiritual.

Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, as you see, is all perfection of form but doesn’t mean anything. There she is, sniffing her freshly shaven armpit, waiting for the lover who’s going to come through the bathroom door, and obviously she’ll have to get rid of the company meanwhile. Bouguereau was a great master of color and form, but somehow the sentiment is fake: it isn’t a real Venus. This is sexuality in its ordinary, vulgar form without any attempt to show you the meaning of it and its reflection in the transcendental.

Desecration takes many forms. But if we worry about kitsch – which all artists today do – what do we do about it? There are two ways of dealing with it. First, try and find a way of producing real art that is not kitsch. And that’s a really hard thing to do: producing art that doesn’t have this fake character, isn’t childish and isn’t a Christmas decoration. Or you can do what Jeff Koons does: produce something that is so obviously kitsch that no one could ever accuse you of it. He’s saying, “Of course, this is such obvious kitsch that I must be making another and deeper point.” No one has ever discovered what the deeper point is. But there it is, desecrating a beautiful classical façade probably for many years to come.

Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000
Jeff Koons: Balloon Dog (Magenta), 2000

The causes of this situation in which we find ourselves go deep. We have acquired this distrust of beauty because it is an invitation into realms that have been mined. There are traps here. You might fall into the trap of Bouguereau; however beautiful your human figures, they turn out in the end just to be standard Christmas card porn, or something like that. The reality slips away from you and you’re left with this fake.

Artists have come to distrust beauty. And I think you all know this from modern cinema and much modern music as well. There is an attempt often to show that you’re a genuine artist by producing something that nobody could possibly like, so you must be serious. And there are consolations also of ugliness, consolations of showing that in some way life doesn’t matter anyway. That’s the meaning of the Chapman brothers’ sculpture. Life is simply a nothingness. We happen to have been born and we will die and decay and disappear – and so what? There’s a charm in that kind of view, a charm which I call the charm of disenchantment. Being disenchanted with things gives you a kind of glamor. If you go around a room of people who are ooh-ing and aah-ing with fake enchantment about kitsch, then your being disenchanted gives you a kind of distinction.

Many artists aspire to that distinction of not being taken in by anything, not being dupes to the surrounding culture and values. Added to this there is a desire to desecrate values as well, like putting graffiti on things or a moustache on the Mona Lisa. When that moustache was first put on the Mona Lisa by Marcel duChamps, you can see what he was doing. He was saying, “Yes, yes, yes, but we’ve gone beyond that. That’s all nonsense. You might be taken in by that but I’m not.” And essentially, ever since that gesture which was made a hundred years ago, the majority of art that we’ve come across, at least the art coming from art schools, has been putting another moustache on the Mona Lisa. The question automatically arises as to whether there is any point in doing it twice, let alone a thousand times. The thought behind all this is that we’ve asked too much of art, we’ve asked it to be a substitute for religion, to be the light from and the window onto the transcendental. If it disappoints us, we start becoming angry with it. Disappointment turns to repudiation.

So what is the mission of art, then? Is there a mission we can still maintain? I believe we all have a need for redemption. I don’t mean that necessarily in the religious sense. I mean that we need our actions, our gestures, our plans and projects, to have a fulfillment of some kind, to lift us out of the day-to-day appetites that otherwise swallow us. All our actions aim towards this; they aim beyond themselves to a point of rest in which we can look back and endorse what we have done. This is obviously the case with human relations, especially love relations, but it’s there in all our lives and a life without this, without ideals, gets tired of itself. When people set out on the path of transgression it’s partly because they’ve become disappointed with the possibility of actually achieving this sort of redemption.

Where, then, does beauty fit into this and what can it actually do by way of satisfying this desire? I have argued that the search for beauty is the search for home, for a place where you can be at home with yourself and with others, but in particular where you belong. Going back to the Renoir painting, which is a painting of a landscape as a thing that we belong to, being at home means being at home with yourself. And that means seeing yourself in some way as another, as another person, seeing yourself from outside – not just this selfish self-involved thing you are familiar with when you wake up in the morning, but that other thing which you were when you went to bed, having spent the day with other people. You want to be at home with what you find. I think this search for being at home does not start with high art, nor does it end there. One of the reasons people have become so confused about beauty is because they have constantly taken their examples from the realm of high art, those great and difficult things like Botticelli’s Venus, which you have to think about for an awfully long time before you know what it really means. High art challenges us in the deepest parts of our being, and maybe we get turned off by it, we feel we can’t live up to it, so let’s live in another way. But that’s not where the search for beauty begins, nor is it where it ends.

I think it begins and ends in everyday life. People misconceive aesthetics when they see it merely as the realm of beauty. It is as though that’s all we were ever thinking about when we were going around our world making aesthetic judgments. “Oh yes, that’s beautiful. No, that’s ugly.” But that’s not the way we behave at all. We actually make completely different kinds of judgments. We talk about whether something fits in, whether it’s graceful, whether that would be the right way to go forward, does this color fit with that color and so on. And I think people take revenge on beauty because they don’t see that there’s something more important without which there can be no revenge. And that more important thing is just our instinct to get things right, to make things fit in and harmonize. This is where the aesthetic judgment is a fundamental part of our everyday lives; we are making it all the time.

Now, I’m not a natty dresser but even I had to question whether this tie goes with this jacket. It probably doesn’t, but nevertheless the question occupied me for a certain amount of time, and it was part of my attempt to fit in and harmonize and also to fit in to this occasion where I’m giving a public lecture. You could put this, however, in a much more pretentious and philosophical way by saying that when we do this we’re trying to realize ourselves as subjects in the realm of objects. That’s the language that Hegel and his followers would use. It’s a tough language, but you can see what it means. We are free beings, we are subjects who have an inner life, but that inner life is not meaningful to us if we cannot in some way make it into an outward reality among other outward realities. In all our gestures we are trying achieve that, to become something real, and part of things – to belong, in other words.

So, this realization is something that goes on all the time and all rational beings are engaged in it. Children know about this already. In these two little girls you see what Wittgenstein would call the natural expression of aesthetic judgment. There they are, trying to fit things in the right place on the table. They’re not saying to themselves, “Is this beautiful, is this ugly, or sublime?” Those words are not part of their vocabulary, probably, but they are asking themselves the question, “Is this right? Am I getting it right? Should it be a little more to the left?” You can see the intent expression here, something only human beings manifest. No animals manifest this sense of the rightness and wrongness of things because these girls are not reasoning instrumentally. They are completely beyond the idea of the function of these things. They are trying to fit things together so they look right, so the guests will find that they look right, too. That’s the beginnings of the aesthetic attitude.

We know this as well. We don’t accept the world simply as a thing out there, an assembly of objects. We try and adorn it and fit it to ourselves and us to it. We are always aware of the distinction between things standing out and fitting in. Sometimes it’s right for them to stand out; sometimes it’s wrong. Fitting in is one of the most important aspects of our life in every sphere of human endeavor. We all have this need to be part of something greater than ourselves, and this is something that happens to us all day long: that we know that we are part of something greater and we know that we are either fitting in or not fitting in. Obviously there is a distinction between looking right and being right, but one of the important features of the aesthetic is that that distinction gets collapsed. If you look back at the two children, there isn’t a distinction between the plate being in the right place and looking in the right place. Being and seeming have come together and that’s perhaps something that’s really important for us – to live in a world where every now and then being and seeming coincide, so that nothing, as it were, deceives us anymore.

I think this is part of the great social significance of the aesthetic. We live in a world which has in many ways been uglified, and it’s a world that we want to redeem so that we are part of it once again and our fulfillment is reflected back to us from all the things we encounter. And that’s really part of what I mean by redemption and that is the function of the aesthetic. This search for getting things right is an all-pervasive thing, no matter what circumstances you are in. Even if you’re living in a trailer park you can do things right. You can go to a local timber merchant and buy the Georgian windows to replace the rubbish that would otherwise be there, you can have a little cornice and so on. And if there’s a lot of money involved you can still get things totally wrong.

This is a part of London, and as you can see, someone’s made a mistake here. There’s another example of London mistakes. But here is getting it right. This is just an ordinary Victorian street in London. Someone has built a bridge across it so that two buildings communicate, but this is a totally different thing. Although there’s lots of different buildings there, they all harmonize. They harmonize because they’re standing along a street, they are all built of vertical components which match each other, and contain they classical details, cornice and stringcourse and pilasters and so on. And here’s an example of a modern town center, the center of Reading, built entirely out of horizontals. One of the important differences between them is everybody wants to live here, and nobody wants to live there, and in fact nobody does live there. The center of Reading was destroyed completely by this development and it’s standing empty and vandalized and covered in graffiti.

modernist living room
A living room of modernist design

This emphasis on the horizontal was originally a very aesthetic thing. The modernist aesthetic exemplified in this interior is entirely designed in this way. You can see that, yes, this is a kind of aesthetic ideal. Nobody, I’m sure, has ever sat in this room but nevertheless you can see that it has aesthetic thoughts behind it. Unlike this. But the modernists, of course, were in reaction against this, all this Victorian clutter, which again is something that most people would find extremely difficult to live with now.

Here is an example of a rather perfected modernist interior: Wittgenstein’s house in Vienna, which he designed for his sister. Wittgenstein, like me, had the sense that architecture ultimately must get the vertical emphasis right, must make verticals stand in parallel to each other, and that the sense of detail matters. This is not my preferred form of architecture but you can see the aesthetic instinct at work in everything in this building. He designed it for his sister, who never lived in it. It ended up as the embassy of a communist country, for which it is wonderfully suited.

Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna
Haus Wittgenstein, Vienna

This is an example of what architects really can do when it comes to making corners. This is the corner of a church in Rome, by Pietro da Cortona. You see when you have the sense of detail, the classical idiom and this desire to fit things together, how a building comes alive and captures the light of the sun and incorporates that light into itself, makes it part of its own spirit, so to speak. Even in architecture the human spirit finds its embodiment.

In conclusion, those examples were sort of taken from the air, really, but they’re meant to emphasize the place of aesthetic judgment, of our desire to get things right, in ordinary, everyday life and in our enterprise as builders and dwellers, as people who have settled down. We know that we are free beings, but we also know that freedom demands recognition. This is something that Hegel emphasized. It has to be re-expressed for every generation.

Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667
Pietro da Cortona: Santa Maria della Pace (corner detail), Rome, 1667

We’re not truly free until others recognize that we are free and grant us the space to be free in. And that means that we’re in relations of mutuality with each other. My freedom is always rubbing up against the edge of your freedom, and that boundary between us is the public world where we both belong. And it is in shaping that boundary between us that the aesthetic sense is so important. That’s where, in our search for recognition from each other, we attempt to be graceful towards each other and to bring each other to our side. I bring you to my side, you bring me to your side, so that the boundary where we coincide is mutually acceptable. This reasonably cool grace is a matter of harmony and fitting in. Of course, it cannot be achieved without the habit of giving and receiving: I give way to you, you give way to me, I offer you things and you receive them. This is what the public world ideally should be. That kind of giving and receiving of things is what should be embodied in our ideal forms of architecture.


Music and Culture

Editor’s note: This address was written for and delivered to an English audience,
though it remains entirely relevant to our own predicament.

Why does today’s Western art music strive so conspicuously for cultural relevance? Why are many of our university music faculties more concerned with cultural theory than with applied music? Why have we lost confidence in historical and applied models of musicology, and moreover in the tonal tradition that forms the basis of the greatest musical heritage known to mankind? In this talk, I will trace the roots of this malaise over the past century. I will explore the ways in which an explicitly Marxist agenda has caused Western art music to abnegate its past, and in doing so, to render itself marginalized in comparison to popular music of chiefly African-American origin. I will also show how political influence has played a large part in the contemporary perception of the Western musical heritage as elitist and thereby culturally taboo.

What makes for good music? Until the First World War there was a general consensus that Western societies valued music that was written with cogency, formal command and structure, and that communicates the higher values of those societies – in which respect we might refer to such words as nobility, beauty and complexity, by which latter term I mean the capacity to reveal hidden levels of meaning upon greater exploration. A major work of Western art music does not merely reflect the human condition, but inspires us beyond our own limitations towards the best of which we are capable.

The experience of good music lifts the spirits, challenges the mind and opens us to the riches of Western civilization. Even works of Western art music which may be considered of lesser stature have the capacity to accord enjoyment from their craft, proportion and charm of execution, in the same way that we may derive pleasure from an Agatha Christie novel despite being aware of its formulaic nature. In the best composers we discover a capacity to surprise and constantly renew their chosen forms with a distinctive individual voice. This renewal leads to organic development and also to experimentation, sometimes with dramatic and effective results.

Although an appreciation of music is probably innate to mankind, it would be a mistake to believe that Western art music will yield up its secrets without an appreciation of its context and techniques. Certainly we can appreciate music that is strongly rhythmic, or that relies on simple repetition for its effects, without much in the way of specialist knowledge. But when encountering a Bach fugue for the first time, many of the uninitiated will be put off by what appears arcane, impenetrable, and difficult to follow. To traverse the unknown region, a roadmap is necessary.

The roadmap comes in the form of understanding both the circumstances in which that piece came to be written – the details of the composer’s biography and the way in which the work in question fits into his output and the overall genre in question – and the means by which the piece makes its effect. The first consideration belongs to the realms of history and musical appreciation. The second belongs to the realm of musical techniques.

If our aim is merely to appreciate music at the level of the amateur, so that we can enrich our lives as a result, we need to go down both of these routes on the roadmap. If our aim is either to write music that is worthy of comparison with that of the masters, or to perform it in some way that does it justice, we need to travel further and explore more widely.

In doing so, we will discover that much of what we consider characteristic of Western thought as regards the melodic and harmonic components of music is in fact the product of observed phenomena of long standing. Writing in Dimensions of Paradise, John Michell says “Long before Pythagoras made his famous experiments with lengths of string and pipe, the relationship between number and sound had been noted, and ancient rulers specified certain lawful scales that had to be followed in all musical compositions. The reason for this was that they recognized music as the most influential of all arts, appealing directly to the human temper, and thus a potential source of disturbance in their carefully-ordered canonical societies.”

The Pythagorean method of tuning is, just like modern equal temperament, a form of syntonic temperament, in which each tuning is the product of powers of the ratio 3:2, giving us the cycle of fifths that is familiar within tonal harmony. Another fundamental of tonal harmony, the chromatic scale, originates in an equalized version of the harmonic series, and this equalization in turn owes its impetus to the just intonation established by Ptolemy of Alexandria. As was established by nineteenth-century theorists Riemann and Hauptmann there is nothing accidental or random about the basis of Western music, or indeed of what we have come to regard as hierarchical tonality. It originates in the observation of mathematical and acoustic phenomena and it is likewise a mathematical sense that illuminates our concepts of musical form, proportion and structure. Sir Thomas Browne had it correct when he said, “For there is a music wherever there is a harmony, order or proportion; and thus far we may maintain the music of the spheres.”

As may therefore be expected, the Western musical tradition places a high emphasis upon codification through a notated score and pre-composition. Indeed, the principal difference between Western and non-Western music lies in the West’s relative disdain for improvisation. Whereas Indian art music, for example, places improvisation at its heart, Western art music relegates improvisation to specific and relatively minor roles – chiefly instrumental cadenzas and melodic embellishments. Because of its codification, Western art music is concerned with music not merely as an act of the moment, to be experienced simply by those present, but as an act of legacy, whereby once a composition has been born, it can enjoy a future that is open to posterity, since its score can be interpreted and reinterpreted by successive generations. This codification is akin to the progression from the collective oral tradition of storytelling at the dawn of mankind to the individual authorship of literary work after writing was discovered. It follows that the interpretation of Western art music is therefore also a complex matter embracing distinct schools of thought and specific techniques with much scope for individual input.

We can see, then, that Western music places a clear divide between its art tradition of codified music and its vernacular tradition of uncodified or improvised folk music. We should not deny the appeal and importance of that vernacular tradition. Indeed, the interchange that occurred between national folk traditions and Western art music in the nineteenth-century brought about a renewal that was far-reaching in its influence. Composers such as Vaughan Williams, for example, not only employ actual English folk music as a basis for art music composition, but also write melodies that are inspired by the contours of folk melody, so that they sound as English as the models that inspired them. This, however, is a conscious transmutation. The use of a folk melody in Western art music is the act of the cultural observer and recorder from the world of codified music, not the act of an authentic folk music exponent for whom notation is incidental to the living improvisatory tradition of that music. Nevertheless, there is a justified claim to superiority for Western art music over that of the improvisatory tradition, in that its premeditation leads to greater melodic, harmonic and structural complexity and thereby to more profound possibilities of expression through an extended form such as the symphony.

The secure foundation established by Western art music has contributed to a flourishing of musical performance as well as high standards of music teaching and of musical literacy in the general public. Even as the growth of radio and television during the twentieth-century made concert-going less popular, the following for Western art music among all sectors of society remained strong, as witnessed by the continuation of the private music clubs (which were a leading employer of young musicians and those with a local, rather than a national, reputation), brass bands, music appreciation societies and amateur choirs and orchestras. Significantly, this was a participatory tradition. Western society viewed engagement with music, even at a modest level, as culturally enriching and as a hallmark of the educated man or woman. Further, music’s strong association with the Church was such as to mark music out as morally improving, for after all were the angels not depicted with harps?

One of the main aspects that characterizes the pre-1914 tradition of Western art music is its confidence. The majority of musicians and music educators were not generally beset by existential angst as to the justification for their art. Tonality was expanded, experimented with and challenged by such composers as Wagner and Debussy, but it would only be a small number of composers who, led by Schoenberg, would deliberately break with tonality. What has been described as the late nineteenth-century crisis of tonality is in fact an organic process that would find its logical conclusion not in Second Viennese School serialism, but instead in what might be described as tonal freedom, whereby composers such as Scriabin or Hindemith would retain a background context of tonally-derived melody and harmony while seeking to enrich that context through the extension of tonality into less familiar territory. In other words, musical renewal rested ultimately not with those extremists who sought to cast away tonality’s naturally-derived basis and replace this with an artificial construct, but with those who saw the horizons of tonality widening rather than narrowing. The music of Sibelius offers us many examples of this new approach to tonality, particularly in his Seventh Symphony. Other examples of such organic development would be the progressive tonality of Nielsen and the highly distinctive harmonic world of Robert Simpson which is firmly rooted in classicism and often based on the opposition of particular intervals or keys.

The theme of the replacement of an organic order with one that is artificial and man-made is not a new one in modern ideas. The idea of cultural struggle, in which an established order is subverted by direct opposition, is likewise familiar. These are Marxist concepts and should be seen as such. Let us be clear; the nineteenth-century crisis of tonality was manipulated for propagandistic purposes as part of a much wider cultural crisis in which Western civilization and culture and their established order came under direct attack from Marxism. The revolution that brought about atonality and serialism was the same ideological revolution that deposed Europe’s crowns and that, at its point of greatest early fulfilment, led to the Communist ascendancy in Russia. As one of its architects, Georg Lukacs, would write, “Who will save us from Western civilization?”

What Lukacs and his fellows abhorred above all was the unique and sacred nature of the individual within the Christian worldview. Lukacs was determined to reduce the individual to a common destiny in a world which, in his words, “had been abandoned by God.” Another leading thinker of this ilk, Walter Benjamin, tells us that “religious illumination,” must be shown to “reside in a profane illumination, a materialistic, anthropological inspiration, to which hashish, opium, or whatever else can give an introductory lesson.” He goes on, “Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.” If man were to lose his connection to the divine, his only remaining creative option would be political revolt, which, according to Benjamin and his colleagues, would bring about a Marxist revolution.

Of course these developments were not without reaction and resistance. However, what was to be remarkable was the way in which Marxist intellectuals of the Frankfurt School succeeded in the post-1945 period in discrediting conservative reaction by identifying it explicitly with the Third Reich. For the Frankfurt School, creativity was impossible, anyone who adhered to universal truth was an authoritarian and even reason was subject to the shifting sands of critical theory. Culture was to be abolished; a “new barbarism” was to be created through new cultural structures that would increase the alienation of the people. Before long, from the ashes of a war-torn Europe, a surprisingly broad intellectual coalition had formed that supported and funded the Frankfurt School and its front organization, the Institute for Social Research. This gave the Frankfurt School the means to set in place its intellectual undermining of Western civilization.

The major works in which this is done include Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment of 1944, which gives us the concept of a manipulative culture industry, and The Authoritarian Personality of 1950 by Adorno and others. This latter work was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and sought to connect the Freud-derived concept of the authoritarian personality to conservative and fascist ideology, and to anti-semitism. It should not be thought that Adorno and Horkheimer were writing with the intention of protecting Jews from prejudice. Rather, they, along with Marx, were opposed to all religions, including Judaism. They wanted to destroy the principles of both Jewish and Christian civilization and force the “scientifically planned reeducation” of Americans and Europeans. While the overtly politicized conclusions of The Authoritarian Personality have since been comprehensively disproven, they were not disproven quickly enough to prevent their cultural influence becoming widespread in the post-war years and even today. Indeed, they remain foundations for many of the ideas that are dominant in today’s academy.

We should look particularly carefully at the legacy of Adorno. Adorno as a pupil of Schoenberg and Berg believed that composers should relate to the past as a canon of taboos rather than a canon of models for emulation. His concept of art was also structured on that of Marxist Kulturkampf, in that he saw the duty of art to be “corrosively unacceptable” to the sensibilities of the middle class, and therefore to be a succession of shocking, difficult and obscure events.

The Adornoist concept has the advantage of wrapping music up in an impenetrable web of self-meanings. It means that music structured on these lines is likely to be theoretically extremely complex, divorced from significant cultural reference, emotionally arid and exceptionally difficult both to play and to listen to. Of the thousands of works written during the post-war years in this style, not a single one has attained genuine public popularity. They speak only to an elite, and that elite is specifically ideologically driven. As far as many executant musicians are concerned, they are indeed tolerated but not loved. Indeed, many would say that one might just as well love industrial noise as the work of Stockhausen and the post-war Darmstadt School, for all its undoubted intellectual accomplishment. What is created is effectively non-music, non-art, because of its rejection of the musical values that I outlined at the beginning of this talk. It preserves something of the colour, the instrumentation, the dynamic variety of Western art music, but it ignores what David Hellewell has called “music’s unique language; the dialectic of notes.” Even Adorno admitted that atonalism was sick, but as he said, “the sickness, dialectically, is at the same time the cure…The extraordinarily violent reaction protest which such music confronts in the present society…appears nonetheless to suggest that the dialectical function of this music can already be felt…negatively, as ‘destruction.’”

Moreover, Adornoism gives itself a license to view the past through its own distorting Freudian prism; for example, Adorno believed that the chord structure of late Beethoven was striving to be atonal, but Beethoven could not bring himself consciously to break with the structured world of Congress of Vienna Europe. For Adorno, an individual such as Beethoven was not autonomous and acting with free will, but was instead the prisoner of unconscious historical forces. Such arguments are merely Trojan horses for Marxism, since they can rewrite history according to an unlimited degree of political interpretation.

The effect of this movement on Western art music has been disastrous. Because Adornoist music cannot exist without significant public subsidy and is explicitly Marxist in its aesthetic, the general tendency of governments to become more controlling with regard to the arts in the post-war period has had a field-day. Without the government supporting the Adornoists, they would have failed in a blink of an eye when subjected to the popular market. When William Glock became director of the BBC Third Programme in 1959 he presided over a decade in which the Adornoist avant-garde was given public support while dissenters were consciously suppressed. Yet this support achieved nothing in terms of producing a wider popularity outside the limited circle of initiates. Rather, it furthered the fragmentation of our musical culture and an alienation of the West from its cultural heritage.

A combination of centralising tendencies and Marxist ideology with a decline in support for composers who do not fit the Adornoist and government image of what they should be, has left multiple generations without access to new music in the classical tradition which has the prospect of speaking directly to them. I can assure you that this tradition has been there – in the music of such post-war figures as Howells, Ferguson, Arnold, Lloyd and Arthur Butterworth – all of which have written vital and much underrated music – but even though all but the last are dead, their music remains largely sidelined by the mainstream today. They have become a narrowly specialist taste, and one that is nowadays increasingly dismissed as socially elitist and thus contrary to the egalitarian zeitgeist.

The concept of an official line on what composition should be – so very Soviet in its way – has led also to a situation where it is axiomatic that musicians be if not actively Marxist, then at least tolerant of working within that ideological framework. This gives us “luvvies for Labour”; it also means that those who doubt the left-wing consensus are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their livelihoods. The constraining ideological framework is not always obvious; it is often a superstructure far above the head of the individual musician, but it is there nonetheless. Orchestras, for example, are highly unionized organizations; the Musicians’ Union negotiates standard fees and terms of employment for orchestral musicians, and it in turn affiliates to the TUC and the Labour Party.

As soon as the Frankfurt School saw the burgeoning of mass entertainment and popular music they seized upon it as a means of Marxist dialectic. One of the most interesting aspects of pop music is that it is concerned largely with a group aesthetic and with the reproduction of the same experiences – musical stereotypes – that are already established as commercially successful. For Adorno, this stereotyping meant that exposure to pop music disengaged the mind, making the experience of music less sacred and increasing alienation, a process which he called “demythologizing”. In addition, pop music was largely non-Western in its origins, consisting of commercialized versions of African, Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean folk music. Adorno says, “contemporary listening…has regressed, arrested at the infantile stage. Not only do the listening subjects lose, along with the freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for the conscious perception of music…[t]hey fluctuate between comprehensive forgetting and sudden dives into recognition. They listen atomistically and dissociate what they hear, but precisely in this dissociation they develop certain capacities which accord less with the traditional concepts of aesthetics than with those of football or motoring. They are not childlike…but they are childish; their primitivism is not that of the undeveloped, but that of the forcibly retarded.”

It is significant that every time mainstream pop music has tried to move beyond stereotype – as is the natural tendency of human creativity – there have been powerful forces dragging it back. Time and again during the 1960s and 1970s, jazz and pop music moved forward because of engagement with aspects of the Western art music tradition. The work of George Martin, Gil Evans, Charles Stepney, Claus Ogerman and those working in progressive rock drew directly on Western art music to create art music from the roots of pop music. In addition, an entire genre of music grew up – labelled “easy listening” – that presented jazz and pop music in arrangements that were considered more acceptable to those whose ears were attuned to art music. All of this resulted in a brutal record industry reaction in the late 1970s in which the nihilism and Leftism of punk and electronic music was vaunted and primitivism embraced once more. In the past two decades a further development has taken place, in which we are for the first time confronted by the phenomenon of all but the elderly having grown up in the post-1945 era and thus having been targeted since youth as consumers of pop music. This has allowed pop music finally to displace Western art music within the media and within our education system, as pop is now held by the decision-makers concerned to be culturally equal if not superior to its art music counterpart.

Those who perform Western art music have inevitably seen the landscape of their profession altered totally by this cultural shift. The former confidence in the cultural value of what they do has been replaced by an insecurity of purpose; a questioning of their very reason for existence. The contemporary focus on the physical appearance of classical artists and on short, memorable pieces as the vehicle for their success belongs to the world of pop. What it is not is the popularisation of classical music. Rather, it is the dumbing down of the Western art music tradition by presenting it with the same commercial values as pop music, with attendant assumptions of limited shelf-life and quick profits rather than long-term viability. What more can we expect when the Chairman of Universal Music Group considers that classical music is “rather unwelcoming” and “a bit like an elitist club”.

Artistic quality is now judged more on the basis of record company and media hyperbole than by an educated public, because that public has been systematically disempowered from the ability to exercise meaningful artistic judgement. The loss of the live concert experience as part of our culture has been more visible in Britain than on the Continent, but it is perhaps most obvious in the loss of community and amateur music-making dedicated to the Western art music tradition and even home listening in the form of the radio and recordings. Increasingly, that tradition is losing its hold as its exponents and enthusiasts become older and die off, being supplanted or even replaced altogether by pop music. One has only to listen to Desert Island Discs to become painfully aware that for many men and women who occupy leading roles in our society, who are otherwise educated and sensitive human beings, Western art music is something as remote to them as the planet Jupiter. Indeed, the Culture Secretary tells us that he never listens to Radio 3, and prefers Classic fM, which he finds “accessible and informal” – and this despite the fact that today’s Radio 3 falls over itself to dumb down, fetishize youth, and employ announcers whose gauche chumminess must be making Cormac Rigby and Patricia Hughes turn in their graves.

Shortly after the election of the New Labour government in 1997, those responsible for British music education were essentially told that they would be compelled to embrace the Government’s educational priorities. Those priorities were towards Leftist multiculturalism and political correctness, and to the replacement of education with vocational training in pursuit of a social engineering agenda. Institutions would no longer be permitted to be determinedly exclusive in their admissions policies; the focus on excellence was seen as “disenfranchising people”.

Interestingly, this development presaged the cult of the amateur and the disparaging of expert status that has since become such a prevalent feature of the Internet. It owes its roots, of course, to the prevalence of postmodernism, itself an ideology owing much to Marx. Once the idea that there are central concepts of value or meaning that run through all good music can be thrown aside, or that critical rationalism is a basis for assessing the worth of a statement that lies outside of the realm of pure opinion, the ground is clear for all sorts of phony replacements.

Above all, what is promoted is a closed, totalitarian arts system. It is a system where government funding creates an expensive elite based on ideology, not ability. It remains dedicated to the Adornoist means whereby Western art music is to be subverted: firstly by the promotion of art music whose ideology is that of alienation, which is by definition anti-populist, and where complexity and obscurity of method are valued highly. Secondly, pop music is endorsed by the arts establishment and with it the concept that anyone, regardless of ability, can become a pop star instantly simply through winning a television talent contest and receiving media promotion. Music education now gives less emphasis to the history and techniques of Western art music and more to free expression and improvisation. Indeed, there are in our schools, according to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Master of the Queen’s Music), “music teachers who thought that even to teach standard western musical notation was to indulge in extreme elitism, claiming that it would inhibit the children’s creativity, and was alien to the “working class values of ordinary people.”

Increasingly, cultural relativism is a third means of attacking the West; non-Western music is given equality if not priority with Western art music both in our education system and increasingly in arts funding. Concepts such as “diversity” and multiculturalism in general are part of this trend. In his excellent book, “Cultural Revolution, Culture War”, Sean Gabb reminds us that, “In October 2003, the Association of British Orchestras organised a symposium on Cultural Diversity and the Classical Music Industry, and effectively required attendance from every classical music organisation in England larger than a string quartet. Among those addressing the symposium was Professor Lola Young, Head of Culture at the Greater London Authority. She said: ‘We must change the look of the classical music industry.’ She was supported by Roger Wright, head of BBC Radio 3, who confessed that everyone at the BBC now underwent ‘diversity training.’” Practitioners of Western art music have a new-found obsession with “relevance” – they must make the case for their existence in a society that once considered them a vital element of their culture.

In a climate of austerity and cultural hostility, the vital structures that support and nurture Western art music have been placed under unprecedented stress. Local councils have discontinued elements of their music services and, driven by opposition to elitism, ended their support of assisted places at the junior departments of the conservatoires. Western art music classes and activities in publically-funded adult further education have been cut drastically. Meanwhile, the Church, once responsible for the development of young musicians through its choral tradition, has also increasingly replaced Western art music with pop. Our present Archbishop of Canterbury, who had African drummers and Punjabi music at his installation ceremony, has declined the customary office of vice-patron of the Royal College of Organists that his predecessors have held since the foundation of the College in 1864.

Let us move on to consider what is taught in our university music departments that concern themselves with Western art music – that is to say, those which have not closed under the recent funding pressures. Presaging New Labour by a couple of years came the movement entitled the “new musicology,” also called cultural or critical musicology, a jackdaw hybrid of gender and queer studies, cultural theory, post-structuralism, postcolonial studies and the theorising of Adorno and Benjamin.

What is notable in the “new musicology” is how little of originality it contains. It is as if someone were to gather up the most leftist elements of university teaching and then unite them in a single Marxist behemoth. There is psychology, of course, and pointless theorising as to whether one can tell whether Schubert was gay or not from his use of the German sixth. There is cultural theory a-plenty, the return of extended prose written in numbered paragraphs, and the meaningless, self-referential cant of structuralism and post-structuralism. Indeed, Professor Lawrence Kramer has said that in order to survive, musicology must embrace a network of “postmodernist strategies of understanding.” To appease the multiculturalists, ethnomusicology has now taken much of the space and funding formerly allocated to dead white males, meaning that the folk songs of obscure Third World tribes are now accorded the importance that the powers-that-be feel they deserve. Feminism of a particularly assertive kind has been allowed free rein, determining among other things that sonata form is sexist and misogynist. Here, we are no longer talking about music as music, but instead music, in the words of Professor Susan McClary, “as a medium that participates in social formation.”

What the new musicologists have done is effectively set up a straw man in order to justify their ideological lurch. That straw man is the idea that music has no meaning and no political or social significance. As Charles Rosen points out, with the exception of nineteenth-century critic Hanslick, it is doubtful whether anyone has ever actually believed this. Rather, there has always been what we might refer to as a divine fusion in the performance of music between what is deemed to be the composer’s meaning and significance and that overlaid or recreated by the performer, and then a third overlay of meaning and significance by the listener. Not only are those perceptions likely to differ between individuals, they may well differ among the same individuals on different occasions, depending on emotional state. Even the eminent may legitimately see different and contradictory things in a musical work.

The authoritarianism inherent in Adorno’s vision is equally prevalent in the new musicology. New musicologists usually seem to be telling us what to think and what to feel when we listen to music. By imposing meaning they present their opinion as dogma. By refusing to acknowledge the essential subjectivity that is at the heart of musical meaning they deny the individual the right to experience music in his or her own way and – heaven forbid – to use cultural references that are not chosen from the fashionable Left. The result is an edifice built on sand; once one does not accept the authority of the critic to dictate significance and meaning, much of what remains is merely ideological cant. Does the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth represent “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”? Susan McClary published just that analysis, which to my mind is an excellent illustration of the way that this mode of discourse has a tendency to lapse into self-indulgent fantasy.

The aim of all this is, of course, to offer a further justification for the Adornoist position. By connecting music with other disciplines, links are created that are harder to break and that make music harder to isolate within the academy. By borrowing highly obscure modes of language and reference from those disciplines, and talking about music in terms of cultural or critical theory, new musicologists make it more difficult to discuss their work in anything other than its own terms, unless the critic stands wholly outside their viewpoint. They also fulfil Marxism’s inherent self-hatred by focussing on the effort expended in method and execution rather than the value or intelligibility of the results. And by ensuring that those disciplines chosen support the broadly Adornoist view – in other words that they support the concept of paternalistic, nanny-knows-best culture ruled by experts who tell the underclass what to like and what to think, they create a perfect ideological fit with academia’s Leftist zeitgeist and with the culture industry as defined by New Labour and left unchallenged by our present government.

What we are witnessing is effectively the continuation of the process that drove Western tonal music underground under the weight of post-war ideology. Traditional musicologists and music historians are no longer welcome in British academia unless they are willing to accept the new musicology. Indeed, Lawrence Kramer has said, “The theories that ground [postmodernist] strategies are radically anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist, and anti-totalizing. They emphasize the constructedness, both linguistic and ideological, of all human identities and institutions. They insist on the relativity of all knowledge to the disciplines–not just the conceptual presuppositions but the material, discursive, and social practices–that produce and circulate knowledge. While often disagreeing with each other, poststructuralists, neopragmatists, feminists, psychoanalytic theorists, critical social theorists, multiculturalists and others have been changing the very framework within which disagreement can meaningfully occur.” Once you can control disagreement, there’s not much else that isn’t within your power.

I conclude, then, with an exhortation. To listen to and to play or sing Western art music is now a counter-cultural act. It is an act of profound rebellion against our politically correct Cultural Marxist zeitgeist as well as being a source of pleasure, moral and spiritual improvement, and enhanced appreciation of the connection between the human and the divine. Let us not be afraid to relegate pop music to its proper place, to embrace our Western art music heritage and to resolve to make it a central part of our lives as educated men and women. Whether in our local community or nationally, let us support those who perform and teach this heritage, and let us give particular attention to the riches that are to be found in the music of our own island and culture; supporting organizations such as the English Music Festival which celebrate it, and independent record companies such as Chandos and Hyperion who have devoted much time and expense to producing first-rate recordings of it. And let us never forget these words of Bulwer-Lytton: “Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” If we care for our souls as we should, let us nourish them with good music, and let us then become better people for doing so.


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