Philosophers at the piano

Francois Noudelmann’s The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche and Barthes at the Piano is an intimate look at the impact of not music alone but the skill of each of sight-reading playing of the piano, and what it did to shape the psychic lives of these philosophers. Nietzsche was a composer, and all three familiar enough with musicology to write essays and criticism. But Sartre talked about Stockhausen while playing Chopin, and the post-modernist Marxist semiotics critic Barthes considered Schumann his favorite composer. Nietzsche was enamored of Wagner’s music early in his professional career but turned against him for lyric opera, with Bizet’s Carmen his favorite!

All of these unexpected interests are deftly analyzed by Noudelmann, who skillfully discovers (or uncovers) the sensitive emotional life within by tracking the piano-playing avocation. All three thinkers lost their father early in childhood. All found piano-playing, specifically in the presence of the women of their family (mother, sister, friends) a social and communal affirmation. Each was close to his mother throughout his life. Their piano playing was amateur, however well-informed, for they took liberties in rhythm, timbre, and chords to create music as solace not virtuosity. Thus the “masculine” function of thinking and writing was juxtaposed by feminine emotion, nostalgia, security.

Both Sartre and Nietzsche rebelled against a childhood of traditional religious music. Sartre longed to become a jazz pianist, “constructing an opposition to his guardian figures,” notes Noudelmann, but Sartre never acted on this impulse, finding Chopin to reflect a liberty within tradition that was also to appeal to Nietzsche, as did the equivalent sentiment of Schumann to Barthes. For Sartre even suspended his political activism and engagement to write a tome on Flaubert, that arch-bourgeois according to both Sartre and his disciples, but in order to comprehend the mind of his opponents. He wanted to undermine, not demolish his enemies, and he came to understand Chopin as a bridge to his loved ones rather than an advocate of outdated values.

Nietzsche was a skilled pianist and ambitious composer whose father’s lineage of theology and organ music inevitably left its mark in the young Nietzsche’s switch to philosophy and the (secular) piano. In Wagner he thought he had discovered the height of cultural amalgamation, a strategy of both powerful thought and expression. Richard Wagner and wife Cosima only toyed with him, and Nietzsche was devastated when an imitative composition he submitted to a Wagnerian conductor was returned with ridicule. Nietzsche returned to Chopin for the same reason Sartre would, seeing Wagner as the last gasp of a secularized mythology of scornful Romanticism. Zarathustra brought Nietzsche a new lyricism, an enchantment with the Mediterranean, and an appreciation for the uncontrived, this-worldliness of light opera, especially Bizet’s Carmen, which Noudelmann says was for Nietzsche “a musical antidote, beneficial to his health … a healing power.” The philosopher would shed tears at Italian operas, even as he wrote in the persona of a “pitiless critic or solitary philosopher.” During the strange eleven years after his breakdown, in which Nietzsche fell silent, he nevertheless spent a couple of hours a day playing piano music impeccably.

On to Barthes, who eclectic interests were bound to include music. Barthes identifies music as expression, engagement, pursuit, and creation, even to the (alleged) erotic element of how a work is approached. Despite his radical credentials, in the end he favors Schumann for his emotional precision, Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for its organic structure, and the “French” composers, namely Debussy and Ravel, for their vision of how to employ rather than denigrate the past (the same theme of Sartre and Nietzsche) and to bring a freshness and light to musical expression that parallels art.

Fascinating insights into a less-popularized part of these philosophers is entertainingly covered by this book. Piano playing is a solitary occupation which these figures attempt to socialize in their modest and private way, but which ultimately remains a product of their own complex minds, for they never identified themselves as performers or professionals. The ability to play a classical instrument may yet today be identified with a certain socio-economic background. Yet music exists in every culture; music is intrinsic to human existence, whether it derives from birds or wind or modulations of the voice, or an ethereal otherness. The solitude of music awaits anyone who thinks, or anyone sensitive to sound, which ought to be all of us.