“We hear only ourselves.”
Recently, I’ve been re-reading some of the essays specifically devoted to music by the little-known German philosopher and man of letters Ernst Bloch (1885–1977). Don’t confuse him with Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), the Swiss-born American composer known among other things for his cello concerto “Schelomo—Rhapsodie Hébraïque pour Violoncelle solo et Grand Orchestre.”
“Invention triumphs over contrivance time after time.”
Why am I re-reading Bloch, you ask? First, I am a big re-reader, a source of some sorrow, as I realize that I may never get to some important works for the first time because of my necessity to revisit some other works for the “xx” time.
“With all music it is important to heed the expression which is only added to the written notes through the act of singing them, through a violin section’s bowing, a pianist’s attack, but above all through that creative practice without which neither dynamics nor rhythm could be tackled in the way the composer intended.”
Second, I really believe in the importance of reading philosophy, particularly regarding aesthetics, no matter how obscure, contradictory, messy, infuriating, elevating, or (irr-)relevant. It stimulates us to think beyond comfortable habits and temporarily adopt the mental clothing of another human being.
“Just what do I seek when I hear something? I am seeking, when I listen, to grow richer and greater in content. But I shall receive nothing if I join in by merely sitting back and relaxing. I shall receive it only by fetching it myself, going further, in terms of content, beyond passive enjoyment.”
You’re reading philosophy already, wasn’t that easy?
Bloch, usually grouped with other Marxist thinkers, had much to say about music and its moral mission in human life. He was a “Utopian,” believing in the perfectability of society. This must have been especially difficult in light of his forced emigration from Germany to the U.S. in 1938 because he was Jewish.
“The ear perceives more than can be explained conceptually. In other words, we sense everything and know exactly where we are, but when it is transferred to the intellect, the light burning in our hearts will go out.”
He knew most of the important German composers and music theorists of his time, lending a decidedly German focus to the examples he cites. Don’t look here for insights into the innovations of Debussy or Stravinsky. What he does provide is an extremely idealistic history of music’s origins and development, full of original insights.
You’ll also find theoretical speculations on harmony, rhythm, the relation of music and mathematics, instruments and their significance, the human voice, a fresh concern with the difference between the “expressive” and “descriptive” functions of music (his distinction, not mine), and.a view of music as the ultimate “prophetic” art.
“Music is so completely the guarantee of the beyond, a song of consolation, Death’s enchantment, a yearning and our own arriving simultaneously. It is a nocturnal flower of faith which gives strength in the ultimate dark, and the most powerfully transcendent certainty between heaven and earth.”
I am reading these excerpts in an English translation. My German is way too elementary for the densely ornate vocabulary used and invented by Bloch. I always tell people “I speak art-song German.”
“Happy the person who can simply beat time along with the music. But unfortunately, people also attach to it fondly cherished feelings of which the musical work knows nothing.”
I think the best way to introduce Bloch is with a few of my favorite quotes from his essays, lightly annotated, then ask what they mean to you.
The basic musical world -view of Bloch is summed up in one sentence: “We hear only ourselves.” This is actually a whole paragraph as well, as if he intends the large idea to sink in fully before proceeding.
The next sentence/paragraph is “For we gradually become blind to the outside world.” This is particularly poignant, as Bloch had lifelong difficulty seeing, eventually succumbing to blindness.
And the third sentence: “Whatever we shape leads back around ourselves again.” No mere navel-gazing, this is a marvelous, succinct description of artistic expression.
“One can be a diligent musician and still fail to produce anything vital, because a mere craftsman will be baffled by precisely that which makes technique worthwhile in the first place.” How many of us can think of a composer who “keeps writing,” as I put it, while waiting for ideas?
“All we hear is ourselves. Admittedly, this sound has always been quite faint. Many would find hearing easier if they knew how to talk about it.” Particularly these days, we have such a large vocabulary for describing visual arts and phenomena. One example I often return to is that there’s no audio equivalent for the one-word “envision” (to see something in the mind). Anyone want to coin a word?
“We must bring ourselves to the process. So much depends on the note we have struck. What it contains of the actual person singing, and thus what quality the singer or player ‘puts into’ the note, is more important than what than what his song contains purely in terms of note values.” Yes, interpretation!
“The essence of a born conductor,” (substitute any instrumentalist for ‘conductor’) “is to remain open to suggestion until the music suddenly plays of its own accord.”
“ . . . a star of anticipation and a song of consolation on the homeward journey through darkness . . . “ Philosophy can be poetic too.
“The reality of modulation is the actual miraculous element which dwells in the interior spirit.” You’ll never think about two chords in succession quite the same way.
“ . . . the hour of eloquence through music, understood as visionary hearing.” (emphasis mine)
© 2009 Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
Essays on the Philosophy of Music, Ernst Bloch
Translated by Peter Palmer, with an Introduction by David Drew
© 1985 Cambridge University Press
Beulah Cox says
Truly extraordinary quotes! Thank you!
Martha S. says
You’re right, I can’t come up with a single word that is the aural equivalent of “envision”(…hear it in your head…hmm).
Along those lines, your quote, “The ear perceives more than can be explained conceptually,” is roughly the aural equivalent of “a picture is worth a thousand words,” n’est-ce pas?
I love the idea of remaining “open to suggestion until the music suddenly plays of its own accord.” What a wonderful goal!
Thanks for the food for thought!