How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Supreme Power
By Maria Popova
Some of humanity’s greatest and most fertile minds — including Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche — have contemplated the power of music, and yet the question of why music moves us so remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable. Why is it that music can permeate our deepest memories, help us grieve, and save our lives?
Four years after his increasingly timely case for shedding the culture-crushing shackles of workaholism, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (May 4, 1904–November 6, 1997) explored the abiding puzzlement of music’s power in a speech delivered during intermission at a Bach concert in 1952, later published under the title “Thoughts About Music” in his small, enormous posthumous essay collection Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (public library) — a set of reflections titled after Augustine’s beautiful assertion that “only he who loves can sing” (which Van Gogh echoed in his insistence that art and love are one), exploring what Pieper argues is the “hidden root” of the richness of all music, fine art, and poetry: contemplation.
Piper begins his Bach speech by examining our age-old preoccupation with pinning down the elusive source of music’s singular enchantment:
Not only is music one of the most amazing and mysterious phenomena of all the world’s miranda, the things that make us wonder (and, therefore, the formal subject of any philosopher…) [but] music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul… yet, with the soul entirely oblivious, that philosophy, in fact, is happening here… Beyond that, and above all, music prompts the philosopher’s continued interest because it is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.
Pieper considers the question of what we actually perceive when we listen to music. Surely, he points out, we perceive something greater and beyond the sum total of the specific sounds and words, something of additional intimacy and meaning, just as in poetry we “perceive more and something other than the factual, literal meaning of its words.” Echoing Aldous Huxley’s exquisite assertion that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Pieper writes:
Music opens a path into the realm of silence. Music reveals the human soul in stark “nakedness,” as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies.
With an eye to the canon of ideas about music in Western philosophy — including Schopenhauer, who believed that music is superior to all other arts for they “speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence,” and Nietzsche, who dramatized his monumental regard for music in the proclamation that “without music life would be a mistake” — Pieper summarizes the landscape of thought:
The nature of music variously [has] been understood … as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe, as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man’s will in its aspects, as love.
All of these ideas, he suggests, can be summed up in a single formulation. A decade after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer framed music as a laboratory for feeling and time, Pieper writes:
Music articulates the inner dynamism of man’s existential self, which is music’s “prime matter” (so to speak), and both share a particular characteristic — both move in time.
Much as the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky would argue decades later that cinema is the art of “sculpting in time,” Pieper argues that this temporal element of music gives us a vital tool with which to sculpt our personhood:
Since music articulates the immediacy of man’s basic existential dynamism in an immediate way, the listener as well is addressed and challenged on that profound level where man’s self-realization takes place. In this existential depth of the listener, far below the level of expressible judgments, there echoes — in identical immediacy — the same vibration articulated in the audible music.
We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection… beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching, or education.
In a passage of even more jarring pertinence to our own era of formulaic mass-produced mediocrity marketed as popular music, Pieper writes:
If we now look at our society … we observe how much the most trivial and “light” music, the “happy sound,” has become the most common and pervasive phenomenon. By its sheer banality, this music expresses quite accurately the cheap self-deception that on the inner existential level all is fine… We observe how much attention is demanded by — and willingly given to — the rhythmic beat of a certain crude and orgiastic music… Both kinds of music, the “happy sound” as well as the numbing beat, claim legitimacy as “entertainment,” as means, that is, of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other and that equally have become a common and pervasive phenomenon. We further observe how music … is frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely “skin-deep” (von aussen her, as Rilke said)… We observe all this with great alarm, aware that music lays bare man’s inner existential condition, removing veil and façade (and it cannot be otherwise), while this same inner condition receives from music the most discreet impulses, for better or for worse.
Pieper returns to the subject of his speech, extolling Bach as a timeless counterpoint to this debasement of the soul in music — a supreme example of the kind of music that ennobles our personhood by inviting existential contemplation:
We observe and ponder all this and then are moved to rejoice as we become aware again and acknowledge anew that among all the various kinds of music today there still exists, also and especially, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach!
Obviously, this implies a challenge to ourselves, a challenge not easily nor “automatically” satisfied. That we are willing to listen attentively to the essential message of this music and that we let this message find an echo, as if on reverberating strings, within the immediacy of our soul is decisive. This will lead to new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence; to the dissatisfaction with entertaining but hollow achievements; and to a sober and perceptive alertness that is not distracted from the realities of actual life by the promise of easy pleasure proffered in superficial harmonies. Above all, this will guide us to turn with resolve, constancy, courage, and hope toward the one and only Good by whose grace our inner existential yearning finds fulfillment; the one Good praised and exalted particularly in Bach’s music with such ever-present “wordless jubilation.”
Complement this particular portion of the wholly jubilant Only the Lover Sings with Franz Kafka on the power of music and the point of making art and Aldous Huxley on why music speaks to our souls, then revisit Pieper on the neglected seedbed of creative culture.
Published July 27, 2017