Can Music Be Philosophical?


By Andrew Graziano.

Andrew currently attends Rice University where he studies Music and Philosophy.

IMG_20190625_163859Can music be philosophical? I am sure this question has crossed everyone’s mind at some point. Whether it is listening to the latest Kendrick Lamar song or the works of Bach, every note is meant to convey a larger message. I’d like to discuss the relationship between classical music and philosophy, specifically within one of my favorite composers, Gustav Mahler. 

Just as a well crafted Nietzsche storyline uses different words and images, composers use the auditory sense to send mental messages to the listener. What textual based philosophers do is try to make their reader understand a concept or idea about a particular topic by using analogies and thought-experiments to convey ideas; composers do the same. 

But what is understanding? Is it a spot in the text where one suddenly gets to, and the author writes, “And now you understand.”? No, that would be absurd. Understanding is a feeling; a flashbulb moment. I would even argue an emotion. Reflect on the last time you had a major breakthrough and the feeling that you had at the moment. A composer who tries to transmit their ideas understands this and attempts to use a similar method a writer does to activate this feeling for the listener.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is one of the most famous composers of all time for the complexity of his symphonies. Mahler, an ethnic Jew who later became Catholic, (entirely to avoid religious persecution) struggled with the concept of Religious Identity his entire life, which, incidentally, is a common theme throughout his works. During his life, he explored many faiths, including eastern philosophies, and never truly settled on one. He dissected the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, two well-known atheists from Mahler’s time.

Gustav Mahler

It is important to recognize that Mahler lived in a time when religion was beginning to be seen as superstition. Although this did ‘free’ mankind from the strict life governed by the Church, it also gave mankind no compassion to the suffering of others or a hope to look forward to after death. The death of his brother at a young age gave Mahler an intense interest in what would follow life after death.

All of his symphonies attempt to tackle some philosophical concept. For example, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (also known as ‘The Gay Science, which is the title of a novel by Nietzsche) attempts to describe the beauty of the afterlife.

With Mahler’s fascination towards the afterlife along with the religious climate which was in season in Europe in the 1890s, it should be quite obvious the reason he composed his Symphony No. 2 known as the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony.

Mahler was a mystic, a God-seeker. His imagination circled incessantly around these matters, around God and the world, around life and death, around spiritual matters and nature. Eternity and immortality were at the center of his thoughts. Death and eternity are the great theme in his art. He wanted to believe, belief at any price.’
-Ferdinand Pfohl (1862-1949) on Mahler

Mahler fully intended this philosophical piece to be an entire musical work, even refusing to write an explanation for the audience about the text.

It is…scarcely my intention to confuse a concert audience with musicological remarks – for it seems to me that that is just what would be achieved by giving them ‘programme notes’, forcing them to read instead of listening. Certainly I think it necessary that the thematic patterns should be clear to every listener. But do you really believe that, with a modern work, making them acquainted with a few themes will suffice? – One can only know and appreciate a piece of music by making a thorough study of it, and the profounder the work, the harder this is and the longer it takes. At a first performance, on the other hand, it is important for the listener to surrender himself to the work unreservedly, allowing its general human and poetic quality to make an impression on him; and if he then feels attracted by it, he should then go into it in more detail…

Is this not what one does when reading a philosophical text by Plato or Baudrillard? Only when you are captivated by an idea or theme do you then want to explore it. Mahler explains that the same concept applies to a piece of music.

Although I don’t want to spoil the piece, I believe a quick off the clock roadmap is beneficial to any new listener. Basically, the piece is divided into five separate movements. Although the first movement is very fun, and dramatic, many get the most from the last movement. I would describe the symphony as an audience’s journey through longing for some higher power to eventually finding it. The brutal, and violent first movement seems, to me, as recognition of the cruelty of the world, and ending with a lovely connection with God. Musicologists also recognize the piece as a possible reference to Jesus’s resurrection, however, I believe that Mahler wanted the piece to be strictly non-categorical since he was such a religious mixer.

I would highly, highly recommend that you set aside an hour and a half to just listen to the piece, without doing anything else. Aside from the importance of giving your mind a few moments to relax in the chaotic world of social media and constant news, the piece will also give you an experience of digesting a philosophical work non-visually. I’m attaching a link to my favorite performance of this amazing piece, conducted by the fantastic Leonard Bernstein. If you don’t have an hour and a half to spare, give the last ten minutes of the piece a listen, and it will give you a very basic look into the theme Mahler wants the listener to receive.

Youtube – Mahler Symphony Number 2

I think it’s best to end with a quote about philosophy and music from Mahler himself, saying,

When I hear music – even while I am conducting – I hear quite specific answers to all my questions – and am completely clear and certain. Or rather, I feel quite distinctly that they are not questions at all.

Compliment this essay on religious expression with Honoring Existence and Encountering the Divine: Hiking Mount Bierstadt

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