Citing a sentence by Chopin, Ravel claims that no one has understood it: “nothing is more detestable than music without hidden meaning”. The ideal of affirmative culture presupposes, of course, this very dictum—that music expresses the highest meaning of human experience insofar as it mimics the spiritual language of the heavens. Until we began searching for meaning—whether such meaning is understood as the cosmic language of creation in mathematical proportions or the expression of the genius’ original intuition—“music addressed itself to the emotions. It was then shifted to the understanding, but understanding did not know what to do with it”.
That was 1910. Understanding still does not know what to do with the paradoxical universality of music. The significance of something like Beethoven’s Ninth is immediately apparent, yet in the face of such a profound musical idea we find ourselves excessively poor in our ability to give an account of it and are often reduced to the embarrassed repetition of banalities that would be otherwise inexcusable were it not for the lack of alternative expressions.
We will never understand the musical idea, however, as long as we approach it by analogy with the concept.*
* Music, Jorge Bolet once said in a master class, is “the art of communication between two people by means of musical sounds. So whatever you’re doing at the keyboard you’re telling them in musical terms—in musical sounds—exactly what you’re thinking or what the composer thought”. The word “thought” here should be understood literally and precisely.
The first approach to the musical idea, of course, must be in listening (which we know after phenomenology and critical theory is a historical activity). Apart from the effects of what Adorno called the “regression” in listening—i.e., the neutralization of form by fetishized music—what we lack are the proper analytic concepts (yes, concepts) for listening.** As Adorno points out, fetishization extends even to “serious” music, which “mobilizes the pathos of distance against refined entertainment”. One way we see this occurring is the inane quibbling over the “correct” or “best” interpretation of a piece in precisely the place where the notions of measure or truth are nonsensical.
**The fundamental analytic concept for listening in music is the line. This concept, of course, originally comes from Schenker with the appropriate modifications from the row (Schönberg) and structure (Boulez).
Rather, the dialectical character of listening is of the sort Plato had described in the Phaedrus as the collection and division such that we are “capable of discerning a single thing that is also by nature capable of encompassing many” (266b). Yet, as Leibniz has shown us, the result ofeither collection or division results in the unity of a “one” in the same sense.
In short, it is not “listening to Mozart” that makes us smarter but being able to experience singularities.
This is why, given the choice between two interpretations of a piece, the choice is not that of a “correct” or “better” one; the appropriate question to ask is what idea is being expressed and whether it is being done consistently.
Experience in such listening is precisely the kind of musical education Plato had described in the Republic and why, if we want philosophers who can recognize ideas when they encounter them (instead of the parasitic activity of textual commentary prevalent in Continental philosophy and theory), we must learn how to distinguish Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, and Bronistlaw Huberman not to pass judgment but simply to discern the difference between them.