By Berthold Hoeckner
Last year a colleague asked me whether I thought that great composers were also wise people—an intriguing question that has been percolating ever since. After all, as a trained musicologist I have been involved in research on how such mental and somatic practices as diverse as mindfulness meditation and ballet might have an effect on wisdom, so why should one not include music, which requires, as a performing art, both intense physical and mental practice? I would not attempt to give a definite answer here, but I will contemplate two avenues for approaching the question—one more practical, i.e. how one might take a first step toward measuring the wisdom of accomplished artists and composers; and the other more speculative, reflecting on how musical wisdom might be figured in a broader context of human flourishing, or eudaimonia.
Let us start by looking at "great" composers who seem to be deeply attuned to the world that surrounds them, a human quality of sensitivity and awareness that can be viewed as an antecedent of wisdom. Great composers produce musical works that capture the essence of a conflict or the gist of a story, and convey salient human emotions through specific musical structures. For example, the original version of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture centered around the clash between two main themes: a beautifully soaring melody giving voice to the love between Romeo and Juliet; and a theme of aggressively rhythmic chords and ferocious runs expressing the warring Capulets and Montagues. Tchaikovsky eventually revised this version with the addition of a third theme, associated with Friar Lawrence, which he introduced at the very beginning of the piece as a solemn chorale (a musical sign of collective religious worship). In the development section of the piece, the Friar's chorale stands tall against the vendetta theme, in a sublime meet of rage and reason. Even as the fury of feud wins out, Tchaikovsky effectively complicated his musical tragedy by expanding a battle between the two elemental emotions of love and hate and triangulating them with the voice of sagacity. Like Tchaikovsky, great composers grapple with conflicts and complex emotions to foster new insight and greater understanding for themselves and for listeners. (Here is a link to a splendid performance of the piece by the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra at the 2007 BBC Proms).
We may take away from this example that great composers are similar to great artists in other creative domains—poets, painters, filmmakers (Douek, 2013)—who are particularly perceptive in apprehending the most beautiful next to the most barbarous; who genuinely understand the complexities of a heroic quest, moral dilemma, or tragic conflict; and who often give us access to these experiences by offering a new perspective or original insight that is born out of their specific medium of expression. Composers enable us to sense the emotional essence of an experience, ranging from such basic emotions as exuberant joy or profound sadness, to considerably more complex and ambivalent scenarios: the heroic overcoming of adversity (as in Beethoven's Fifth); the bittersweet melodramatic renunciation (as in the last Act of Verdi's La Traviata) or the fearsome fascination of awe and redemption through our encounter with the sublime and the divine (as in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony). The meaning of great music is often difficult to pin down in words, sometimes leaving a distinct sense of ambiguity, even ambivalence. The Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture does not just immerse us into a battle of passions and reason, but also allows us to sense the profound acceptance of an inevitably tragic outcome. As the genesis of the work shows, moreover, great artists do not just have the special talent of rendering the world in a symbolic language, they are also individuals determined to go through the trials and tribulations of learning, developing a language that gives voice to our emotions, and providing opportunities for reflection. In this respect, we should also consider music by composer-performers of our day, who are serious artists in their own domain. Listeners may well hear songs such as Bob Dylan's "It's alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or Suzanne Vega's "Crack in the Wall" as sources of profound wisdom.
Since great composers seem to have a deep understanding of their worlds and have persevered through their own creative struggles, it makes sense to ask whether they are wise people. How, then, would they score on a test on the different dimensions of wisdom—cognitive, affective, and reflective—that the social psychologist Monika Ardelt (2003) developed as a first broad and basic measure to gauge human wisdom? Indeed, we may hypothesize, that great composers (and probably great artists in general) would score higher on this test than the general population. But how might great composers compare to various control groups? Would they do better than artists of a lesser stature? Would they be wiser than experts in other, non-artistic, fields? A good control group would be teachers and educators whose work has some creative and communicative dimension and who are involved in an ongoing process of discovery and learning. So let us, for the moment, assume that we would indeed see a "great artist effect" on wisdom. We would then have to come up with an explanation what might actually drive such an effect, for it could not be just greater knowledge, skill, or a moral understanding alone. Instead, we might have to argue that great artists have special sensibilities and abilities that become tributaries to wisdom. In other words, great artists may be wiser than controls because they have an edge in perceiving and understanding the world; they possess a higher emotional intelligence that allows them to recognize and express other people's feelings; and they have become masters of an aesthetic language that enables them to reflect, through their work, on human problems. In the words of contemporary pop artist, Billy Joel (1993), “Artists - musicians, painters, writers, poets - always seem to have had the most accurate perception of what is really going on around them, not the official version or the popular perception of contemporary life.” If artists experience the world through different ears and eyes, they may allow us to do so as well.
The working definition of wisdom put forward by the "Defining Wisdom Project" suggested not only that wisdom integrates cognitive, affective, and social considerations, but also noted that an "action or counsel is perceived as wise when a successful outcome is obtained in situations involving risk, uncertainty, and the welfare of the group." I invoke this definition for three reasons. First, I propose to think of great artworks as a special kind of wisdom—not as actions or counsel that respond directly to a specific situation, but as a source of wisdom, not unlike the wisdom offered in religious texts or secular compendia. Second, great artists are often risk-takers who stake out an existence of considerable uncertainty, and whose creative work also involves experimentation, sometimes going out on a limb by pushing the boundaries of expression, by challenging established codes of communication, and by offering solutions to actual or potential problems. Third, while it is undeniable that some artists eventually profit from taking such risks, these rewards may come at a cost for the individual artist, but bestow a benefit to the group. The pro-social effects of music making are evident in many cultures, thus making music attractive to the theory of group selection. Thus artists could be seen as contributing to a systemic altruism where the allocation of resources for artistic production would contribute to the kind of human flourishing that Aristotle calls eudaimonia. In this sense, a great artist would be an exceptional individual who may play a dominant role within a social group, but who does so by serving a higher purpose with a pro-social dimension. This does not mean that all great artists are idealists or saints sacrificing themselves, but that they seem to be willing to pay the price for a life that involves some form of leadership, by taking on the responsibility of speaking the truth in their artistic language for the benefit of a larger common good.
Adagietto. (2013, January 13). Tchaikovsky - Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture | Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxOtYNf-eWE.
Ardelt, M. (2003). Empirical assessment of a three-dimensional wisdom scale. Research on Aging. 25(3): 275-324.
Douek, J. (2013). Music and emotion—a composer's perspective. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 7:82.
Joel, B. (1993, May). 1993 Commencement Speech at Berklee College of Music. Retrieved from http://www.berklee.edu/commencement/past/bjoel.html.
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