Why Musicians Need Philosophy

Future Symphony Institute

Not as much, I grant, as philosophers need music, but nevertheless the need is real. In the past our musical culture had secure foundations in the church, in the concert hall and in the home. The common practice of tonal harmony united composers, performers and listeners in a shared language, and people played instruments at home with an intimate sense of belonging to the music that they made, just as the music belonged to them. The repertoire was neither controversial nor especially challenging, and music took its place in the ceremonies and celebrations of ordinary life alongside the rituals of everyday religion and the forms of good manners.

We no longer live in that world. Few people play instruments, and music at home emerges from digital machines, controlled by buttons that require no musical culture to be pressed. For many people, the young especially, music is a form of solitary enjoyment, to be absorbed without judgment and stored without effort in the brain. The circumstances of music-making have therefore changed radically, and this is reflected not only in the banal melodic and harmonic content of popular music, but also in the radical avoidance of melody and harmony in the ‘modern classical’ repertoire. Released from its old institutional and social foundations our music has either floated into the modernist stratosphere, where only ideas can breathe, or remained attached to the earth by the repetitious mechanisms of pop.

At the serious end of the repertoire, therefore, ideas have taken over. It is not music that we hear in the world of Stockhausen but philosophy –second-rate philosophy to be sure, but philosophy all the same. And the same is true of other art forms that are cut loose from their cultural and religious foundations. The architecture of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe is an architecture of ideas, and when the futility of the ideas became apparent they were replaced by other ideas, equally alien to architecture as an aesthetic discipline, but nevertheless impeccably philosophical. The gadget architecture of Zaha Hadid and Morphosis does not issue from a trained visual imagination, or a real love of composition: it issues from doodles on a computer in response to ideas. There is a philosophy behind this stuff, and if ordinary people protest that it doesn’t look right, that it doesn’t fit in, or that it is offensive to all natural standards of visual harmony, they will be answered with fragments of that philosophy, in which abstract concepts extinguish the demands of visual taste. These buildings, they will be told, provide a pioneering use of space, are breaking new ground in built form, are an exciting challenge to orthodoxies, resonate with modern life. But just why those properties are virtues, and just how they make themselves known in the result, are questions that receive no answer.

Just the same kind of botched philosophy has dominated the modern classical repertoire. Very few composers have philosophical gifts, and fewer still attempt to justify their music in philosophical terms – the great exception being Wagner, who, despite his vast literary output, always allowed his instinctive musicianship to prevail when it conflicted with his philosophical theories. But it is precisely the absence of philosophical reflection that has led to the invasion of the musical arena by half-baked ideas. Without the firm foundations provided by a live culture of music-making, philosophy is the only guide that we have; and when good philosophy is absent, bad philosophy steps in to the gap.

The worst example of this, and it is an example whose influence is almost as strong today as it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, is Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music, first published in 1947. In that book Adorno develops the philosophy of a major composer, who almost succeeded in doing what Wagner happily failed to do, which was to replace the reality of music by an abstract idea of it. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone serialism was based on a set of ideas that are clearly disputable, but which, because of the pretence of system, could overwhelm the hesitant objections of mere music-lovers. Here are some of those ideas:

  • the diatonic scale arranges pitches which could be arranged in other ways and still be used to make intelligible and enjoyable music;
  • melodies could be constructed without the use of scales, and without a mode or a key;
  • the twelve notes of the chromatic scale could be used in such a way that no one of them emerges as tonic, or as in any other way privileged;
  • to achieve this it is sufficient to devise a permutational, rather than a successive, arrangement of the pitches;
  • harmonies, construed as simultaneities, will abolish the distinction between consonance and dissonance, opening the way to new forms of harmonic sequence.

All those assumptions involve an arbitrary intrusion of abstract thought into a realm of empirical knowledge, thereby upsetting wisdom that had been slowly acquired over centuries, and which was not in any sense the product of a single brain. The fact that there is no evidence for them counts for nothing, since they are philosophical, part of an a priori attempt to found an alternative to the existing music. For Adorno they promised the renewal of music, the break with a tradition that had become banal and cliché-ridden, and the hope of a fresh start in the face of cultural decline. Those thoughts were wound in to a philosophy that combined Frankfurt-school Marxism, the denunciation of popular culture, and a high-brow adulation of all that was recondite, unpredictable and difficult to follow. Adorno had the gift – the very same gift that Schoenberg had – of masking his idiosyncratic views as necessary truths, and clothing unsubstantiated speculations in the garments of priestly authority. He was the advocate of an intimidating orthodoxy. And yet the actual arguments, both in Adorno’s book and in Schoenberg’s original articles, are self-serving rhetoric, which assume what they set out to prove.

Philosophy can be driven out only by more philosophy. And the rival philosophy has not been forthcoming. All that we have received from Darmstadt and its successors is a reiteration of the clichés introduced by Adorno, in particular the cliché that musical organisation in our tradition is fundamentally arbitrary, and can be remade according to other rules – permutational, aleatoric, serial, and so on – while engaging the perceptions and interests that have emerged over centuries in the concert hall. That cliché commits the paradigm error of philosophy, which is to oppose an empirical truth with an a priori falsehood.

There is in fact nothing arbitrary about the diatonic scale or the place of the tonic within it. While there can be other scales, some sounding strange to Western ears, they are all attempts to divide up the octave, to provide significant points of rest and closure, and to preserve natural harmonies delivered by the overtone series. The diatonic scale is one of a number of modes derived from mediaeval church music, and its history is not a history of arbitrary invention, but one of gradual discovery. The circle of fifths, the chromatic scale, modulation, voice-leading and triadic harmony – all these are discoveries, representing at each stage an advance into a shared tonal space. The result is not the product of decision or design: it is as natural and embedded in our experience as the post and beam in architecture or frying and baking in cookery. If composers are to ‘make it new’, then they must recognize this natural quality and not defy it. Yet defiance of nature has become an orthodoxy, and when asked to explain and justify this defiance composers will invariably lean on some variant of Adorno’s philosophy. Music for the concert hall has increasingly followed the pattern of Stockhausen’s Gruppen – elaborate sound effects, organised by arcane systems of rhythm and pitch, which no normal ear can hold together as music, but which comes with intimidating programme notes explaining why this doesn’t matter, and why the normal ear is an impediment to creative music in any case.

What I have said of Stockhausen’s massively pretentious piece will be dismissed as reactionary and philistine. Adorno and his followers accuse their opponents of ‘not getting it’, of being behind the times, and resisting the march of history. A kind of anti-bourgeois snobbery infects Adorno’s pages, as it infected the pages of his hero Karl Marx. The Young Hegelian doctrine of the forward march of history survives in their philosophy of music, notwithstanding its crushing refutation by history itself. One of Wagner’s greatest achievements was to have taken that Young Hegelian doctrine seriously, to have built it into a music drama of titanic proportions, and to have allowed his music to refute it. In the end that is one of the most important lessons of the Ring cycle. The artist hero, who is to usher in the new world of emancipation by smashing the spear of our previous agreements, destroys thereby the moral order on which he depends. Such is Siegfried’s tragedy.

No wonder Adorno was so negative about Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung, the most modern composition of its time, which shows in detail why it is against nature to be a modernist. We need to go back over the ground so intricately covered by that great work of art, and to raise again the question that motivates it: how to reconcile future creativity with the legacy of our past agreements? This question has been raised by other composers too – notably by Hans Pfitzner in Palestrina. And that opera contains the seeds of quite another philosophy than the one foisted on the musical public by Adorno, the philosophy touched on also by T.S. Eliot in his great essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. According to this rival philosophy true artists are not the antagonists of tradition but their latest advocates. They belong to the future because they are guardians of the past.

About the Author

Roger Scruton is the world's preeminent philosopher in the field of aesthetics. Having graduated with honors from Cambridge, he has subsequently held positions at some of the world's most prestigious institutions including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Princeton, and Boston. Roger was called to the Bar after his studies at the Inns of Court in London. He is a fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy. Moreover, Roger has been awarded the Czech Republic's Medal for Merit in recognition of his efforts to establish an underground university in Czechoslovakia during its last decade of communism. Today he serves as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. But his principal activity remains what it has been for the last 30 years, which is writing. Roger is an astonishingly prolific writer on a broad range of topics in several genres. His serious academic research has been in the area of aesthetics, with two books – The Aesthetics of Architecture and The Aesthetics of Music – that have made important contributions to their respective fields. In addition Roger has written essays, criticism, autobiography, invocations of country life, novels, and poems. He is deeply devoted to classical music and an accomplished amateur composer. For in case you missed it, somewhere in there he also found time to write two operas and the libretto for a third.
*                *                *


  • It can all be summed up with one word: nihilism. As a boy of 19 I was such but now, though as a convinced Christian and history buff I have the cultural and religious equipment to actually compose again after not writing a note since I failed my composition honours degree over 35 years ago, the damage is done.

    The modernism which did disdain my writing a song starting with a major seventh chord on B flat has destroyed my confidence as well as my motivation as did the nihilism that powered their thought as well as my response to it.

    It is too late now that I am 57 and the rot has set in deeply

    • No, it “can’t all be summed up with one word,” and therein lies the problem for many who think that musical structure, form and aesthetic intent should have stopped once and for all with Brahms (a good choice, by the way: Schoenberg wrote an intensely interesting essay entitled “Brahms the Progressive.” It took me years to understand what he meant in that essay, but one late evening listening to the first movement of the E minor cello sonata made it all clear for me.)

      Sorry about you failing your composition honors degree 35 years ago; I obtained mine, but you and I both know it doesn’t matter. Nonetheless, to deem the whole ball of wax as “nihilism” simply suggests that you have thrown in the aesthetic towel.

      I am relieved to say that I haven’t. Otherwise I wouldn’t have heard — I mean really *heard* — Einstein on the Beach, Shaker Loops or 4’33’, all of which changed the way I listened forever. What Reich, Glass, Ashley and Cage, among others, achieved was not a mere party trick: they compelled those who came out to meet the work — and that is essential — to come at *any* sound as an event, as in and of itself worthy of your consideration.

      Take a deep breath: the “rot”can be gutted, and a new day can be heard. Honest.

      • “What Reich, Glass, Ashley and Cage, among others, achieved was not a mere party trick”.

        So true. It was actually the aural equivalent of that sartorial miracle, the stitching of the Emperor’s new clothes.

  • Just because people have enjoyed certain forms of music doesn’t mean that those are the only forms of music that are enjoyable. All these programs are so many experiments to try and discover whether there is anything else that sounds good. I for one love the music of Philip Glass. If aesthetics is to have empirical foundations, does my experience then count for nothing? You say the experimentalists committed an error by opposing experience with a priori falsehood. I say that your own essay commits the naturalistic fallacy by concluding that since a certain thing has in fact been enjoyed it is the only thing that ought to be. De gustibus, Professor Scruton.

    • That is too easy. A cultural tradition with high quality works offers quality standards and a value framework, which gradually appears when immersing oneself into it. Enjoyment is only one type of experience in this process; another is the awareness of value and content. There is nothing against enjoying Philipp Glass, but with the digestion of the experiences of a highly developed cultural tradition, it is not so difficult to understand that Glass is nice in terms of sonic surface and agreeable harmonies, but also that his music covers a wide territory which we could call ‘kitsch’ or ‘pop’. A cultural tradition offers the possibility of comparing experiences, and from this process of comparison one developes one’s sense of value, meaning and one’s taste, together with the capacity to detect even a moral component, entirely absent in the work of Glass. Where we make choices, there is some sort of morality involved… to some extent Plato was right in assuming that certain types of music were bad for the listeners.

      • “…which we could call ‘kitsch’ or ‘pop.”” Why the subjunctive here; are you so skittish? Where is the firm and unassailable bastion of “good taste” and the “awareness of value and content.” And who are “we”?

        If I read you correctly — and I’m sure you will counter that I do not simply because I disagree — you have Glass and Reich in the same ballpark aesthetically as Cyrus Miley and the songs from Sesame Street. Where, I can only wonder, is Miles Davis or, say, the opera Nixon in China on this precisely calibrated spectrum of “good taste”?

        Gosh. One of those rare occasions where I am literally speechless.

  • There are lots of musicians, including symphonists like myself, who never bought into the Stockhausen nonsense. And who saw the way of modern music as being that of Sibelius, Nielsen, Shostakovitch, and others like them, who connect with the past in creative ways, rather than simply assuming that weird/different = progress. But in much of the academy what is still taught as musical composition is the ideology of the post-war avant-garde. Lots of real talent is wasted as a result.

  • With due respect, this is a topic I addressed in my book, “Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge: Music, Meaning and Beethoven’s Most Difficult Work,” (Scarecrow Press/Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). In it, I point out that music is a natural language (one that is “spoken” before its supposed “rules” are articulated), but twelve-tone music is an artificial language – one whose rules are made up before the language is spoken. This is quite a divide. I also conclude that absolute music (music without words) may have meaning, but usually does not, and that Beethoven’s Late Quartets appear to be the closest that absolute music has come to philosophy. I wish Dr. Scruton and your commenters would give the book a read, because so far as I can tell, it never received a single review.

    • Your point about “practiced before analyzed” is a good one, and applies to all traditional creative endeavors. I would not call music a language (natural or not), however, because of the way in which human language provides a “code” for a domain of meaning with no resemblance to the sound patterns that convey that meaning (an elementary example: table, Tish, and bord being the name for the selfsame referent in English, German, and Swedish, respectively). There is no analog to this in music (without words), for which the sound patterns themselves are the point and the message, as Hanslick realized. To the extent that it “refers” to something besides itself (as in programmatic music) it does so by mimicry, by resemblance, a rather peculiar employment of the pattern richness of music.

      • Bernstein’s Harvard Lectures makes a very convincing argument for music as language, complete with syntax and symbolism, and even uses Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory as evidence. Maybe worth a read/listen, if you haven’t already?

  • I’m an admirer of Mr. Scruton’s work. Which is why I’m surprised at this article. The battle he’s fighting is out of date.

    Adorno was in the 40s, Darmstadt was in the 50s, and Gruppen was from the 60s. Stockhausen’s been dead for almost a decade. Boulez died last week. This is very old news. Music has moved on. Sure, there are still some composers bureid in deepest academe who are hewing to the old orthodoxy. But they have become largely irrelevant to the real world of contemporary music.

    I would suggest that Mr. Scruton have a listen to the work of John Adams, Thomas Ades, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Nico Muhly, George Benjamin and the recent work of Maxwell Davies. Consonance, harmony, melody, and skilled textural writing abound. Notably, four of the five composers I’ve named have a real voice in the opera world, and if you look at the history of Western classical music, it’s usually in the opera house that big stylistic and aesthetic changes occur. The demands of music-theatre don’t allow for concept driven music. You have to tell a story.

    • After absorbing what I think is Mr. Scruton’s contention in this article, I am reminded of the Proverbs for Paranoids (#4) in Gravity’s Rainbow: If they have you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

      The issue is badly framed by Mr. Scruton, and his conclusions tally up accordingly. The most alarming aspect — there are a number — of Mr Scruton’s argument is how wildly ahistorical it is. Adorno didn’t invent the notion of dialectic, but dialectic is fundamental to the works of Boulez or John Adams or Steve Reich. Was there ever a more dialectical composer than Beethoven? I shudder to think where pre-1985 Ligeti would fall in Mr. Scruton’s pantheon of composers.

      Alas, I will not lose any sleep over it.

      • While not wanting to intrude in any sleep pattern, it seems to me that you missed the context of Scruton’s article. Reading his ‘Aesthetics of Music’ is wholeheartedly recommended.

    • The composers you mention can be called ‘postmodern’, which indeed have absorbed much less dissonant material, and all try to exercise the gestures of narrative, colourful scoring, etc. But – apart from Adams – under the surface their work is still rooted in postwar aesthetics which can be detected in the way the intervals do / don’t relate: they do not form an ‘interior space’. Scruton points towards a deeper level of musical organicism and to make his point, he describes what the atonal modernists have tried to do. John Adams is a process music composer and a brilliant one (experience in the musical tradition provides the instruments to make something of a quality assessment), and his scoring is very capable as is his sense of harmony where most of the time, the intervals DO relate to each other. But his work suffers from the limitations of all process music: pointless repetition (effects without a cause) and the ‘hard’ sonic surface, which is a handicap inherited from modernism. (An indication: Adams’ brilliant piece ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’ was inspired by Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony in which Adams merely heard extreme velocity, as he said himself; the entire Beethovenian expressionism and rhetoric had escaped him, his focus being on the sonic surface.)

      Also it should be noted that the attitudes in music life in America and Europe differ considerably. As in the USA, there is much more freedom in terms of idiom, in Europe there is still a strong taboo on idioms, referring to the past, American composers being looked down upon, and in the musically most important countries France and Germany, a modernist establishment still holds a firm grip on production, education, funding and media attention. Therefore, streetwise Adès and Benjamin still keep one foot in a ‘safe’ modernist aesthetic. The ‘Ducros Affair’ in 2012 which rocked French music life for more than a year, erupted when a well-known pianist held a lecture at the Collège de France, an important academic institution (the lecture was open to the public), ironically criticizing atonal modernism, after which he was publicly condemned, scorned, attacked and accused of nazi sympathies. So, we should not forget the perspective…. there are still many people out there in music life and academia who suffer from postwar modernist delusions, including influential academics like Arnold Whittall. At the Cambridge music faculty in the eighties, so when a much more free climate was emerging and serialism was already a very old hat, any student who dared to express doubts about Schoenberg’s ideas, could be sure to fail his exams and be sent away. And today, teaching there is still rooted in modernism or postmodernism. Scruton talks about the classical tradition of which Shostakovich and Britten were recent representatives: a matter of perspective.

      • Yes, the pianist to whom you refer had committed heresy, apparently. Perhaps we should all follow his example until the many who keep the safety of silence also open their shutters and say “I was thinking that all along!” I myself am a composer. In the eighties I did some composition papers, part of a Bachelor of Music on which I was then working. As so often academically, a frozen atmosphere, a priesthood of emotionally alien ideas prevailed, other composition students continually racked their brains over whether their works – or little sketches, fledgling sparks of anything, really – were ‘valid’ or not. It was an ideal incubation environment for stillborn compositions. Insofar as students felt moved to write anything tonal, or melodic, or consonant, or, frankly, bearing any passing similarity to the works of anyone who ever wrote good music, then their efforts were most certainly NOT valid, and were actively discouraged. It all had to be about gamelans, Stockhausen, serialism, aleatory principles – you know the score, no pun intended. I remember being told “Melody is out.” Striking a major chord on a keyboard would give rise to an ‘I’m assuming that was an accident…’ kind of attitude on the part of certain lecturers.

        This was simply top-down, mad doctrinaire fluff, an emperor’s new clothes-like, cognitively dissonant state of affairs, but in many cases the fear of not passing, fitting in, etc, saw students cooking up exactly what was, apparently, ‘valid’ – if only in the student cafeteria 15 minutes before class. It seems to me that our madness – the extraordinary control wielded by these eerie cavalcades of ultimately arbitrary philosophies (although why dignify them with that term, let’s use “head trips”) – is rooted in our ego-building tendency to intellectual exclusion. It’s just another form of ‘being right’ about something. Seeking solid criteria, a formal body upon which to build, we are always saying “this, not that,” “only these, never those,” with the result that we are left feeling righteous, painted into a corner with the whole beautiful infinity of ‘everything else’ invalidated. If we happen to hold some position of power, so much the worse for everyone involved. Creatively speaking, ALL things (including those which are asserted by some to be the only ones allowable) should be ‘on the table’ for use by whomsoever finds joy in exploring them, sometimes resulting in general appreciation, sometimes appreciation by the few, or even one or two; the thing is, with such an approach, it’s all there to be had; a non-invalidating, inclusive mentality picks and chooses whatever it wants to follow; the ‘exclusion’ exercised in taste and mere preference still leaves one free. I am sure that these ephemeral theoretical (and dare I say it, actually rather fundamentalist) religions of art will fall apart faster through simple non-participation, saying what we really feel and above all, proving creatively in the light of day how delightful so many forbidden things actually are.

  • While I have a number of disagreements with this article, I think its main problem is that it simply misreads history.

    “The circle of fifths, the chromatic scale, modulation, voice-leading and triadic harmony – all these are discoveries, representing at each stage an advance into a shared tonal space. The result is not the product of decision or design: it is as natural and embedded in our experience as the post and beam in architecture or frying and baking in cookery. If composers are to ‘make it new’, then they must recognize this natural quality and not defy it.”

    Agreed, but that neatly avoids the issue that the “discoveries” and “advancements” of the chromatic scale and modulation inevitably lead to music which is more and more ambiguous with regard to tonality. Wagner, whom you praise, was more responsible for this than anyone else. Schoenberg’s early music carried it to its logical conclusion, which made him realize that a new system was necessary. In the postwar or “Darmstadt” period, composers advanced that system as well, quickly realizing that it was also a dead end. None of that renders the works of the early 1900s or the postwar period invalid, any more than it does the works of the Mannerists of the late 1300s. We enjoy that music as a curious and fascinating part of music history, and the same is true of Gruppen.

    This leaves us with the question of where “classical” music can go from here. Your article states “We need to go back over the ground so intricately covered by [Wagner’s Ring], and to raise again the question that motivates it: how to reconcile future creativity with the legacy of our past agreements?”, and that’s the right question. But like it or not, part of that legacy is a continuous development toward music that is more and more subtle and complex, like The Ring. And if The Ring’s chromaticism leads us toward the dissolution of tonality as we knew it, the solution may be to go back to more natural harmonies. Earlier in the article, you state “While there can be other scales, some sounding strange to Western ears, they are all attempts to divide up the octave, to provide significant points of rest and closure, and to preserve natural harmonies delivered by the overtone series.” The equal-tempered tuning system contains the seeds of its own destruction, and composers explored and followed its natural trends for centuries, reaching its inevitable conclusion in the postwar period. Perhaps the only way for music to advance is to move sideways, into other, more natural tuning systems. Unfortunately, the 12-note scale has become inextricably bound up in our music.

    Personally, I’m not optimistic. My own view is that Western “classical” music ended in Darmstadt, and that if we had to pick a date to mark it (as we do with the “fall” of the Roman Empire), it would be the recent death of Pierre Boulez. But what will come next? What will (in Wagner’s words) “the music of the future” sound like?

    • I’m sure that Beethoven symphonies, nuclear families, and psychoanalysis will continue to live if there is sufficient demand for them. Otherwise, move on and try to do so without the usual sledgehammer sentimentality that reveals more about the individual objecting than about the work(s) in question.

      To assume that tonality — implicitly assumed to be that of Western chamber and symphonic works of the 19th century — is as “natural” as acquiring language (any language) is, well, silly and breathtakingly ahistorical.

      The Music of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich is decidedly tonal. Terry Riley’s [In C] is obdurantly tonal. But don’t hold your breath: it won’t remind you of either middle period Beethoven or late Mahler.

      Do a radical thing; change your mind (Cage).

    • This entire comment is a product of ‘progressivist thinking’: music history as a line of development from past, via present, into the future, a line on which the ‘progressive’, ‘explorative’ works mark the various stages of development. This means that not the inhaerent artistic qualities of the works, but their position on the historic line, is supposed to define their meaning and ‘relevance’. And this is nonsense because the entire performance culture of classical music as a genre rests upon the aesthetic meaning of the works themselves and not upon their position on some line of development. It is academic posturing. Of course, this kind of thinking gets into a dead-end street as the author already demonstrates with his ‘inevitable conclusion’. All this has nothing to do with musical reality but is a projection of postwar historiography, based upon ideology.

      Tonality was not dissolved by Wagner, in contrary. But that depends upon how we define tonality. It seems the more realistic definition to see it as a relationship between notes, forming an interior space, a dimension, through which musical emergies flow along the passing of time. The different degrees of connection between the notes form patters of change which are experienced as movement. Wagner did not dissolve the tonal system but the classical system of structural formation. At the time, people did not have so much a problem with W’s unusual harmonies but took great offence with his organic form and ‘endless melody’. The idea that with Tristan, tonality began to dissolve, is a nonsensical projection from the postwar period, inspired by Schoenberg. After all, after Tristan, Wagner wrote Meistersinger (utterly diatonic and tonal) and Parsifal – in the latter work, the most classical harmonies and forms contrast with almost expressionistic hysteria – is there a more classical and utterly tonal music than the Karfreitagzauber? or a more tonally stable structure than the concluding chorus, circuling along fifths?

      Only when this tunnel vison, as shaped by Schoenbergian and post-Schoenbergian thinking, and almost caricaturized by Boulez, can be left behind, then we can understand music history of the last couple of centuries better.

      • Music is not like technology, which we are ruthlessly led to believe, is forever and always moving forward, for our own good.

        Those of us, deluded and ignorant as we may be, who continue to revel in both Bach *and* Stockhausen, don’t tend to think of the later as progress over the former. A false dichotomy; to frame the issue that way is mere beer talk.

        Different eras and cultures produce artists, the one we will continue to listen over a lifetime, who address the questions of that era and that culture. It can’t be helped.

  • As there is nothing arbitrary about the diatonic scale, so there is nothing arbitrary about the chromatic scale. Both are products of the overtone series, both are rooted in perfectly natural phenomena. The diatonic scale consists of intervallic relationships that are closer to the fundamental of the overtone series, while chromatic intervals occur later on the same series. Mr. Scruton cites Wagner, whose Tristan and Isolde was at the forefront of the loosening of conventional diatonic relationships which would lead eventually to the highly chromatic music of the early 20th century in which the traditional tonal relationships are further undermined and all but rendered inoperable. Schoenberg ‘s ideas were not arbitrary or based on faulty reasoning, they were derived from a profound understanding of both musical tradition and of what was at the time common practice among many composers. Since it made no sense to claim that a tonal hierarchy determined musical events in such music, a new method of organizing chromatic music seemed to be in order. But Schoenberg was ever mindful of the need to connect his ideas to the tradition which he revered, which is why he uses compositional methods known and utilized by composers since the Renaissance as the basis of his new compositional method (not system). If one really has a grasp of the tradition, a true sense of how the music of that tradition functions, it is not at all difficult to take in what Schoenberg and his school are doing in their work. No, the old triadic harmony is no longer the generator of musical events, but melodies, motifs, and counterpoint are all still very much in evidence. The rather superficial connection between the ideas of Adorno and Schoenberg, having to do with the fact that Adorno studied with one of Schoenberg’s pupils, Alban Berg, and composed in a musical idiom based on Schoenbergian ideas, is more red herring than not. Yes, Adorno can be cited as the philosophical underpinning of the work of the fifties serialists, but it must be borne in mind that Schoenberg’s method and rather traditional compositional approach predates Adorno’s writings by quite a few years and was more or less jettisoned by the younger generation of serial composers, who saw it saw it as hopelessly old-fashioned. Besides, they extended the serial method to include all musical elements of a work, not just pitch, something which was derived from an experiment done by Messiaen in the etude “Modes de Valeurs et d’intensités” from his “Quartre Etudes de Rhythme”and not from anything to do with Schoenberg. So while Mr. Scruton is perfectly within his rights to prefer tonal music to music based in the chromatic scale, his justification for this preference is based in faulty and incomplete information.

    • Adorno loudly and repeatedly endorsed Schoenberg over Stravinsky, so connecting the two is hardly a “red herring.” And the chromatic scale is not at all like the diatonic scale. It is, as William Thomson wrote in “Schoenberg’s Error,” merely “a collection of materials,” one made possible only by modern tuning. Yes, composers after Schoenberg extended his notion of the series to include duration, articulation, etc., but this was purely arbitrary, with no basis in any sort of theory. It amounted to playing a game with sound. Anyway, the matter here is not diatonicism vs. chromaticism, it is that Schoenberg attempted to do something literally impossible: to compose music in which pitches could relate to each other in a non-hierarchical (non-tonal, in the general sense, not the major-minor sense) fashion. That can’t be done, because, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out in his Harvard lectures, the human ear, hearing a single pitch, will always infer other pitches from it in some sort of hierarchy. Dodecaphony was built on an acoustic impossibility.

      • Indeed….. The extension of serial methods to other parameters, though, was not purely arbitrary, but a result from the theory that material can be strictly organized even if the order is not perceptible, as science had discovered all sorts of ordering in nature entirely imperceptible to the naked eye. In music, things can be ordered in ways that cannot be detected by ear. For instance, one of Bach’s keyboard Duets suddenly begins to ‘play’ the music backwards halfway the piece, which is a structurally important point, but it is entirely imperceptible – the music flows as naturally as before without any ‘bump’ in the road. The idea of total serialisation stems from science, and in music it does not work of course, since music is not science and the meaning of such discoveries of imperceptability is very different in the respective fields.

        The defence of tonality in Western art music is stronger if based upon a thorough understanding of modernism and its progeny – Scruton’s Aesthetics tackles these subjects in a very thorough way.

    • This comment demonstrates a misunderstanding of Schoenberg’s music and ideas. See my comment above.
      All modernist ideology stems from Schoenberg, because he was the first to formulate a rationalist way of ordering music, a quasi-academic view upon the concept of ‘order’ in the art of composition, and it is because of this academicism that these kind of ideas got such prestige in academic circles, in 20C historiography, and postwar avantgarde circles because it sounded like science: the 20C hobby horse of modernists. But other composers like Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Scriabine, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Janacek, Ravel, Bartok, and Sibelius, clearly demonstrated that an effective musical order can be achieved in many different ways, also against a background of chromaticism. In many ways, Schoenberg was an autodidact and suffering from complexes, and in contrary to recieved wisdom, he did not have much understanding of the classical tradition, projecting on it an a posteriori analytic view and then trying to apply it on his own music. Schoenberg developed from a composer thinking IN music to one thinking ABOUT music, which is quite different.

      So, criticizing Schoenberg’s and later modernists’ ideas has nothing to do with taste, but with the reality of musical practice and experience of artistic meaning.

  • If philosophy is what Mr. Scruton desires — and it seems clear to me that he yearns for a specific philosophy — than one would do well to scrutinize the life and work — they are inseparable — of John Cage. The standard response to his work has traditionally been “he’s a philosopher, not a composer,” which continues to be both a shallow appraisal of his life’s work and a false dichotomy. The two are hardly mutually exclusive. apparently Mr. Scruton and I can agree on at least that much.

    Mr. Scruton clearly feels that his favorite whipping boy, Stockhausen, got it wrong, and this he does by blurring all of Stockhausen’s work into one work, Gruppen. Stockhausen, like Cage, had multiple phases to a long career and Stimmung no more resembles Gruppen, than Hymnen resembles Klavierstuck X. There is a lifelong thread of aesthetic that infuses both Cage and Stockhausen’s work, but it was reflected by different means depending on the period, a nuanced distinction that appears to be lost on Mr. Scruton.

    As a graduate student in composition at the New England Conservatory of Music in the late 1970s, the assumption was that Cage was important, as was Stockhausen, and warranted analytical attention. So did Varese. Not so yet with Philip Glass or Steve Reich or Robert Ashley. Mahler mattered, less so Sibelius, etc. As in all of the arts, reputations eddy and ebb.

    What I took away from those graduate years was this: Any one who delved in sonic design had an obligation, first and foremost, to make sound an event again. And to provoke me, the listener, to *hear* anew. Berg, Stockhausen, Cage, Glass, Reich all literally and figuratively taught me to *hear* differently. A monumental achievement in any age, but particularly in this era of noise glut.

    The philosophical bent of composers emerges only with time and the listener’s experience. It isn’t a stamped on their foreheads to act as a passkey into some historical museum of preconceived notions. It helps, if one is even give a shot at this transformation of one’s hearing, to enter into the experience with something a bit more substantial than “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” Do a radical thing, change your mind (Cage).

    • In terms of music, neither Cage, nor Varèse, nor Stockhausen can be taken seriously. There are substantial arguments to support such conclusion. Of Cage we know that his talents were considerably restricted, to put it mildly.

      • I have experienced variations — they are tedious and limited — on this argument for some 40 years, and primarily from the same largely academic chorus. “There are substantial arguments to support such conclusion,” albeit you have offered none that is either substantial or conclusive.

        Cage, John Adams, Varese, et. al don’t need to convince you or Mr. Scruton of anything; their sonic designs and the various aesthetic strategies that they employed live on whether you like it not. That fact can, of course, be dismiss by writing yet another musicology door-stopper of a book, but only if one doesn’t listen too closely. And listening, preferably without ideology, is the missing and essential brick in this wall of discourse.

        Bach and John Adams require none of this discourse in order for listeners to continue to listen. The allegedly “philosophical” aspect is a shaggy dog desperately in search of a place to lie down; it is a political, rather than an aesthetic, dog at that.

  • Same thing goes on in architecture. Granted there are some good architects. But our supposedly best schools are full of dubious enterprises disguised as “creative”, or “cutting edge” in embarrassingly self-serving ways. The authority of knowledge or justification is frequently attacked with the help of bad philosophy, and then any arbitrary proposition can be passed as qualitative research. It’s a disaster on so many levels: intellectual, artistic, scientific, technical, social…. caused by an uninformed will to power.

    • Modern architecture (the modernist kind) is the most visible and most intrusive presence in the world of an inhuman and negative aesthetic, and because of the lack of aesthetic experience, so many people accept it on face value. How does LA’s Disney Hall look? Like a giant object which was dropped from a great height and then splintered on landing. The same with the Parisian Philharmonie. Old, harmonious city scapes destroyed by these intrusions from a different aesthetic context, abstract, sterile, inhuman, rootless (therefore spreading like fungus all over the planet). The best critique of such absurdities is found in Jacques Tati’s brilliant satire ‘Playtime’.

  • . . but viewed from another perspective, is not the problem that music, which is merely entertainment, has let itself be invaded by ideas at all? They invoke philosophy as they have nothing to say but rather than leave the field altogether they crunch some numbers and come up with serialism or some such. As for the philosophies being invoked being so poor, well I was a professional classical double bass player fro 25 years, and musicians in my exerience are over all such lotus eaters as to be appalling thinkers. Let them be servants who entertained their masters as in Bach’s time an before, and be done with all this pretentious nonsense. All they need is good taste

    • I love the part where you contend that “all they need is good taste.” And as near as I can tell, you did it with a straight face.
      There is a Grand Canyon of solipsism buried many layers deep in that sentiment. That coded phrase works on the same level as, say, US politicians using the term “family values.”
      Cut it out.

  • I can understand why some composers eschew tonality; Liszt fooled around with the idea, as do most children when bored with practice. But no matter how often it’s explained I don’t understand why tonality can be said to have reached its “logical conclusion”. In what way is tonality a closed system containing a necessary conclusion? The concept is merely a shibboleth and an intimidation. Many 20c. artists craved a totalizing structure both before and after the rise and fall of the century’s great totalitarian political movements. The same societal despair fed authoritarian cults in many fields, particularly in middle Europe. Fortunately, the desire for theories of everything is beginning to fade.

    • Tonality is not some process that reaches its ‘logical conclusion’. That is, again, Schoenbergian thinking, and wrong. Tonality is a relationship between tones within a musical structure, and these relationships can be achieved in many different ways depending upon idiom and context. Made possible by the harmonic series, octaces and fifths define connections, and smaller intervals in between, forming an artificial system, an adaptation of the natural overtones, so that acculturation can create ‘conventions’ for composeing, performing and listening, all based upon understanding of those relationships.

      The question of (a)tonality seems to me of less importance than how to tranfer understanding of the existing repertoire to younger generations without impairing that repertoire. The problems of new music are merely a part of this problem.

      • But our tuning system is not defined by the harmonic series; it’s a crude approximation. Equal-tempered tuning makes possible ambiguous chords and modulations; naturally composers are going to explore such things, and that way lies madness. If classical music starts using less artificial tuning systems, newer and less decadent options will become available. But as I said above, the equal-tempered scale is too ingrained. It’s too late for classical music as we know it, and something else has to come next.

      • I think the points that the equal-tempered scale is an “adaptation” of the overtone series, and that our use and interpretation of it is acculturated, are important, and exactly the way in to a response to Scruton’s foot-stamping naturalism, which doesn’t seem to me able to account for the comprehensibility of highly chromatic (but not atonal) music.

  • Mozart wrote, “Music must not offend the ear… in other words, music must always remain music.” Twentieth century composers’ rejection of this idea was an act of abdication; it spontaneously forfeited enormous power. The composers themselves got it; they declared that they didn’t care if you liked it. While they deserve credit for coherence, their stuff was not music and almost no one one ever will ever listen.

  • I think the philosophical aspect of visual art is somewhat similar but very different, and easier in lots of ways as it can exist only as agitprop (like the Surrealists), but in the end surrealism had failed, because its anti-art philosophy never really stuck, and now the work is in museums, stripped of that intent.

    I had recently read Luis Bunuel’s autobiography “My Last Sigh”. In the chapter on surrealism, he reflected on its philosophy and mission, but over the years it was an idea that was difficult to uphold. You simply might have forgotten about it as the world moved on:

    “Another enduring aspect of surrealism is my discovery of the profound conflict between the prevailing moral code and my own personal morality, born of instinct and experience. Until I became part of the movement, I never imagined such warfare, but now I see it as an indispensable condition for life itself. More than the artistic innovations or the refinement of my tastes and ideas, the aspect of surrealism that has remained a part of me all these years is a clear and inviolate moral exigency . This loyalty to a specific set of moral precepts isn’t easy to maintain; it’s constantly coming into conflict with egotism, vanity, greed, exhibitionism, facileness, and just plain forgetfulness. Sometimes I’ve succumbed to temptations and violated my own rules, but only, I think, in matters of small importance. My passage through the heart of the surrealist movement helped firm up my resolve, which is perhaps, at bottom, the essential thing.”

  • Atonal is amusical, and should be classified as soundart, of which actual music is a subdivision. See my essay “Layered constraints on the multiple creativities of music” in Deliege and Wiggins “MusicalCreativity: Multidisciplinary Research in Theory and Practice”, pp. 25-41. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2006.
    Occidental philosophy derailed on siding with Hegel against Schopenhauer, a train wreck from which we show no signs of recovery as yet. In so doing it also lost touch with the tradition of classical aesthetics, on which Schopenhauer’s aesthetics elaborated. The latter’s aesthetics of music found an echo in Hanslick’s famous essay, most clearly evident only in the first edition of that essay, from which the smoking gun of its last paragraph was deleted in the soon to follow second edition, on which the English translation is based.

    • In Germany, atonal music has found its own category: ‘Klangkunst’, i.e. sonic art, or sound art. It forms the main obligatory trend in German new music circles and still inspires youngsters to follow-up its directives: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwlCD2y2tBA

      This means that the postwar atonal composers did not develop music, but invented an alltogether new art form. If ‘music’ would be a subdivision of sonic art, this seems to bypass the fact of the existence of an age-old musical tradition. It seems more sensible, to define music as a cultural tradition, and sonic art as another cultural tradition. It is in itself quite odd to found an art form on sound without the inhaerent properties of sound (the harmonic series), but there is no reason to deny its right to exist – be it in its proper context, i.e. not as a form of music.

      • I have no quarrel with your alternative categorization, all the more so in that it is not only our own age-old musical tradition that moves on the grounds of tonality. The phenomenon is cross-culturally universal, for reasons that lie deep in the nature of things (but lie a bit beyond the scope of a comentary like this). By listing music as a subdivision of sonic art I only meant it in the formal (Venn diagram) sense that both music and sonic art work in the medium of sound, the former by utilizing – as you so felicitously put it – the inherent properties of sound (various resonance phenomena, harmonic series, etc.) while the latter obeys no such constraint.

  • I have enjoyed reading both the article, finding myself responding to Scruton’s sentiments, nodding in agreement especially with the pointed critique of Adorno’s tatty Marxism, but also enjoying the exchange between correspondents. Musically, I am a layman, though I was taught as a boy to sing the Mass & Psalms, in Latin, which I can still scratch through. Then in the last 60 or so years, I have enjoyed musical forms all the way from Gregorian Chant, to The Classics (however defined) to Reich, Adams & Glass, but also Howling Wolf & Joan Baez’s versions of Border Ballads et al.. More recently I have discovered composers such Arvo Pärt, Bronius Kutavičius, Indra Riše & the wondrous Sofia Gubudailina. It has been a glorious journey & still continues. But I do watch with cold detachment the mechanical lusts of Miley Cyrus & shut my ears to the warblings of a Justin Bieber, and worse.
    Music can wrench one out of the present and hurl the soul into an emotional and intellectual whirlpool, leaving one so giddy and disoriented that when one re-emerges, a transformation has occurred, as can bee seen when Baryšnikov finishes his competition piece ‘La Bayadère’ (J. Hall, YT, 1969), both he and the audience are united in their elation, not just with his physical prowess but with the total musical experience. Or to take another example: about 20 years ago, whilst on a visit to Kaunas I was taken for a midnight All Soul’s Eve service at the Basillica by my wife’s grand-niece. She had studied Organ at the Conservatorium under Kutavičius. The Basillica was packed. Not only the Mayor & his entourage, but also members of Parliament & the military were present as Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ was presented by the city’s orchestra & choir. I stood watching & listening as the music enthralled the congregation, after 50 years of sterility & repression.

  • Chromaticism is not “a collection of materials”, it is acoustical fact. In any case, it is clear from the music of composers as early as Gesualdo that it was always a factor in music (though it was generally considered a “spice” rather than a main course). How else to explain its usage in late Renaissance and early baroque choral music depicting pain, as in the crucifixion of Christ (see Lotti’s “Crucifixus Etiam pro nobis”). In any case, long before Schoenberg formulated the 12 tone method, composers were using chromatic harmonies which undermined the dominance of the triad. Even music which is ostensibly tonal, such as the late works of Gabriel Faure and the late piano works of Alexander Scriabin, as well as certain works by Debussy, are no longer in the tonal idiom that had been perfected during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By the time of Reger, Richard Strauss (Salome and Elektra), and even passages in late Mahler, tonal relationships had been expanded to the breaking point. As for Bernstein’s Norton Lectures, there never was a more biased and self-serving discussion of the issues relating to tonality and atonality. He preferred to write in a tonal idiom because he believed in it. That is all very well, but means very little in the great scheme of things besides the fact of stating his personal preferences. What is far more important, in my view, is his advocacy of musical eclecticism, where all styles, techniques and approaches are possible and acceptable. This is where we are now, and with composers as diverse as Boulez, Ligeti, Nancarrow and John Adams, among others, we have the seeds to a musical future; no longer a universal style, but a multiplicity of styles and approaches. The works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern are not in any way similar to the music of the fifties serialists, although Webern served as their point of departure. Adorno’s advocacy of Schoenberg’s approach had no bearing on the music produced by Schoenberg, Berg or Webern, none of whom had ever read his writings and which would doubtless have had little effect on their output had they done so. It is only Alex Ross who tries to make a connection between the Second Vienna School, Adorno and fifties serialists, as if there were some sort of Concordat between them to dominate musical discourse, which is utterly absurd.

    • This is exactly why musicians need philosophy. The connection between the men you list is the philosophy from which their ideas and music flowed. They are part of a broader movement in philosophy to which today’s most prominent ideas also belong.

  • It seems to me that the claim that there is something inherently natural about the octave would be to record and analyze birdsong and other natural songs (whalesong?). Do these songs use the octave or some other recognizable form?

    If os then there is some evidence for the idea that there is a natural form for music.

    • Birds and whales are ‘bad’ musicians…. they apparently cannot get the octave, or a clear fith, for that matter, on purpose. The ‘naturalness’ of the octave, fifth, third etc. (the harmonic series) lies in its physical nature: a string divided in half produced the octave, in a third the fifth, etc. because the wave lengths of sound correspond to each other. Birds make noise in the form of melodic gestures, and are unconcerned about intervals, they sing decoratively like atonal music and if a pure interval is heard in their warblings, it is coincidence. That is why Messiaen liked bird song so much, it offered him a way of ordering melodic gestures without a deeper structure, so he could escape the laws of tonality. In his music, bird song is a purely decorative element.

    • The harmonic series appears everywhere in nature, from galaxy formation to optics to string theory. Folk history tells us it was its discovery that led to physics as we know it. As such the octave will implicitly appear in “natural” animal sounds.

      As far as I am aware though, relative pitch seems to be a uniquely human thing, so other animals might not recognise the same pitches at different octave levels as “the same thing” in the way we do.

  • Let us put some philosophic questions under discussion – again as proposed earlier by Dr. Scruton, in some cases, but just to reaffirm how important are those concepts and their definitions…

    What is a birdsong, or a whalesong? Why not birdtalking or whaletalking?
    Birds, whales, and dolphins, as several other beings, are not capable of constructing a single musical instrument, so they use their own natural ones, all along with their natural styles and agreements. They cannot speak and so they use vocalisms to communicate social or individual messages to their acquaintances, very basic ones – it looks like more talking than singing.

    Therefore, they are incapable of achieving the same conclusions ascertaining the framework of music that we, humans, as social and cultural beings, discovered in the historical way of musical instruments construction – that’s where the music major scale came from, also, that’s where the chromatic scale came from, and harmony; and harmony by the proper physical definition, excludes dissonance.

    For us, music communicates also in other levels, mainly carrying unsaid emotional contents that the normal spoken language cannot.

    What is sound and what is noise? By the way, what is music? What is music for our occidental society, what is it for other cultures like Chinese, Japanese or Indian, for instance? What is the framework of music on those cultures, what are the differences between those frameworks? Why there are those differences between music structure and organization from different cultures?

    Finally, what is liberty in music? Why did George Harrison gave up learning the Sitar? Nevertheless, he gave us marvelous guitar glissandos… As sounds goes up and down the audible frequency spectrum between 20Hz and 20,000Hz, it can glide freely inside that range and we can hear it. Due to the resonance phenomenon, acoustic musical instruments discretizes this audible spectrum in some reference frequencies, mainly octave intervals which double the frequency, also, the acoustic resonance and the acoustic interference phenomenon’s defines harmony and dissonance between two or more instruments. From there arises the most basic framework of occidental music: scales, major, minor and chromatic, intervals constructing melodies; and chords, harmonic or dissonant sounds sounding together. There is no magic here, only physics – and it is adequate to human ears and to human hands, and also to a music framework.

    If you are an occidental musician playing an acoustic instrument, then you are bound to that framework – how do you arrange those discrete sounds to compose music – and this means in a reproducible way that needs to be written, understood, remembered and played again, enjoyably or not – is a matter of aesthetics.

    As for those who expects a musical revolution, Igor Stravinsky wrote something interesting about it, but I don’t remember well… could someone quote him?

    • ‘Mopdern classical’ music is overwhelmingly ‘neo-romantic’, based on melody and harmony. The problem is that author doesn’t listen to it. He needs to greatly widen his sampling of contemporary composers – the Stockhausens, like the Glasses and Reichs, are massively in the minority. I say this as a reviewer who listens to about 100 new CD/download releases a month.
      As for instrument playing dying out – that’s plain absurd. I think there are more would-be pianists in China than there are people in the UK!

      • Scruton is mainly talking about Western culture. China imitates European 19th century in terms of piano popularity and may come round to the same situation as we are in, at some stage.

        ‘Modern classical music’- can be anything. But how much of it is serious? American orchestras are quite open-minded nowadays and they often choose well-sounding new music, which sounds well because of handling some form of tonality. In Europe, that is still quite exceptional, orchestras still living under the cloud of various misconceptions. But in terms of chamber music, lots may be going-on we cannot all know. Of ‘new tonal composers’ there have not been many who have proven to meet some quality standards as operating in the central performance culture, but that may come. Scruton discusses received wisdom and settled dogmas which still exercise a strong influence, in spite of a different practice which may bubble-up elsewhere.

    • Stravinsky’s comments upon music, his own and of others, are highly unreliable: in the twenties and thirties they were written by other people, and after WW II he had conductor and assistant Robert Craft who ghost-wrote all those books supposedly as a transcription of discussions with IS but mainly written by Craft himself, or at least: drastivally (re-)formulated.

  • I agree that philosophers need music more than musicians need philosophy; Augustine’s philosophy of time (Confessions XI, De Musica Libri Sei Book 6) is informed by reflection on musical (poetic) rhythm and meter. I have argued that this is the origin of the mathematics of the infinite (Cusa, Leibniz, Cantor). See http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/the-divine-music-of-mathematics. And I agree that musicians need philosophy in turn–above all the philosophy of time, since music unfolds in time. Western classical music creates a higher sense of time, an intimation of the eternal. Wagner by contrast attempts to freeze the moment (see http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/12/why-we-cant-hear-wagners-music). As usual the musicians are ahead of the philosophers. Among 20th century philosophers Heidegger has the most interesting things to say about time (existential Zeitlichkeit vs. banal time perception), but Heidegger unfortunately knew no music; if he did, I think he would have embraced Wagner rather than dismissed him. Heidegger’s “ecstatic moment,” I believe, is just what Wagner aimed for (see my reading of “Heil Dir, Sonne” in Siegfried III); this is as brilliant as it is ultimately baleful and destructive. Wagner as it were is Nihilism in music. It is interesting to consider Jewish liturgical music in light of Jewish philosophy of time (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/music/184773/jewish-music-holy). To do this with any degree of rigor requires an analytical approach to music that can identify meter at different levels; the best theory we have is Carl Schachter’s application of Schenker’s theory of structural levels to rhythm and meter (see https://global.oup.com/academic/product/unfoldings-9780195125900?cc=us&lang=en&). Without such a framework, we would be in the position of discussing the infinite without the apparatus of Cantor, Goedel, Paul Cohen et. al. Philosophers have reconciled themselves to learning mathematics–indeed, the most important philosphical work of the late 19th and early 20th century was accomplished by philosophers who began as mathematicians (Husserl, Frege, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Russell). The same kind of hands-on knowledge of music theory is required if philosphy and music are to speak to each other. One must actually learn how to hear: Schenker and his pupils taught musicians who already knew harmony, counterpoint, score-reading, and other skills.

    • “Wagner as it were is Nihilism in music.” Could not disagree more. W’s music is, in contrary, the opposite of nihilism and even works against the words, as the dissolving of consciousness in Tristan (in terms of text) is compensated for by music saying the opposite, as in the finale of Siegfried where the happy couple ecstatically celebrate their looming death in C major jubilation. I think we should not trusts W’s words but his music.

      What philosophy could do within the realm of music aesthetics, which in turn could clarify so many problems in serious music of our time, both the old repertoire and new music, it seems to me, is formulating the problems of music life and musical creation first. Therefore Scruton’s monumental Aesthetics of Music should be under every pillow of music professionals….. and audience members with interest in the matter.

      • By what theoretical framework would you judge the issue? All of Wagner is not nihilistic, to be sure (e.g. Meistersinger, or Hollaender, whose overture is warmed-over Hebrides. Philosophically, Heidegger is helpful (Being-in-time); Wagner’s intentional destruction of the time-teleology of classical music is an attempt to conjure non-Being. Analytically, Schenker’s theory of structural levels will give you a parallel result. The trouble is that because we are all moved my music, we all think we know something about it. See http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/12/why-we-cant-hear-wagners-music. or listen to
        I may be wrong (my revered teacher Carl Schachter likes Tristan, which I can’t hear without giggling), but the more pertinent question is: what is our framework for judging the matter?

  • I’ll try not to be wordy but want take a different tact on the post-war atonal movement. It begins with a story of a good friend, a professor of literature at UCSD during the time when Herbert Marcuse was on the faculty. He hired Angela Davis and the majority conservative public in San Diego reacted as predicted. Guarding against outside interference in “freedom of thought,” the literature department elected a Communist as chairman. The trouble commenced immediately because Communists understand power and how to use it. Vacancies were filled by other Communist professors. Who received tenure? Guess. Grants? Guess. Sabbaticals? Guess again. The literature faculty eventually understood what was happening and, despite the wide political spectrum, united to regain control. It was not so easy for Post-War classical music. The “serialists” were masters at controlling their image and convinced everyone they were the future of music. What this meant, for example in France, was Pierre Boulez and his friends labeled Messiaen and Dutilleux as marginal, little-talented composers and that was the pervasive “opinion” in France. It is only in recent years that this has changed. It was a pleasures to watch the very old Dutilleux sitting in his aisle seat at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees after the premiere of his complete “Le temps l’horloge” in May of 2009 (Ozawa, Fleming). During the intermission, young people crowded around wanting autographs like he was a rock star. This year is a year of celebration of Dutilleux’s music all around France. France is coming late to him and Messiaen but at least Dutilleux saw fame at the end of his life. One of the important historical movements of the last few decades has been the “rediscovery” of 20th Century works which “experts” like Boulez had earlier marginalized. Boulez’ late-in-life discovery of Mahler, etc., should not conceal his earlier rejection of all post-romanticism. How many careers were affected? How many commissions not given? How many compositions remain unplayed? The story is far from finished.

    • A very interesting book by musicologist Herbert Pauls about this last question can be found on internet:


      This is based upon extensive research in the history of performance culture, historiography, and culture wars of modern music in the 20th century. Richard Taruskin began the academic revision of 20C music history, which is currently under way, in his monumental Oxford History of Western Music.

      Postwar modernism acted as a communist or fascist ideology: a power game without argumentation, you were mentally in it, or out of it and then you were the enemy and had to be ‘neutralized’. This was defended by political theory which was seriously flawed: critique on modernism was an instrument of the bourgeoisie who wanted to preserve privilege. If you were for it, you understood the progress of your time, if you objected, you were conservative and outdated and critical arguments did not need to be engaged with. It was an ideology based upon a jungle mentality of power games, and a product of the totalitarian thinking which developed in the first half of the century.

  • “Few people play instruments, and music at home emerges from digital machines, controlled by buttons that require no musical culture to be pressed.”

    I would argue that, regardless of the cultural knowledge needed to press “play”, the ability for the average person living in the developed world to access and curate their own collection of music is a huge opportunity for engagement with many different musical cultures and allows for the creation of new musical cultures.

    “For many people, the young especially, music is a form of solitary enjoyment, to be absorbed without judgment and stored without effort in the brain.”

    That’s a huge assumption and an empirical claim which can be tested, if we are interested in empirically validating our claims when it is possible to do so. There is work in sociology, anthropology, and I’m sure in other disciplines on the contemporary listening habits of young people.

  • I think a longer, deeper perspective is needed, on all the arts. They, we, are at a threshold of an emerging consciousness which is seeking to re-unite our aesthetic, cognitive and moral capacities. But this requires a significant shift in spiritual awareness. The time will come when artists, listeners, viewers will need to inwardly prepare themselves through some form of spiritual practice, to be able to create and receive what is created. Now we are in a gloriously chaotic time which has to be gone through. There is no going back. All the arts were sacred once. They were based on a true knowledge of the human being in its relation to to the cosmos. They also had a healing power. Over the millennia, humanity has had to free itself from this given unity, in order to find it again from within, out of a free awareness. The union of science, art and religion has been shattered. We are left to contemplate the fragments with a Cage, a Beckett, a Duchamp. That’s a beginning. Reduced to almost nothing, we are now required to find ways of heightening our powers of perception and thinking. One way is to contemplate Nature with an alert sensibility, as Goethe did. As Blake said, ‘If the doors of perception are cleanses, then everything will appear to Man as it is, infinite’. In relation to the future of music, I feel it must have something to do with meditatively exploring its fundamental nature – the overtone series.
    A new culture will only emerge when we consciously direct our powers of loving attention to the fundamental realities of our actual experiences, whether artistic, religious or moral. Then a new form of knowledge based on what Goethe calls, ‘a delicate empiricism’ will arise, fructifying all of life. Science, art, religion will begin again to heal, – to make whole (which is what ‘heal’ means) our fragmented lives.
    What has happened in the last century – in all fields of life, is a mere blip in the scheme of things. A renaissance of the human spirit will come, but it will be unlike anything we can imagine now. Our task now is to cultivate a sense of wonder and till the soil of our soul in preparation of any new growth.

    • A hopeful but teleological vision. There is not much evidence that such grand spiritual revolution is underway. People have always struggled with spiritual / religious intuitions, also in the field of art. The forms may differ but it is the same old struggle, already millennia old. The best we can hope for, is that the debris of the last century with its upheavels may be overcome, but probably (and more modestly) that would be through hard work on a renaissance, which will differ from the recent past (20C) but probably less so with older pasts, since they are still with us in the works which have survived the times. Well, at least that is how it appears to me.

  • I’m late to the discussion and won’t join in all the chest thumping. Upon reading Scruton’s essay, I could only recognize arguments I’ve also been making repeatedly over the past decade (others are making the, too). To expand his thesis only slightly, I suggest that contemporary culture forecloses the development of musical genius such as existed in the past (a crowd of them in the late 19th century) precisely because both philosophical foundation and narrow focus are no longer possible if one is truly engaged in contemporary society. Information and entertainment options are now so broad that becoming sufficiently steeped in our own cultural inheritance is simply no longer possible.

    I would also add that the substitution of ideas for things themselves (see Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary for a brilliant discussion of this effect writ large) characteristic of musical composition informed almost wholly from within academic orthodoxy has filtered down to performers, whose assiduous note-getting often results in contemporary performance having the high sheen of professionalism but without any mark of musical expression. It’s all becoming so corporate, which leaves this listener frustratingly unmoved. BTW, I’ve actually performed Stockhausen’s Gruppen, which was utterly forgettable. It may be a significant guidepost in music history, but it provides little or no reward as either a concert-going or performance experience.

    Lastly, the very first comment by Steve Miele resounds in my ears. The despair characteristic of the outset of the 20th century, as the world strained mightily to reorient itself even as it misguidedly elevated mechanism (especially the destructive sort seen in WWI) over humanity, was most certainly a philosophy or feeling (or Zeitgeist) that was echoed in musical composition. An artist would have had to be tone deaf not to pick it up and express it in turn. As the century progressed (mostly in terms of time, not quality), the scope and scale of mechanization became clear: we made a death pact and are in an accelerating process of destroying everything, including ourselves. Pure nihilism. The death impulse is blatantly obvious in art music, with its marked disdain of beauty and audiences. Already more than fifty years ago it wrote its own epitaph: no one cares anymore.

  • “Information and entertainment options are now so broad that becoming sufficiently steeped in our own cultural inheritance is simply no longer possible.” No wonder that at the end, this comment sighs its last breath on a sombre note. The two are related: if one thinks that contemporary information and entertainment make involvement in cultural heritage impossible, i.e. lacking the ability to turn-off ‘the world’ now and then, yes, this may result in the feeling that ‘no one cares any more’. One is free to stop receiving media showers. But this impression of culture being overwhelmed by entertainment and superficial information, say: the media culture, means that so much nonsense which has been going on for much longer, now has become much more visible and audible. In the past, culture was something of an elite anyway, and the masses – without their voice in public space apart from occasional bloody rebellions – were silent in that concert. Now every crank can make himself heard in many different ways, but that does not mean there is no longer an elite or that ‘people don’t care any more’. There are still many people caring profoundly about art, culture in general, classical music. The problem is that institutions and governments fail to understand their task of protecting culture from this mass erosion. In other words: it is too early to be that negative, and generalizing statements have not much arguing power. Also it may be that many brilliant artists are working ‘on the margins’ of public space but will make themselves heard / seen in a future where the cultural climate is different. Three of many examples: the French composer Nicolas Bacri began as an IRCAM wunderkind, but went through a conversion and now writes beautiful and expressive music based upon the tonal tradition. His collegue Karol Beffa wrote a piano concerto of genius. And this music is performed, has great success, draws attention. The English composer David Matthews wrote a fantastic cello concerto which sparks brilliant and multifarious colours. So, people are working on all those problems… but it takes time.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-wEqheT9is (Bacri)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWjSJri3NcE (Beffa)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPs-D8X2zUA (Matthews)

  • Simple, I like to keep it simple, and I use a simple yardstick to decide the value a new (to me) piece of music: am I willing to pay for a recording to listen to it again at home? Money is the final weight to put on the balance. This is closely linked to the question ‘What has this music left in me after a concert or recital?’ Nowadays, when I hear music I love to forget everything I’ve learned in courses and the countless books read on the meaning of music and immerse myself in the sound, which is always greater than the mere sum of its parts. This is the simple philosophy that gradually replaced my inclination to believe allegedly erudite writings and the voice of my snobbish or Marxist friends. Today, I am just delighted to be naive again and go back to basics, to the pleasure of real, meaningful music, not the factual but banal knowledge of its intricacies. Simple.

    • But directly – not intellectually – experiencing (good) music is not ‘simple’ at all, it is exactly what its composers hope(d) for. The listener should count on his emotional experience and not on any theory. However, in times when incompetence, misunderstanding, power games, ideologies, and ignorance and insensitivity go riot, intellectual debate is very helpful to find solutions if an art form finds itself in all kinds of problems. In the end, the decisive battles are lost or won in the arena of the concert hall, but before music is presented therein, it has travelled a long trajectory which may include theory, speculation, and reflection. Where ‘classical music’ as a genre is cricitized for being elitist, unrelated to our modern times, etc. etc. and its funding under threat by populism and ignorance, people running it need to reflect and take stock. From audiences nothing more than trust and hope is asked…. to experience something without philosophical burdens.

  • Anything about classical music makes my heart go pitapat… But if I may add to these lovely (most of the time) comments, a real treat (in both erudition and the semblance thereof) on this wintry afternoon, one question (hope not too naïve): Why only Cage, Glass, …., and not a word (or more words) on Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (Boris), Schnittke, Shchedrin, Gubaidulina, …? Perhaps the contribution of the East-of-Elba composers to the music which I believe we all, with individual preferences, like to listen to today, is worth comparing to those of Anglo-American composers?

    • The Soviet Era has put a glass bulb over a traditional music culture, thus preserving most of its qualities, while in the West composers ‘liberated’ themselves from such ‘burdens’. Indeed the east has produced great talents because of this unbroken undercurrent. The reason why Shostakovich has entered the regular repertoire is because his work is aesthetically related to the central performance culture, and is therefore understood by Western audiences, who recognize in its heroic nihilism their own inner worries and struggles, while living in free and relatively safe societies. As Valerie Gergiev once explained to me, however, there are now also quite some Russian ‘modern composers’ who try to catch-up with the West by producing the same nonsensical modernism as was thought up-to-date in the West’s sixties.

    • No, Peter-Ilich, great music is never simple, my conscious attitude is. That’s the trouble with fast writing, you may fail to express a full idea, and thus be misunderstood. I discovered–truly discovered, without prompts–by myself the power of music. I was a young child then and did not know anything about the history of music. The sounds in Rimsky’s Sheherezade did it for me, and I never stopped discovering and being thrilled by great music from that magic moment on. And you are right in questioning the relative absence of composers from various parts of the world in the music stage, but remember that music is a market and marketeers will go for the largest sector of the pie: they have no use for philosophy. As for many changes that have been proposed in music evolution in the last century, all those arising from abstract, extra musical premises–like Schönberg´s, whose atonalism is an aberration coming from an ideology, a musical ideology–are doomed to fail for being unmusical. Elitist? Then this is must be the most democratic elite in history as all you need is to appreciate good music. If you do, you are one of us. I know it well, as I didn’t come from a rich family but was always welcome in musical circles for musical reasons. What we need most is to expose rubbish and help others to perceive greatness with the least lecturing possible.

  • Franklin Bruno above: “…….. Scruton’s foot-stamping naturalism, which doesn’t seem to me able to account for the comprehensibility of highly chromatic (but not atonal) music.” Highly chromatic but tonal music, like Debussy’s Jeux, Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, Berg’s violin Concerto, Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony or Scriabine’s late piano sonatas, derive their expressive effects from suggesting tonal connections all the time, either by presenting them or veering-off tonal relationships and coming-back to them, creating effects comparable with consonance/dissonance tensions. These effects are still entirely covered by Scuron’s descriptions, they only operate further away from basic triadic tonality and where they are combined as in Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, which includes renaissance harmonic writing with music at teh edge of tonality, their common roots make a harmonious whole possible.

  • JOHN: Thank you very much for such a valuable gift as the link to Two Centuries. It is obviously a serious book, and l’l be reading it in the same spirit. My reading will be slower than usual though, as I’ve just started an online course. Perhaps it will be easier if you use my email address for any future communication, just fill the gaps: g artiles at g mail dot com.
    In his introduction, Pauls speaks of an artistic crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems to me that the crisis was more of philosophy, philosophy absorbing art.

  • Much of the above commentary is interesting and valuable. What struck me is the near absence of any mention of the essential fact that it’s the ideas, the content of a piece of music that matters most. If the content, which can be as simple as a two or three-note phrase or unexpected twist of harmony, is good — that is, somehow carrying within it a suggestiveness transcending words– the music will live and breathe, regardless of the clothing the composer has chosen to dress it in. As a composer, one hopes the two will reinforce each other, but without the good ideas no amount of “technique” can help. We’ve all heard too much music attempting to disguise a lack of ideas with a surfeit of “philosophy.” At the other extreme most of the music of Glass and Cage and their many followers strikes me as shallow, even desperate, indeed fine examples of the importance of good content, and what inevitably happens without it. We live in a dumbed down age.

    • When a musical tradition has eroded, it is very hard to save its essence: the ‘content’, in a new or other tradition. The confusions about what a musical tradition is in reality, have led to the emptiness you correctly observe. Scruton in his Aesthetics makes clear how a tradition works, from which can be concluded that a normal, healthy tradition is not some sort of prescriptive orthodoxy but a living, breathing practice, interpreted anew with every composer, with every generation. ‘Good content’ can only be discovered or developed if it is first detected in existing musical works which then are used as models, not (merely) in a technical sense but aesthetically and in terms of expression. It is very hard, but it can be done:


  • Excellent and thought-provoking article. It says what I have been saying for some years now, but better than I can! Apart from other considerations, Adorno and other ‘progressives” views on this are a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis called ‘the chronological fallacy’!

  • How disappointing to see someone of this stature get so much wrong on so many levels. Schoenberg hardly saw that his “philosophy” was developed by Adorno. Quite the opposite. But more important, the author does not cite any works. The Fourth Quartet, the String Trio, the Phantasy, and the list goes on of Schoenberg’s enduring compositions that attain and embody the highest aesthetic values. These are the empirical facts. Listen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

*                *                *