Beethoven & German idealism

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.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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12 Responses to Beethoven & German idealism

  1. Pingback: Beethoven und Philosophie der Musik at Das Philoblog

  2. Rob says:

    What an intriguing lecture series! Have you listened to any recordings of Nietzsche’s compositions? Most of what little I’ve heard about them is not very encouraging, so my curiosity about them remains hesitant.

    This past spring, I saw a simulcast of the Met’s “Tristan und Isolde” at a local movie theater (in, remarkably, a relatively small Appalachian town in one of this electoral season’s most hopelessly red of states), and found helpfull several of the essays in Bernard Williams’ posthumous collection ON OPERA, as well as Brylan Magee’s “The Secret of Tristan and Isolde” in Philosophy 82: 2007, pp 339-446.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Yes, I’ve heard Nietzsche’s music too. Not exactly bad, but uninteresting. I’m going to see if I can round up a recording before the lecture next week.

    These Met simulcasts are good things. We have a friend who regularly drives to Ogden for them (about 40 miles). Magee’s book, “The Tristan Chord,” is an interesting account of his love of Wagner. (Also has an interesting account of the Wagner/Nietzsche breakup.) Never been able to get much into Wagner myself, though I’ve tried.


  4. Chris says:

    Charlie, sorry to be missing the Fry Street series but it’s nice to keep in touch through your blog. The Hobo Wars was great, thanks for sending it along. ct


  5. Kleiner once mentioned Nietzsche’s music as seen through the eyes of his friends, and how people were writing and asking him to practically lock it up and never speak of it again, to save the world from its utter worthlessness. The only piece I’ve heard was from the February 24, 2007 playing of Radio Nihil, an internet show that mixes some social and philosophical commentary with Black metal, classical, ambient, folk, and occasionally hardcore punk and some of the better pop. The show varies in quality with different hosts. They played Eine Sylvesternacht. What surprised me most was how quiet and simple it was considering my knowledge of Nietzsche. If I remember correctly it was only a cello and piano, even the composition was very minimal. I wouldn’t have put it above anything, especially of his time, but it seemed put forth contemplatively, certainly not so foolishly as the pop stars of now would simply add violins to sound ‘sophisticated’.

    I haven’t been able to attend the week’s lectures but I am determined to attend Friday’s. I’ve been hearing incredibly positive reviews from those I know that have attended so I can’t wait. If you like, Charlie, I can try to track down an audiofile of the recording or find their source. I sincerely doubt they will possess this in Borders.


  6. Etha Williams says:

    Adorno’s fragmentary writings on Beethoven, edited and published as “Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music”, has some very interesting analysis of Beethoven’s music from a Hegelian POV. Get it if you can.

    Regarding Kant, I’ve always felt that Beethoven’s music expresses the “negative pleasure” of the sublime better than anything else I know, except possibly Webern’s….


  7. Al says:

    Six years after this post, I Googled ‘Beethoven and Kant’. Lo! and Behold! This is still one of the top results.

    I agree, the 9th Symphony is the awkward-at-first, but ultimately successful, dashboard soundtrack to the prom night of art and philosophy. The final movement is a dialectic between deep and high notes, dark and bright – then orgasmic synthesis. I have no idea whether that is a Kantian intention, or a German romantic one, or just a human one. (Or neither and everything I’m saying – apparently Fichte might put it – is a bunch of made up shit?)

    What do you think about the Heroic symphony, insofar as there is a divide at the time between Germany and the culture of France and Italy? (After all, they call it “German” idealism.) You know the story, the symphony was originally written for Napoleon, until he gained the unsightly imperial pounds that accompany tyrannical dinner parties – i.e., “pass the Belgium.” Beethoven heard about the crowning of the fresh prince of Bel-everything and exclaimed, “And he too is just a man!” and threw the symphony on the floor with the most musical guffaw of all time – it went something like “guff guff guff FAW, guff guff guff FAW.”

    Anyway, the music goes galloping around Europe with an erection but periodically falls into bouts of horrible despair. Are these torrents of sadness about Napoleon’s adulteress wife? I doubt it. Or are they Beethoven’s own misery toward Fate that creates such men and gives only deafness to the meek and humble Kantian?

    (Oh and by the way, how can absolute music even be *about* anything? Answer that, Huenemann!)

    Too many questions. Is there a heroic concept in Beethoven? Napoleon fell from under the banner of Kant’s “Sapere Aude” – and from all that other stuff about the universal dignity for the Brotherhood of Man and so forth – to a common Commodus. But here’s the thing: Beethoven was inwardly scrawling a forthcoming suicide letter at the same time due to his embarrassment about hearing loss, a much more individual and personal issue: “Forced to become a philosopher already in my twenty-eighth year, oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else…” Musicologist Robert Greenberg argues convincingly that the symphony is actually a metaphor for Beethoven’s own death. This is a different hero from Enlightenment Napoleon!

    Either I’m full of it (likely) or we go with Beethoven from philosophical external to internal in the form of music. He changed the concept of the symphony from a benediction to the external Enlightenment hero (Big Papa Bonaparte) to the inward collapse of a doomed artist. Practically a neon advertisement for the 19th-century German Tourism Bureau, complete with Kleenex box and pistol.

    There’s the exact sentiment in Geothe’s Werther, who emerged like a plague and swept the continent a few years earlier – hordes of young tarts wore tight pants and Black Sabbath tee shirts in his honor. Geothe too was an author who teeter-tottered back and forth between Enlightenment hopefulness and total misery.

    I would have loved to have been around for your lectures. Would I be right to say that Beethoven tells us something extremely important about the modern age, but is ignored by academic philosophy? In a sense he provided front row seats for listeners to forecast what would be happening in (all) the years to come, as Geothe did with Werther (an archetype whose Schopenhauerian “cadaverous perfume” was still floating around in air in the 1940’s on Camus). Why do philosophers at large seem to be paying more attention to maple syrup than music?


  8. Al says:

    I’m embarrassed that this whole comment was one of those “let me ask you a question that’s not really a question” moments. I babbled and posted, overexcited when I realized someone – at USU!!! – cares about this. As you wrote, “to not acknowledge the importance of the event, and to pass over it in utter silence, seems to me an egregious intellectual failing…” even years later. Kleiner’s right that the net is a terrible place to communicate, so I’m just going to stop for my own good. Just hope you know that among the students, there are some of us who are still listening and wondering – always will be. Thanks!


  9. Huenemann says:

    Don’t be embarrassed! Great questions and comments. I have done hardly any research on the subject, but the little I have seen is either too musicological to be of philosophical interest, or just too myopic. I suppose what I did in those lectures was perhaps silly – looking for soundtracks to philosophical ideas – but I sure enjoyed it.


  10. Jenny says:

    Very interesting to read your post and the comments. I’m curious, though-were your lectures recorded by any chance? I’d love to view them!


  11. Huenemann says:

    Thanks! No, haven’t been recorded.


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