Review of the Symposium “Was ist Musikphilosophie?”


Review by Julia Freund (University of Giessen)

On 23 and 24 November 2019, the so-called “Probesaal” of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig (HMT) turned into a vibrant hub of musico-philosophical discussions, with 15 talks in plenary sessions, linked by a continuous exchange of thoughts, questions and hypotheses that stretched well into the breaks and evenings. And still, time always seemed too short to satisfy the need for debate and dialogue.

But first, a quick note on an issue of translation: As far as I know, there is no English equivalent to the German compound word Musikphilosophie. Some make use of it as a synonym for “philosophy of music” (Philosophie der Musik), denoting a subdiscipline of philosophy among other philosophies of art, or, more general, among the philosophy of mind, moral philosophy etc. At the same time, it may well be rooted in a musicologist’s self-conception – anticipating a phrasing by Matthias Vogel (see below) – to think with philosophical means about music, and “Musikphilosophie” is indeed listed on CVs and research profiles of musicologists as an interest and focus of study. To mark this ambivalent usage and fluctuating affiliation, I will continue using the German term in what follows.

Vaguely speaking, Musikphilosophie can be located somewhere between music studies and philosophy. To map this area and to take stock of recent musico-philosophical research, its questions and perspectives, the two symposium organisers WOLFGANG FUHRMANN (Leipzig University) and CLAUS-STEFFEN MAHNKOPF (HMT Leipzig) invited philosophers (in a slight majority) and music researchers to respond to and tackle the question at hand: What is Musikphilosophie?

WOLFGANG FUHRMANN (Leipzig University) opened the first conference day by exploring the relationship between Musikphilosophie and musicology. The former, striving for insights that are theoretical in nature into a subject area that is culturally contingent, may highly profit from musicology, says Fuhrmann. Confronted with the diversity and plurality of musical phenomena by musicological research, philosophers may be encouraged to leave behind their own sociocultural imprints and thus avoid the risk of these imprints becoming the sole basis for an articulation of the philosophy of music. As for Musikphilosophie’s contribution to musicological discourses, Fuhrmann sees the chance for both disciplines to collaborate in constructing a notion of music that is viable and flexible enough to grasp music as text and practice. A multidimensional concept of music may help musicology in its current “crisis” (that is, here, the lack of consensus about musicology’s objects and methods), Fuhrmann continues, before sketching such a concept in the second part of his talk.

KATRIN EGGERS (Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media) took a different approach. Not explicitly verbalising her stand on Musikphilosophie and its objectives, she offered an example of musicological research that reflects upon the conditions of how knowledge about music is visually generated. Drawing on Sybille Krämer’s research on diagrams and “operational iconicity” (operative Bildlichkeit), she analysed diagrammatic depictions from musico-theoretical writings, such as Johann David Heinichen’s circle of fifths or Leonard Euler’s and Hugo Riemann’s Tonnetz. While, as operative images, they demonstrate triadic relationships and chart the harmonic terrain of music, they also tend to objectify what they represent (including the corresponding preconceptions), with consequences for our listening experiences, as Eggers states, pointing out that these images are far from being aesthetically neutral.

MATTHIAS VOGEL (University of Giessen), who more than once impressed with his sharp comments during discussions, wove his answer to the question of what Musikphilosophie is into his project of devising a theory of the form of understanding (Verstehen) specific to musical practices. As Vogel explains, we understand music through reenacting (nachvollziehen) its properties, its meaning (Sinn), and not by deciphering its contents or its inscribed subjective and expressive acts (being peripheral, if at all). After a multi-step line of argument, he concluded by describing Musikphilosophie as the “endeavour to think with philosophical means about those practices in which sound configurations have the function to be understood in a way that recipients may grasp their meaning in their experience.”[1] When asked in the follow-up discussion whether a Musikphilosophie that is conceptualised in such a way can grant new insights into individual pieces of music, Vogel responded with a clear “no”. Coming from a Kantian tradition of aesthetics of reception, he remarked that philosophy should keep a humble distance to the description of specific phenomena.

THOMAS DWORSCHAK (Leipzig University) proposed to make distinctions within the notion of musical “meaning” (again: Sinn) so that it is capable of grasping music as a cultural and a “natural” phenomenon. Our understanding of music, says Dworschak, is directed towards different aspects, which he aimed to capture within a multi-layered model, juxtaposing categories from Adorno’s Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (mensural – idiomatic – neumic), Albrecht Wellmer’s Versuch über Musik und Sprache (analysis – hermeneutics – “sensual-corporal understanding”) and Helmuth Plessner’s Einheit der Sinne (schematic – syntagmatic – thematic).

Against the backdrop of the persona theory, JÜRGEN STOLZENBERG (Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg) put forth the assumption of a musical subject. Building on the usage of the term in phrases like “compositorial subject” (Th. W. Adorno), “symphonic subject” (H. Danuser) or “imaginary subject” (C. Dahlhaus), Stolzenberg suggested that we should take the concept of musical subjectivity as the basis for the expressive qualities, meaningful structures and aesthetic unity of musical pieces. In contrast to the objectification he sees in the persona theory, Stolzenberg conceives of musical subjectivity as a function, as a heuristic principle, which he exemplified by interpreting the cadence T-S-D-T as a coherent, self-reflective structure. Finally, he entrusted musicology with the task of laying out different types of subjectivity within music and its history.

Whereas Stolzenberg looked into subjectivity as an encompassing principle, TOBIAS JANZ (University of Bonn) was interested in its dialectic tension to the category of normativity, and he turned his attention to historical constellations in which subjectivity becomes normative, or, the other way around, normativity is subjectivised. This mediatedness was exemplified by the 50 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli (not the ones by Beethoven): here, subjectivity represents a norm, and it exists in a collective form, Janz explains, while tracing subjective gestures in the variation by Franz Jakob Freystädtler (var. 9).

Stating that philosophy – not always in line with reality – tends towards generalisations and essentialisations, CHRISTIAN GRÜNY (Witten/Herdecke University) called for a Musikphilosophie that is anti-essentialist and open to irritations by historical and cultural disparities. In a deliberately provocative proclamation, Grüny asked whether we are in an age of “post-music”, drawing attention to the fact that concepts of music always establish an order of centre and periphery. In the discourse on what music is, essentialisations are values in disguise, Grüny says. Nevertheless, he sees Musikphilosophie, though not exclusively, as work on the concept of music (Arbeit am Musikbegriff), which has to take into consideration, among other things, investigations into music as a basic form of human articulation (the “pre-musical”) as well as the erosion of boundaries between the different arts within contemporary musical practices.

In a notable contrast to Grüny’s appeal, GUNNAR HINDRICHS (University of Basel) took a stand for the concept of musical works. He characterised musical “beings” as autonomous entities that are beyond the sphere of capitalistic exploitation. Drawing on the Kantian differentiation of judgements, Hindrichs based his musical ontology on the disposition of aesthetic judgements: We listen to musical sound according to its own laws. In the discussion that followed, the paradigm of musical autonomy was – once again[2]– met with resistance. While this would probably have gone beyond the scope of the conference, in my view, it might have been beneficial to explore in a joint effort and away from universal claims, which aspects of Hindrichs’s insights can be adapted in what way to illuminate music’s potential to evoke a particular attention and attitude that indeed differs from other (say, consumption-oriented or scientific) perspectives on objects, or to illuminate how musical works are dynamically constituted within aesthetic experiences.

The second day of the conference was initiated by CLAUS-STEFFEN MAHNKOPF (HMT Leipzig). Deviating from the original announcement, Mahnkopf did not speak about Musikphilosophie’s significance for compositorial work, which would have been an interesting addition to the symposium’s programme. Instead, he focused on the much-debated question whether and to what extent music can be considered a language. Outlining the differences as well as the common ground, Mahnkopf emphasised music’s similarity to language, their structural isomorphism (as music’s mimesis of language).

CHRISTOPH TÜRCKE (University of Leipzig) examined music as a cultural practice and sheltered space in which shocks (Erschütterungen) can be experienced (not without reference to the principle of catharsis). Looking into the genre of passion music, Türcke demonstrated how a painful scream can be transformed into forgiving sounds. In the end he argued that, having abandoned major-minor tonality, passion music has lost such a “safe space” and is currently in the state of migration.

In her talk entitled “Musikphilosophie and language aesthetics”, GABRIELE GEML (University of Vienna) raised the intriguing question of how music has affected philosophy in its articulation. As an introduction, she pointed out that Adorno’s title choices such as “Musical Writings” – as opposed to “Writings on Music” – or “Aesthetic Theory” reveal a mutual adaptation of both realms, music and philosophy. (And apparently, Adorno originally intended to publish his “Notes to Literature” as “Words without Songs”.) Geml set out to bring to light those musical/philosophical convergences by exploring the language of Rousseau, Nietzsche and Adorno, hinting at rhetorical intensifications, sonic figurations and performative elements among others.

COSIMA LINKE (University of Music Saar) supported the argument that musical analysis co-constitutes musical works in their aesthetic experience: Our verbal articulation of aesthetic objects brings about certain aspects of the object, which changes our aesthetic experience. Thus, music-analytical writing and speaking require productive language skills. While Musikphilosophie may reflect upon the relationship between aesthetic subject and aesthetic object, as Linke proposed, it can benefit from musical analysis in its engagement into the details of the respective objects.

Musikphilosophie has to respond to the challenges of today, says NIKOLAUS URBANEK (University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna), drawing on Adorno’s idea of a Musikphilosophie that gets involved in specific matters and takes shape from within music. Providing a critical diagnosis of the “late modern” present, so Urbanek continues, Musikphilosophie should reflect on current practices, in which musical experiences are ubiquitous. In more concrete terms, Musikphilosophie could aim at distinguishing aesthetic from non-aesthetic practices. And in the following, he sketched the outlines of what might constitute an “aesthetic experience”, taking up, among other things, Vogel’s concept of experiences that are organised and designed to be understood as well as the Kantian terms of purposelessness and free play of faculties, while calling into play the moment of pleasure (Lust) against Kant’s “lack of interest”.

RICHARD KLEIN (Freiburg University of Music) addressed in his talk the problems and history of Adorno’s concept of musical material. He traced the concept through Adorno’s writings from the 1920s to the 1960s, emphasising its potential of integrating materiality and form. Klein’s side notes alone were thought-provoking, e.g. when he considered whether Adorno studied the dialectic of Enlightenment on dodecaphonic music, or when he remarked that, as for the primacy of the object, Adorno’s negative dialectics is already present in his essays of the 1930s. Another question Klein raised – “can we abandon Adorno’s concept of material without giving up something substantial?” – had to remain open, at least for now. When connected to Nikolaus Urbanek’s proposal, we might slightly adjust the question: Does a Musikphilosophie that meets the challenges of our “broad present” (H. U. Gumbrecht) need an updated concept of Adorno’s musical materialism? And how would such a concept be positioned in relation to the “aesthetic experience” of musical phenomena?

Between the two poles of a purely normative and a merely empirical-descriptive definition of what music is, DANIEL MARTIN FEIGE (Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design) made a case for an alternative option: to pursue the question whether musical works are successful (gelungen) one has to take concrete objects as a starting point. Musical objects explicate normative standards on their own terms, Feige explains; these norms, however, are constantly renegotiated. Feige’s lecture was read in his absence. 

Unfortunately, FERDINAND ZEHENTREITER (Goethe University Frankfurt) could not be present, and his talk entitled “On the practice-theoretical foundations of aesthetics – beyond the hegemonic complementarity of Musikphilosophie and ‘empirical aesthetics’” was cancelled (Zur praxistheoretischen Begründung der Ästhetik – jenseits der hegemonialen Komplementarität von Musikphilosophie und ‚empirischer Ästhetik’).

In its stead, Fuhrmann and Mahnkopf provided the opportunity to have a concluding discussion in which suggestions for further endeavours could be brought forward. More than one of the attendants expressed the desire to bring together philosophical and musicological perspectives on music starting from the same musical example. A follow-up conference was envisaged, and meanwhile, a mailing list is planned to be set up, in order to better communicate and share information. (The language of the list is German; announcements about international conferences, job vacancies etc. are welcome. For subscription please contact Wolfgang Fuhrmann via e-mail to fuhrmannwolfgang[at]

What is Musikphilosophie, then? That an answer would be found at the end of the weekend, as composer Fabien Lévy had declared en passant at the concert preceding the symposium, was not likely to be expected. Yet one thing was striking: The numerous guests attending the symposium bore witness to the fact that there is a considerable interest in musico-philosophical questions. I would even say that there is quite a lot of musicological research happening that does not stop at “purely” historical, philological or empirical questions but reflects on how we experience, produce, interpret and evaluate music, on music’s relation to the world etc. While it is, without doubt, useful now and then to take stock of current approaches, methods and foci, during the weekend in Leipzig I personally could not get rid of the thought that we should now extend Christian Grüny’s scepticism towards the concept of music to the concept of Musikphilosophie, refrain from defining what Musikphilosophie is and become entangled in aesthetic objects and practices, their particularities, issues, and historical signatures. Needless to say, it is indispensable to constantly work on concepts, clarifying and concretising them, and that holds true especially for those key concepts in contemporary German debates such as “ästhetische Erfahrung” (“aesthetic experience”) and “Spiel” (“play”, in the tradition of Kant, Schiller, Gadamer etc.) that seemingly rest on a broad consensus.

[1] All presentations were held in German. Citations were translated into English by the author of this review.

[2] See e.g. Nikolaus Urbanek and Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann (eds), Von der Autonomie des Klangs zur Heteronomie der Musik. Musikwissenschaftliche Antworten auf Musikphilosophie, Stuttgart 2018.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Fuhrmann (University of Leipzig)
Prof. Dr. Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf (Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy)

In Cooperation with
Gesellschaft für Musik und Ästhetik and the Zentrum für Gegenwartsmusik of the HMT

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