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February 2010

Hegel’s thoughts on music do not seem to get as much attention as they deserve. This may be entirely Hegel’s own fault. Hegel repeatedly emphasizes the mystery of music and his own limitations in discussing it. But such scepticism does not necessarily inspire prospective readers with courage to read on. A complex subject matter calls for writers of confidence and conviction. Readers follow ignorant conviction more readily than sincere doubt. Proclaiming uncertainty and exposing difficulty, the philosopher works seemingly against himself.

We are in a similar position in regard to Hegel: we cannot be sure what he actually said about music. His Lectures on Aesthetics are compiled by one Heinrich Gustav Hotho, a Hegelian of the 19th century who did have insights into Hegel’s own lecture notes but cannot be credited with the invention of meticulous, critical scholarship. Since the Lectures were not prepared by Hegel himself for publication we do not really know what Hegel exactly said on this topic.

These doubts aside, Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics say important things about music and its place among the arts. In the historical unfolding, which is Hegel’s characteristic method of analysis, music seems to be the gatekeeper of “romantic art” and indeed of art itself. This is so despite a doubt whether or not music is in fact an art at all. Why do we find such ambiguity in Hegel?

I am suggesting that Hegel tunes in to the phenomenon itself carefully. He notes two points in particular which confront us with significant questions: There is first the essential connection between music and subjectivity. Hegel recognises that music is characterised by its ability to “move the innermost self”. It does so by taking charge “of the ultimate subjective innerness as such” (VüA III, 135). How is that possible? Hegel’s answer is as obvious as it is ingenious in its simplicity: Music and subjectivity share the essential determination of temporality. Time is the force that binds music and the subject. Time is “in music the absolutely dominant” (VüA III, 169). However, time is also the constitutional element of our consciousness. Our ego, our soul and our feeling are in time. Music is essentially temporal. So is our subjectivity. The inverse is equally true: Time is constituted by our subjectivity. Time is also constituted by music. Music and subjectivity are thus ontologically congruent by virtue of their temporality. This enables music to “move” the human soul: “The ego is in time,” Hegel writes, “and time is the being of the subject itself. Since time and not spatiality as such provide the essential element in which the tone in respect of its musical importance gains its existence and since the temporality of the tone is that of the subject, the tone invades the self even according to this commonality, grasps it in its most fundamental being and puts the I into temporal movement and its rhythm into movement.” (VuA III, 156/157) Time is an elemental power through which music and musical tone seizes human perception and experience. Because music is an art of time, music can allow resonance of “the way and mean in which the innermost self is moved itself in regard to its subjectivity and ideal soul” (VüA III, 135).

The primordial power of music places it altogether close to the apex of art. After-all, music identifies, captures and exposes the movement of subjectivity in its abstract and ideal form. However, it does so in a fleeting way. While music seizes the motions of subjectivity, the tone falls silent as soon as the ear has grasped it. “The tone”, we read in Hegel’s Lectures, “only resonates in the depth of the soul” (VüA III, 136). It does not have any objective existence. Music does not endure and it does not achieve objectivity for itself or for the human subject. To be sure, music possesses an elemental power which draws the listener into the musical experience. It seduces the ego towards the embrace with its own temporality. But this embrace also isolates music from any enduring world. The world of music is “fleeting, free evaporation”. It does not establish an enduring presence. While it does reflect and capture our subjectivity it does not do so in any objective sense.

Hegel is careful to distinguish (albeit implicitly) between musical tone and physical sound with this characterisation of tone. If tone truly exists in the depth of the soul only, such existence distinguishes it from the sound of the every-day, from any other audible physical presence in the external world and from any noise. The latter is an unremarkable phenomenon with mere potential significance. The former is temporally determined in its intensity, formed and present to our meaningful perception and interpretation.

Music as tone takes us only on the path towards art: Hegel challenges the musical metaphysics of the early Romantics (eg. Writers like Tieck, Wackenroder and even Herder) who claim metaphysical and even religious importance from the elementary powers of music. The absence of an objectifiable, enduring spiritual content and expression exclude music from any such claim. There is no ontological co-ordination of presence available to music itself. Music is a mere opportunity for the reflective and interpreting consciousness to generate a form of enduring meaning within subjectivity. Music is a mirror in which we recognise ourselves, but it is, it seems, unable to liberate us from the prison of our subjectivity. Music has no metaphysical, let alone, religious significance; it is “spirit and soul, which sounds immediately for itself.” (VüA III, 197)

The failure of music to transcend subjectivity raises our second serious question: Is music even an art or is it not rather a knack, a trick? Music achieves a resonance within the human soul. It leaves a trace but it evades capture. Music has an “elementary power” which draws the listener into a musical experience. But music itself and its tones do not objectify anything, do not endure: “As soon as the ear has grasped it” Hegel writes, “it falls silent. The impression which is to be achieved here is subjectively internalised: the tones only resonate in the depth of the soul, which is seized in its ideal subjectivity and brought into motion” (VüA III, 136). Hence, perhaps, Hegel’s point that music making is a process of “re-collection” (Er-innerung), of the collection and realisation of “inner-experience”. One is tempted here to conclude with Kant that music is merely an “agreeable” art.

Hegel does not wish to believe so and he is keen to affirm the spiritual significance of music nevertheless. He simply does not see that purely instrumental, so-called “absolute” music can achieve this. He sees, however, an opportunity in cases where text is set to music. Unlike E.T.A Hoffmann in his Beethoven enthusiasm, Hegel affirms the superiority of song above purely instrumental music. In his love of the concept Hegel cannot see how an art that is purely ineffable and in addition wordless can have otherwise a claim towards spiritual significance. It is not difficult to see why Hegel places poetry above music: the former contains musical elements and musical characteristics but it articulates itself in the word and achieves a form of objective representation and determination which eludes music in its mere concern with sound. Poetry achieves a synthesis of the dialectic between subjectivity and objectivity, between tone and word, which in music is announced as a possibility but remains unfulfilled in reality.

Hegel still cannot escape the ancient quarrel between word and tone, it seems. Identifying time as an essential determination of subjectivity and music makes an important point, though. It shows that a conception and understanding of time and temporality must be at the heart of our attempts to settle this conflict. Hegel’s solution to elevate music that uses the word above wordless music, however, is only a partial solution. In particular, it is not entirely reflective of musical reality. While the “fluid, free evaporation” of music accounts for the phenomenon in very basic terms, the possibility of music constituting an art of (what the Viennese critic Hanslick calls) “sounding, moving form” is effectively ignored. Despite its evaporating characteristics, musical tones condense into musical material, into melodies, harmonies, rhythmic patterns, themes and structures to which we can refer in an enduring sense, which seem to achieve meaning, objectivity and presence for our intuition. It is a presence that is not merely formal or self-referential: it achieves concrete significance and reference in the practice of interpretation.

The musical form is temporal, not spatial, to be sure. It is accordingly distinguished from the spatial objectivity of a sculpture or painting. But it is nevertheless present, identifiable and enduring. And it can be represented and symbolised in a present and enduring format. The important and interesting challenge is to find an explanation how these two contrasting ontological determinations combine in the one phenomenon. This is not only an intellectual question. It informs the practice, even existence of the musician and the perceptions of the listener. Their attention can focus on musical evaporation. But they can also engage in the (at times arduous task) of interpretation and thus face the musical forms of condensation. Their existence is reflected in this ambiguous and at times conflicting determination. Any perceptions of music as “fluid, free evaporation” or interpretations of it as “sounding, moving form” determine their identity, their mode of being and naturally the musical culture they share.

(References to Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics [VüA III] from G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, Band III. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1986.