If we are to approach the topic of music and the transcendental in a fruitful way we should first look at the two terms that the topic brings together: music, and the transcendental. What do we mean in this context by music? And what do we mean by the transcendental?
German idealism began with Leibniz, and lasted until Schopenhauer, with a few Central European after-shocks in the work of Husserl and his followers. That great epoch in German philosophy coincided with a great epoch in German music. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that idealist philosophers should have paid special attention to this art form.
It has always been controversial to make a sharp distinction between the philosophical and the psychological approaches to aesthetics; and the revolution brought about by cognitive science has led many to believe that the philosophy of art no longer controls a sovereign territory of its own.
‘The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city’. So wrote Plato in the Republic (4.424c). And Plato is famous for having given what is perhaps the first theory of character in music, proposing to allow some modes and to forbid others according to the character which can be heard in them.
Wagner was the most philosophical of musicians and Nietzsche the most musical of philosophers, so a philosophy of music ought to be implied somewhere in their conflict. However Nietzsche’s early adoration of Wagner distorted his later rejection, so that the serious thinking has to be discerned within a cloud of self-loathing.
Rameau was renowned in his day as a keyboard virtuoso and his compositions for harpsichord are among the most colourful in the repertoire, even if attaining only rarely to the emotional refinement and poetry that we find in the Ordres of François Couperin. 25 years the junior of Couperin, Rameau belonged to a generation that was beginning to emancipate itself from the musical lingua franca of the ‘baroque’.
The modern world gives proof at every point that it is far easier to destroy institutions than to create them. Nevertheless, few people seem to understand this truth. Britain’s Labour Party has embarked upon a series of ‘constitutional reforms’ which can be relied upon to undermine the old authority of Parliament, but which will put no new authority in its place.
Schubert died aged 31 in 1828. Had he lived as long as Mozart, who reached the ripe age of 35, Schubert would surely have proved to be Mozart’s equal. If he did not match Mozart as a composer of opera or sacred music he left some operatic and liturgical fragments that are as beautiful as anything in the repertoire.
Schubert’s Quartett-Satz, or string quartet movement, is the opening movement of a string quartet that he never completed and which was never performed in his lifetime. He wrote it in 1820, during a transitional period, and before he had hit on the concentrated and tragic style of his later chamber works.
My theme is popular culture, and contemporary popular music as its most pervasive expression. It is not, at first sight, a theme that would have attracted any warm applause from Sir Leslie Stephen, who in any case was not (except in his early days as a boating enthusiast) given to warm applause.
Ancient Greek vases often show images of dancers, sometimes dancing in a chorus, sometimes dancing to ‘unheard melodies’ of their own. Their bodies have a peculiarly self-contained look: the limbs seem to radiate outwards from an inner source, and the face is often bowed, as though entirely absorbed in thoughts of its own.
The English word ‘tune’ does not have any simple equivalent in other European languages. The German Ton means sound or tone, while Weise has the primary meaning of manner, style or custom, and features in the description of music as a borrowed term. ‘Melody’, from Greek melos, has its equivalent in other languages – German Melodei, French mélodie, Italian melodia etc. – but in all languages the implication is of something more extended, and more integrated into a musical argument than the artless ‘tune’.