Philosophers-Composers


As much as these sorts of topics smack of Graham Harman sensibility (“Philosophers Who Were Also Lovers of Tea: The List” or “The Most Underrated Philosopher of Lower Bavaria” etc etc), I was listening to some music by Nietzsche (info below) and it occurred to me that I know of several philosophers who also happened to be composers. By “philosophers” here I mean “known primarily as philosophers” and I exclude all the composers who might be considered as philosophically inclined. Here’s my very short list:

1) RousseauLe devin du village (opera)

2) Nietzsche – all sorts of music:

3) Adorno – piano music, string quartet pieces, and more.

Who am I missing?

14 thoughts on “Philosophers-Composers

  1. Bravo! I didn’t know any of this, and ought to be ashamed.

    As for Harman, I remember his most amusing preference for the ‘gentler’ part of ‘Die Walkure’, and a few months ago there were some perfectly ridiculous utterances of Zizek about ‘music appreciation’, Mladen Dolar, and other emulsions…the latter was worse than the Harman, I’m sorry to inform you, insofar as we are literally told by the great Slovenian pop-philosophe (who is clearly not a composer, even if he was also not musically inclined), that we must not appreciate Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as much as his lesser-known works, as though the fame of a piece made it somehow not the province of what turns out to be mere paltry would-be connoisseurs who truly, in this case, do not know what the fuck they’re talking about. It is as if, of course, we must realize that we must not pay much attention to ‘Hamlet’, since most believe it to be Shakespeare’s most famous play, since there are moments of genius in the Sonnets Of course there are, we know that, but this is to point to the tastes of those who are doing it like ‘wine-tasting’. Most of the time I just intuit what I think about Zizek from people who are in the profession, but don’t ‘know for sure’. This account of Zizek’s ideas on music appreciation was so crude I couldn’t believe it! And he points to Mladen Dolar’s love of Schubert’s Hunting Songs, which I don’t know but may well be wonderful or not (I don’t love all Schubert, he is capable of being quite insipid, I remember 2nd themes of sonatas I played that you’d have never caught Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven coming up with, although the G Major Sonata is pretty incredible. The whole point is that the more obscure the piece, the more subtle your connoisseurship is going to be (and also ‘the more it’s going to be appreciated and approved my professional musicians? Hardly. I never heard anything so ridiculous in my fucking life! I thought, if anything, Zizek was shrewder than that, that he would know how silly this made him look, trying to ‘appreciate the obscure, small masterpiece’. Oh my fucking god, I couldn’t believe it.)

    This is quite thrilling you’ve brought this to our attention, and I would imagine that the Greek philosophers all played and composed, the Romans as well, but we don’t have any of that extant. Or do we have accounts of philosophers playing music, even though ‘the composer’ was not quite the same kind of entity, of course, as he became.

    I’m going to think this through, and see if I come up with any more. This is quite an original post, and not at all like the shit I’m used to in the blogosphere. I have to applaud your knowledge and love of music, and still have not gotten around to that lady composer you mentioned a little while back. I’ll also pull up some of the Partch pieces, the most famous is ‘Cloud Chamber Music’, this might be a bit ‘too California for you’, he was more along the lines of Cowell and Cage,perhaps, to speak very loosely. I never think of Partch as being individual pieces, because they all have his singular sound, which is due to building all those instruments with microtones.

    And we do know, of course, that, as Professor Higgins would say, ‘that DREADFUL SLOVENIAN’ does, in his heart of hearts, love ‘The Sound of Music’, now wasn’t that noble of him to admit it?

    • Thanks! I do remember that Zizek piece on Beethoven, but I tend to ignore philosophical musings on music unless it’s Adorno (I haven’t read much interesting stuff, well, I guess since Nietzsche etc etc). Rousseau’s opera is quite toe-tapping, I played a bit in class to give students a taste and the overture’s tunes got stuck in my head for at least a week. It was actually very successful and stayed in theaters for a long time. Nietzsche’s music is great as well (there are at least 4-5 records out there). Adorno’s stuff’s of course very “modern” but also quite good.

      I think Cicero was writing music but I might be wrong – I will look into it tomorrow.

      • Somewhat peripheral to this discussion, but I’m almost certain that Archie Shepp has a doctorate in philosophy. I will have to check. Great post.

      • Moses and his son Felix Mendelssohn. And the granddaughter of JL Austin, she played in the band at my high school. (According to her, no independent verification . . . )

      • I take Moses + Felix (I think Felix was Moses’s grandson though), but I’m hesitating vis-a-vis this self-proclaimed granddaughter of JL Austin (although it’s hard to imagine someone going around introducing themselves as such and that being a lie).

  2. Secondary associations: would that include Stanley Cavell, since he studied music composition at Berkeley? Or would this be a tertiary association? (I’m not aware of any musical compositions that he’s written, but music definitely figures into his work.)

  3. Vincenzo Galilei, father of natural philosopher Galileo Galilei, was an “Italian lutenist, composer, and music theorist.”

    George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was reportedly a composer and a philosopher.

  4. Thanks for the links. I had no idea Rous. or Adorno had composed music altho I should have realized with with Adorno considering he seems rather attuned to music in a very real sense. It may be a bit different (and I may also be revealing my prole tastes here), but kode9 is a dubstep producer who has a PhD in Philosophy from Warwick. His book is worth a read too: Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Dubstep generally has a weird following among philosophers/academics as a rule and I have found my own haphazard foray into the world quite amenable for that reason.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kode9

    • Thanks for the reference, Paul. I’m sure there are many more interconnections between philosophers and musicians these days. If you get a chance to read Adorno-Alban Berg letters (it’s a small book in English), it’s kind interesting to see that Adorno’s professional ambitions early on were to become a composer. His “Philosophy of New Music” and books on Wagner, Mahler, and Berg are classics of the genre.

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