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Saturday morning quotes 5.12: Aesthetics – part III

August 7, 2015

“In truth, from a human being whose imagination is sufficiently attuned to the feeling for the beautiful and whose heart is sufficiently attuned to the sensibility for the good, one can, through a wise application of the fine arts, realize everything of which he is capable…[the artist] whom the muses love will, like another Orpheus, bring people even against their wills, but with soft, gentle compulsion, to the assiduous achievement of everything that is necessary to their happiness.”

– Johann Georg Sulzer (1720 – 1779), Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, p. 613-14.

Continuing our bit of background on the use of rhetorical devices in music, we offer a summary of some of the best thinkers on the topic of musical aesthetics.  As we pointed out, visual artists are typically trained in aesthetics as a matter of course while conservatory musicians are typically focused on mechanics.  And conservatory musicians are likewise told that competition for positions is fierce and if their fingers aren’t bleeding, they’re not practicing enough. Sadly, a primary source of competition for positions today is the teachers themselves, who in many cases are unwilling to step aside in a timely fashion.

When it comes to the question of musical aesthetics, we mentioned in an earlier post that music students must at some point put aside their instruments or still their voices and take the initiative to discover their own way to enlightenment.  That is not to say that there is a dearth of literature on the subject. Writers as early as Plato and Aristotle had very clear ideas of the use of music and clear descriptions of its effects on the listener.

Moving forward in time, explicit descriptions from the middle ages are, like other aspects of performance practice of the time, a bit obscure and must be unraveled with a particular sensitivity to the tenor of the times.  According to Umberto Eco, medieval ideas of aesthetic value were influenced by the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, and concepts of beauty were integrated with those of utility.  Since religious practice was a significant part of daily life, an appreciation for beautiful things was balanced with a love of the spiritual realm.

“The drama of the ascetic discipline lies precisely in a tension between the call of earthbound pleasure and a striving after the supernatural. But when the discipline proves victorious, and brings the peace which accompanies control of the senses, then it becomes possible to gaze serenely upon the things of this earth, and to see their value, something that the hectic struggle of asceticism had hitherto prevented. Medieval asceticism and mysticism provide us with many examples of these two psychological states, and also with some extremely interesting documentation concerning the aesthetic sensibility of the time.”

– Umberto Eco, Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale, in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959; translated by Hugh Bredin as Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press, New Haven,1986.

There is a wealth of additional information on aesthetics of the renaissance to be gleaned from the commentary of musicians, theorists and various observers of 16th-century life—information which is really the backbone of this blog.  Readers need only scroll through the 4+ years of our weekly posts to find more commentary.  But we will share a few other excellent resources that fall into the category of musical aesthetics as pertains to the lute.  David Van Edwards, President of The Lute Society, offers a very useful descriptive analysis of lute iconography on his website, as well as in the contents of each issue of the Lute News.  John Griffiths offers a thought-provoking essay titled “Architecture, rhetoric and music in early modern Europe” on his website.  And Jane Hatter’s article, “Col tempo: musical time, aging and sexuality in 16th-century Venetian paintings“, Early Music (2011) 39 (1): 3-14, contains some very interesting interpretations of symbolism found in 16th-century paintings.

The resources listed here are but a drop in the ocean of available literature on musical aesthetics, which includes the writing of Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Johann Georg Sulzer, and a great many others.  But for a good summation we skip forward to the age of rediscovery and distillation—the 20th century—and share quotations from the writing of Dewitt H. Parker from his book, The Principles Of Aesthetics (1946), 2nd edition, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.,1976. Chapter VIII – The Aesthetics of Music.

“Music is the most signal example of a mode of expression that has attained to a complete and pure aesthetic character, an unmixed beauty.”

“…The richness of feeling in the tones of certain instruments as compared with others is doubtless due to the fact that through the presence of more overtones and the admixture of noise, the reaction is more complex; the tense excitement of high and loud tones, as compared with the soft and low, is probably connected with the fact that their higher vibration rate and greater amplitude of vibration produce a more marked effect, a more pervasive disturbance,–the organism does not right itself and recover so rapidly and easily. These direct and native elements of feeling are then broadened out and intensified through other elements that come in by way of association. For example, in order to sing high tones, a greater tension and exertion of the vocal chords is needed than for low tones; loud tones suggest loud noises, which, as in breaking and crashing and thundering, are inevitably associated with fear; the loud is also the near and present and threatening, the low is distant and safe.”

“Music is a language which we all understand because it expresses the basic mold of all emotion and striving; yet it is a language which no two people understand in the same way, because each pours into that mold his own unique experience. In itself abstract and objectless, it may thus become, in varying ways, concrete and alive.”

“Music does for the emotions what mythology and poetry do for the imagination and philosophy for the intellect–it brings us into touch with a more magnificent life, for which we have perhaps the potency, but not the opportunity here. And in doing this, music performs a great service; for, outside of love and war, life, which offers endless occasions for intense thought and action, provides few for passionate feeling.”

– Dewitt H. Parker, The Principles Of Aesthetics

What is the point of this rather lengthy description of musical aesthetics through the ages?  The point is that, like other aspects of performance practice, we really must take giant steps outside of our 21st-century mindset in order to understand music of the past—even the recent past.  Without a concerted effort we will lose our way, just as we have already lost the context of musical performance.  Without such a perspective it is far too easy to dismiss important signposts of history pointing directly to dimensions of creativity that really define who we are as a species.

And for those who readily share their opinions as armchair music critics, there is also the important aspect of knowing the fullness of a particular style of music from a particular era before they are qualified to judge its merits, either as pure music or the qualities of its interpretation by today’s artists.

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