Music for Socrates

Socrates is very opinionated about music (as about most things) and prescribes set forms of music that may exist in his model Republic:

“And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inwardplaces of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognise and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.”

“Then to sum up: This is the point to which, above all, the attention of our rulers should be directed, –that music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made. They must do their utmost to maintain them intact. And when any one says that mankind most regard
The newest song which the singers have, they will be afraid that he may be praising, not new songs, but a new kind of song; and this ought not to be praised, or conceived to be the meaning of the poet; for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him;-he says that when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.”

“[T]he united influence of music and gymnastic will bring them into accord, nerving and sustaining the reason with noble words and lessons, and moderating and soothing and civilizing the wildness of passion by harmony and rhythm[.]”

(Translation by Benjamin Jowett; complete text found here.)

Many people would think that most classical music is dull and conformist and would suit Socrates just fine, but all great art – which is most of what survives – is by definition groundbreaking in style and form and, in content, makes a statement about human nature. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Wagner – the greatest of the greats in music history were all extremely radical and would displease Socrates.

The music that would most displease Socrates is probably Shostakovich. Shostakovich lived in the USSR and, while he did write state music, much of his music was kept secret and never played in his lifetime. His state music often glorifies the state but usually has an undertone of irony. His violin concertos, which make up much of his secret music – are the true measure of the composer. They are horrifying. They are atonal and frenzied, expressing the profound despair and frustration Shostakovich felt at living in such a repressive state, being restricted as an artist, and seeing the situation around him. I can’t listen to Shostakovich for more than a minute without being profoundly disturbed. Listen to Movement 1.

Tchaikovsky is the runner-up in the Antisocratic Awards. His music is incredibly emotional and expresses deep passion and deep despair. He was deeply depressed for much of his life – he was not financially stable, had a brief, disastrous marriage, and had a poor relationship with his family – and ultimately committed suicide. My favorite piece is his Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique(last movement here), which is sometimes said to be his suicide note.

The most Socratic music would probably be elementary school music, patriotic music, and music glorifying communist states (which fits both of the above categories), as well as some religious music.
-> Barney’s “I love you, you love me, etc”
-> The North Korean National Anthem, played by the NYPhilharmonic
-> The Star Spangled Banner, played by the NYPhilharmonic also in Pyongyang. Look at the audiences’ faces!
-> O Ecclesia, by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-C abbess, composer, and philosopher in Saxony. Her music is some of the earliest surviving. This is my favorite Hildegard recording, by Emma Kirkby and Gothic Voices:
I don’t know enough about 12th-century Saxon music to say whether Hildegard was grounbreaking and therefore antiSocratic. One might argue that all music since Socrates is antiSocratic, as there has been some innovation. However, I think it’s safe to say that quite a large proportion of ‘church music’ is Socratic.

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