In the fake news era, truth has been lost, one might think, it has been demounted of its throne. But did it ever exist in the first place? Will it ever exist? Can we ever know it? Probably not. Yet, humanity is pretty good at creating proto-truths that may even do more for the endeavour of enlightenment than any logical thought construct or empiricist enterprise ever will. E&M contributor Hendrik Steinort reflects on the relationship between humanism, truth, and, the spirit of classical music. 

There is no clear date to pinpoint when a lifelong, albeit difficult passion overcame the celebrated Nobel Literate and exilant. For Mann, thinking of Richard Wagner was to think in no small terms of the Nazi thugs that celebrated Wagner for virtues that he could not accept. Were they not the same virtues that propelled him into exile and a whole nation into an abyss? But with all things Wagner, how negligible and almost unreal the physical presence and character seemed in comparison with the magnitude of the spirit it encased. Artistic brilliance, most often than not, seems to emerge amidst the plate tectonics of consciousness through a medium that constitutes a vulcanic valve for unconscious creativity. But is this enough to absolve us from his spell? 

The sublime is a human condition. © the author, photograph of a Painting by von Menzel.

Was Mann enchanted by something that was inherently contrary to everything his arguably noble persona stood for? But what about his feeling that after listening to Wagner’s oeuvre, most other music seemed severely lacking; it was Thomas Mann who retold the story that in the aftermath of one thunderous performance of Tristan and Isolde, a befriended conductor said to him on their way home: “This is no longer music”. Or as Zizek and Mladen Dolar would put it in a naive and direct way, ‘what if Tristan and Parsifal simply and effectively are (from a certain standpoint at least) the two single greatest works of art in the history of mankind?’ And how can we possibly understand the ambiguity presented in Leonard Bernstein’s dictum, that he hated Wagner, but he hated Wagner on his knees? What did these men mean by it and why was their feeling so close to his and that of so many others?

Hitler was said to have had a tear in his eye while listening to Lohengrin and Stalin was obsessed with Mozart. What about it when the epitomisations of evil, the totalitarians and those just among humans, the Kiddush Hashem, weep at the same cord? How can we understand the violent emotions, sweeping over in both directions, when Daniel Barenboim, to the shock of the historical consciousness of a whole nation in 2001 decided to play Tristan and Isolde in Jerusalem, the first of those performances ever. Maybe these examples serve as a reminder concerning human ambiguities in today’s violent discussions. What does music teach us amidst this? To demand our common humanity in the human to prevail as an imperative in music. Music that emerges out of and is not outside of its commonality with the human. 

An exercise in imagination

Imagine the late second Millenium 17-19. century genius-level-version of tilt brush. Now add onto that 2012’s peak artificial intelligence that is learning all the chess games of the previous decade and playing against that AI at the same time in 3 different matches. Now take a small breath and rotate these thoughts in a four-dimensional continuous cultural space that extends beyond 500 b.c., right down to mammoth tusk flutes, shaped by Homo Neanderthalensis. Now let yourself be reminded by the hybrid narrative voice, constituted of you and me, that we are yet at the beginning of this exercise. Now lend your belief to the ideational gravity idea of accumulated heaps of high culture throughout time. Just stay silent for a bit. High culture, let that sink in. 

Now estimate the depth of this idea – we are Jules Vernian in our topography of knowledge and as of now ventured merely to the Marianna Trench of Renaissance thinking, scratching on the surface of the earth’s crust. And even here we are being modest with words concerning the task at hand, even unwillingly humble in our imagination. 

Now woodwork on the tree of life and get rid of all religion but the spiritual sappling of it all, unmediated, undistorted, the holy of holiest, human marvel, human wonder. And here we are yet in posture, bowed down deeply, devoid of adequate words for that what is at hand to be considered, to be granted access to the seriousness of the truth of classical music. 


“Magnificent interpretation of this bewitching music that touches me very deeply. The cello is sublime, like a human voice. I listen carefully … and the journey begins. The mystery of the aesthetic emotion in beauty without a – why-. Thank you my dear artists”. Youtube comment under Rostropovich’s performance of Arpeggione Sonate. © the author, screenshot YT.

And yes, I am advocating listening in contrast to hearing, listening is a skill that needs to be refined over a lifetime, you need to put effort into it, whoever says she heard a beautiful sound, should go back to the beginning. I am advocating a seriousness in listening. I am advocating to start screaming and violently pressing your palms against your ears if you are caught in an elevator and Vivaldi’s four seasons pours out of the speakers. 

You wouldn’t read without thinking, would you?. As at times, there is a mind behind seeing, we need a mind behind listening. To understand this is to grant Music its dignity as a necessary, organic feature of broad education and serious encounter with the world. And most of all, this dignity can be extended onto human dialogue. It is hard to doubt the profound and moving sincerity of human dialogue in music and its wider repercussions for all of us. Once we come to appreciate the delicate communication by other means between, say, Rostropovich and Britten while playing Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonate or between esteemed musicians playing Schubert’s Trio op. 100, this pure ludens in the true sense, play, grounds music in total recognition of the other, providing in the shadow of our ears a superconductivity of harmony.

What constitutes thus the global Archmedian point of leverage from which to lift Atlas off his task of bearing the weight of our collective conditio humana? Music. 

And let us not forget the healing message that such universal representation of each and every one by music entails, what lesson it provides for our human interactions: to overcome the manner in which individual ressentiment purports to be universally valid and thus true – rather than looking at the dynamic of a universal human tragedy manifesting itself in individual existences. As proto-individuals we often give subjectively birth to an ethics of ‘right reasons’, rather than looking at a morality of universal causes. The eternal recurrence that is being lamented by Nietzsche, the de-individualisation in the societal subsumption by the trajectory of the world and its thus inherent harmonylessness, are sublimated in the concept of musical wisdom. Wisdom, as in the hero-figure of Buddha, is a synthesis between successful individuation and its alignment to a society with an ethics of ultimate means. This ethics of ultimate means is an ethics that ultimately grounds any such co-individuation in our common humanity. Since truth can not be won by too many lies, people who failed in their own attempt at individuation cannot purport to have a say in moral issues that ultimately affect the other and thus society at large. Music can function as a palimpsest onto which human progress inscribes itself and continuously strives to be ever more refined. 

Classical Music is an onomatopoeia of human existence. Painting by Joseph Karl Stieler (ca. 1820) showing Beethoven at work on the Missa solemnis. ©No copyright.

And not just any music. Great Classical Music is an onomatopoeia of human existence. For Classical Music alone is capable of achieving harmony that is not illusion, but wisdom. Take Schiller’s and Beethoven’s supreme achievement, the Ninth Symphony. Schiller’s secular attempt at explaining away the need for the contribution of divinity in human excellence by proposing Götterfunken (sparkles of the divine) in all of us as constituting individual acts of heroism (human-> hero -> god wisdom) is itself an act of heroism. When Schiller writes: “It is through beauty that we arrive at freedom.”, we are not looking at a spectacular, decontextualised quote, but rather we are looking at the promise of an educational project of unprecedented scale, a project so revolutionary, that no revolutionary energy of the past would suffice to even elaborate on the fundament of this Promethean project.

But why Schiller and why an excerpt of his Ode to Joy? Because Beethoven created an impossible feat, not by creating it while being deaf or in poor health, but by being the midwife of an act of heroism, that of the ‘Ninth’, that is being born out of another act of heroism, Schiller’s poem. And here I am out in the open with this outrageous claim: Beethoven’s 9th is humanism written in sound. 

Music as sound in divine script

The human condition is sublime. Missa Solemnis celebrations at the Berliner Dom. © the author

By listening to Beethoven’s other much-lauded but less popular work, Missa Solemnis, another depth to the human condition is ready to be unveiled. Missa Solemnis is a human testimony, an emotional biography that is sense-giving. You will suffer in agony, be forced to smile, be shaken, awe-struck, terrified to the core, and yet redeemed by the sublime. Missa Solemnis is an incubator, an elevator pitch to the human condition. 

Missa Solemnis, not one angel speaking to Mohammed, not one jesaic prayer, not a single flaming bush, but a football stadium of angels with a thousand orchestra magicians preaching atop a hill and a flaming inferno of immense spiritual heat. Add a little bit of Mary-J and the greatest fear beyond the sublime quality of the performance itself is the recognition that even you, you proud non-believer, you leftover magic dust of the disenchanted world, are awe-struck in terror before the spiritual truth of this work. (No wonder then that ISIS’s so-called Caliph Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi prohibited ex-cathedra all music in general, but Western Music in particular.) My god, the only thing that saved me from religious madness, from becoming a Christian ex nihilo was a single albeit important fact: 

Beethoven, day and night, for four years of applying his undoubtable genius and I mean genius, archetype level genius, was struggling with this most intimate thought: ‘what is my own and personal concept of god?’ 

Imagine a genius-level concept of god, communicated through a medium that is able to rely on human language and tradition and push it to its limits, while at the same time overcoming it by leaning into nature’s innermost echo: music. The totality of the work served to remind of one more redeeming feature of music: the symmetry between truth, even truth that hurts at times, and beauty, a beauty that in its sublimation shines forth and emanates from the totality. 

And there throughout the performance, this intimate thought of Beethoven, his most intimate thought, stretched over hours and transubstantiated into sound, totally overwhelmed me and I was ridiculously, childlike happy to realise that I have not become a Christian, but I got drawn into the mystical vortex of this ecstatic performance and came to feel the truth of Beethoven’s personal conception of God. He invited me in the year of his 250th birthday, to glimpse for a deep deep moment into his beautiful mind. Beauty is truth and truth is beauty. And how beautiful is the beauty that is true?

BTHVN’s 250’s birthday. ‘Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani’. At the Centro Cultural de Belém. © the author

Let me put it plainly, when people say that concert halls are like churches, they don’t get it:  people go to church by societal convention, but they go to listen to the universal validity of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to smoke their DMT. The universal alludes to the underlying melody of humankind, a melody, despite the presence of existential strife, to be sung atop the gloomy D-major. There is no other human art form in which the transcendent is as accessible, as universally available.

And let us put this even more succinctively: for which human act would you in all your frankness and honesty stand in and clap with an immense and magically prolonged sense of gratitude for countless minutes, caught by the storms of ecstatic celebration around you, reminded of the absolute coherence of a magical feeling, shared deeply by all of those that surround you, rightly animated by this sense of oneness anew and anew in the most simple way:  by when honesty gives wings to happiness and its communal experience to harmony. 

In a world where truth is rare, such as ours, we can find condolence in the fact that Beauty is a sibling of Truth.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

  • retro

    Hendrik Steinort, a political philosopher by mind and a contrarian by heart. Born and raised on the post-glacial landscape of Schleswig-Holstein, edged between a fjord and the Baltic Sea. Hendrik is a sworn nemesis to Ms, Mr & X ressentiment. Cultural relativist, cosmopolitan, lover of [all] ideas (lefthegelian), living in Berlin in the house of being. Binge beast, gangsta-rap admirer, Delphi tripper and proto-philosopher. Accompany me: Inst. hendrik_steinort, fire_creek.

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