Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rossini and the Philosophers

This morning Alex Ross used his The Rest of Noise blog post to relate an interesting anecdote about Arthur Schopenhauser, which he apparently harvested from David Cartwright's biography of the philosopher:
Cartwright tells a fascinating tale: in 1856, Rossini came to Frankfurt, Schopenhauer's home town, and was seen dining at the Englischer Hof, the philosopher's favorite spot. Alerted in advance, Schopenhauer arranged with the management to be seated near the composer. But he did not rise to say hello; instead, too shy or too proud, he lingered in Rossini's vicinity for the duration of the meal.
On my own bookshelf Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation happens to sit right next to Sir Malcolm Knox's translation of Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. At the beginning of his chapter on music, Hegel makes the following disclaimer:
But I am little versed in this sphere, and must therefore excused myself in advance for restricting myself simply to the more general points and to single remarks.
To this sentence Knox adds the following in a footnote:
Hegel studied and loved painting, but in music he was less at home. His predilection for opera (especially Rossini and Mozart) and his lack of enthusiasm for instrumental music may explain or be explained by his views on the human voice. The fact that he never mentions Beethoven, his exact contemporary, is not surprising, because he is by no means the only person to have a distaste for contemporary music. If he ever heard Beethoven's music, he probably regarded it, as I regard e.g. Prokofiev's, as restless and incoherent.
For the record, Hegel did not, strictly speaking, write the source text for Aesthetics. It is a transcription of lectures given by the philosopher, edited by Heinrich Gustav Hotho and published in 1835. (Hegel died in 1831.) Knox wrote the preface for his translation in 1973, and it was first published by Oxford University Press in 1975. Knox had begun his post as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews in 1936, a time when many critics were calling Prokofiev's music "restless and incoherent;" so there is at least a possibility that Knox himself never listened to Prokofiev very much, if at all! He simply needed to pull a name out of a hat for a contemporary composer and came up with a composer who had been dead for some time (Prokofiev died in 1953 at almost the same time as Joseph Stalin) when he wrote that footnote. Perhaps the study of moral philosophy has an interpretation of "contemporary" that I have never really grasped!

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