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Top Five Composers as Deep Philosophers

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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.