Listening to music as an ascesis of the self

There is no friendship, there are only unique and regular exercises through which particular individuals become and remain friends. Having a conversation by a piano with Pantelis Polychonidis is one of our favorite exercises as friends.


A characteristic topic to which we return often during these exercises is the two chords that introduce Schubert’s “Der Leiermann,” the last lied of the song cycle Winterreise (D. 911, written in 1827). We keep playing and scrutinizing them yet their meaning remains inexhaustible. In terms of standard approaches, Pantelis is more interested in Susan Youens’ literary considerations while I am drawn to Richard Kramer’s hermeneutic readings but these become secondary when compared to the ethical one. What matters to me is not what the song says or how it is received but how its listener is put together, how he is structured to feel, how he is positioned to generate a depth of interiority.

When it comes to Franz Schubert, both scholarship and criticism tend to focus on the composer’s enigmatic personality: Who was the man behind the beautiful work? What did he feel and how did he think? How did he manage to compose so much between 17 and 31? My focus is entirely different. I am fascinated by the listener produced by this music (including, of course, its cultural context), by the ethical subjectivity posited by it. Who do I become when listening to the opening left-hand appoggiatura, what kind of (peripatetic? aporetic? eremitic?) self does it turn me into? What is the psychological fulfillment and existential redemption to which its dissonance promises to deliver me?

Because Pantelis is my “other self,” I can better explore with him the ethics of the listening self. First he plays the chords and then we may listen (in random order) to Barenboim, Richter, Brendel, Schiff, Deutsch (at 4:10), or Lewis. Each one of them is spellbinding in their own way, and each stages a different encounter with my multiple selves and their doubles. They all keep reminding me that listening to music is a major ascesis of self-formation/Bildung, to use the name of a literary circle of friends that Schubert joined in 1815.

October 20, 2014

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