From Unended Quest
by Karl Popper
12. SPECULATIONS ABOUT THE RISE OF POLYPHONIC MUSIC: PSYCHOLOGY OF DISCOVERY OR LOGIC OF DISCOVERY?
The speculations which I shall recount briefly here were closely related to my speculations, reported earlier, on dogmatic and critical thinking. I believe they were among my earliest attempts to apply those psychological ideas to another field; later they led me to an interpretation of the rise of Greek science. The ideas on Greek science I found to be historically fruitful; those on the rise of polyphony may well be historically mistaken. I later chose the history of music as a second subject for my Ph. D. examination, in the hope that this would give me an opportunity to investigate whether there was anything in them, but I did not get anywhere and my attention soon turned to other problems. In fact, I have now forgotten almost everything I ever knew in this field. Yet these ideas later greatly influenced my reinterpretation of Kant and my change of interest from the psychology of discovery to an objectivist epistemology-that is, to the logic of discovery.
My problem was this. Polyphony, like science, is peculiar to our Western civilization. (I am using the term “polyphony” to denote not only counterpoint but also Western harmony.) Unlike science it does not seem to be of Greek origin but to have arisen between the ninth and fifteenth centuries A.D. If so, it is possibly the most unprecedented, original, indeed miraculous achievement of our Western civilization, not excluding science.
The facts seem to be these. There was much melodic singing-dance-song, folk music, and above all Church music. The melodies-especially slow ones, as sung in Church-were, of course, sometimes sung in parallel octaves. There are reports that they were also sung in parallel fifths (which, taken with the octave, also make fourths, though not if reckoned from the bass). This way of singing (“organum”) is reported from the tenth century, and probably existed earlier. Plainsong was also sung in parallel thirds, and/or in parallel sixths (reckoned from the bass: “fauxbourdon”, “faburden”). 58 It seems that this was felt to be a real innovation, something like an accompaniment, or even an embellishment.
What might have been the next step (though its origins are said to go back even to the ninth century) seems to have been that, while the plainsong melody remained unaltered, the accompanying voices no longer proceeded only in parallel thirds and sixths. Antiparallel movement of note against note (punctus contra punctum, point counter point) was now also permitted, and could lead not only to thirds and sixths but to fifths, reckoned from the bass, and therefore to fourths between these and some of the other voices.
In my speculations I regarded this last step, the invention of counterpoint, as the decisive one. Although it does not seem to be quite certain that it was temporarily the last step, it was the one that led to polyphony.
The “organum” may not at the time have been felt to be an addition to the one-voice melody, except perhaps by those responsible for Church music. It is quite possible that it arose simply from the different voice levels of a congregation which was trying to sing the melody. Thus it may have been an unintended result of a religious practice, namely the intoning of responses by the congregation. Mistakes of this kind in the singing of congregations are bound to occur. It is well known, for example, that in the Anglican festal responses, with the cantus firmus in the tenor, congregations are liable to make the mistake of following (in octaves) the highest voice, the treble, instead of the tenor. At all events as long as the singing is in strict parallels there is no polyphony. There may be more than one voice but there is only one melody.
It is perfectly conceivable that the origin also of counterpoint singing lay in mistakes made by the congregation. For when singing in parallels would lead a voice to a note higher than it could sing it may have dropped down to the note sung by the next voice below, thus moving contra punctum rather than in parallel cum puncto. This may have happened in either organum or fauxbourdon singing. At any rate, it would explain the first basic rule of simple one-to-one note counterpoint: that the result of the countermovement must be only an octave or fifth or third or sixth (always reckoned from the bass). But though this may be the way the counterpoint originated, the invention of it must have been due to the musician who first realized that here was a possibility for a more or less independent second melody, to be sung together with the original or fundamental melody, the cantus firmus, without disturbing it or interfering with it any more than did organum or fauxbourdon singing. And this leads to the second basic rule of counterpoint: parallel octaves and fifths are to be avoided because these would destroy the intended effect of an independent second melody. Indeed they would lead to an unintended (though temporary) organum effect, and thus to the disappearance of the second melody as such, for the second voice would (as in organum singing) merely enforce the cantus firmus. Parallel thirds and sixths (as in fauxbourdon) are permitted steps provided they are preceded or followed fairly soon by a real countermovement (with respect to some of the parts).
Thus the basic idea is this. The fundamental or given melody, the cantus firmus, puts limitations on any second melody (or counterpoint), but in spite of these limitations the counterpoint should appear as if it were a freely invented independent melody-a melody melodious in itself and yet almost miraculously fitting the cantus firmus though, unlike both organum and fauxbourdon, in no way dependent on it. Once this basic idea is grasped, we are on the way to polyphony.
I will not enlarge on this. Instead I will explain the historical conjecture I made in this connection-a conjecture which, though it may in fact be false, was nevertheless of great significance for all my futher ideas. It was this.
Given the heritage of the Greeks, and the development (and canonization) of the Church modes in the time of Ambrose and Gregory the Great, there would hardly have been any need for, or any incitement to, the invention of polyphony if Church musicians had had the same freedom as, let us say, the originators of folk song. My conjecture was that it was the canonization of Church melodies, the dogmatic restrictions on them, which produced the cantus firmus against which the counterpoint could develop. It was the established cantus firmus which provided the framework, the order, the regularity that made possible inventive freedom without chaos.
In some non-European music we find that established melodies give rise to melodic variations: this I regarded as a similar development. Yet the combination of a tradition of melodies sung in parallels with the security of a cantus firmus which remains undisturbed even by a countermovement opened to us, according to this conjecture, a whole new ordered world, a new cosmos.
Once the possibilities of this cosmos had been to some extent explored-by bold trials and by error elimination-the original authentic melodies, accepted by the Church, could be done without. New melodies could be invented to serve in place of the original cantus firmus, some to become traditional for a time, while others might be used in only one musical composition; for example as the subject of a fugue.
According to this perhaps untenable historical conjecture it was thus the canonization of the Gregorian melodies, a piece of dogmatism, that provided the necessary framework or rather the necessary scaffolding for us to build a new world. I also formulated it like this: the dogma provides us with the frame of coordinates needed for exploring the order of this new unknown and possibly in itself even somewhat chaotic world, and also for creating order where order is missing. Thus musical and scientific creation seem to have this much in common: the use of dogma, or myth, as a man-made path along which we move into the unknown, exploring the world, both creating regularities or rules and probing for existing regularities. And once we have found, or erected, some landmarks, we proceed by trying new ways of ordering the world, new coordinates, new modes of exploration and creation, new ways of building a new world, undreamt of in antiquity unless in the myth of the music of the spheres.
Indeed, a great work of music (like a great scientific theory) is a cosmos imposed upon chaos-in its tensions and harmonies inexhaustible even for its creator. This was described with marvellous insight by Kepler in a passage devoted to the music of the heavens:
"Thus the heavenly motions are nothing but a kind of perennial concert, rational rather than audible or vocal. They move through the tension of dissonances which are like syncopations or suspensions with their resolutions (by which men imitate the corresponding dissonances of nature), reaching secure and predetermined closures, each containing six terms like a chord consisting of six voices. And by these marks they distinguish and articulate the immensity of time. Thus there is no marvel greater or more sublime than the rules of singing in harmony together in several parts, unknown to the ancients but at last discovered by man, the ape of his Creator; so that, through the skilful symphony of many voices, he should actually conjure up in a short part of an hour the vision of the world's total perpetuity in time; and that, in the sweetest sense of bliss enjoyed through Music, the echo of God, he should almost reach the contentment which God the Maker has in His Own works."
Here were some more ideas which distracted me and which interfered with my work on those writing desks during my apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. 60 It was during a time when I was reading Kant's first Critique again and again. I soon decided that his central idea was that scientific theories are man-made, and that we try to impose them upon the world: “Our intellect does not derive its laws from nature, but imposes its laws upon nature.” Combining this with my own ideas, I arrived at something like the following.
Our theories, beginning with primitive myths and evolving into the theories of science, are indeed man-made, as Kant said. We do try to impose them on the world, and we can always stick to them dogmatically if we so wish, even if they are false (as are not only most religious myths, it seems, but also Newton's theory, which is the one Kant had in mind). 61 But although at first we have to stick to our theories-without theories we cannot even begin, for we have nothing else to go by-we can, in the course of time, adopt a more critical attitude towards them. We can try to replace them by something better if we have learned, with their help, where they let us down. Thus there may arise a scientific or critical phase of thinking, which is necessarily preceded by an uncritical phase.
Kant, I felt, had been right when he said that it was impossible that knowledge was, as it were, a copy or impression of reality. He was right to believe that knowledge was genetically or psychologically a priori, but quite wrong to suppose that any knowledge could be a priori valid. 62 Our theories are our inventions; but they may be merely ill-reasoned guesses, bold conjectures, hypotheses. Out of these we create a world: not the real world, but our own nets in which we try to catch the real world.
If this was so, then what I originally regarded as the psychology of discovery had a basis in logic: there was no other way into the unknown, for logical reasons.
13. TWO KINDS OF MUSIC
It was my interest in music that led me to what I then felt was a minor intellectual discovery (in 1920, I should say, even before the rise of my interest in the psychology of discovery described in the preceding section and in section 10). This discovery later greatly influenced my ways of thinking in philosophy, and it ultimately led even to my distinction between world 2 and world 3, which plays such a role in the philosophy of my old age. At first it took the form of an interpretation of the difference between Bach's and Beethoven's music, or their ways of approaching music. I still think that there is something in my idea, even though this particular interpretation, I later thought, greatly exaggerated the difference between Bach and Beethoven. Yet the origin of this intellectual discovery is for me so closely connected with these two great composers that I will relate it in the form in which it occurred to me at the time. I do not wish to suggest, however, that my remarks do justice to them or to other composers, or that they add something new to the many things, good and bad, which have been written about music: my remarks are essentially autobiographical.
To me the discovery came as a great shock. I loved both Bach and Beethoven-not only their music but also their personalities, which, I felt, became visible through their music. (It was not the same with Mozart: there is something unfathomable behind his charm.) The shock came one day when it struck me that Bach's and Beethoven's relations to their own work were utterly different, and that although it was permissible to take Bach as one's model, it was quite impermissible to adopt this attitude towards Beethoven.
Beethoven, I felt, had made music an instrument of self-expression. For him in his despair this may have been the only way to go on living. (I believe that this is suggested in his “Heiligenstädter Testament” of October 6, 1802.) There is no more moving work than Fidelio; no more moving expression of a man's faith, and his hopes, and his secret dreams, and his heroic fight against despair. Yet his purity of heart, his dramatic powers, his unique creative gifts allowed him to work in a way which, I felt, was not permissible for others. I felt that there could be no greater danger to music than an attempt to make Beethoven's ways an ideal, or a standard, or a model.
It was to distinguish the two distinct attitudes of Bach and of Beethoven towards their compositions that I introduced-only for myself-the terms “objective” and “subjective”. These terms may not be well chosen (this does not matter much), and in a context such as this they may mean little to a philosopher; but I was glad to find, many years later, that Albert Schweitzer had used them in 1905, at the beginning of his great book on Bach. 63 For my own thinking the contrast between an objective and a subjective approach, or attitude, especially in relation to one's own work, became decisive. And it soon influenced my views on epistemology. (See, for example, the titles of some of my more recent papers, like “Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject”, or “On the Theory of the Objective Mind”, or “Quantum Mechanics without 'The Observer'”.)
I will now try to explain what I have had in mind when speaking (to this day only to myself, and perhaps a few friends) about “objective” and “subjective” music or art. In order to give a better explanation of some of my early ideas I shall sometimes use formulations which I should scarcely have been capable of at that time.
I should perhaps start with a criticism of a widely accepted theory of art: the theory that art is self-expression, or the expression of the artist's personality, or perhaps the expression of his emotions. (Croce and Collingwood are two of the many proponents of this theory. My own anti-essentialist point of view implies that what-is? questions like “What is art?” are never genuine problems.) 65 My main criticism of this theory is simple: the expressionist theory of art is empty. For everything a man or an animal can do is (among other things) an expression of an internal state, of emotions, and of a personality. This is trivially true for all kinds of human and animal languages. It holds for the way a man or a lion walks, the way a man coughs or blows his nose, the way a man or a lion may look at you, or ignore you. It holds for the ways a bird builds its nest, a spider constructs its web, and a man builds his house. In other words it is not a characteristic of art. For the same reason expressionist or emotive theories of language are trivial, uninformative, and useless.
I do not of course propose to answer the what-is? question “What is art?”, but I do suggest that what makes a work of art interesting or significant is something quite different from self-expression. Regarded from a psychological point of view there are certain abilities needed in the artist, which we may describe as creative imagination, perhaps playfulness, taste, and-of some significance-utter devotion to his work. The work must be everything to him, it must transcend his personality. But this is merely a psychological aspect of the matter, and for this very reason of minor importance. The important thing is the work of art. And here I wish to say some negative things first.
There can be great works of art without great originality. There can hardly be a great work of art which the artist intended mainly to be original or “different” (except perhaps in a playful way). The main aim of the true artist is the perfection of his work. Originality is a gift of the gods-like naivety, it cannot be had for the asking, or gained by seeking it. Trying seriously to be original or different, and also trying to express one's own personality, must interfere with what has been called the “integrity” of the work of art. In a great work of art the artist does not try to impose his little personal ambitions on the work but uses them to serve his work. In this way he may grow, as a person, through interaction with what he does. By a kind of feedback he may gain in craftsmanship and other powers that make an artist.
What I have said may indicate what the difference was between Bach and Beethoven which so impressed me: Bach forgets himself in his work, he is a servant of his work. Of course, he cannot fail to impress his personality on it; this is unavoidable. But he is not, as Beethoven is, at times, conscious of expressing himself and even his moods. It was for this reason that I saw them as representing two opposite attitudes towards music.
Thus Bach said, when dictating instructions to his pupils concerning continuo playing: “It should make a euphonious harmony for the glory of God and the permitted delectation of the mind; and like all music its finis and final cause should never be anything else but the glory of God and the recreation of the mind. When this is not heeded, there really is no music, but a hellish howl and clatter.” 67
I suggest that Bach wished to exclude from the final cause of music the making of a noise for the greater glory of the musician.
In view of my quotation from Bach I should make it quite clear that the difference I have in mind is not one between religious and secular art. Beethoven's Mass in D shows this. It is inscribed “From the heart-may it again go to the heart” (“Vom Herzen-möge es wieder-zu Herzen gehen”). It should also be said that my emphasis upon this difference has nothing to do with a denial of the emotional content or the emotional impact of music. A dramatic oratorio such as Bach's St Matthew Passion depicts strong emotions and thus, by sympathy, arouses strong emotions-stronger perhaps even than Beethoven's Mass in D. There is no reason to doubt that the composer felt these emotions too; but, I suggest, he felt them because the music which he invented must have made its impact on him (otherwise he would, no doubt, have scrapped the piece as unsuccessful), and not because he was first in an emotional mood which he then expressed in his music.
The difference between Bach and Beethoven has its characteristic technical aspects. For example, the structural role of the dynamic element (forte versus piano) is different. There are, of course, dynamic elements in Bach. In the concertos there are the changes from tutti to solo. There is the shout “Barrabam!” in the St Matthew Passion. Bach is often highly dramatic. Yet although dynamic surprises and contrasts occur, they are rarely important determinants of the structure of the composition. As a rule, fairly long periods occur without major dynamic contrasts. Something similar may be said of Mozart. But it cannot be said of, say, Beethoven's Appassionata, where dynamic contrasts are nearly as important as harmonic ones.
Schopenhauer says that, in a Beethoven symphony, “all human emotions and passions speak: joy and grief, love and hate, fear and hope, ... in countless delicate shades”; 68 and he stated the theory of emotional expression and resonance in the form: “The way in which all music touches our hearts ... is due to the fact that it reflects every impulse of our inmost essence.” One might say that Schopenhauer's theory of music, and of art in general, escapes subjectivism (if at all) only because according to him “our inmost essence”-our will-is also objective, since it is the essence of the objective world.
But to return to objective music. Without asking a what-is? question, let us look at Bach's Inventions, and his own somewhat longish title page, in which he makes it clear that he has written for people wanting to play the piano. They will, he assures them, learn “how to play with two and three parts clearly ... and in a melodious way”; 69 and they will be stimulated to be inventive, and so “incidentally get a first taste of composition”. Here music is to be learned from examples. The musician is to grow up in Bach's workshop, as it were. He learns a discipline, but he is also encouraged to use his own musical ideas and he is shown how they can be worked out clearly and skilfully. His ideas may develop, no doubt. Through work the musician may, like a scientist, learn by trial and error. And with the growth of his work his musical judgement and taste may also grow-and perhaps even his creative imagination. But this growth will depend on effort, industry, dedication to his work; on sensitivity to the work of others, and on self-criticism. There will be a constant give-and-take between the artist and his work rather than a one-sided “give”-a mere expression of his personality in his work.
From what I have said it should be clear that I am far from suggesting that great music, and great art in general, may not have a deep emotional impact. And least of all do I suggest that a musician may not be deeply moved by what he is writing or playing. Yet to admit the emotional impact of music is not, of course, to accept musical expressionism, which is a theory about music (and a theory which has led to certain musical practices). It is, I think, a mistaken theory of the relation between human emotions on the one side and music-and art in general-on the other.
The relation between music and the human emotions can be viewed in a number of very different ways. One of the earliest and most seminal theories is the theory of divine inspiration which manifests itself in the divine madness or divine frenzy of the poet or musician: the artist is possessed by a spirit, though by a benign spirit rather than an evil one. A classical formulation of this view can be found in Plato's Ion. 70 The views which Plato formulates there are many-sided and incorporate several distinct theories. Indeed, Plato's treatment may be used as the basis for a systematic survey:
(1) What the poet or musician composes is not his own work but rather a message or dispensation from the gods, especially the Muses. The poet or musician is only an instrument through which the Muses speak; he is merely the mouthpiece of a god and “to prove this, the god sang on purpose the finest of songs through the meanest of poets”.
(2) The artist (whether creative or performing) who is possessed by a divine spirit gets frantic, that is, emotionally over-excited; and his state communicates itself to his audience by a process of sympathetic resonance. (Plato compares it with magnetism.)
(3) When the poet or the performer composes or recites he is deeply moved, and indeed possessed (not only by the god but also) by the message; for example, by the scenes he describes. And the work, rather than merely his emotional state, induces similar emotions in his audience.
(4) We have to distinguish between a mere craft or skill or “art” acquired by training or study, and divine inspiration; the latter alone makes the poet or musician.
It should be noted that in developing these views Plato is far from serious: he speaks with his tongue in his cheek. One little joke, especially, is significant and quite amusing. To Socrates' remark that the rhapsode, when possessed by the god, is obviously quite deranged (for example, when he is shaking with fear even though he is in no danger) and that he induces the same nonsensical emotions in his audience, the rhapsode Ion replies: “Exactly: when I watch them from my platform I see how they cry, and how they look at me with awestruck eyes ... And I am obliged to watch them very closely indeed; for if they cry I shall laugh because of the money I take, and if they laugh I shall cry because of the money I lose.”
Clearly Plato wants us to understand that if the rhapsode is possessed by these mundane and far from “deranged” anxieties while watching his listeners in order to regulate his behaviour by their response, then he cannot be serious when he suggests (as Ion does at that very place) that his great effect on them depends entirely on his sincerity-that is, on his being completely and genuinely possessed by the god and out of his mind. (Plato's joke here is a typical self-referring joke-an almost paradoxical self-reference.) 73 In fact, Plato hints strongly 74 that any knowledge or skill (say, of keeping his audience spell-bound) would be dishonest trickery and deception, since it would necessarily interfere with the divine message. And he suggests that the rhapsode (or the poet or the musician) is at least sometimes a skilful deceiver, rather than genuinely inspired by the gods.
I will now make use of my list (1) to (4) of Plato's theories in order to derive the modern theory of art as expression (a theory which I reject). My main contention is that if we take the theory of inspiration and frenzy, but discard its divine source, we arrive immediately at the modern theory that art is self-expression, or more precisely, self-inspiration and the expression and communication of emotion. In other words the modern theory is a kind of theology without God-with the hidden nature or essence of the artist taking the place of the gods: the artist inspires himself.
Clearly, this subjectivist theory must discard, or at least play down, point (3): the view that the artist and his audience are emotionally moved by the work of art. Yet to me (3) seems to be precisely the theory that gives a correct account of the relationship between art and the emotions. It is an objectivist theory which holds that poetry or music may describe or depict or dramatize scenes which have emotional significance, and that they may even describe or depict emotions as such. (Note that it is not implied by this theory that this is the only way in which art can be significant.)
This objectivist theory of the relationship between art and the emotions may be discerned in the passage from Kepler quoted in the preceding section.
It played an important part in the rise of the opera and the oratorio. It was certainly acceptable to Bach and Mozart. It is, incidentally, perfectly compatible with Plato's theory, expounded for example in the Republic and also in the Laws, that music has the power to arouse emotions, and to soothe them (like a lullaby), and even to form a man's character: some kinds of music may make him brave, others turn him into a coward; a theory which exaggerates the power of music, to say the least.
According to my objectivist theory (which does not deny self-expression but stresses its utter triviality) the really interesting function of the composer's emotions is not that they are to be expressed, but that they may be used to test the success or the fittingness or the impact of the (objective) work: the composer may use himself as a kind of test body, and he may modify and rewrite his composition (as Beethoven often did) when he is dissatisfied by his own reaction to it; or he may even discard it altogether. (Whether or not the composition is primarily emotional, he will in this way make use of his own reactions-his own “good taste”: it is another application of the method of trial and error.)
It should be noted that Plato's theory (4), in its non-theological form, is hardly compatible with an objectivist theory which sees the sincerity of the work less in the genuineness of the artist's inspiration than in the result of the artist's self-criticism. Yet an expressionist view such as Plato's theory (4), Ernst Gombrich informs me, became part of the classical tradition of rhetoric and poetic theory. It even went so far as to suggest that successful description or depiction of emotions depended on the depth of the emotions of which the artist was capable. And it may well have been this dubious last view, the secularized form of Plato's (4) which regards anything that is not pure self-expression as “playing false” or “insincere”, that led to the modern expressionist theory of music and art.
To sum up; (1), (2), and (4), without the gods, may be regarded as a formulation of the subjectivist or expressionist theory of art and of its relation to the emotions, and (3) as a partial formulation of an objectivist theory of this relation. According to this objectivist theory it is the work which is mainly responsible for the emotions of the musician rather than the other way round.
To turn now to the objectivist view of music, it is clear that (3) cannot suffice for this, since it is merely concerned with the relation of music to the emotions, which are not the only or even the main thing that makes art significant. The musician may make it his problem to depict emotions and to move us to sympathy, as in the St Matthew Passion; but there are many other problems he tries to solve. (This is obvious in such an art as architecture, where there are always practical and technical problems to be solved.) In writing a fugue the composer's problem is to find an interesting subject and a contrasting counterpoint, and then to exploit this material as well as he can. What leads him may be a trained sense of general fittingness or “balance”. The result may still be moving; but our appreciation may be based on the sense of fittingness-of a cosmos emerging from near chaos-rather than on any depicted emotion. The same may be said of some of Bach's Inventions, whose problem was to give the student a first taste of composition, of musical problem solving. Similarly, the task of writing a minuet or a trio poses a definite problem for the musician; and the problem may be made more specific by the demand that it should fit into a certain half-completed suite. To see the musician as struggling to solve musical problems is of course very different from seeing him engaged in expressing his emotions (which, trivially, nobody can avoid doing).
I have tried to give a reasonably clear idea of the difference between these two theories of music, objectivist and subjectivist, and to relate them to the two kinds of music-Bach's and Beethoven's-which seemed to me so different at the time, though I loved them both.
The distinction between an objective and a subjective view of one's work became most important for me; and it has, I may say, coloured my views of the world and of life, ever since I was about 17 or 18.
14. PROGRESSIVISM IN ART, ESPECIALLY IN MUSIC
I certainly was not quite just when I thought that Beethoven was responsible for the rise of expressionism in music. No doubt he was influenced by the romantic movement, but we can see from his notebooks that he was far removed from merely expressing his feelings or his whims. He often worked very hard through version after version of an idea, trying to clarify and to simplify it, as a comparison of the Choral Fantasy with the notebooks for his Ninth Symphony will show. And yet, the indirect influence of his tempestuous personality, and the attempts to emulate him led, I believe, to a decline in music. It still seems to me that this decline was brought about largely by expressionist theories of music. But I would not now contend that there are not other equally pernicious creeds, and among them some anti-expressionist creeds, which have led to all kinds of formalistic experiments, from serialism to musique concrète. All these movements, however, and especially the “anti-” movements, largely result from that brand of “historicism” which I will discuss in this section, and especially from the historicist attitude towards “progress”.
Of course, there can be something like progress in art, in the sense that certain new possibilities may be discovered, and also new problems. 79 In music such inventions as counterpoint revealed almost an infinity of new possibilities and problems. There is also purely technological progress (for example in certain instruments). But although this may open new possibilities, it is not of fundamental significance. (Changes in the “medium” may remove more problems than they create.) There could conceivably be progress even in the sense that musical knowledge grows-that is, a composer's mastery of the discoveries of all his great predecessors; but I do not think that anything like this has been achieved by any musician. (Einstein may not have been a greater physicist than Newton, but he mastered Newtonian technique completely; no similar relation seems ever to have existed in the field of music.) Even Mozart, who may have come closest to it, did not attain it, and Schubert did not come close to it. There is also always the danger that newly realized possibilities may kill old ones: dynamic effects, dissonance, or even modulation may, if used too freely, dull our sensitivity to the less obvious effects of counterpoint or, say, to an allusion to the old modes.
The loss of possibilities which may be the result of any innovation is an interesting problem. Thus counterpoint threatened the loss of monodic and especially of rhythmic effects, and contrapuntal music was criticized for this reason, as well as for its complexity. There is no doubt that this criticism had some wholesome effects, and that some of the great masters of counterpoint, Bach included, took the greatest interest in the intricacies and contrasts resulting from combining recitatives, arias, and other monodic alternatives with contrapuntal writing. Many recent composers have been less imaginative. (Schönberg realized that, in a context of dissonances, consonances have to be carefully prepared, introduced, and perhaps even resolved. But this meant that their old function was lost.)
It was Wagner 80 who introduced into music an idea of progress which (in 1935 or thereabouts) I called “historicist”, and who thereby, I still believe, became the main villain of the piece. He also sponsored the uncritical and almost hysterical idea of the unappreciated genius: the genius who not only expresses the spirit of his time but who actually is “ahead of his time”; a leader who is normally misunderstood by all his contemporaries except a few “advanced” connoisseurs.
My thesis is that the doctrine of art as self-expression is merely trivial, muddleheaded and empty-though not necessarily vicious, unless taken seriously, when it may easily lead to self-centred attitudes and megalomania. But the doctrine that the genius must be in advance of his time is almost wholly false and vicious, and opens up the universe of art to evaluations which have nothing to do with the values of art.
Intellectually, both theories are on such a low level that it is astonishing that they were ever taken seriously. The first can be dismissed as trivial and muddled on purely intellectual grounds, without even looking more closely at art itself. The second-the theory that art is the expression of the genius in advance of his time-can be refuted by countless examples of geniuses genuinely appreciated by many patrons of the arts of their own time. Most of the great painters of the Renaissance were highly appreciated. So were many great musicians. Bach was appreciated by King Frederick of Prussia-besides, he obviously was not ahead of his time (as was, perhaps, Telemann): his son Carl Philipp Emanuel thought him passé and spoke of him habitually as “The Old Fusspot” (“der alte Zopf”). Mozart, though he died in poverty, was appreciated throughout Europe. An exception is perhaps Schubert, appreciated only by a comparatively small circle of friends in Vienna; but even he was getting more widely known at the time of his premature death. The story that Beethoven was not appreciated by his contemporaries is a myth. Yet let me say here again (see the text between notes 47 and 48 in section 10 above) that I think that success in life is largely a matter of luck. It has little correlation with merit, and in all fields of life there have always been many people of great merit who did not succeed. Thus it is only to be expected that this happened also in the sciences and in the arts.
The theory that art advances with the great artists in the van is not just a myth; it has led to the formation of cliques and pressure groups which, with their propaganda machines, almost resemble a political party or a church faction.
Admittedly there were cliques before Wagner. But there was nothing quite like the Wagnerians (unless later the Freudians): a pressure group, a party, a church with rituals. But I shall say no more about this, since Nietzsche has said it all much better.
I saw some of these things at close quarters in Schönberg's Society for Private Performances. Schönberg started as a Wagnerian, as did so many of his contemporaries. After a time his problem and that of many members of his circle became, as one of them said in a lecture, “How can we supersede Wagner?” or even “How can we supersede the remnants of Wagner in ourselves?”. Still later it became: “How can we remain ahead of everybody else, and even constantly supersede ourselves?”. Yet I feel that the will to be ahead of one's time has nothing to do with service to music, and nothing to do with genuine dedication to one's own work.
Anton von Webern was an exception to this. He was a dedicated musician and a simple, lovable man. But he had been brought up in the philosophical doctrine of self-expression, and he never doubted its truth. He once told me how he wrote his Orchesterstücke: he just listened to sounds that came to him, and he wrote them down; and when no more sounds came, he stopped. This, he said, was the explanation of the extreme brevity of his pieces. Nobody could doubt the purity of his heart. But there was not much music to be found in his modest compositions.
There may be something in the ambition to write a great work; and such an ambition may indeed be instrumental in creating a great work, though many great works have been produced without any ambition other than to do one's work well. But the ambition to write a work which is ahead of its time and which will preferably not be understood too soon-which will shock as many people as possible-has nothing to do with art, even though many art critics have fostered this attitude and popularized it.
Fashions, I suppose, are as unavoidable in art as in many other fields. But it should be obvious that those rare artists who were not only masters of their art but blessed with the gift of originality were seldom anxious to follow a fashion, and never tried to be leaders of fashion. Neither Johann Sebastian Bach nor Mozart nor Schubert created a new fashion or “style” in music. Yet one who did was Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a well-trained musician of talent and charm-and less originality of invention than the great masters. This holds for all fashions, including that of primitivism-though primitivism may be partly motivated by a preference for simplicity; and one of Schopenhauer's wisest remarks (though not perhaps his most original one) was: “In all art ... simplicity is essential ... ; at least it is always dangerous to neglect it.” I think what he meant was the striving for the kind of simplicity which we find especially in the subjects of the great composers. As we may see from the Seraglio, for example, the final result may be complex; but Mozart could still proudly reply to the Emperor Joseph that there was not one note too many in it.
But although fashions may be unavoidable, and although new styles may emerge, we ought to despise attempts to be fashionable. It should be obvious that “modernism”-the wish to be new or different at any price, to be ahead of one's time, to produce “The Work of Art of the Future” (the title of an essay by Wagner)-has nothing to do with the things an artist should value and should try to create.
Historicism in art is just a mistake. Yet one finds it everywhere. Even in philosophy one hears of a new style of philosophizing, or of a “Philosophy in a New Key”-as if it were the key that mattered rather than the tune played, and as if it mattered whether the key was old or new.
Of course I do not blame an artist or a musician for trying to say something new. What I really blame many of the “modern” musicians for is their failure to love great music-the great masters and their miraculous works, the greatest perhaps that man has produced.