Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Bach took the Chinese-inspired equal temperament tradition (the point of contact for this and other new technologies was the circle around Mersenne) and with it laid the foundation of a new musical culture; He and his exact contemporary Handel are the oldest composers still in the active repertoire, and very active they are indeed. How was this done? Bach tells us:
Ich habe flessig sein müssen. Wer es gleichfalls ist, wird ebenso weit commen
I have had to work hard. Whoever does as much, will get as far.
Bach was also the musical second to Luther; his chorales are the 18th century counterpart to Luther's hymns.
Frederick the Great (1712-1786)
A generation later than Bach, Frederick achieved his particular greatness on the battlefield, where his achievements are still respected by the experts, and still studied by the future experts. Apart from his strategic eye, his personal leadership was a major part of his success. To laggards on one occasion, he gave these words of encouragement:
Ihr Racker; wollt ihr ewig leben?
You wretches, do you want to live forever?
He was also the standard Prussian despot, and had this to say of the populist tendencies of the time (another Chinese import which was being spread by the French theorists of the time):
My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.
The writers of the Dzwo Jwan, or for that matter any contemporary college president, will have no trouble recognizing this.
Frederick was also an accomplished flute player, and a patron of music; he had long wished to have the then celebrated Bach visit his court at Potsdam. Late one evening, the event finally happened, and Bach's coach pulled up outside. Delighted, Frederick cried to his staff and guests:
Gentlemen, Old Bach is here!
Poor Bach had barely time to take off his coat before he was set by Frederick to improvise on a theme of his own providing, in the most difficult contrapuntal forms of the time. Bach later wrote out his performance of that evening, along with several supplements and a trio sonata in which Frederick could take the lead with his flute, and had the whole printed up as a tribute to the monarch; this we know as the Musical Offering. It is an entirely honest transcript; one squirms a bit at the place where Bach gets himself into a rather rich harmonic corner, and finally extricates himself with his honor more or less intact.
Immanual Kant (1724-1804)
Music and military strategy were not the only systems under construction at the time; there was also the world of thought. The reforms spearheaded by Luther (1483-1546) had broken the stranglehold of doctrine, and the pioneering if abortive work of Descartes (1596-1650) had focused the agenda of philosophy on the question of how we know, and linked it with the progress in knowledge then being achieved in the physical sciences. Kant spent his quiet life in Königsberg, in the discontinuous part of Prussia lying east of Poland, in am ambitious attempt to systematize philosophy on this foundation. If not on God, on what shall ethics be founded? There are three possible loci for the basis of right action: internal, lateral, or superior. The taste of Kant's times, which were also the times of Frederick, ran to the idea of law as formative in society. Kant himself leaned in severeal directions, but he tended to side with what a Chinese-equipped observer would call the Legalist rather than the Confucian answer to this question. He saw the moral agent, whatever his sources of action might be, as one to be tested after the fact as a potential lawgiver:
Ich soll niemals anders verfahren, als so, dass ich auch wollen könne, meine Maxime solle ein allgemeines Gesetz werden
I should never act otherwise than so that I could also wish that my principle of action should begome a universal law. (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785)
Notice the assumption that a given human action has the same moral value in all possible human contexts. A little later, Kant linked physical and moral reality, in a poetic way, but again in what reduces to a legalist paradigm, in these much quoted words:
Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788)
These were theoretical thoughts, the philosophical equivalent of grand strategy. On the tactical side, things were not always as neat:
Aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht is, kann nichts ganz gerades gezimmert werden.
From such crooked timber as that of which man is made, no really straight thing can ever be constructed.
Here is the point at which the State, though not necessarily named as such, enters the equations of philosophy. There are other ways in which it might have done so, but for a glimpse of them, a wider than European view would have been necessary. For all his lectures on anthropological topics at Königsberg, this Kant lacked. He might have taken a hing from Frederick's words to his troops, or for that matter from this or that Orientally influenced pages of Luther's Bible, but as things happened, he didn't.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1804)
The severaly intellectual music of Bach and his contemporaries was already beginning to yield, in his time, to something simpler. Of this entertainment music, Joseph Haydn, who spent nearly all his life on the staff of the Hungarian Princes of Esterhazy, was one of the major architects. He took the symphony from something little evolved from the Baroque suite of dances, and developed it into the medium which his young contemporary Mozart would employ with unmatchable skill and grace, and which his pupil Beethoven would hammer into an instrument fit for the more fiery expressive needs of a later age. Haydn was perfectly conscious of his importance, and at the same time perfectly modest about his place in the musica historical scheme of things. The following remark is about as generous as you get:
I am not the best of my school, though I was the first.
In his last years, he was discovered by the popular concert promoters of the new age (the new age consisted largely of the fact that there was a paying public for it to be based on), and made two trips to London, each time with six new symphonies in his luggage. On one occasion he got into a duel with the composer being featured by a rival promoter, and composed something entirely new, a quadruple concerto called a Symphonie Concertante, for instant performance. In those days, you not only had to think it up, there in your London hotel room, you had to write it out. At one place in the manuscript of this work, in words that still resonate with all of us working to deadlines, musical or other, he wrote by way of apology,
Im schlaf geschrieben
Written while asleep.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart, the greatest talent music has ever known, flashed on the scene like so much lightning, and then departed, leaving normal history to take its course, amazed but largely unimpeded. Beethoven, nominally Haydn's student, absorbed much from Mozart on the way to becoming Beethoven, but for the rest, Mozart represents an entr'acte, a moment of unsustainable perfection, before ordinary life resumes.
Mozart had a droll sense of humor, and used to tease his musical traveling companions, and while away the hours until whatever, by making up nonsense names for them, of which the following may serve as a sample, and (since it is his nonsense name for himself) as his epitaph:
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
The fiery expressive needs of the new age were not long in making themselves felt. Goethe, who may with pardonable exaggeration be said to be the creator of German literature, ushered in not only German literature but its "Sturm und Drang" or "Storm and Stress" period with his youthful autobiographical novel (not even all the names were changed for publication) about a hopeless love affair which drives its young hero eventually to suicide: The Sorrows of Young Werther. This caused a sensation, showing that the new public too was looking for an outlet for its feelings, many of them gloomy ones. Haydn's middle symphonies, true to the pulse of the age, were in Sturm und Drang mode, with many minor key passages and dramatic if gloomy passages. Goethe himself survived to become a balanced and even classical figure, but the need for new systems, not necessarily survivable ones, had irretrievably broken through at the radical personal level. The need for effort, and not merely for thought, is articulated in this line:
Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille / Sich ein Character in dem Strom der Welt
Talent develops in silence, / but character only in the stream of life (Torquato Tasso, 1791)
Contradiction, not between man and God, but between man and himself, is the engine which for Goethe drives the drama of life:
Zwei Seelen, wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust
Two souls there dwell, alas! within my breast (Faust, 1808)
Action is thus necessary, but there is no requirement that human doing should be successful:
Es irrt der Mensch, so lang er strebt
Man errs, so long as he strives. (Faust, 1808)
Human imperfection is for Goethe part of the story. This insight had its technical side, in the theory of what we know and how we know it, which interested Goethe also:
Man sieht nur das, was man weiß.
One sees only what he alreadyknows
Which is to say that the concept is important to the observation, and for most of us, precedes the observation. This is not to say that Goethe's Man is trapped in a rational circle of unknowability. In Goethe's human university, irrationality also gets its due:
Der Aberglaube ist die Poesie des Lebens
Superstition is the poetry of life.
If it is deeply felt, it is real enough for the purposes of literature. The unknown also enters in simply as an artifact of the passage of time. Time, for Goethe, is not uniform; it is different at different places:
Das Leben gehört den Lebenden an, und wer lebt, muss auf Wechsel gefasst sein.
Life belongs to the living, and those who live must be prepared for change (1821)
As for the inner nature of man, it is not knowable but clearly not edifying if it were known:
Ich kenne mich auch nicht, und Gott soll mich auch davor behüten
I know not myself, and may God protect me from ever doing so.
The unedifying inner recesses of the human animal would see much development in the later days of the culture. When it came down to it, Goethe was no more comfortable than Kant with the specter of mere humans actually doing things in the world:
Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit
There's nothing more frightening than ignorance in action. (Maxims and Reflections)
Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)
With the slightly older Goethe, one of the two pillars of German literature. Much more than this had been expected of him: German literature's answer to Mozart in German music; Germany's counterpart to England's Shakespeare; the Bard of nascent German nationalism. The themes of his major plays (Don Carlos, Wilhelm Tell, Jungfrau von Orleans) are freedom from foreign domination, and foreign domination was indeed the urgent problem of the day.
Freude, schöner Gotterfunken / Tochter aus Elysium
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods, daughter from Elysium (An die Freude, 1786)
This piece, however overstuffed rhetorically, did its job in its day by embodying an ideal of universal brotherhood. Nothing that inspired Beethoven is to be held lightly by any future age, including the present one.
Die Weltgeschichte is das Weltgericht
World history is world justice (Inaugural lecture, Jena, 1789).
Just what this means we will not pause to analyze (Weltgericht normally refers to the Last Judgement), but the tone was presumably right for the occasion. Germany at this juncture was trying to find its place in history, and it had a lot of grievances on its mind about its previous and present history. Weltgeschichte, the judgement of the world, later took on a more rueful color, as Adenauer would notice in due course.
Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.
Against stupidity even the gods fight in vain (Jungfrau von Orleans, 1801)
Schiller's counterpart of a remark of Goethe. Brotherhood is all very well, unless you try to populate that concept with people you actually know, or can recruit in the present tense. It would remain for the statesmen, not the poets, to take up this problem on the required scale.
Wilhelm von Humboldt ( )
The first such statesman was the linguist and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt, . . .
Alexander von Humboldt (dates)
25 Dec 2005 / Contact The Project / Exit to German Index Page