The centrality of music in German aesthetics


Idealist philosophy and classical music emerged together in Germany in the 1790s.  They were part of the same grandiose cultural project, the creation of a social discipline I shall call Contemplative Conduct, the self-discipline (which Schiller called “Aesthetic Education”) of the middle class.  A major regimen of this discipline is the practices of the Aesthetic Subject, namely, of the Subject as Creator/Artist and as Interpreter/Reader. Idealist philosophy and classical music were the two major domains where Aesthetic Subjects could learn their skills as art makers and art interpreters, and practice their Contemplative Conduct as bourgeois comportment.

Perusing German Aesthetics: Fundamental Concepts from Baumgarten to Adorno, a splendid dictionary of critical keywords that has just come out, I am struck once again by the attention music receives in this domain, both directly (entries on ‘Absolute Music’ and ‘Listening’) and indirectly (entries on ‘Mood/Attunement’ and ‘the Ugly’). In contrast, there are no entries on any other traditional arts (film earns one) and, while poetry and theater are discussed, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and the novel are not even listed in the Index. In the aesthetic domain, only music can deliver the Contemplating Subject into Totality.

From the generation of Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder and Beethoven (both born in the 1770s) till that of Hans Blumenberg and Hans Werner Henze (both born in the 1920s), philosophy and music worked in parallel, and sometimes together, to cultivate the Contemplative Conduct and reward it with the theophany of the Absolute. I have already written in this blog about listening to Bruckner’s 8th with Pantelis Polychronidis but the new dictionary sent me back to that symphony as a Total moment where music philosophizes and philosophy musics.  The eighty-minute ascent of Bruckner’s 8th symphony represents both an ascesis in, and a monument to, the self-formation/Bildung of the Aesthetic Subject.

My 8th is consistently one of Karajan’s, preferably the last one from October 1988 with the Vienna. Readers may prefer one of Furtwängler’s, perhaps the October 1944, also with the Vienna (the orchestra that premiered the symphony in 1892).

October 13, 2016

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