Does great music have a moral force?

Back in 1994 I interviewed that superb Beethoven interpreter the pianist Richard Goode who said to me, regarding great music, that ‘it has the potential to express powers that lie outside of context, of period, language, translation, to reach something more basic. Moral idealism, for example, which might, through music, be translated into a universal language – without the particulars.’ And without the conceptual limitations and misunderstandings engendered by mere words [as I added at the time]. These words struck me afresh when I finished listening to Murray Perahia’s new recording of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Deutsche Grammophon  479 8353), possibly the most moving account of this cripplingly difficult work ever committed to disc, the Sonata’s kernel – a heart-wrenching Adagio sostenuto – approximating a pained confessional in the way that only Artur Schnabel back in the 1930s managed, and then within the context of a performance that although profoundly well-intentioned was technically flawed elsewhere. For me Perahia inhabits the same elevated plane as Schnabel, Backhaus, Charles Rosen, Brendel, Yvonne Loriod and indeed Goode himself, though for me he climbs just a rung or two further up the celestial ladder. It’s a combination of control and unfettered spontaneity. Quite magnificent.

In the booklet interview with Jessica Duchen, Perahia claims that ‘often Beethoven experiences music as a liberation, reaching towards many things, even making you a better human being.’ Now this is very interesting. Think about it for a moment. Does Beethoven have a moral agenda here? In the fiery opening movement he sets out his main thesis, then there’s a discursive scherzo, the soul-bearing adagio and a vast fugal finale [played by Perahia with sovereign technical command) that surges forwards and brooks no compromise but reaches CLOSURE. That’s it! CLOSURE. The same with the Fifth Symphony – argument, nobility/repose, proud declamation, fierce assertion, triumph and … again, CLOSURE. Quite aside from the presence of chemistry and neuroscience in our make-up, what about the emotional impact of what’s happening, the element of therapy or even counselling that is syphoned through the music? The fact that we’re emboldened after listening to it is surely significant.

And there’s the curative aspect of music, too. Years ago I felt terribly ill and lay on my bed listening to Schumann’s 4th, a particular recording – Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. At the point beyond the scherzo where Schumann cues a hushed transition that eventually catapults us into the fast finale, the rush of adrenalin suddenly helped me recover. It was a physical happening – one I will never forget. Views, please?

17 thoughts on “Does great music have a moral force?

  1. Humphrey Burton

    Dear Rob

    Thanks for a beautiful piece of writing. makes me want to hear Murray’s new recording immediately!

    I have similar feelings about the Schumann symphonies, particularly the Second which was Bernstein’s favourite. As a boy I especially enjoyed an orchestrated version of the Hammerklavier fugue. Cant remember the composer. You will know

    Greetings from Grenada


    Sent from my iPad



    1. Thanks for that lovely note Humphrey! Believe me the Perahia Hammerklavier is truly wonderful and so is the Moonlight that comes with it. I think that orchestrated version of the fugue was probably the one by Weingartner (who recorded the whole work under his own baton).
      Fond wishes, Rob.


  2. Hey Rob-I too want to hear this new Beethoven from Perahia (as above). Does great music have a moral force? No. We do. And we do not. I see, or rather, hear your point so I’m not being a smart arse (I like to think I can grasp your insights, thence I must either share them or want to share them).

    Unfortunately I think most people who claim to “love music” actually only love an idea or a memory of music. It is not music they love, it is a delusion – a very pleasant one, and luckily for a lot of people in the music industry (music radio included) it helps keep the whole thing puffing and wheezing along. I have never heard you say “I love music”. It would be crackers to hear you say that. You are music, right down to your fingertips (as Karajan said of Bernstein -right Humphrey Burton?). You don’t “love” music, you are music. You don’t love breathing, you breathe.

    As regards morality, in my view then and from that perspective, music does have a very strong moral presence and force and a transcendent one as outlined above. But one has to be tuned in to that in order to have any inkling of it-one has to have a morality to one’s being to make moral judgements especially those that come in sound/music and not language. But how many are? And even for those spirits who are profoundly aware of a morality or immorality in music -what does it mean to them in their everyday life, be it London and environs, Dublin and environs or Grenada (but never been there yet or its environs). Or Berlin.

    Ah Furtwängler. That conundrum. Great, but deeply flawed. He stayed. Why? They made musicians disappear. They zoned off areas, park benches, streets, shops, yellow stars. The baton beat time. They bullied the “other”, exiled the “other”, murdered the “other”. The baton beat time. They invaded countries, plunged the world into darkness, extinguished many lives, produced death camps. The baton beat time. The recordings are great, one thinks one hears or imagines one hears or actually hears some of these darknesses and a moral response. A Schumann or a Beethoven or whomever never seem to sound like that ever again in anyone else’s hands, the same ones beating time (the wartime Coriolan and the encroaching darkness -unmatched and unforgettable). The baton beat time.
    What kind of response is that? If one hears great moral force in music by a Beethoven or a Schumann and doesn’t act upon its morality, even its moral message, what does that say?
    Does it imply: I,conductor/pianist/listener/whatever hear a great moral message in this music of Beethoven; but the same hearing and listening I have decided not to respond because

    1, I am a coward
    2, That would be immoral
    3. I am a careerist
    4. There’s nothing I can do about it
    5. Music and Politics never mix
    6. I need to work on this score
    7. Did you get today’s newspaper?
    8. What time is the Football on?

    Sorry for going on, call that going, call that on.

    All the best



    1. Brilliant Bernard, thank you. As to WF and ‘the recordings are great, one thinks one hears or imagines one hears or actually hears some of these darknesses and a moral response’, yes – wartime recordings of Brahms 4, Beethoven 3 and Bruckner 5, in particular. For years I forgave myself for listening to recordings of live performances which had I been around at the time I’d have been barred from attending, at the very least (I shan’t go further than that), but the passage of time has found me contemplating that slice of history like an onlooker viewing a troubling canvas – from a greater distance. I think I’m less tolerant of younger self now. I once asked Barenboim about listening to Furtwängler’s wartime recordings, whether it pricked his conscience, which he said it didn’t – though his agent at the time understood where I was coming from. Very best. Rob


  3. neiltingley

    I feel a tremendous moral power in many of Klemperer’s performances particularly Beethoven 9, Mahler 9 and the German Requiem. I wonder how he saw his music making in this context? A musical global ambassador for peace? Perhaps Barenboim inherited the role from Klemperer or was inspired by his mentor?


  4. Somehow I’d doubt it Neil. He’d probably give a dismissive shrug and a wry smile – music is music, and that’s about the limit of it – that’s what I’m about. Let the likes of us give vent to ‘feelings’ while mighty Otto looks after the music. I think Kubelík was a more likely subscriber to the ‘music for peace’ idea: he did after all record all nine Beethoven symphonies with different orchestras from around the world – a very characteristic gesture. And Bernstein conducting the ‘Choral’ as East and West Germany reunited. He was a fearless idealist on the level of the pan-European pre-war violinist Huberman – think of LB’s bold if musically rather dated Mass. He was a good man through and through, whatever his foibles. As I see it Barenboim’s brave enterprise is basically political whereas Bernstein transcend politics and so in their very different ways did Furtwängler and Klemperer. Klemperer unlike Karajan would brook no musical compromise. The stuff he was made of was gritty, marmoreal, and unbending, whereas Karajan favoured seductive textures and handsome, flowing surfaces, compromise for the sake of music and of life, hence their very different work for the uber-dominant EMI/Philharmonia producer Walter Legge, ie Legge-over-Karajan, Klemperer-over-Legge! Best. Rob


  5. Jonathan Gharraie

    Can’t wait to hear Perahia’s Hammerklavier! I’ve spent the whole morning puzzling over this question so thank you for posing the challenge! I wonder if you’ve encountered Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought? I had to read it for my Masters degree and found it incredibly chewy at the time but it’s stayed with me ever since. Her chapter on ‘Music and the Emotions’, about her experience of listening to Kindertotenlieder, is well worth a read!

    But I like your invitation to think of this in the context of different performances, to argue, in effect, that there’s a virtue inherent to the act of interpretation. I find myself trying to explain to my nearest and dearest why I collect different recordings of the same piece and much as I’m inclined to pin the blame on your persuasiveness as a broadcaster/reviewer, the best argument I can come up with is that I don’t want to seal myself off from any possible shade of experience that a great piece of music can foster, which I think of as my way of trying to be inclusive, curious or generous. It’s a private experience, of course, so the results of it are only to be enjoyed by me, but I can’t help mentally connecting it to how I try to be socially.

    But what if a performance is bad? We wouldn’t say that’s immoral in the way that Joseph Brodsky considered bad style the index of a compromised morality. I like what Richard Goode has to say about this and his answer beautifully complements what I understand by Nussbaum’s argument. Perhaps this primal, transcendent quality of the music elevates the value of its possible interpretations? Perhaps this is something that music can do that writing, enmeshed as it is in society & representation, can’t? The really intractable question to me is whether the same moral feeling is available from atonal music, in which the closure you describe in Beethoven is much less immediate. I’m going through a phase of listening to a lot of Darmstadt era music and I believe it’s possible but the argument rather eludes me! At this point I should confess that my Masters was in Literature rather than philosophy or music…



    1. Well one good turn deserves another Jonathan (great to see you here) – and inspired by your remarks I’ve just ordered ‘Upheavals of Thought’ on Amazon … sounds just the sort of ‘chewy’ food I like to at least attempt to get my teeth into. I’ve been reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson, gnomic reflections that invite repeat visits – ditto Dickinson’s and Stevens’s poems (long-term obsessions) – so your posting is exciting for me! When you write of a ‘primal, transcendent quality of the music [that] elevates the value of its possible interpretations’ I’m reminded again of Schnabel who referred to certain masterpieces as being greater than any potential interpretation – I’m quoting from memory here – meaning that no-one would ever be able to capture every aspect of their inspirational flight. The Hammerklavier is certainly one such work, so are the Diabelli Variations and the ‘late’ quartets. Yes that social element …. that feeling of being able to share something that’s both uplifting and strangely nebulous. I don’t know if you agree that when a small group of people get together to listen to great records it only takes one listener to comment on a flaw and it ruins the whole experience …. I had it with Toscanini’s Rhenish and Furtwängler’s first post-war Berlin Phil Beethoven 5. Both have rough edges that are utterly transcended and yet once you realise that others hear the roughness rather than the spirit, the elevated experience is temporarily spoiled. But only temporarily – I still own and prize both recordings! Thanks so much Jonathan – and do stay with us. Best, Rob


      1. Hi Jonathan – just received (yesterday pm) Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Upheavals of Thought’ – read her on Mahler’s Resurrection which I thought both perceptive and persuasive. Her thinking really clicked with me. Can’t wait to investigate further. Many thanks again.


  6. Paul Liggins

    Hi Rob.
    Yes, following your review I’m looking forward to hearing Murray Perahia’s ‘Hammerklavier’.
    Although he doesn’t seem to figure in many critics’ top choices for Beethoven, I love his playing of them. He is always in control yet expressive, a combination I find satisfying. Not sure why he never recorded the whole set ( I’ve got 15 of them, barely halfway! ).
    On the main topic of morality from music, hmmm. I’m not so sure.
    When I listen, certain pieces will have a distinct physical effect on me ( I can feel the ‘rush’ ! ).
    There’s something very atavistic about our response to music. But whether, in these moments we reach some higher moral plain, is very open to interpretation.
    As for composers, was Beethoven’s outrage and disappointment on hearing Napoleon’s self crowning, that then caused him to scratch out his dedication on the Eroica, one of moral indignation? So should listening to the 3rd symphony takes us to higher moral places?
    What should we make of Wagner’s music and it’s possible invocation of a moral imperative when we think of the views that he held with respect to certain racial groups?
    Daniel Barenboim’s East West Orchestra is a very noble and uplifting project. It reveals, amongst other things, that we are all the same animal. Despite what we might make of differing appearance, underneath ( genetically) we are a very homogenous species and our response to music shows us this and so we should aspire to live in harmony.
    But whether the music per se can guide us there is not so clear.
    My view is that music can inspire us to possibly fulfil our aims and desires.
    However, I can see, in my mind’s eye, that old footage of the leaders of the Third Reich listening to great music while, as they must have known, unspeakable travesties were taking place not so far away.
    Their aspirations were a very long way from where I want us to be! God alone knows what their morals were!
    My personal view is that moral rectitude is somewhat like quicksilver (mercury) in our hands.
    We know that there is something of substance there but to get agreement on it’s shape and form across the world is difficult to say the least.
    So reluctantly I would say that to try and look for this in music is a forlorn hope.
    I genuinly wish that this wasn’t so and coming at it from my scientific background I’m sorry to be such a damp cloth on such a wonderfully uplifting proposition.
    Having said that I’m more than happy to be shown to be wrong.
    Best Wishes to you.


    1. Well, more’s to the point Paul I couldn’t possibly prove my own thesis, such as it is (or isn’t). Thank you so much for that thoughtful response. I suppose it depends on how you listen, or play. For me music has always been a soundtrack to, and sometimes an inspiration for, ideas. Whenever I go out walking I never take music ‘with me’ (ie Ipod, MP3 player, CD player, etc) but have it circulating in my head, usually in counterpoint with non-musical ideas and arguments. And the composers who join me? Beethoven is especially great for gaining courage. If I need to bolster my confidence I’m prompted to summon the Fifth Symphony; if I’ve conflict that needs to be resolved, then the last piano sonata does it for me (preferably as played by Artur Schnabel); non-denominational ‘spirituality’ calls on the Missa Solemnis, or a madcap stream of creative consciousness, the Diabelli Variations. Beethoven, like Haydn, should be available on the NHS – if people learned to take courage from the courage that brought this wonderful music into being, then maybe the Nation’s mental heath would improve – marginally of course, and only for a minority. The crux of the matter is …. what prompted these great composers to labour over manuscript paper and try to get the crux of their ideas fixed on the page? Regarding the drive to write, Christopher Hitchens posits the question – do you want to write, or do you have to? If it’s just the former, then don’t bother. And I would suspect that most people who have to write, or compose, or paint, are conveying a vital essence, a meaning, an idea, that can have a moral purpose – not always, but sometimes. Oh I’m waffling terribly … but I’m so so enjoying myself! Kindest wishes, and thanks again … Rob


      1. Paul Liggins

        Yes, you definitely have a point. There’s a message, a communication that they want to get out and we interpret it in our own way.
        I still remember clearly, shortly after graduating, looking out of my bedroom window in my parents’ house, listening to Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto and being taken off of my feet. The positive optimism I got from it made a lasting mark ( and from a composer in not particularly good health and all but deaf! ).
        Interesting how Beethoven figures so prominently in this respect, certainly from my personal perspective ( and I’ve been mystified by those people, many who are intelligent and perspicacious who don’t seem to get this, at least from the Classical repertoire? ).
        I love Jazz music, and the elation of it, but it doesn’t give me the same effect, and I don’t know why.
        This is why we value the great performers so much, because they do understand it and act as a conduit between us and the great composers. God Bless them!


      2. BertieRussell

        What a wonderful post Rob !

        For me compositions such as the slow movement of the Archduke Trio, the slow movement of the first of the Razumovsky quartets, or the slow movement of Beethoven’s final piano sonata are a transcription in musical terms of what Wordsworth called ‘the still, sad music of humanity’. The unspeakably transcendental 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Choral symphony could be prefaced by Wordsworth’s :

        And I have felt
        A presence that disturbs me with the joy
        Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
        Of something far more deeply interfused,
        Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
        And the round ocean, and the living air.

        Aldous Huxley’s writings on Beethoven are insightful, especially ‘his essay Music at Night’. I’d also appreciate comments on this passage from Robert Hughes’ ‘The Shock of the New’ :

        ‘Unlike our grandparents, we live in a world that we ourselves made. Until about fifty years ago, images of Nature were the keys to feeling in art. Nature – its cycles of growth and decay, its responses to wind, weather, light, and the passage of the seasons, its ceaseless renewal, its infinite complexity of form and behaviour on every level, from the molecule to the galaxy – provided the governing metaphors within which almost every relationship of the Self to the Other could be described and examined. The sense of a natural order, always in some way correcting the pretensions of the Self, gave mode and measure to pre-modern art.’

        Liked by 1 person

      3. … lovely to have these quotes here Bertie. Thank you. Regarding Robert Hughes, one thing immediately strikes home – his poetic reasoning allows us to understand why we keep on returning to ‘pre-modern’ art, ie because it helps us revisit those key priorities. People may obsess about the irrelevance of ‘museum art’ but therein lies the key to life’s meaningfulness, nature and its cycles, with us mortals wondering somewhere outside the frame. Industry’s detritus acts as glazing that keeps the elements at bay …. great music, great art (of whatever kind) shatters the glass and returns us to what we yearn for. Of course we already know all this even if we don’t realise as much. Blimey I’m sounding a bit too much like Ruskin! Very best Bertie. Rob


  7. ‘This is why we value the great performers so much, because they do understand it and act as a conduit between us and the great composers …’ Now there’s a thought Paul, I’d agree with you entirely and yet there’s so much squabbling among the ranks when it comes to the status of individual performances. For example, Jascha Heifetz’s recordings of Bach’s solo violin works. In the December 1973 issue of The Gramophone that noted critic Max Harrison observed that ‘Jascha Heifetz’s performances of Bach’s works for unaccompanied violin [are] practically as good as the music itself, and such life, such unfailing vividness, must always be rare.’ Needless to say I’d agree entirely – the self-accompanied andante from the Second Sonata is especially miraculous – and yet the proliferation of cooler successors (including some period instrument performances), valuable as it is, seems to have distracted whole generations away from the concentration and beauty of Heifetz’s approach. Coming up to date I’d make parallel claims on behalf of Teodor Currentzis’s Pathétique Symphony and, of course, Perahia’s Hammerklavier – for me both musicians are, like Heifetz, inspired ‘message boys’ (if you will) who deliver their respective musical messages with conviction and without compromise. One man’s compelling reportage is another’s idea of misconception (the twin peaks of Toscanini and Furtwängler attest to that notion). People sometimes ask me whether ‘great’ recordings really matter to those who are not in the know. I’d answer by saying that novices who chance upon a Beethoven symphony in a mediocre performance and leave the experience unimpressed assume that the fault lies not with the performer but with the composer. Is that tragic, or what? Best. Rob


  8. Paul Liggins

    Yes, performance is important, if that’s not stating the obvious.
    However, I think that the first performance of a work that you ‘commune’ with, especially in our youth, does subsequently colour our hearing of other interpretations. For me, Karajan’s ’63 Beethoven symphonies were my yardstick for a long time and it’s only fairly recently that I have accepted that other versions are equally as good if not ‘better’ in some ways. ( Your analysis from time to time has helped me here!).
    Talking of first performances, I was at a concert at the Derngate in Northampton last year for a performance by the Royal Phil of Shostakovitch’s 5th symphony – a favourite of mine. The players in the RPO were particularly young that evening and they gave a performance of such vigour and intensity that I was both rooted and electrified simultaneously.
    The lady sitting next to me spontaneously stood up to applaud at the end ( a bit unusual at Northampton! ) and it was only later that she told me that she was actually unfamiliar with the work! What an introduction to have!


  9. Oh those special revelations Paul – it happened to me with Shostakovich 11 …. at a London Swiss Cottage concert many, many years ago (also the RPO, as I recall) under Kempe, if memory serves. I was on air afterwards. I always envy those who hear – and are affected by – great music for the first time, wishing I could revisit the experience myself. Mind you some recent performances have that ability to reinvent a piece for you, Currentzis’s Pathétque being a case in point. Best. Rob


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