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?