Academic journal article Critical Studies

Two Saints and the Power of the Auditive

Academic journal article Critical Studies

Two Saints and the Power of the Auditive

Article excerpt

Friedrich Schiller, Heinrich von Kleist, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe each address in different ways the power of music and the manifold symbolic representation of sound. Music possesses the power to generate as well as to destroy order, producing a wide spectrum of effects ranging from gentle persuasion to manipulation. Through the use of acoustic extremes, silence and falling silent take on a special role that appears to reveal a concept of performativity as transformation. This article seeks to define the dynamic contained within the power of music, conceived as a form related to destruction, and inquires into the possibility of whether alongside the suspension of temporality, the potential for new phenomena is inherent in silence as an originary phenomenon.

During his stay in Marienbad in 1823, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described the powerful lure music and other sounds exercised upon him and how profoundly they moved him. In particular, the impression made on Goethe by the singer Anna Milder and the pianist Maria Szymanowska sparked off this elemental experience. On August 24, Goethe wrote to Carl Friedrich Zelter:

But now for the strangest thing of all! The immense power that music had over me in those days! Milder' s voice, the rich sounds of Szymanowska, nay, even the public performances of the local Jägerkorps untwisted me, just as one lets a clenched fist gently flatten out. . . . Now, all of a sudden, the Heavenly One falls upon you, and through the intervention of great talents, exercises her full power over you, claims all her rights, and awakens all your dormant recollections. (Goethe's Letters 1887, 22 If.)

Goethe experiences music as a pleasure, "which, like all the higher enjoyments of life, takes a man out of and above himself, and lifts him, at the same time, out of the world and above it" (ibid., 222).

Norbert Miller's discussion in his recent publication on Goethe's encounters with the enormous power of music suggests that this power can be broken down into numerous, partly conflicting facets of its effect on the listener. These range from agitation and an arousal of strength to a loss of control and the production of a situation in which one is left powerless when confronted with sounds. This power may bring about the renunciation of order, and thus lead to chaos. Music is responsible for an omnipotence that can bring forth emotions and physical reactions.

If not nurtured, the sense organ - for Goethe more the inner sense than the sense of hearing itself- can atrophy and then be passively assailed or attacked by music. Music leads hence also to an overpowering. It leads out of ordinary life, produces an exceptional situation, and represents a counter strategy against the habitual. Affecting the listener's sensibility in the full sense of the word, "music's impact hits a nerve deep in the receptive soul, which responds to it with rapture and distress" (Miller 2009, 13).1

Here the soul is like a blank slate waiting for input, and sensation inscribes itself in it. A form of dialogue results, since the mind thus touched responds with emotions: stimulation, delight, or pain represent the scope of this inscription.

According to Goethe, all music unleashes these particular emotions: A voice solo is just as capable of having a powerful effect on him as the music of a Jägerkorps. Is it then the physiological stimulation of the sense of hearing, inner organs, and the soul, rather than an extraordinary composition or a particularly impressive voice that brings forth an effect of its own?

This article focuses not on the two women musicians mentioned by Goethe, but rather upon two texts about sacred female figures: Heinrich von Kleist' s St. Cecilia or the Power of Music (A Legend) from 1811 and Friedrich Schiller's Joan of Arc, which first appeared in 1801. Taking these two texts as examples, I will explore the connection between music and power, while Goethe's texts will serve to provide a kind of basso continuo. …

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