Tone-deaf vs. Musicophilic Intellectuals

Sigmund Freud not only founded psychoanalysis, he found the time to write and publish some twenty-odd volumes of prose encyclopedically covering the human condition, works of sufficient literary dimensions that Harold Bloom cites them in his Western Canon. Yet famously or infamously, Freud, who birthed psychoanalysis in that most Mahlerianly musical of atmospheres, fin-de-siècle Vienna, never penned a note about music. Furthermore, writes Oliver Sacks in his recent book Musicophilia, Freud “never listened to music voluntarily or for pleasure….He would rarely and reluctantly let himself be dragged to an opera (and then only a Mozart one)….Freud’s nephew Harry…wrote that Freud ‘despised’ music….” Sacks cites William James as another eminent psychologist who, though writing about every aspect of human behavior, also never wrote about music—nor did his brother, the poet and novelist Henry James. Freud wrote about Leonardo da Vinci and other great artists with, well, Freudian discernment. But how can one be recognized as a universal authority on human psychology with such a gaping lacuna for music?

Freud and the James brothers were, arguably, “tone-deaf”—unresponsive and indifferent to even the music they were exposed to. On the other hand, William F. Buckley, the conservative icon who died last week, was a passionate music enthusiast. He played the harpsichord well and listened to a concert pianist friend play a recital in his home the very night before he died.

The cornerstone of what we call liberal arts education in modern times was the medieval church’s syllabus of the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium was grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Out of this came a dozen centuries of western education in which exposure to music (originally liturgical, then later, secular) was considered part of what made a person well-rounded. As recently as a hundred or so years ago in America, it was common for intellectuals to embrace and extol classical music; among those who did were Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and H. L. Mencken. But nowadays, except for a few “crossover” phenomena like the drama and theater critic John Simon who also writes extensively about music, there is little traffic among intellectuals with classical music, though much with popular music.

There has always been a divide among intellectuals between those who have a taste for music and those who don’t. One could argue that this isn’t any different than the divide between writers who like painting and writers who don’t, but in his book Oliver Sacks disagrees from a psycho-neurological point of view. He feels that the human brain—even the ostensibly tone-deaf one—is profoundly wired for musical perception. Yet there are intellectuals who disdain music and others who love it, and the dichotomy does not trace political lines. While William F. Buckley was a music lover, so was Clifford Odets, the Group Theater playwright and notable leftist (in his younger days), not to speak of Adorno and Walter Benjamin, two intellectuals who frequently are referenced by NMBx posters. Thomas Mann is the gold standard among novelists writing about music, but Vladimir Nabokov was unmusical and disdained music. Proust was extremely musical, wrote about it much, and had an involvement with Reynaldo Hahn; James Joyce was a gifted tenor who came in second to John McCormack in a singing competition. John Updike and Tom Wolfe have written knowledgeably about the visual arts but nary a word about music.

Among early American statesmen, the polymath Benjamin Franklin was also a musician. He played the harp and guitar, designed an improved glass harmonica, wrote about music, and may even have composed. Among presidents, Thomas Jefferson, another polymath, was a capable violinist. In the 20th century, Harry Truman was a notable classical music listener; when queried by an interviewer whether “The Missouri Waltz” was indeed his favorite piece, Truman replied, no, his favorite “number” was Chopin’s Ab Waltz Op. 42. Jimmy Carter impressed invited guest Vladimir Horowitz with his knowledge of the repertoire.

Until recently in anti-intellectual circles in America (but not in Europe) it was considered fey (“sissy” was the word, now un-PC) for men to like classical music. Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. is an interesting case in point. This iconic dynasty founder and super-macho business tycoon majored in music appreciation at Harvard. He maintained a fondness for Beethoven and Brahms well into his adult years but was afraid he would seem too effete if he openly displayed this, so he listened to his 78 rpm records late at night in the privacy of his study. Yet contrast this with Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy in which a would-be concert violinist decides to become a boxer. That was the iconography in the 1930s. Could one even imagine a Mike Tyson doubling as a violinist today?

Today it is possible for a writer to be cool and be on either side of the fence. Humorist Dave Barry is an out-and-out rock music lover and classical music basher, while humorist Joe Queenan, while a basher of many sacred cows, extols classical music. This divide will always exist. De gustibus non est disputandem.

To turn the question on its side: How many composers were intellectuals, too? What’s your list?

16 thoughts on “Tone-deaf vs. Musicophilic Intellectuals

  1. CM Zimmermann

    Is it not the case that framing this discussion in terms of ‘taste’ precludes making normative claims about music and its cultural and intellectual importance (or lack thereof)?

    Without mentioning philosophers who write exclusively on music, here are some other thinkers upon whom music has had particular influence: Edward Said, Umberto Eco, Jacques Attali, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Ezra Pound…. let’s not forget Nietzsche….

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  2. rtanaka

    Edward Said, Umberto Eco, Jacques Attali, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Ezra Pound…. let’s not forget Nietzsche….

    Not really a fan of the continental lineage myself, but I think music tends to correlate closer to those lines of thought because the philosophical writing done in those styles tends to be more being poetic. (As opposed to the analytics, who strove for logic and clarity in their works). Your list has a lot of stuff from and influenced from the French, oddly enough, but it’s become very popular in academic settings in the States, it seems. There emphasis on subjectivity tends to be very strong in those philosophers, which tends to resonate with the abstract nature of music, I think.

    John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Schumann, Boulez, Stockhausen.

    Not sure of Schumann, but I have my doubts about if the high-modernists really understood their ideas in terms of a coherent philosophical content. I mean, if you talk to people who study philosophy for a living, you won’t find any of those names on any “to study” list, because whatever they said or did is probably better articulated by someone else who specialized in formulating ideas in words. It might just be a result of over-specialization, though. I see a lot of parallels, but not much cross-overs.

    You could say, though, that the experimental lineage is a type of exemplification of existentialism (usually of the continental stream), while the integral serialists were carrying out the ideas of the logical positivists of the analytic stream. Existentialism seems to be still hanging around, but at this point positivism is largely dead, as with strict serialism. In a historical sense, I think it makes sense why things come into being during their respective periods in history.

    I’m glad Mark brought this topic up, because if you look at the lineage of other fields of study, it’s clear that many of them don’t particularly need classical music to survive. (It’s certainly the case with most people I meet.) Maybe it’s a sign that we probably shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously, or maybe it’s time for a change of approach?

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  3. kontrabass47

    John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Schumann, Boulez, Stockhausen. Composers are always broadening their horizons, it is strange that thinkers from other disciplines seem so cold with regards to music.
    -jon crane

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  4. philmusic

    I think this thread misses an important point, that there are many different and accepted ways to express “intellectualism” in music. For some the “ideas about music” are more important, and for some the “music” comes first and is the point of departure.

    Obviously the results count. I merely speak of approaches.

    Phil Fried

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  5. Chris Becker

    …and I am unclear as to the agreed upon definition of an “intellectual.”

    The majority of creative work that inspires me would probably be defined by posters here with subtly prejudicial terms like “self-taught,” “outsider,” “indigenous,” and/or “lack of pedigree” (and THAT word “pedigree” – ugh – has been used on more than one occasion on this site by its editorial staff). As a creative artist and active composer, I would like to broaden the unspoken definition of “intellect” that seems to be hovering over this thread.

    It would be revealing – too revealing perhaps – to analyze the demographic of the proposed “intellectual” composers offered by Mark and our posters. So far, it’s all white European or US males. I mean…WTF people?

    I actually don’t mean to take anyone to task here – but I was confused by this essay and am glad someone jumped in before me to offer a little bit of perspective on what (I think) the question Mark is offering up to his readers…although, honestly – I’m not sure now if I even understand what question is being put forth here…

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  6. rtanaka

    …and I am unclear as to the agreed upon definition of an “intellectual.”

    The ability to use unnecessarily obscure and long words in order to intimidate or confuse the reader. Haha, j/k (except for some of the French stuff!)

    As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we’re living in a white-male world where white-male ideas are put into use. I think it’s important to learn how the ideas are applied and where it came from historically just so we have an idea of where things might be headed.

    I think that the ideas of Jürgen Habermas, for example, will be important in understanding how globalization will work in the 21st Century. He was a disciple of Adorno and picked up on his dialectical style, but rebelled against him due to the fact that he thought that the Frankfurt School paralyzed themselves with their own skepticism and hatred for modern culture. If you look at how his idea of the Public Sphere works, you’ll see that it’s a nice postmodern blend of all kinds of things — including Marxism, American Pragmatism, and early-Enlightenment values. He’s a secularist but sees value in religion and stresses the importance of being inclusive during any type of discourse. Personally I think this sense of optimism and willingness to communicate and compromise is what will save modernism from itself in the long run.

    So there’s people even within the majority tradition that I think are genuinely making an effort to make the world a better place, so it’s not to be discounted. The reason a lot of “world” philosophies don’t get much publicity because the ideas are embedded socially rather than “owned” by an individual philosopher. So in my upbringing I was brought up with some ideas embedded in Bhuddism, but I can’t really specifically point to a specific person that either “invented” or “discovered” a certain type of idea. It was just always there, influencing me in subtle ways.

    Western society loves its geniuses and heros, and most people tend to be taught to idolize these figures as sort of demi-god entities, regardless if their ideas may be applicable to their own situation or not. So its probably natural that the way we talk about things will be centered around these types of figures. The general feeling I get is that non-Western philosophers don’t tend to care as much about “leaving their legacy” or whatever.

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  7. lawrence

    In addition to noting great thinkers who had no interest in music, Sacks presents a host of examples of people with notable musical talents who were severely incapacitated in many of the brain functions most of us take for granted – simple addition, basic social graces, even recollection of loved ones’ names.

    He also makes a case that a deficit in one area can often lead to a sharpening in other brain functions – evidence that the well-rounded person, or musician, is only one of several viable models.

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  8. Chris Becker

    “As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we’re living in a white-male world where white-male ideas are put into use.”

    But if you’re going to talk about music – be it in the US or wherever, this statement is completely inaccurate.

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  9. rtanaka

    But if you’re going to talk about music – be it in the US or wherever, this statement is completely inaccurate.

    Well in underground cultures, maybe…but I’m assuming we were talking about classical music. I’m sure we all remember William’s rants about the Vienna — it is what it is. The reason why classical music doesn’t fair well in the States is pretty obvious to me — its Eurocentric aesthetic does fit in very well with the diverse climate of the United States. We need to be honest and open about this fact, otherwise I don’t think there’s much hope that things can really be improved.

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  10. Chris Becker

    Okay, hang on. My question is: What exactly is Mark’s question? Perhaps it is clearer to other people reading his essay – but I’m just not sure what he means when he asks “how many composers were intellectuals too?”

    And I brought up the definition of an “intellectual” for debate as it seemed there was some sort of tacit agreement (at least among the three or four people actually reading this thread) as to what an
    “intellectual” was and in turn what an intellectual composer would be. Some of the posts left me scratching my head! I guess I felt left out!

    Onward…I’m gonna stay out of this…

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  11. rtanaka

    It’s a loaded word, for sure. Usually I think of someone who’s highly educated, works with abstract ideas, and committed enough to present their ideas to the public — so composers can easily be part of that category.

    But intelligence is only one part of who someone is…I mean, Buckley was an intellectual but he was also a racist, so that doesn’t bode so well on his character. Leo-Strauss was also an intellectual, but his militant opinions is what lead to the neoconservative movement we have today. So I think in general, intelligence can be fairly over-rated if you’re looking at what might be called the common good — not that being intelligent is bad, but all knowledge really gives you is power, and if power isn’t used responsibly then it can have some pretty dire consequences.

    These days I don’t know if the label means much of anything. I don’t think its all that fashionable to call or be called an “intellectual”, even if you’re an intelligent person. Sounds a bit pretentious, if not redundant.

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  12. CM Zimmermann

    RTanaka,

    This is a minor point in this context, but Jurgen Habermas is in no way a postmodern thinker; he is fully committed to Modernity and the project of the Enlightenment. Have a look at his collection of polemics: ‘Philosophical Discourse of Modernity…’

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  13. MarkNGrant

    Let’s make a U-turn
    What exactly is Mark’s question? Perhaps it is clearer to other people reading his essay – but I’m just not sure what he means when he asks “how many composers were intellectuals too?”

    That is a perfectly reasonable question. My tagline about composers who were also intellectuals in a way actually changes the initial topic, and now I’m sorry to have included and sown the confusion. Although someone like Ernst Krenek could be called a composer who was also an intellectual, by dint of his extensive prose output in addition to his prolific catalog (actually, I recall that Stravinsky himself called Krenek a composer who was an intellectual), the whole issue is too murky because too many composers who have written about their aesthetics could fit the bill, from Wagner to Ives to Cage. A composer who is well published on topics outside music would perhaps be a composer who is also an intellectual (George Antheil? Cyril Scott?). But drop it, I should have left that to another essay; more the question here was the original premise: Why is it that some intellectuals who are so sensitive to art and creativity in other realms are tone-deaf, whereas others are not?

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  14. rtanaka

    This is a minor point in this context, but Jurgen Habermas is in no way a postmodern thinker; he is fully committed to Modernity and the project of the Enlightenment. Have a look at his collection of polemics: ‘Philosophical Discourse of Modernity…’

    Yeah, I think you’re right. He’s still of the generation from the Frankfurt school….very old school! But he did rebel against his predecessors (Adorno, for one) and his approach is very eclectic, though, so maybe I conflated him with the rest of the postmodernists. But I think his works address and synthesize the major streams of Western philosophy during the 20th century — 1) Marxism, 2) Critical Theory, 3) Analytical Philosophy, and 4) American Pragmatism. He’s a Western thinker, but he knows it and he does it well, stressing the positive aspects of society. It’s refreshing compared to a lot of doom-and-gloom scenarios of his predecessors, anyway. :o

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  15. rtanaka

    Why is it that some intellectuals who are so sensitive to art and creativity in other realms are tone-deaf, whereas others are not?

    I’ve always kind of used music as kind of a metaphor for how the world works, and obviously its very important to me. But in talking to people outside of music, it seems like not everyone is predisposed towards this way of thinking. How we do it just so happens to be how we do it. I think its sort of dangerous to assume that a lack of appreciation in music automatically means a lack in intellectual functionality. Hell, I’m a big fan of John Dewey, but even he was one of the tone-deaf ones.

    Reply

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