Mystic Moments

By Thomson, Andrew | Musical Times, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Mystic Moments


Thomson, Andrew, Musical Times


Mystic moments ANDREW THOMSON Faure and French musical aesthetics Carlo Caballero Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2001); xi, 333pp; 45. ISBN 0 52178107 8.

In the fiftieth anniversary year of the death of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein - a man, moreover, of high musical culture and deep religious sensibility - it's well to ponder his view that `You might think Aesthetics is a science telling us what's beautiful - almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose it ought to include also what sort of coffee tastes well.' Certainly, aesthetics is a most problematic branch of philosophy, frequently giving rise to the most appalling obfuscatory language and woolly thinking. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that very few of the numerous creative artists and critics who plunge into this intellectual abyss have also received a rigorous philosophical training; and, equally, even fewer professional philosophers prepared to tackle the subject, like the great Immanuel Kant in the Critique of judgement, have had much real understanding of the arts. Some notable exceptions like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bergson are today - rightly or wrongly - regarded more as literary figures than systematic thinkers.

It is with this caveat in mind that we should approach Carlo Caballero's Faure and French musical aesthetics, a study of the ways in which various French composers, critics, poets, authors and philosophers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries thought about the music of their time, focusing principally on Gabriel Faure, himself very much more a doer than a thinker. These range widely from the most distinguished and responsible elite, including Paul Dukas, Henri Bergson, the novelist Marcel Proust and the poet Paul Valery, to the far from disinterested corps of higher journalists, led by Emile Vuillermoz, whose trade lay in fomenting cultural warfare. Alas, for every valuable insight which emerges, we find a greater proportion of heady rhetoric and circumlocution, intellectual tail-- chasing and endless repetition. As so often the case with research-driven tomes (as MT readers must by now be tired of hearing from me), the sheer weight of accumulated information and argument is liable to become self-defeatingly uncommunicative.

Four lengthy and dense chapters deal with the complex issues of sincerity, innovation, originality and stylistic homogeneity which particularly exercised the minds of these commentators. Whereas Faure, Dukas and Koechlin were unanimous in defining the dangerous concept of sincerity in terms of the translation of the artist's inner life into music by force of innate creative necessity, Ravel, by contrast, joined Valery and the notorious Oscar Wilde in acknowledging the inherent artificiality of art and its power as a superior form of illusion. When Faure complained in 1887 that `it is more difficult than ever to be an original composer', Dukas came to the rescue, maintaining that originality arose from living sensation and inner necessity, needing selfdevelopment for further growth - manifest above all in the cycle of Beethoven's quartets. But ultimately, originality is a by-product of sincerity, which itself places no definite limits on style or expression, yet outweighs mere questions of style, cliques and institutions.

All very high-minded and doubtless inspiring, but how far does it really take us? To this very French play of concepts and creatively stultifying self-- consciousness, I'd venture to put forward Wittgenstein's drastic programme of linguistic cleansing as a corrective; his epoque-making Tractatus logicophilosophicus (1918) states with unremitting clarity that `There are, indeed, things [such as ethics and aesthetics] that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.' Indeed this Austrian arch-opponent of the pseudo-sciences would surely have been more sympathetic to Bergson's conception of music as having contact with a verbally unrepresentable interiority. …

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