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Music and Meaning

Session 2: Music and Philosophy

Zephyr Institute @ Stanford University
Theories of Aesthetics

• Affektenlehre

• 18th-century French/Neo-Aristotelian Aesthetics

• Hegel

• Schopenhauer
18th-century French

• Charles Batteux “Fine Arts Reduced to a Single

Principle” (1746) - Return to classicism in
aesthetic theory

• Aristotle “Poetics”: Art can be distilled into two

components: catharsis and mimesis
• catharsis: the purification or purgation of the
emotions aroused in a tragic performance

• mimesis: imitation of natural phenomena human

• Admiration

• Love

• Hatred

• Desire

• Joy

• Sorrow
Hegel (1770-1831)
• Interjection: “The Ahs and Ohs of the Heart”, except not bound
by the dimensions of space

• Expression, not representation

• functions as its own entity or with text, and can be absolute or


• when text is included, gains in clarity

• Classical visual art is what exhibits true beauty as such

• Against the over-emphasis on technique/intellectualism in music

Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
• The Will

• related to Kantian concepts of

Phenomenon vs. Noumenon

• “the innermost essence, the kernel, of

every particular thing and also of the
whole. It appears in every blindly acting
force of nature, and also in the deliberate
conduct of man”
• Opposition to both Aristotelian aesthetics and Affektenlehre

• “[Music] does not express this or that individual or particular joy,

this or that sorrow or pain or horror or exaltation or cheerfulness
or peace of mind, but rather joy, sorrow, pain, horror, exaltation,
cheerfulness and peace of mind as such in themselves,

• Superiority of absolute music

• Music is the embodiment of the Will, not a representation of it

• Human nature and desires lead only to suffering, but through

sublimation of the Will, we can achieve peace
Susan McClary
• Music serves to either uphold or challenge traditional
viewpoints on gender and sexuality

• “traditional Western dichotomy…of virgin and whore”

• views the music as literal representation of supposedly

implied events (Flower Song, Habanera)

• Claims the musical tension in the composition is a sexual/

patriarchal phenomenon, as opposed to a technique in-

• Is her writing falsifiable?

(What is it?)
Four forces at work in
• Carmen: bohemianism, gypsy, smugglers (organized criminal
commerce), cigarettes (regarded at the time as a cause of

• Don José: military/government role in society. Impotent and

weak, prays to God in prison (Flower Song), always falling
behind the schemes of Carmen and the machismo of Escamillo

• Escamillo: traditional culture, bullfighting as a semiotic

representation of Spanish feudal (i.e. pre-revolutionary) society,
superiority of man over deity

• Micaela: purity, simplicity, rejection of passion/lust, acceptance

of the desires of our elders/ancestors
Who remains?
Who remains?

• Escamillo: in the midst of the final conflict

between Carmen and Don José, we hear the
roaring cheers of the crowd outside Escamillo’s
successful bullfight

• Micaela: rejection by Don José leaves her out of

the finale of the opera
Hegelian Dialectic
• Don José introduced as being impervious to
Carmen’s advances/charm, while the entire city
remains seduced


• Becomes infatuated with his unattainable object

of desire to the point of killing her in cold blood,
as a result of his inability to compete with
Hegelian Dialectic

• Thesis: clean-cut military bourgeois bureaucracy

• Antithesis: bohemianism (in the form of a

pastiche of Spanish gypsy culture)

• Synthesis: mutual destruction

Hegelian Dialectic

• Thesis: bohemianism (in the form of a pastiche

of Spanish gypsy culture)

• Antithesis: simplistic rustic life and respect for

the opinions of one’s parents

• Synthesis: death and absence

Hegelian Dialectic

• Thesis: clean-cut military bourgeois bureaucracy

• Antithesis: traditional Spanish culture and


• Synthesis: Don José likely sent to martial prison

or executed (more Sartre than Sartre) and
Escamillo victorious
Charles Munch
“Self Portrait with
Cigarette” (1895)
• Max Nordau’s 1892 work
Entartung (Degeneration)
attempted to label changes in
art as cultural degeneracy

• Who/What’s to blame?
Wagner, Wilde, Ibsen,
Nietzsche, and bohemianism

• What’s the result? Hysteria,

neurasthenia, death
Entartete Kunst

• Degenerate Art

• Art which offers little-to-no redeeming cultural


• Not a coincidence Nordau was a militant Zionist

fighting heavily against the openly anti-Semitic
Historiography of
• Idealized medieval Protestant society

• Lived in perfect harmony, with each

individual having a specific role
(knight, shoemaker, etc.)

• Different roles in life intersected in art


• Intersection of art and body politic,

as the guild of Meistersingers were
embodiment of a sort of “modern

• People coming together to

create art, as opposed to
standard model of patronage
Schopenhauerian Isolation
• Schopenhauer’s pessimistic views on love are
embodied in Wagner’s take of the 12th-century
Norman legend of Tristan and Iseult

• Wagner makes decision to base it on the

(wonderful) Gottfried von Strassburg version,
which was left incomplete

• Wagner ends it in true Schopenhauerian/

Wagnerian fashion
What if it were a 19th-
century Italian opera?
“Tristano ed Isolda”
• Tristan would need to have ACTUAL competition
with King Mark (or a substitute male figure), who
is represented in Wagner’s tale as powerless
against the forces of the love potion

• Would end in one of two ways: mad scene with

Isolde, in which she kills both herself and Tristan
OR they are sentenced to death outright by King
Mark, dying in each other’s arms. Either way,
they end up together
Wagner’s response to
Italian tragic opera?
Mild und leise
• The Lacanian objet petit a is both the abstract notion of
“resolution” in a musical sense (initiated by the prelude) AND
Tristan/Isolde’s love

• They do NOT die together. They die one after another, with each
hallucinating the appearance of the other in their final moments.
Not even in death can they truly achieve their own desires,
though their deaths allow the Tristan Chord to finally resolve (to B

• What results is a deviation from traditional “fairy tale love story”

ending, and a descent into a brutal tragic climax. No
coincidence the last word of the opera is “Lust” (bliss/ecstasy
auf Deutsch).

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