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Nicholas of Cusa on the Meaning of Music (1947)

Nicholas of Cusa on the Meaning of Music (1947)

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Published by: Adrián Castillo Giovinatti on Jun 27, 2012
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Nicholas of Cusa on the Meaning of MusicAuthor(s): Kathi Meyer-BaerReviewed work(s):Source:
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
Vol. 5, No. 4 (Jun., 1947), pp. 301-308Published by:
on behalf of
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NICHOLASOFCUSAONTHE MEANINGOF MUSIC
301said to be a studyof "inner"relations,andecologysaidto be thestudyof "outer"relations.And it may be that the termsdo moredamagein the fieldof criticismthan they coulddoinbiology, where organicrelations arerecognizedasnotconfinedto the separate organism.The suggestion offeredhere is that relationalcontextsand theirbearings oneach other cannotbe successfully dealtwith in thephilosophyof criticismif awall is builtaround the aesthetic situation,whetherby those whose interestsliewithin the wall or by thosewhose interests lie outside.4. The philosophy ofcriticism has a further majorprobleminclarifyingthenature ofevaluation andjudgment fromthe relational standpoint.Judgmentby judicialstandards is closed to thecriticwhohasfoundtheyardstickapproachto be sterile for the understandingof creative intent, over-confidentin its designa-tion of "correct" artisticprocedures, and fruitlessaspreparationfor experiencingnewkinds of artistic technique and content.In the past the critic,so dis-enchanted,hasfrequentlyreacted by cultivatinghisownaestheticexperiences,abandoningallevaluation, subscribingtothedoctrine of "every man to hisowntastes",andtellinghisreadersabout his tastes. Forrigidityof aesthetic stand-ardshehas substituted aesthetic anarchy.Parallel reactions could be foundinethicaltheories andconduct. However,there seems to be nonecessityforachoice between ethical absolutism and ethicalsubjectivism, or betweenaestheticabsolutismandaesthetic subjectivism.The relationalapproach has theim-mediate appeal of suggestingan escapefrom the dilemma.But therelational approachalso puts before us a realproblem,-that of dis-coveringthekindof discriminatingevaluation whichwould be consistentwith anon-absolutist view.Atthe present time,relational theories differ considerablyin their descriptions of thenature of values, and on thequestion ofvalue judg-ments.Suchdifferences need to be exploredin connection with criticismif therelationalviewpoint is tobe fully useful in that field.Whileproblemsinthe philosophy ofcriticism seem to requiremore precisestatement, and while currenttheories seem most inconclusive,there is much tobehopedfor in new ideas which comefrom the examination of thoseproblemsbyfundamental philosophical techniques,and by theapplication of the resultsofvalue inquiry.NICHOLASOF CUSAONTHEMEANING OFMUSIC
KATHIMEYER-BAER
It is noteasy to besure thatmusicalworks coming downfromearliercenturies,forexample,thoseintheearlypolyphonic style,are now heard as thecomposerintended.Sometimes thedifficultylies in ourlack ofknowledge; forinstance,in ourinability tointerpret thenotation. Butit mayalso lie inthe actualdiffer-encebetween thenormalintentionof musicalcommunication in thatdayand
 
302
KATHIMEYER-BAER
inourowntime.To learnwhatmeaningmusicwassupposedto carry inearlierepochswe mustseekhelpfromvariouswritingsof the time: theoreticaltreatises,descriptionsof festivals,etc.The descriptionsof festivalsgive us, ofcourse,a certainamountofgeneralinformationaboutthe moodand functionofmusicin popularcelebrations.Butthetermsusedin theaccounts(joy,enthusiasm,etc.)areoftentoovagueto helpmuch.Thetheoreticaltreatises sufferfromthe oppositedefect.Theyconsistofsuch strictdefinitionsand technicalanalysesthat onlypartofthe senseof themusicis dealtwith.Onehithertoneglectedsourceofinformationthatmaysharpenforus theideas of the historiansandsupplementtheanalysesof themusical theoristsis the writingofphilosophers.It is thepurposeof thispaperto showthatsuch helpmay definitelybereceivedfor themusicwrittenbetween1420and1450from the writingsofNicholasofCusa.Nicholaswas not onlyone ofthe greatestphilosophersofthefifteenthcentury,butwas trainedandtalentedin thearts.The passagesin hisworksthatrelatetomusicarethereforeofsignificancefortheinterpretationofmusicinthedayswhentheNetherlands'acappellastyleflourished.Nicholas'scontributiontoourknowledgeofthe meaningof musicwillbediscussedunderthefollowingheads:A. GeneralcharacteristicsofNicholasasathinker.B.Nicholas'smusicalexperienceandtheevidencein hiswritings.C.Enumerationandcharacteristicsof thementalpowersconcernedwithmusic.D. Musicalapprehension:sense,reason,memory.E.Thetwobridges:rapture,symbolism.F. The creativeprocess.G.Thesubjectivecenterandthepassions.A. GeneralCharacteristicsofNicholasasaThinkerNicholasof Cusaoccupiedhimselfwithalmostall the importantfieldsofinterestofhis day:theological,legal,scientificand philosophical.Likemanygreatthinkers,heat oncestoodwithin traditionand advancedtowardnewwaysof viewingthings.Inmostofhiswritingshedevelopedandtransformedtheideasofhispredecessors.Thushe has beencalleda reformerbeforethereformation,anda heraldofCopernicus,GiordanoBruno,andLeibniz.LeonardodaVinciis knownto haveread his works,andbeeninfluencedbythem.Thispowerofinnovationhepossessedmakes himoftenseemstrikinglymodernandsympatheticwithour ownwayofthinking,inmusicaselsewhere.The freshnessofhisthoughtwasprobablydueinpartto hisempiricalhabit-thecapacityofdirect observation."We haveto lookinthe streetsfortruth,"'he said. However,hewasbynomeansaninnovatorthroughout.Hisstate-mentsarenotbasedon thefamiliar roadsofdailylifealone,but in manyrespectsfollowthetrendsofscholarlytradition.The ideasandmethodsoftheearlierMiddleAgesandof the fourteenthcenturypervadehis writings;forexample,in his treatmentofnumber,where heusesmathematicalnotionsasemblemsoftheologicaltruths.Inthis connectionhe cites thoseancientandmedieval
1
Idiotaelib.I.Opera,Basel1565,137.

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