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Emblems of Mind, by Edward Rothstein

- Abstract

Music is the most radically elusive of the arts. It is conceived in the mind, “made” in the physical world, and experienced through the senses, but its essence is not to be found in any of these domains. Those who view music as part of the world of ideas—a notion intrinsic to all music criticism worthy of the name—inevitably fail to do justice to its fundamentally nonintellectual nature. Yet discussions of music couched solely in terms of formal language have a circular quality that fails no less inevitably to speak to our instinctive belief that music has meaning.

Thus, although we may be intrigued when Igor Stravinsky assures us that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” we should be more inclined to believe Schopenhauer when he tells us that music

does not express a particular and definite joy, sorrow, anguish, horror, delight, or mood of peace, but joy, sorrow, anguish, horror, delight, peace of mind themselves, in the abstract, in their essential nature, without accessories. . . .

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.