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Music

Musik soll nicht schmücken - sie soll wahr sein! (music should not be just decoration - it should be true!). This statement comes from the great composer and innovator of classical music Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), whose ideas and personality have been a source of fascination for me ever since my days as a student at the conservatory. What does it mean to say that music is about truth, even more than about beauty? If Schönberg was right that music could somehow convey truth - or so I was telling myself - this meant that it was there to teach us something, some knowledge that perhaps could not be learned in any other way. What kind of knowledge could that be? When I continued my studies at the University of Amsterdam and came across the concept of gnosis, I began to wonder whether perhaps this was what musical truth was all about. My very first publication, in Dutch, was titled "The Gnosis of Arnold Schönberg"; and in my MA thesis I made an attempt (rather too schematic and abstract for my present tastes) at developing a concept of "artistic gnosis" with the music of Anton Webern as an example.

Today I would look at the question a bit differently. I still believe that Schönberg was right and that great music is not just some kind of high-level amusement but a vehicle of knowledge and understanding, from which we can learn things that we cannot learn in any other way. I have come to realise that in the background of that conviction lies something like the Platonic notion of a triad of "the transcendentals": the idea is that truth, beauty, and goodness are not separate domains but mutually imply one another. You can see this for instance in the fantastic (and very humorous) chapters of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus where the musician Wendell Kretzschmar is lecturing about such music as Beethoven's piano sonata opus 111. It al means something! It means a lot, it is supremely important, it is about life itself - it is taken for granted that Beethoven through his music was able to transcend the realities of his own personal life experience and express deep insights into the human condition. And he could do this with such power that even today, what he had to say still resonates with all those who take the trouble to listen to this music with full attention, regardless of what their own personal lives are like. The ability of such music to teach us something - or perhaps remind us of something, in terms of Plato's concept of knowledge as anamnesis - and convey human truth is based on supreme technical skill and creative power combined with profound sincerity. Hence Schönberg's statement that music must be "true." The composer must have something to say that cannot be said in any other way than through music.

By contrast, music can also be insincere and thereby lose its ability to convey such knowledge. This happens when its concern is primarily with manipulating listeners' emotions so as to gain applause and success or make a profit - in short, if the underlying motivations have to do with concerns of ego and power rather than truthfulness. This does not mean that such music is necessarily all bad. While some (or rather, a lot) of it relies just on well-known tricks and procedures for pushing listeners' emotional buttons, some of it is produced by powerful composers or musicians with a particular talent for finding new and original, even brilliant types of musical manipulation. By contrast, sincere music is concerned with saying what needs to be said, as precisely and eloquently as possible. Its concern is not with how many listeners will understand the message and applaud the musician, but with intrinsic quality. Elitist? Yes, of course. Not because of any attempt to exclude anyone - on the contrary, the more people appreciate such music, the better it would be - but simply because deeper insight and understanding does not come gratis. It requires effort, dedication, persistence, sensitivity, and certainly also some degree of natural talent or aptitude.

All this is true not just for classical music, of course. For instance, nowadays we are flooded with commercial music mass-produced for a popular audience, much of which I would call "insincere" in the above sense. But if you listen for instance to the Beatles (one of my favourites), throughout their oeuvre it is impossible to miss the sheer enjoyment of musical invention for its own sake and not for any ulterior motive. These guys were not sitting there calculating "what do we think our audience would like to hear now?" or "what should we do to make them buy as many records as possible?" No, they were making the best music they possibly could, just because the better it was, the more fun they were having. Because they happened to be extremely talented as well, the result was an oeuvre that has stood the test of time and sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded. This, too, is musical sincerity. My point is that you find it everywhere, in all genres.

 

My own musical tastes are not limited to any single genre either but comprise anything in which I find true quality. Except for an article about Schönberg and Webern that goes back to my student days, I haven't written as much about music as I would have liked, but perhaps this will change. In 2019, a lecture I gave about Karlheinz Stockhausen brought me back to some of my original enthusiasms, and will hopefully get a follow-up. Musical esotericism is an important topic within my broader field of expertise, with Joscelyn Godwin as the undisputed expert par excellence. For my part, if I ever find the time, I would love exploring the relation between esotericism and the musical avant-garde from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. We'll see. And hear.