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ERNST BLOCH

The Harmony of the Spheres - 2

  From: Ernst Bloch, Essays on the philosophy of music, tr. by P. Palmer
ELPENOR EDITIONS IN PRINT

Generally speaking, music as expression is not so much rejected as outstripped or at least replaced through a purportedly extra-human order. Instead of expressing the soul, it now manifests itself as a copy of the cosmos, a reproduction of cosmic conditions, much as it was thought that architecture would reach its grandest consummation when it copied a cosmic system. If formalistic music does not take the structure of the world as its model, it does believe in subject-less order, i.e. in music as a set of rules instead of music as existence. From this standpoint, harmony and counterpoint appear to be both self-sufficient and transparent - and always transparent in mathematical-physical terms. True, we do not hear numbers and formulae, but we are at least supposed to discern forces in music which also occur in mechanical processes, in dynamism and stasis, e.g. falling, discharging, equilibrium and the like. But dialectics of Nature are less often mentioned in this context, in spite of the dichotomy in the sonata's thematicism and structural layout. Nor does Nature as a human symbol, heard through music, come into the reckoning for what is now a one-sided external series. For in a theory of rules which is as reified as this theory is, mechanics alone will still be visible on the horizon, a mere reflex of mechanisation in a secularised, formerly Keplerian Nature.

Thus in the late-bourgeois anti-expression theory of music and its reification of form, the extrahuman very easily turns into the anti-human, and there is a clear fundamental relation. Matter-of-factness [Sachlichkeit] is interpreted entirely as a system of rules governing something alien. 'Music, moody food of us that trade in love,' says Shakespeare; and yet there is no connection between the hypostatised Cat's Fugue and Syrinx the nymph or the stage of self-transcending, the utopian sound of one's source and existence. Nonetheless, this distinction too is an artificial one and just as artificial and abstract as the distinction between expression and well-wrought form, which are in truth one and gladly support each other. And similarly, music as a world of harmonic-contrapuntal rules is only at odds with music as the utopian sound of existence if the world of rules (i.e. a specific perfection of its means) has been reified and absolutised; if the target of creating the best music is lost within a music without a designation, a mere intrinsic guarantee of melodic-contrapuntal consistency. When counterpoint has become an aural form-fetish, the two musics are at war.

But let us avoid this absolutising. Let us assume that we have neither music in which we cannot sense anything expressive, nor a corresponding science from which our minds cannot derive anything enlightening. Then it is precisely in music's theory of forms that its deep-seated and far-aiming intention will instantly emerge and be set in motion. To counter the purely drifting and vaguely warm element in the note, musical craftsmanship will then transmit what is indeed a world of rules -not however an automatic one, but the world of the human personages of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, which will have now become not a canon, but canonic. Then even the ultimate transparence of an absolutised handicraft, music in its cosmic relation -which is to say the harmony of the spheres, which has been secularised time and again -will do no more damage in the end. Indeed it must serve the best of purposes, serving as a prefiguration that will allow Nature, too, to be heard as a ...pastorale, i.e. in humanly significant terms.  

Thus the note is now going far afield, and it has equipped itself for its journey. A note that is formed possesses -and painters have always envied it for this -exact rules and firm understanding. Of all the crafts, music was the earliest to be rationalised; it did not only consist of empirically tested devices and the trade secrets of the masters. Mutatis mutandis, the geometry and rules of correct proportions explored by Leonardo and Durer had dwelt for a long time within the musical canon. The ancient tradition that promulgated music as a science was a principal reason for this salutary rationalisation of it. So music became one of the seven 'liberal arts' in the mediaeval university, and it entered the quadrivium. Certainly this tradition was acquired at a high cost, the exaggerating of numerical relations, and it had hardly any connection with the practice of music, to which Pythagorean speculations were a downright hindrance. All the same, the traditional rationalisation of music was a boon for the polyphonic style that appeared in the eleventh century. Not Pythagoras but in all likelihood a closeness to the scholastic way of teaching and thinking made possible the miracles of ingenuity that were constructed by the contrapuntists of Burgundy and Flanders. Painters went their empirical way through the studios; the stonemasons had their lodge, where practical geometry and an oral tradition of gnosis were combined in an often mysterious fashion. But in music, the enrichment of the polyphonic style went hand in hand with the penning of its rational theory -a Speculum musicae by Jean de Muris, and from Jacob of LiŤge in 1330, and an Ars nova and Ars contrapuncti by Philip of Vitry. And there arose a connection which so far has never been followed up and yet has sustained the proud rationality of counterpoint right up to the present: a connection with scholastic logic or, to be more precise, with its forms of combination. It is significant that BoŽthius, who passed on the tradition of Greek music theory in his Ars musica, translated and wrote commentaries on Aristotelian logic for the same world and, in many cases, the same people. Abelard praised BoŽthius as showing absolute insight in musical matters; if this verdict changed in the subsequent centuries of counterpoint, it was supplanted by the authority of the manifold conversiones and contrapositiones of a doctrine which BoŽthius was again the first to pass on.

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