The Philosophy of Music: Roger Scruton at AMU

The Philosophy of Music: Roger Scruton at AMU

Roger Scruton visited Ave Maria University from October 5th-9th. Over the course of his visit, he offered three lectures, each in an area of his expertise. Below follows a summary of the third public lecture he delivered on Wednesday, October 8, 2014. 

On Wednesday, October 8, 2014, the Philosophy and Music Departments at Ave Maria University co-hosted a discussion on the aesthetics of music with Roger Scruton. 

Music professors Drs. Timothy McDonnell and Susan Treacy sat down with Roger Scruton and, over the course of two hours, discussed the role, development, perception and experience of music, spanning from ancient Greece to modern times. The discussion was broken up into five topics: music and the other arts; music and meaning; music and modernity; music and society; and music and transcendence. Each new topic was introduced by a quote, a relevant musical piece/performance (audio and/or video clip), and preliminary questions. Discussion followed. The event concluded with a question and answer session with the audience.

Below is an outline of the event, along with some of Roger Scruton’s comments (edited for reading). 



[Musical Piece: Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier performing Isolde’s Liebestod, the final scene in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde] 

ROGER SCRUTON: Music doesn’t relate to the other arts in any single or simple way; it has elements of all of them. Music, like architecture, is composed of parts, and those parts reach out to each other. Music that doesn’t have any architecture is of no real significance. [In Isolde’s Liebestod,] everything that is going on there is resolving something going on in the opera. The last chord is the resolution finally achieved of the first chord in the opera, five hours before. It does this with architectural complexity.

Musical composition is unlike poetry and painting because it doesn’t, in itself, represent the world. If there’s narrative, it has to be brought to it by the drama. Here is a drama which occurs almost entirely subjectively; it occurs in the consciousness and the unconsciousness of Tristan and Isolde. The music can latch on to that for the very reason that it isn’t trying to follow anything objective. It’s trying to follow the impulses of the states of mind of the characters.

You are sympathetic with them but not with what they are doing, because they’re doing more or less nothing in this opera. You feel for them, you’re totally involved in what these lovers are feeling. The purpose of the music is to convey to you, the listener, that this love cannot be fulfilled in the ordinary world of human interaction, in any kind of natural order (marriage, childbearing). It can only be fulfilled in death, because it is set outside the natural order of things.


RS: In the traditional opera, from which the Broadway musical is a descendent, there is a play which is going on that could conceivably be performed without the music. In the course of the 18th century, this developed into a very eloquent art form. Then, Mozart took it in a completely new direction. In Don Giovanni, the music is taking over, and character is predicated on the music. The music is the vehicle of drama, not just an accompaniment. In Wagner, there would be no drama without the music.


RS: Wagner had this conception of the work of musical art as a Gesamtkunstwerk, every aspect of which contributed to the single artistic experience. He had in mind everything the liturgy combined into a single experience (music, words, gesture, posture) that summons the divine among us. This had for him, like for the Greeks, a quasi-religious significance. [He proposed a] deification of the erotic. The erotic becomes the redeeming experience, the thing which justifies ourselves for what we are, but only through its connection with death. By “erotic,” I don’t mean just sex, but the inconsolable yearning for each other which can only be satisfied by mutual destruction.


RS: Cinema, as it has evolved, does seem to depend upon a musical background which carries the emotions forward. One reason is that the dramas are so thin that without the music, they are meaningless. The other reason is that it’s a way in which we read the characters into ourselves. We are swimming along on the back of this music, and we’re taking the music into ourselves. There’s an art to composing film music. It’s very rare that music survives when it’s detached from the film. Hitchcock’s Psycho has survived, as well as Prokofiev’s score for Ivan the Terrible and Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia antartica. But on the whole, the art of writing film music is an art of commentary on something that already exists. Take that away, and the commentary becomes meaningless. That is not the case with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The whole thing has a completely different life.



[Musical Piece: Felix Mendelssohn, Lieder ohne Worte (Song without Words) for piano and cello, Op. 109]

RS: When Mendelssohn calls this “Song without Words,” is he saying that this is something from which words have been subtracted, or that songs are melodies with words added? When you are setting words to music, you are bringing the words together with the music, not because the music says the same thing, but rather because it fits—like architecture. In a way, when you arrange things in a room, you arrange them together because they fit. Fitting is a very important thing here. You don’t need the words, but you have to hear it in something like the way you would hear a song, namely, as a complete statement of a particular state of mind.


RS: It’s not about something in the way that words are about something. Words are about something because we have rules, and we use them accordingly. There is a kind of syntax, but a syntax without semantics isn’t enough to make a language. Mendelssohnsaid that he couldn’t describe the feelings expressed by a work of music, not because they’re so vague, but because they’re so precise. Only music could capture what he had to say.

I think for many people, music is consoling not just because they like to listen to it, but also because it seems to take them into another world. You’re being taken out of your ragged life and put in a place where things are completed, you included, and at last you can rest in your relation to the world. 



[Musical Piece: 1. Harry Partch, performing his setting and translation of Ling Po poem, “The Rose” (Eleven Intrusions: The Rose); and 2. Andrew Olson, Ave Maria University student, performing Roger Scruton’s song, “Despidada"]

RS: Twenty years ago, I composed a sequence of songs setting the words of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was a famous poet of the interwar period and who died in war. The poems are expressions of the kind of raw confrontation with reality that Lorca constantly put across in his writing.


RS: This raises the whole question of modernity and what has happened since. With the Partch piece, it’s a recitative rather than a song. He’s just reciting that poem roughly around a pitch, leaving the instruments to comment on it. It’s not a setting so much as a juxtaposition. It has a charm of it’s own, but it’s not related in any clear way to the grammar of tonal music.

My song has Wagnerian grammar. It changes from major to minor, and back. Some new things are close to old things. In the visual arts, it did become complex because of the move into abstract art and propaganda. [Modernists say] figurative art is no longer available because you can’t say anything genuine—it’s either pastiche or kitsch. As a result, people have acquired a fear of kitsch, and if you’re afraid of something, there are only two things to do: Avoid it, or embrace it in another, self-conscious way. Jeff Koons has a way of putting himself forward as an object of attention: “I’m so sophisticated that I’m able to do kitsch and it not be kitsch.” The fact is, it is kitsch, and it sells at a huge price.

One of the problems is that modernism in art is not just about art, but it’s about the surrounding society, the alienation of artists and the bourgeoisie. The desire of the artist is to upset or ridicule the bourgeoisie (and there is a good reason for it). 



The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city.

-Plato, The Republic

[Musical Piece: F. Couperin, “Les barricades mystérieuses,” Pieces de clavecin second livre Ordre No.6-5 (modern piano version); on piano: Kaori Nakamura]

RS: Some things have a use only because they are useless. Friendship, for instance. Your friend is very useful to you, helpful in times of need, amplifies joy in times of success. But if you treat him as a means to an end, you lose the friendship. He has to be treated as useless in order to become useful. That’s true of all the highest things in human life—the law, family, music, and poetry. These are all incredibly useful things to us, as long as we forget that they are. 


RS: Plato was aware of that music and poetry are loved for their own sake, but he also was aware that they have an effect—they built character. But they might build character in the wrong way, so certainly the law must look after this. We don’t believe that. We don’t believe that anyone has a right to shut artists up, or banish them. 



[Musical Piece: Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F, Movement II – Assez vif, tries rythme, Ravel M. 35; played by the Hagen Quartet]

Art achieved a new importance during the Romantic period. As religion lost its emotional grip, the posture of aesthetic distance promised an alternative route to the meaning of the world. For the Romantics, the work of art was the result of a unique and irreplaceable experience, containing a revelation, distilled through individual effort and artistic genius, of a meaning unique to itself.

-Roger Scruton, "The Great Swindle”

RS: There is a difference between noise and music. And of the second, there is the difference between hearing and listening to it. We hear a lot of noise. The same is true with music. Sometimes we hear it, in the modern world all the time, unwanted. But the concert hall, where you go down and sit to listen, is a late development. Something very strange is going on. It does have some connection with a religious experience—setting yourself apart from the world. You are not in the world any more, you’re in another space, and that space is being filled by the music.



Q. Where would you place the beginning of modernism in art?

I don’t think it originated with philosophy. Of course there are grounds for thinking that Hegel was already aware of the way in which art was progressing. He thought that art progressed from one epoch to another, and there was a new medium in each epoch to capture the times. But when modernism really got going was the early 20th century. It was really the artists themselves who moved things forwards—not the commentators. The commentators came later. The important this was that there was a shared feeling among literary writers, artists, musicians, that somehow the language they had inherited was exhausted. You couldn’t say anything that was new, and if you can’t say anything new, you can’t say anything real. That idea was incredibly influential.

Q. What’s the path back to being able to experience music? How do we listen to it long enough, tolerate the discomfort, to be able to enter into the conversation?

 Everybody is worried about this question. How do we find our way back to the  experience of the listening culture? The first step, although we are surrounded by music of every kind, is to make music for yourself. When you sing a song through for yourself, you commit to a song until it is over. Learn the habit of going to the end of a piece of music. 

Q. Why is pop music so popular, if it’s [as you say] so bad?  How do you explain this disconnect?

There is a famous book, Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, in which he rather audaciously criticizes the whole pop music scene in terms that reflected Plato. That it is degenerate in itself, producing degeneracy in people that listen to it, and that’s why we can’t teach them anymore. It wasn’t very helpful. We have to go back to an earlier period, a period in which pop music was continuous with the serious music. Mozart’s Magic Flute was a piece of pop music of the day. If you have to make music yourself, you automatically are moving in a higher direction. Because of the mass production of music, it can be consumed without the effort of making it yourself, so the standard goes down. But there’s always an effort to get to a higher standard. There are serious groups that try to link into the folk tradition, or there are the highly intellectual heavy metal groups. It’s true we are in a new period. The problem isn’t so much pop music, as the mass production of it.

Q. Is there an objective standard of the goodness of music, and if there is, what is it?

 People have asked this question about all forms of art without knowing what they mean by “objective.” Is there an objective standard of good behavior? It all depends on the circumstances, the people involved. We don’t have a canon of those things. 

Q. Which is more fundamental: Sacred or profane music? Leonard Bernstein, in his Norton Lectures, argued that the profane is more fundamental, while Josef Pieper, in “Leisure the Basis of Culture,” argued for the sacred.  

It’s undeniable that with every form of art, when it reaches its highest expression, you want to describe it in sacred terms. Art is the way in which we human beings reach out to something beyond us. It has a voice which is more than human; it is an appeal to the cosmos to answer us, to say that our life is meaningful, that we aren’t the rubbish that we think we are. That our erotic feelings are not just the petty little things that animate the animals, but that they reach out to something that must answer them.  

Is sacred music an application of something else, or is something else a derivation of sacred music? I don’t know. I think that tonal music, as we understand it, ultimately grew out of plainsong, which was of course a mode of praise to the deity.

Q. Music is a human creation. Do you find that there is actual transcendence in music, or is it a deep profound symbol of that transcendence which we know and long for? 

Many atheists say that they look to music for that experience of the transcendental, because they know they can’t get it any other way, because we can never reach beyond the empirical world towards the transcendental. We do this all the time in prayer and sufferings, religious people say. Atheists feel that music reaches in that direction, and for many of them, that’s enough. We all understand our nature is incomplete, it has to be fulfilled by something outside. And we understand music as doing that—not actually reaching the transcendental, but as a figuration of it.