A Great Philosopher on Music

Music of Yesterday

by Schopenhauer

The nature of man is so constituted that his will is perpetually striving and perpetually being satisfied – striving anew, and so on ad infinitum; his only happiness consisting in the transition from wish to fulfillment, and from fulfillment to wish; all else is mere ennui.

Corresponding to this is the nature of melody, which is a constant swerving and wavering from the key-note, not only by means of perfect harmonies, such as the third and the dominant, but in a thousand ways and by every possible combination, always, perforce, returning to the key-note at last. Here in, melody expresses the multiform striving of the will, its fulfillment by various harmonies, and, finally, its perfect satisfaction in the keynote. The invention of melody – in other words, the unveiling thereby of other of the deepest secrets of human will and emotion – is the achievement of genius farthest removed from reflective and conscious design. I will carry my analogy further. As the rapid transition from wish to fulfillment, and from fulfillment to wish, is happiness and contentment, so quick melodies without great deviations from the key-note arc joyous, whilst slow melodies, only reaching the key-note after painful dissonances and frequent changes of time, are sad. The rapid, lightly-grasped phrases of dance music seem to speak of easily reached everyday happiness; the allegro maestoso, on the contrary, with its slow periods, long movements, and wide deviations, bespeaks a noble, magnanimous striving after a far-off goal, the fulfillment of which is eternal. The adagio proclaims the suffering of lofty endeavors, holding petty or common joys in contempt. How wonderful is the effect of major and minor! How astounding that the alteration of a semitone and the exchange from a major to a minor third should immediately and invariably awaken a pensive, wistful mood, from which the major key at once releases us. The adagio in a minor key .expresses the deepest sadness, losing itself in a pathetic lament.