Monday, November 30, 2009

On the Art of Music: A Hegelian Approach

In reading and talking in class about the various views on art that emerge, I found myself particularly drawn to Hegel. The idea of art as a projection of ideas and ordering with form sat well with me, but I also felt that his forms of art, particularly with music, were very intriguing. He posits that art is divided into three main categories: Symbolic, Classical, and Romantic. I decided to see if I could match his idea with various pieces of music I listened to, and in doing so, see if I found the system still strong enough to warrant acceptance.

One thing that struck me, however, was not only what type of music to play, but whether I should search instrument or vocal/instrument pieces. Since the music I would choose would be from the personal music I knew, I felt that finding vocal pieces would be fairly easy. But what would a Hegelian understanding of Instrumental music be? He himself seemed to ultimately dismiss instrumental music, saying rather oddly that it was “for the musical expert who can follow the inner, technical operations of the music in all its details,” while vocal music “relates to some tangible ‘topic’ through the inclusion of words. Julian Johnson believed that this statement comes out of the fact that Hegel himself is very Logocentric, or stuck in the Western tradition that prioritizes spoken word over written, and believes in some significant correlation between signifier and the significations. Because of this, extra emphasis is almost always placed on vocal works, and we can see why Hegel would have dismissed Instrumental music as lacking what vocal music had acquired.

But regardless of the fact that Hegel himself seemed to voice these concerns, do we have to take that explanation for granted? Could the system he has created, and the ideas incorporated into it, also help explain our acceptance of instrumental music if we separate ourselves from his obvious logocentrism? I attempted to find pieces of music that mattered to me (whether I liked them or simply found them interesting) and then to see if they fit a certain category and why. I believe that Hegel’s theory of art can certainly be used to explain the nuances of both vocal and instrumental music. For this I am going to show 6 different pieces of music. This included an instrumental and vocal piece for each of the three categories of art. After a brief explanation of the piece, click on the link to listen to the work. While some of the pieces may be rather long, you only need to listen to 30 seconds to a minute to get the fullness of my points.

Symbolic Music

If you remember, symbolic art, in a much reduced way, is when the vagueness of an idea attempts to placate itself onto nature, or in this case music, in such a way that it lifts up, exaggerates and distorts the original medium. We therefore have the Sphinx and other monstrosities that have nothing to show in themselves the idea we wanted to achieve. Possibly to put it in another light, I thought of our conversations about the perceived duality of the mind and body. Symbolic arts seems to be a way in which the old notion of the mind, i.e. that there is a form that predates the matter, or that the mind can exist without the body and is eternal, is portrayed by our art forms. Because of this violent grafting, while we may find a piece of music interesting, we ultimately do feel that it fails as a true work of art. Beyond our acceptance of “abstract and modern” music, we still feel that somehow what we are witnessing is a transgression against the medium.

German Expressionism: Mondestrunken (Moondrunk).
This is the intro piece to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. It is trying to convey the drunkenness of the poet with the overall misery and derision of the entire work. This idea of drunkenness and absurdity is forced over the medium, here music and Sprechgesang, or speech-song. And yet, the grafting is so severe that the form is warped into a work that is atonal and wholly un-musical. It tries to directly express the idea and the emotion of the poet, but in the process destroys any form that the music could have taken.

Schoenberg: “String Quartet No. 3” Op. 30 Mvt 1.

It is no surprise that an instrumental piece from Schoenberg, one of the most famous German Expressionist, is a prime example of symbolic music. This piece is a combination of string instruments that truly searches for an idea or meaning without finding either. While incredibly interesting it stops at that, and is ultimately empty.


For Hegel, Classical art becomes the perfect unity of idea and form, notably the Greek sculpture, and has no distortion or placation. It is when the “gods are brought down to Earth” or when idea and form reach a perfect harmony of expression. Classical art seems to go along with the idea of supervenience. It is formed matter, in the sense that there is no one before the other, but they both interact to make the substance exactly what it is. When a neuron fires in the brain, it is accompanied by mental phenomenon as well; not because one exists separate or without the other, even though they can be looked at distinctly, but they exist as sides of the same coin. To say here that the form precedes the idea, or that the idea is in higher priority than the form would be to make a gross error. In terms of art, this is the perfect genre.

Mozart: Flight of the Bumble Bee

As the name suggests, it is a musical rendition of a Bumble Bee. Here, I think the idea and the form are in perfect unity. The orchestra is able to completely capture the fluttering of the wings and the movement-attention of the bee from flower to flower, as well as his surroundings. This piece, in other words, is complete and self-sustaining, not requiring more or alluding to anything else.

Charlie Brown: Christmas Time Is Here
This piece, surprisingly, is an ideal form of Classical Music. Christmas comes in Winter, a time of bleakness, monochrominity, and yet there is still a glimmer of hope of new life hidden inside dead trees and buried caves. And thus, while the voices of the children and the piano are certainly bleak, there is still a glimmer of hope or expectation inside the work.


Finally there is Romantic music. Romantic music does not commit the error that Symbolic does. Instead, it simply shows that the medium of art and specifically music is not enough to express the fullness of the idea. Rather than try to force itself onto the medium, it presents as much as it can, but the listener can feel the alluding to something more, and incompleteness is born. Hegel believes that it is this movement that leads us to Religion and Philosophy. I believe these next two works showcase this very well. Romantic Art for me seemed a type of property dualism. Not that they are separable, and it isn’t some form of hierarchy where one tries to retain dominance of the other. Instead, the formed matter retains another element to it that isn’t simply what has created it. Similar to what you said yesterday about A.I., Floyd is a representation of Formed Matter. And yet, if I simply took the idea of him and what has made him and put it together, it wouldn’t truly be wholly him. That’s why I use the odd phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

John Coltrane: Acknowledgement, A Love Supreme
Here, John Coltrane tries to reach beyond Jazz music to come to a greater source of “truth” as he calls it. And yet it is very different from an atonal, “free jazz” scenario, or what we saw in Mondestrunken. Here, he uses music to showcase his idea, and yet alludes to something beyond it. Coltrane himself believed he was searching for the fullness of his experience, a religion, and this is felt in the piece without a distorting of the medium at work.

Mahler Resurrection Symphony:

Here, Mahler shows the moment of awakening of the sleeping saints. The English translation of the development section is:
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.

The idea of the dead sluggishly rising is presented here, a lumbering from a rest, slowly and surely rising, but when it reaches the moment of “after a brief rest”, the form is left: The idea here is greater than the music and voices can quite match. And yet, the form is not warped or broken with the attempt. There is no grafting of the idea and a lifting of the music. And yet, something isn’t quite captured, and gives the alluding to something beyond, something that is also carried with the idea. This is an amazing representation of Romantic Art.

While Julian Johnson is right in saying that Hegel himself was too dismissive of instrumental music as fitting into his categories, I found that his system itself seemed to do quite well in categorizing it. All that is required is a stepping away from his Logocentric view, to understand, as Gadamer would say, that instrumental music can speak to us and express ideas as well. If we say it is no longer simply in the realm of spoken language, then it opens up much more music, and ultimately art, to Hegel’s categories and understanding why the arts matter so much to us. I look forward to reading what you guys think about my examples or the ideas expressed here.

JOHNSON, JULIAN, Music in Hegel's "Aesthetics": A Re-evaluation , British Journal of
Aesthetics, 31:2 (1991:Apr.) p.152

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