I’m lucky to have been invited to present three lectures on “Beethoven & Philosophy” to the Beethoven class being held this semester (see below). They’re scheduled for the end of this month, so I’ve been preparing.
Philosophers don’t have a lot to say about music. There is discussion of it in aesthetics, of course, and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche wrote a good deal about it. Plato wrote about music in the Republic, though the distance between his culture and ours makes it pretty hard to appreciate. So I’m not taking the direct route of “here’s what philosophers have to say about Beethoven.” Rather, I’m relaying what the big philosophical concerns were in LvB’s time and just after it, and making links where I can to where his music expresses some of the passion motivating the philosophy.
That last bit, by the way, is really exciting for me. What is the music that expresses the frame of mind Kant was in while crafting the CPR? What music expresses Hegel’s insight that the real is the rational? What’s the soundtrack to Nietzsche’s eternal return? I think it all can be found in Beethoven. Indeed, as in Shakespeare and Plato, it’s hard to find a human voice that doesn’t get expressed somewhere in the works.
The first lecture will be on Kant. Remember that, for Kant, the world we experience has come pre-formatted for us by the structure of our minds. Space, time, substance, and causality are all in the world because they are forms and categories we impose upon a reality that is, in itself, impossible for us to experience directly. Similarly, it is the structure of the human mind that tells us how a human being, as a rational being, ought to behave; and that is the sphere of morality. And in the world of art, what we find beautiful has its harmony because of the way our understanding restrains our imagination, and what we find sublime has its power because it reflects the tremendous power of our will. In all: there is order in the world, and morality, and beauty and sublimity because of us. We invest the world with its intelligibility and its value. (Can you here the final movement of LvB’s 9th?)
The second lecture is on German idealism (the philosophies of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel). I have always been fascinated by German idealism because of its strangeness and difficulty. The movement started as philosophers tried to tie up the loose ends Kant had left behind. Most notably, he hadn’t explained what this powerful “human mind” is, or how it relates to the reality we cannot experience. The world in itself is something we can think, Kant said, but never understand. But the GIs would not accept this. If we can think it, then we can understand it. Fichte thought the world in itself must be exactly what it seems to be — namely, an idea of the mind, which the mind produces as a sort of reflection of itself. Schelling couldn’t believe we’re making all this shit up, so he postulated a higher unity of mind and reality frought with tension and disturbance, from which all things flow. Hegel saw the absolute not as a pre-existent unity, but something coming into being through our attempts to understand the world and impose order on it. The world becomes real as it becomes rational. I cannot exaggerate the passion of these thinkers, and their zeal to find order in all things; pulling out all stops in order to give voice to the turmoil and hope they felt within themselves. (And that, to me, is how LvB’s Grosse Fuge sounds.)
The final lecture is on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who each, in his own way, rebelled against the very idea that the core of reality was something rational. They each placed will or blind passion at the heart of things. Schopenhauer thought this made all of experience a long ordeal of suffering, for the will is never satisfied. One can expect only tragedy after tragedy, and weariness. (LvB’s slow movement from the 3rd.) Nietzsche saw the suffering as a necessary condition for victory: namely, the victory of accepting life just as it is, and embracing it. (The final movement in LvB’s last string quartet has the following annotation: “Muss es sein? … Es muss sein!” — “Must it be? … It must be!”)
There you have it. In any event, this has been a whole-brain exercise. We’ll see how the lectures go.