A Lecture on Music by of Dr. Hans-Juergen Nagel

An executive summary of Dr. Hans-Juergen Nagel’s lecture on  What is Music and its relevance for a society – Perspectives from Western musical tradition, organized by Wordsmith University on 12th December 2015 at AJ Block Community Hall, Salt Lake, Calcutta.


Wordsmith University Founder-Teacher Pritam Bhattacharyya introducing the speaker 

The lecture was structured in a very novel way. Dr. Nagel introduced the topic but instead of discussing the relevance of Music for contemporary society as how he thinks, he had read a series of reflections by internationally renewed musicians and conductors on the inexhaustible mystery called Music. These reflections were collected and translated by him. The reflections include musicians like Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Alfred Brendel, Yehudi Menuhin, Edwin Fischer, Helmut Lachenmann, Luciano Pavarotti and many such luminaries. What was interesting was that he read those verbatim and the audience had the opportunity of hearing directly what these musicians thought about their craft and its relevance for society and human life and human nature.

A very brief survey of these reflections is given below:

  • Music and culture are not some extravagance or embellishment of civilization but the umbilical cord that nourishes us. Without this nourishment, we shall lose what is called human nature. This umbilical cord is the guarantee of our divinity.
  • Man has a hammer in one of his hands and a violin in his other hand. The hammer signifies technology by which he brings material comfort and he may tend to think that this hammer can bring him fulfillment. But without the violin, he loses his human nature. He may look into the innermost part of the atom using his technology, machines and automation but without the violin, he loses what is human nature within him.
  • Music deals with de-materialized matter and combining intuition and retaining the purity and accuracy of what the musician wanted to convey through his music, an artist creates something anew. This is told best by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – Music is the world recreated once more.

 Dr. Nagel then discussed something interesting with regards to culture of a society and he argues that it is the municipality which knows culture of a community better because it deals with their daily lives more than the federal or central government. This is very interesting and novel idea about a society like ours.

Dr. Nagel went on arguing that Culture must be financed by public funds. Sponsoring is an exception, because it serves basically private interests, culture events are not commercial events. Financing has not to be covered by entrance fees.

The most important cultural body is the municipality because it has to serve the interests of the inhabitants of the city and it is close to the pulse of people. Normally it finances opera houses, music schools, conservatories, orchestras, theatres, experimental activities, contemporary music, museums, non commercial films, festivals.

He had mentioned of a historical period of music in Germany when common people used to attend musical performances where music of the great composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Bach were played and is still done. In a sense, it was a cultural exercise which was close to the daily lives of common people, not restricted to the elites or of a specific class. It is the community that organizes funds and runs these events and not some central and distant government.

He then touched something very important for any human society: living a fulfilled life as an individual and a member of the society. He mentions that Music and Art have always signaled the coming of change much before the actual change manifests itself. He touches the impact of Mozart’s music and its eventual impact in the urge to change society in terms of revolution in thought and philosophy of life in that period. In other words, politicians and policy-makers need to be aware of the fact that political and social changes will be captured by Music and Art much earlier because of its mysterious power. Hence, if we need to mould our conduct to live in an age of change and transformation, something inside our being must change and Art and Music have played this role throughout history. It is this mysterious power that makes art and music not something external or decorative but something extremely powerful in shaping our being in our existential journey.

Furthermore Nagel referred to aspects of the nature of art and its possible relevance for an enlightened civil society. He related to some positions according to the history of philosophy.

Art can be understood as an appearance of the depth (origin) and is defined by philosophers as the absolute, the divine or as the truth, which means by qualities through which art becomes recognizable as hermetic and perfect, comparable to nature. This is a metaphysical world, beyond our daily reality which we usually experience.

The ability to produce art and to find ways for its understanding belongs to the most important qualities of a human  being.

According to Heidegger’s Time and Being, everything is there and at all times, but is concealed (revealed) and must become unrevealed. This happens with regards to historical processes, but also during the development of an artistic production.

It seems to be obvious, that somebody, who finds an access to the depth or truth of art, will also find an access to deeper meanings of the world beyond the pretensions of which we are confronted in our daily lives. He has become knowing. This is the reason, for instance for political systems to oppress the freedom of expression because of its danger in terms of influencing the political opinion of its citizens. Those tendencies are also relevant for the so called open societies, as Karl Popper has demonstrated in his publication – The open society and its enemies.

apples and biscuits

Apples and Biscuits by Cezanne – 1884. This was used by Dr Nagel to illustrate how art looks in a fresh way and recreates 

He mentions that we need to learn the art of living life and only scientific knowledge of the world or the technology to do so will not be enough to have a fulfilled life. This is evident in many highly technologically advanced societies grappling with the crisis of living a fulfilled life. He examines the world ‘fulfillment’ in a direct, ironic and humorous way through the example of a newspaper dated 12th December 2015. The newspaper shows an advert of some real estate company, asking people to buy their apartment and claims boldly and in bold and highlighted print – Fulfillment starts at 43.8 Lac!

There was a great collective smile – both wise and ironic in the faces of the audience and thus the lecture ended. The curiosity is to know as to what level the fulfillment ends if it starts at a certain number!

There followed informal discussions after that one of the interesting observations by one of the members was that in the supermarkets, a very special kind of booming music is being played and continuous exposure to such kind of music destroys the ‘internal composition” of a person and he/she now responds in a controlled way to such kind of musical stimulus.

Note: Wordsmith University is working with Dr. Nagel to publish the reflections of the musicians in the form of a book entitled – What is Music – Reflections of internally renowned musicians and conductors on an inexhaustible mystery. The idea is to circulate this book to music schools and academies, politicians and policy-makers in addition to music lovers and interested readers.

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