Submitted by Spencer C. Russell on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 12:13 PM

Apologies for the late response. 

So I am a little bit torn in exactly what to respond to.  My inclination though, is to lean towards the more musical aspect of Wagner's piece, and express my views on the piece in light of some of the other comments.  I guess to start, I agree that there certainly is a lot of tension that builds in the Wagner piece through the use of dissonances like suspensions, and including tonally ambiguous areas and trajectories.  However, I am not sure if I yearn for an ending and a resolution as much as it seems some others have while listening to it. 

As Hillary writes, the music continually pauses on the dominant in the beginning, and although, perhaps, not as satisfying as resting on the tonic, or completing a cadence, I think it does give the piece a bit of room to breathe and feel a sense of relief, even if it is not entirely there.  And on a small sidenote, I would disagree that a piece has to move from dominant to tonic to feel resolved.  Although the system of Western tonality that we see here which enables tension and resolution is based on the leading tone of the dominant leading to the tonic, I think there are some jazzier, funkier options of cadencing that don't end dominant-tonic.  Moving from the dominant 5 chord to a 4^7 chord, for example, although perhaps a bit unsettling and seemingly incomplete at first, resonates for me as a beautiful, complete, and satisfying cadence.  But sidenotes aside, I think there is a certain beauty in the way Wagner delays and puts off cadences, and how he plays with dissonances and resolutions.  In one class earlier in the semester, someone mentioned that sometimes- almost paradoxically- you do actually listen to "sad" music because it makes you sadder, and you want to almost wallow in that emotion even though it's not necessarily a "positive" emotion.  I think from this piece, I was sort of enveloped in the emotion of it all, and the sort of longing and yearning, which is perhaps why I did not seek the resolution as strongly.

Finally, on the matter of whether or not the piece can embody Schopenhauer's philosophy, or merely embody the emotions behind his philosophy is difficult, and I'm not sure exactly where my opinion falls.  However, I think either way, in listening to the tension and resolution (and lackthereof), there is a clear and an intimate relationship between the two.

Death and the Noumenal

Submitted by Samia K. Hesni on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 10:58 AM

I think I share some of the stated worries about death in Wagner's opera and the noumenal realm as revealed through music.

On the topic of suicide, I agree with Max; in order for death to be a resolution, it seems like it must be intentional in some way. That, at least, seems to be Wagner's take on it. But I also think this cannot be in line with Schopenhauer's philosophy (as Wagner himself realized, hence the unsent letter, etc.). From what little I've gleaned about Schopenhauer's philosophy, it seems he would be against suicide not only because of the act's literal abnegation of the will -- in that it actively ends life -- but also because suicide goes against the "essence" of that will. If, to Schopenhauer, life is "inescapably tragic" and full of suffering, then a willful departure from that life is an abnegation of that tragic/suffering dimension. Maybe this borders on a sadistic reading of Schopenhauer, but it seems that to him our existence is both essentially tragic and somehow intrinsically worthwhile. Maybe this is because there are certain parts of existence (though this is tricky -- I'll get to it later) that allow for brief glimpses into the noumenal. Also, I wonder if we can distinguish between "cessation" and "fulfillment" of longing in Wagner/Schopenhauer's works. Suicide would fulfill the former category, but not the latter. I'm not sure if the latter would be an option or desirable, but if so, it could be an argument against actively ending life and longing before that possibility. 

What makes it difficult for me to accept the noumenal/phenomenological relationship in Schopenhauer's work and Wagner's interpretation of it is the implicit language of causality in both discussions. In his expansion on these two categories of Kant's, one of the first things Schopenhauer does is to claim that numbers cannot exist in the noumenal realm because they rely on causality. Causality, because it is contingent on space and time, is simply not part of the noumenal realm. Given that causality is necessarily out of the picture, I'm not sure how to wrap my head around an idea like the one: "we are the phenomenological manifestation of the noumenal." It seems that, by Kant and Schopenhauer, there cannot be a "reason" for this manifestation because we are dealing with two separate planes of existence, each with their own laws, workings, etc.

This is probably a whole other conversation, but it also seems like this denial of causality in the noumenal realm can get Schopenhauer into trouble for claiming there are noumenal "truths." This claim just seems to be imposing a truth or conclusion from our phenomenological perspective onto what we believe the noumenal to be (though, Kant reminds us, we cannot conceive of the noumenal as anything). This seems like an inescapable pitfall just by virtue of talking or thinking about the noumenal in our language. Magee makes the connection to Freud when he writes about Schopenhauer's philosophy, and I think that Lacan is also useful here. Language and its rules are a product of our phenomenological experiences. Yet here we are trying to access or fathom the noumenal through this language which stands for everything the noumenal is not. Partly, this is because language is representational, but I think it is also important to note that the discrepancy arises from language's dependence on the phenomenological. And as language depends on the phenomenological, so too does music. Music may not necessarily be representational, but it is certainly a product of the phenomenological world and its rules and laws. 

The rules and laws by which we compose and interpret music also pose a problem to Schopenhauer and Wagner's theories. Schopenhauer writes of music as a "universal language," but we have seen throughout the semester that much of this universality is taught (or at least culturally relative). At some point in the lecture we listened to, the lecturer tells us that we should feel 'breathless.' I didn't feel breathless. Does that mean that I am (at least until further instruction) unable to access or experience the longing, etc., that Wagner incorporates into his music, that in turn provides some sort of access to the noumenal? And if I need to be "taught" how to access this longing, then how can it be a universal? Later, Magee writes of people who find Wagner's opera "boring" and says something to the effect of "that's unfortunate for them." But is that all he can say? That seems inconsistent with Schopenhauer's philosophy.

Shifting Identity in the Prelude

Submitted by Sean E. Doerfler on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 10:50 AM

Being first primed by the half hour lecture Moore put up, on listening to Wagner's Prelude I was  truly amazed by how beautifully he was able to play with our expectations. Just as the lecture noted, Wagner seems to posess a remarkable ability to extend the cadence, continually giving us a sense that a conclusion/ending point is approaching only to eventually allow it to slip away. The other really remarkable thing I found about this piece, that the lecture passed over, was how fantastically elusive the identity of the piece becomes at times. There is a shift that occurs in many of the progressions from what at first seems hopeful and cheerful to something dark and ominous, and then back to something hopeful. I found it amazing how sudden and yet subtle these transitions were. For a moment I would feel lifted by the music and then from some change that I couldn't quite my finger on the music wouldn't take on a threatening tone. The elusiveness of the endpoint the piece continuously strives for coupled with the elusiveness of the identity of individual moments gives the piece a wonderful amorphous beauty that is impossible not to be captivated by.


Submitted by Benjamin B. Cohen on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 10:49 AM

I think it is important to analyze whether or not there is any inherent truth value in Schopenhaur's philosophy, and whether or not Wagner's music would help elucidate that truth.  We have spent a great deal of class time discussing context; the association between musical value and the societal conditions from which it originated, what makes a piece of music sad and another happy, why certain emotional responses are elicited from different melodies/harmonies, etc.  It seems that Wagner, through his study of Schopenhaur, has emphasized an important truth that we take for granted:  Human beings are inherently drawn to tension and resolution.  Music, to Schopenhaur, "consists generally in a constant succession of chords more or less disquieting, i.e. of chords exciting desire, with chords more or less quieting and satisfying; just as the life of the heart (the will) is a constant succession of greater or less disquietude, through desire or fear, with composure in degrees just as varied." (Magee 206)  By actively emphasizing this philosophy in Tristan, Wagner created something timeless and beautiful. 

Schopenhaur postulates that "willing, wanting, longing, craving, yearning, are not just things that we do: they are what we are." (Magee 206)  To make such a claim about the core of human nature is profound.  The fact that we, as human beings, are so drawn to the music in Tristan represents the possibility of inherent truth value in his statement.  Tristan, as an opera, subverts the typical text-music relationship.  The action, as Mcgee deftly explains, is not so much in the dialogue, nor on the stage, as it is in the music.  Wagner wrote his opera by "building outwards" from the inner depths of the soul, expressing what he believed to be inherent in all human beings, a sense of longing and desire to be loved.  He did so by delaying tonic resolution for the entire opera and utilizing suspensions (with smaller resolutions) at every turn.  As a result, the music struck something intuitive in the human psyche.  I have always believed that the best music can stand on its own; depict itself without any text, topical analysis, or intellectual formula.  With Tristan, Wagner created something of great intellectual and philosophical value, but anyone who hears the opera will immediately grasp the sense of yearning that it emotes, even if the music were played on a symphonic stage rather than an operatic one.  In this sense, I am of the belief that Wagner was able to grasp something inherent in our human nature with Tristan, an existential longing, intuitively grasped by the listener regardless of context.  This, to me, can be considered true music.

Magee Response

Submitted by Anthony John Andrews on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 10:44 AM

According to Magee, Wagner's Tristan & Isolde was significant in that marked a move away from the traditional chromaticism, tonality and use of harmonics of Western Classical music. In Tristan & Isolde, Wagner was able to compose a piece that anchored itself on dissonance and suspension, creating a strong sense of tension in the listener that served as a metaphor for life, which, after all, is full of suspension; there is no resolution in life until our ultimate death, a concept that Schopenhauer himself championed.  

While I find Max's thoughts on the elliptical nature of death fascinating, I think that if Wagner's Tristan & Isolde is truly meant to be representative of the forces of dissonance and suspension in life, then death serves as the perfect conclusion because it marks the endpoint of life (in my opinion). Ultimately, Wagner's piece is fascinating in that it exemplifies the thematic tension of a plot: the tragic love story of Tristan & Isolde through the innovative use of harmonic suspension. 


Submitted by Brian J. Kim on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 10:18 AM

I have to say, I had heard about this piece from some music major friends, including complaints about how it doesn't resolve, but I had always just brushed it off, thinking it was the kind of thing only music majors would notice. However, listening to it, I was left distinctly unsatisfied, and I was actually pretty upset by it.

I had a similar worry to Joey's worry that Wagner's music merely embodies the complex emotions that arise from reading Schopenhauer's philosophy. However, I do think that the music can do both, in the sense that it can embody complex emotions that in turn embody Schopenhauer's philosophy. I guess it is similar to what Hilary said in her response. Wagner creates an intense feeling of longing, about as intense as it gets, and this emotion very well represents Schopenhauer's views that life consists of endless yearning. It is not that the philosophy and the emotions are the same, but rather that the music is expressing emotions that embody the philosophy. There is also clear intent on the part of Wagner here, so it is different from a case like the Hawaiian Hammer (Hawaiian Tristan?) where we might say that the emotion was the only thing it expressed.

How Music Connects to the Noumenal

Submitted by Farris D. Aurelius on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 9:16 AM

I will respond to the concern, voiced in earlier posts, about how music can connect to the noumenal if the noumenal is unknowable.

First, I don’t think Schopenhauer asserts the contradictory theses: we cannot know the noumenal, and we can know the noumenal, namely, through music. That’s such a bald contradiction one would have to be retarded to assert it. Schopenhauer is smarter than that. As with any philosopher, we will gain more by searching for the bit of truth in his assertions, by trying to find the interpretation in which they are most plausible, rather than rather than the one in which they are most contradictory.

It seems Schopenhauer looked at the world and recognized that, indeed, nothing can give us knowledge of the noumenal, yet, some things seem to bear a symbolic relation to it, an analogy, or some of sort of correspondence, more than others.

The core of music consists in the succession of moments of longing and satisfaction, of disquiet and quietude. As such, it resembles our inner lives, whose core is also longing. The will to live is a form of longing. Schopenhauer sees such a will to life writ large on the phenomenal word, writ in such a ubiquitous way that it seems the most prominent characteristic of phenomenal world. The will to life labels a concept that could also be labeled with terms: striving, wanting, effort, and urging.

Since the phenomenal is the other side of the coin of the noumenal, the prominence of the will to life in the phenomenal bespeaks something of the noumenal. It’s hard to find a word in English that expresses the relation—it is not a relation of knowledge. I think “expression” (or “metaphor”) may be the best word we have.

Since the phenomenal expresses noumenal, the will to life, being a property of the phenomenal, also expresses the noumenal. And because the will to life, compared to cranberries and such things, is a more ubiquitous and central property of the phenomenal, it is also, compared to cranberries and such things, a more central expression of the noumenal. Thus, music, in so far as it symbolizes the will to live more fully than the other arts, expresses the noumenal in a way more fully than the other arts.

To deny that music, among the arts, best symbolizes the noumenal, one must assert that no single art is more symbolic of the noumenal than any other art (or that an art besides music is the supreme one). In my opinion, that the arts differ in so many properties make it implausible that they would be exactly equal in their relation to the noumenal.

Joey's Response

Submitted by Joseph T. Kelly on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 9:05 AM

Knowing little about Schopenhaur, I'm not in a position to evaluate Magee's rendering of Schopenhauer's philosophy; however, I did find Magee's brief summary of Buddhism problematic. Magee marks pessimism as among the most noteworthy aspects of Buddhism. In doing so, Magee describes the characteristics of Buddhism in emotionally charged words, reducing Buddhism to the claim that "there is a huge preponderance of pain and suffering over pleasure and satisfaction" (165). While this may be an accurate representation of Schopenhauer's (and therefore Wagner's) depiction of Buddhism, I think it is misleading. To me, impermanence characterizes Buddhist philosophy more than suffering. Buddhism allows that life can contain periods of happiness only to be broken by craving and attachment. And while Schopenhauer struggles with the idea of reincarnation, it is essential to Buddhist philosophy. Without reincarnation, death necessarily becomes a vehicle to the noumenal/enlightenment. With reincarnation, only wisdom, meditation, and equanimity can lead to enlightenment. Additionally, while Schopenhauer's philosophy paints the arc of a human life as fundamentally "tragic," this not need be the case with Buddhism. With reincarnation, the goal is rarely to reach enlightenment within this lifetime but to become a better person, accumulate karma, and be reincarnated in a better form. Therefore, each individual life cycle need not be "tragic."

Having made this distinction, I wonder to what degree we can actually say that Wagner's music actually embodies the philosophy of Schopenhauer and not just the complex emotions that (contingently?) arise from reading Schopenhauer's philosophy. Or maybe they are the same thing?

Musical Language

Submitted by Julian Cullen Budwey on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 2:48 AM

As our text says, the tonic and dominant in a key are central to our perception of "completeness". Imagine, for instance, singing "Happy Birthday", but leaving off the last note. It would be absolutely maddening. Or try singing "Three Blind Mice" and stopping on the word "knife". You feel like you've left it hanging. Sonatas, for example, are really about the dramatic move from tonic to dominant and then back to tonic.

Earlier, we talked about forms and functions in music. In our Western musical heritage, tonic and dominant are the main structures. Dominant should always lead to tonic and a piece is not finished until it gets back "home" (although many pieces start on the dominant). Wagner's opening to Tristan und Isolde, then, is a bit like a run-on sentence. There are recurring patterns of heavy dissonance, each ending on a dominant chord. While a dominant chord is normally "unstable" (ie: it makes us feel that we need to go to the tonic), Wagner manages to use them as elipses... while the dominant chords do not seem final, we do get some sense of pause (maybe even temporarily rest). Because they pause, we do not feel that the music is going anywhere- dominants no longer race to the tonic, although we long for it. Wagner does not overturn tonality (according to our reading, people were loath to perform his later works for fear of this), but rather uses its implications to create a world of confused, motionless longing. This very aptly expresses Schopenhauer's utterly pessimistic view.


Submitted by Maxfield H. McKenna on Tuesday, 4/19/2011, at 2:12 AM

In the MaGee chapter "Metaphysics as Music," he seems to show that Schopenhauer placed the aesthetics of music directly in the music itself - "Music consists generally in a constant succession of chords more or less disquieting...just as the life of the heart (the will) is a constant succession of greater or less disquietude, through desire or fear, with composure in degrees just as varied'.  Thus music directly corresponds to our inner states, and its movement to the movements of our inner lives." (p. 206 in MaGee).  Schopenhauer, MaGee says, claims that we always must settle on the tonic chord to be satisfied at the end of even a simple melody, and not to "feel outright rejection."  Something in the music itself is unsettled, and this arouses the same emotions in us as listeners, pointing and leading to the final resolution - the reactions we have are involuntary, MaGee claims. 

I see a lot of similarities and use in drawing a parallel between this aesthetically unsettling nature of music and the severe longing, or desire that accompanies life constantly, which Schopenhauer points out in his metaphysics, as an extension and combination of Kantian metaphysics and ethics with a very Buddhist philosophy.  However, the issue I see in Tristan und Isolde, and in drawing these parallels from the metaphysics to this piece in particular is the resolution of the piece in the death of the protagonists.  I certainly understand the parallels of the disquietude and tension building throughout the music, and how it directly correlates to the unrequited love of Tristan and Isolde, but how can the resolution fall on death?  For Camus and other existentialists, death was precisely where the irreducible paradox of human existence lies - hope is self-defeating because it makes claims for a tomorrow which only brings the wisher closer to death.  In my reading, Schopenhauer's metaphysics drew certain parallels to this, particularly in his rejection of suicide (just like Camus).  However, I think that it creates a disanalogy between the aesthetics of the opera and the metaphysics that it attempts to point to.  Death of the protagonists does not bring resolution to the operatic drama, but rather just an end.  It seems incredibly unsettling - perhaps more unsettling than the discord of the piece itself - to place the resolution of the musical piece at the event of the deaths, since it is the impending prospect of death that lends human life its tension, and even its hopelessness.

I also had similar worries to Zach's third question, where music is supposed to point to a noumenal reality which is utterly inapprehensible to us, as we are not equipped with the faculties to perceive or understand this reality.  Because of this, it seems completely impossible that a musical work could intentionally point to this noumenal reality, and if it unintentionally represented or pointed out the noumenal reality, there would be absolutely no way of knowing or saying so.  Also, it seems that any representation or similarities would have to be purely coincidental, as well as unknown.

The Tristan Chord

Submitted by Ioanida Costache on Monday, 4/18/2011, at 11:44 PM


In the sections of Magee’s book that we’ve looked at, the author traces the relationship influence of Schopenhaur’s writing on Wagner, specifically in relation to his conceiving of Tristan and Isolde. This seems to hinge on the concept of music that Schopenhaur puts forth that music is “a manifestation of the metaphysical will…meaning that music directly corresponds to what we ourselves are in our innermost being, an alternative life.” To Schopenhaur music is a metaphysical parallel to human life . Music “consists of the perpetual creation and spinning out of longings on which we are stretched as on a rack, unable ever to accept where we are as a resting place, until only the complete cessation of everything – the end of the piece as a whole, or the end of the individual’s life – brings with it a cessation of unsatisfiable longing.” (p. 206)

After Wagner read Schopenhaur he conceived of “a wholly new way of composing an opera, not just by turning the orchestra into the protagonist but in a more specific, in fact technical way that we shall look into in a moment.”  This specific technique Magee highlights later as the use of a suspension. As suspension in music is a delayed resolution, which places a non-chord tone on a strong beat where a resolution would be expected and which resolves by step to the chord-tone. After reading Schopenhaur Magee argues that Wagner developed “the idea of composing …a whole opera, in the way that suspension operates.” This would becomeTristan und Isolde. “The music would move all the way through from discord to discord in such a manner that the ear was on tenterhooks throughout for a resolution that did not come… this would be a purely musical equivalent of the unassuaged longing, craving, yearning, that is our life, that indeed is us. There could be only one resolution to it, and that would be the final chord that was both the end of the musical score and, in an opera, the end of a protagonist’s life.” (p. 208)

For Wagner, the ultimate human longing is “the craving for love”. Tristan and Isolde is a love story that captures this intense longing because it is a love that has no possibility of being attained, an impossible love. Which brings us to the infamous “Tristan chord” which wraps up these ideas into a single musical idea; one chord with two dissonances, one of which resolves and one that does not. Magee characterizes this as “creating within the listener a double desire” for resolution “ and resulting in “resolution-yet-not-resolution.”

Schopenhauer and the Importance of Music

Submitted by Zachary I. Bleemer on Monday, 4/18/2011, at 11:17 PM

I'm sure there's something I'm missing here, knowing so little about Kant and Schopenhauer, so I really hope that we talk about the two for at least a little bit of time tomorrow. In chapter 10, McGee gives a lengthy and fascinating discussion on the key insights of Kant and the subsequent developments of Schopenhauer: he describes Kant's worldview as one which limits human possibility to our sensual experiences, and thus rules out our ability to learn about that which does not fall within the strict and tight bounds of those experiences (in fact, it rules out even the fundamental possibility of any causal relationship with those "numenal" facts). Schopenhauer, then, separates the numenal from the phenomenal even more by denying any causation at all, speaking of them as two layers (or two sets of layers, the discrete union of which is complete) that in a sense overlay all human life. What I don't think that I understand is that once he's drawn such strict and impenetrable boundaries between the phenomenal and the numenal, how is it that music somehow bridges the gap between the two, allowing people to in some way experience something which he's already conceded to Kant cannot be in any way experienced? The argument given seems to hinge on the fact that music does not reference any existing Platonic form, since it is not representational, but I don't understand how his statement has an explanatory power: (1) doesn't Kivy and others argue that in fact music does reference a Platonic form (although Kivy would agree that music is non-representational, so maybe the two are using different kinds of Platonism), (2) even if music is non-representational, why does that mean that it necessarily contains information about the numenal, and (3) even if music does contain numenal information, how is it that people could possible receive this information, since the very definition of the numenal is the set of experiences that people cannot obtain? I think a reading of Schopenhauer himself would answer these questions, but McGee provided no explanation even after so carefully building up the philosophies of Kant and Schopenhauer to allow for this final statement connecting his work back to the theme of music and Wagner.