Wagner, Schopenhauer, and The Will

The lovely wife and I saw a wonderful concert this afternoon.

Emanuel Ax is such an amazing pianist that whatever he plays it’s thrilling though our two professional reviewers seem to differ on his performance on Friday night.

While Druckenbrod of the P-G put it this way:

While he swims expertly in the clear waters of all Mozart piano concerti, the Piano Concerto No. 22 is especially a wonderful fit for Mr. Ax. Its light texture befit his impossibly nimble fingers and its tonal shifts his imagination.

Kanny of the Trib had a different take:

The burst of energy that began Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major also dissipated.  Fortunately, Emanuel Ax was the soloist.  His eloquence raised many passages above the stolid, although the pianist did miss more than a few notes.

As we were at Sunday afternoon’s performance, I can’t speak to which one was closer to being correct regarding Friday evening but if I had to, I’d use Andy’s words to describe Sunday’s performance rather than Mark’s.

But I really didn’t want to talk about the performance, to be completely honest.  The first piece of the concert, the Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner (1813  – 83) highlights one of the very few moments in history where music and philosophy actually intersect in a meaningful way.

And it all happened because Wagner’s friend, the poet Georg Herwegh (1817 – 75), brought him a copy of  Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung in 1854.  The work, by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) with a title that translates into English as The World as Will and Idea or The World as Will and Representation, is huge and impossible to describe in anything shorter than a few PhD dissertations (and I am sure there are more than a few).  All we need to concern ourselves with here are the barest of outlines and we can see how Wagner, one of the supreme egotists of the 19th century, took to it so completely.

According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy :

Schopenhauer thought that all forms of artistic activity – with one important exception – could be understood and explained in terms of his theory of ideas. (Schopenhauer, Arthur. vol 7, pp 330)

But what was his theory of ideas?  The Encyclopedia has an answer:

Schopenhauer’s theory of knowledge may be said to start with Kant’s distinction between phenomena (what appears to a perceiving mind) and noumena (things as they are in themselves). (vol. 7, pp 327)

Let me explain this a little. Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table. The table top is rectangular but my perception of it isn’t.  I perceive, for instance, the width of the far edge as smaller/narrower than the near edge.  None of the edges are parallel, either.  Yet I know it’s a rectangle. My perception is the phenomenon while the idea of the table top is the noumenon. We can know the phenomenon but the noumenon is just beyond our perception.

To Schopenhauer, these ideas are themselves representations of The Will, the universal thing-in-itself that drives everything.  What Wagner found so compelling was Schopenhauer’s “one important exception” above.  All art, Schopenhauer felt, represents something else in nature.  For instance, a painting of a tree represents a tree.  While the idea of the tree (or “the tree-in-itself”) is a representation of The Will.  Music, however, being far less representational than any of the other arts has nothing to represent than The Will itself.  Study of music leads to a deeper understanding of the fundamental workings of the Universe, thus spake Schopenhauer.

From the Encyclopedia:

Schopenhauer’s ideas, in this instance and in general, produced a deep impression upon Richard Wagner, who in his opera Tristan und Isolde tried to realize in musical form the leading conceptions of Schopenhauer’s theory of the world. (vol 7 pp 330)

For Wagner the egotist, reading Schopenhauer must’ve been hugely satisfying.

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