Top Five Composers as Deep Philosophers

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Recently debate has swirled around the scientific studies linking music with profound emotions, since a Wall Street Journal article dissected why Adele’s “Someone Like You” makes people cry. What seems incontrovertible is music’s power to convey feeling. Some composers go farther and try to express metaphysical and epistemological, not to mention esthetic ideals within their works. We’ve collected five examples of these great thinkers below.

1. John Cage

With 4' 33", John Cage questioned the nature of music and listening. Influenced by both Dadaists and the Chinese notion of chance from the “I Ching, ” Cage created a mechanism of making music rather than making the music itself. "There is no noise, only sound. I haven't heard any sounds that I consider something I don't want to hear again, with the exception of sounds that frighten us or make us aware of pain. I don't like meaningful sound. If sound is meaningless, I'm all for it."

2. Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner found incredible meaning in music. In fact, in his 1849 essay, "The Art-Work of the Future" (1849), he claimed that music had the power to liberate society. He later changed his mind and instead accepted the idea from Schopenhauer that society is irredeemable. Those thoughts pervade Wagner’s later operas, and are explored in Brian McGee’s 2001 book, The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy.

3. Charles Ives

Charles Ives called his seminal 1906 work The Unanswered Question a cosmic drama which intones nothing more than “the perennial question of existence.” Throughout the tone poem a trumpet is trying to delve in to the meaning of the universe but the woodwind section floats insufficient responses. At the end of the work, it’s the question that’s more important than the answers.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche

Though many composers can claim being amateur philosophers, few philosophers can say they’re truly composers. One exception is Friedrich Nietzsche, who was a proficient pianist and wrote several works for the instrument. "Without music, life would be an error," he wrote. Most of Nietzsche’s works come from his teens and twenties, before he rejected Wagner and Romanticism.

5. Ferruccio Busoni

When he wasn’t composing, teaching or performing at the piano, Ferruccio Busoni was writing about on philosophy. His desire to find elemental truths extended to the nature of music to principals of keyboard fingering and pedal techniques. He wrote essays such as “The Essence of Music” and “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music.” Though Busoni didn’t incorporate some of the ideas explored in the later essay (like microtones and electronic instruments), he clearly predicted pathways of 20th-century music.

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Comments [3]


Just for starters one might read the new introduction, by Kyle Gann, to the 50th anniversary edition to Cage's Silence. And then for harder work pick up philosopher Richard Fleming's Evil and Silence: Socrates to Cage.

Mar. 08 2012 05:49 AM
David S Bundler

What about that guy who used to discuss the meaning of life with Goethe? You know the "must it be?"..."it must be!" guy. Perhaps his love of nature makes him seem more a mystical pantheist than a philosopher. Or perhaps since he said most of what he said musically, rather than through a love of, and justification of, his opinions, in words. Stan Kenton once said; "truth is just truth, you can't have opinions about truth". I find a lot of truth in the "it must be" guy's music, but is that philosophy? I guess it depends on who you are. As I have said, "a revolution can be present in a symphony, and the general public will be none the wiser".

Mar. 07 2012 07:07 PM
Dimitar Kambourov from New York

I suppose it has been done purposefully, this lack of system and mix of irreconcilable perspectives with regard to what is meant under "philosopher". It is quite clear that Nietzsche is a philosopher in a substantially different way than, say, Wagner. If we start with Cage as an inventor we should add rather Bach and Haydn and Beethoven and Stravinsky or Schoenberg. Nietzche should bring ETA Hoffmann and Adorno. Etc. I personally have read the most embarrassing writing in Chopin's letter but it does not mean that his music was lacking philosophical depth, particularly some of his etudes. The same about Mozart: he is the author of some of the funniest nonsense scatological letters but his music possesses a fundamental philosophical claim. My point is: it would have been much better to assess the philosophical insight of a composer because of his music, not because he was reading or teaching philosophy. There are rare examples like Boulez or Ligeti when the same person is a philosopher both in his words and works.

Mar. 07 2012 12:19 PM

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