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Kierkegaard’s reflections on Don Giovanni (found in his book “Either/Or”) must concern us musicians: They identify music as the art of the “immediately, sensuously-erotic” and suggest that music is authentically devoid of reflective attributes. Transient temporality is affirmed as a fundamental determination of music. The pursuit of sensuality, an incessant desire for conquest and change and an absence of reflection and conscience all characterise Don Giovanni. This makes Don Giovanni for Kierkegaard essentially musical.

When confronted with this phenomenon an ordinary, bourgeois consciousness naturally thinks of moral disapproval. However, a moral judgment is strictly speaking not applicable here. Don Giovanni simply fulfills the conditions of an existence that is absolutely committed to continuous transience. The absence of a temporal consciousness excludes the moral perspective. An ethical state of existence only emerges where we find endurance and a conscious conception of presence, a temporal horizon. Only a consciousness of endurance and presence confronts us with responsibility. Don Giovanni’s transient being, his restless immersion in becoming, dissolves such a context and accordingly severs his attachment to responsibility. He remains unaccountable since he lives absolutely in the here-and-now.

An absolute commitment to transience and intoxication excludes Don Giovanni also from any form of communal justice. To be sure, a metaphysical form of justice catches up with Don Giovanni in the end. But this amounts to an affirmation of being versus becoming: The cold stone statue of the Commendatore becomes the hero’s undoing. Don Giovanni is presented with the consequence of his incessant becoming, with his own nemesis. But Don Giovanni is never brought to worldly justice or to moral account. He simply comes undone as his existence leads to an inevitable conclusion inherent in the original denial of being. The absolute affirmation of becoming (with its implicit denial of being) collides with a transcendent truth of being. The point is that an hermetic, absolute isolation of the aesthetic perspective cannot be maintained. It will meet - and fail in the challenge of enduring being.

For us musicians this seems to contain an important message: If Kierkegaard is right in identifying the aesthetic state of being as essentially musical, an absolute affirmation of music as a mode of aesthetic existence, of a relentless becoming, of incessant change and turbulent chaos, will loose its bearings. Musicians who deny being and relentlessly affirm becoming come undone. This occurs notwithstanding the fact that the essential nature of music is becoming and change or – in Nietzsche’s characterisation - the “Dionysian”. However, is music absolutely “aesthetic” or (with Kierkegaard) an expression of the immediately, sensuously-erotic? It does not seem so since music is also and perhaps foremost a spiritual art. A conception of music as a spiritual art commits us to conscious listening. Conscious listening is always reflective, however. It creates, discovers and commits to meaning within a flow of otherwise ever-changing impressions. In fact, the very possibility of musical perception requires the presence of consciousness. Reflection and consciousness enable the listener to recognise the signal as a musical symbol, to distinguish noise from music. At this point of recognition, however, the aesthetic perspective is transcended and forms of presence, of permanence and of endurance are introduced. Identities are established and with them the requirements of responsibility. It seems that this is the point of Don Giovanni as an opera. It is not the point of Don Giovanni as the character, though, who is a nihilistic phenomenon: a denier of the truth of being.

Musicians must take care not to confuse character and play: While grounded in becoming and in the sensuously-erotic, music is also sustained by being and mediated, reflective consciousness. In fact music forms a bridge between the aesthetic and the ethical state of being. This makes it highly significant. It makes it also subject to the tensions emanating powerfully from both force-fields at all times.