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Burckhardt – Learning from the Past



Und nun gedenken wir auch die Größe unserer Verpflichtung gegen die Vergangenheit als geistiges Continuum, welches mit zu unserem höchsten geistigen Besitz gehört. Alles was im Entferntesten zu dieser Kunde dienen kann, muß mit aller Anstrengung und Aufwand gesammelt werden, bis wir zur Reconstruction ganzer vergangener Geisteshorizonte gelangen. Das Verhältnis jedes Jahrhunderts zu diesem Erbe ist an sich schon Erkenntnis, d.h. etwas Neues, welches von der nächsten Generation wieder als etwas historisch Gewordenes d.h. Überwundenes zum Erbe geschlagen werden wird.

Let us now contemplate the magnitude of our obligation to the past as a spiritual continuum, which must be counted among our highest spiritual possessions. We must mobilize everything that we can to serve this effort even in the most remote way, until we arrive at the reconstruction of entire past intellectual horizons. The relationship of each century to this heritage is in and of itself already a recognition, that is, something new, which will be counted as something historical, which is to say, something surmounted, as part of the heritage of the next generation.

Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, ch. 1, sec. 1, p. 6 (1905)(S.H. transl.)

The Swiss historian and cultural philosopher Jacob Burckhardt delivered a series of lectures on topics relating to the philosophy of history between roughly 1868 and 1873. They were assembled and published in 1905, long after his death, under the title Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. The essays draw on Burckhardt’s profound historical knowledge, especially of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, but they put that knowledge to some surprising applications. Burckhardt deconstructs ancient societies, ascertains the animating forces within them, plots the rise and fall of states. But Burckhardt’s historical vision is far from a parade of princes and armies—in fact he derides the heroic vision of history favored by writers like Thomas Carlyle. He focuses attention on the forces that permeate and underlie a society. Religion, he says, is the manifestation of a profound and irrepressible need of the human spirit. It is therefore a steady force and it is indispensable to the stability and durability of any civilization. Still for Burckhardt the essence of history lies in change, and history properly studied can help us understand how change is likely to come and where it is likely to lead us. In this process, culture is understood as the most vital aspect of any civilization. To understand it, Burckhardt engages with philosophy, literature, music and the sciences, and he pursues a sort of sociological examination of societies. The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt’s masterwork, shows the impressive power of this analytical approach. It continues even today to broadly shape how we understand and approach the Renaissance as a cultural epoch. But Burckhardt’s Betrachtungen are short yet extraordinarily thoughtful and provocative and they are suffused with a very profound cultural conservatism—providing a striking counterpoint to Marxist historiography that was then just emerging.

Burckhardt’s works had a very profound influence on conservative European writers in the years between the wars, particularly shaping their attitude towards history and giving it a clear role in an artistic setting. One of the best examples clearly is Thomas Mann—whose novel Doktor Faustus is filed with passages that reflect Burckhardt and his philosophy of history. Writing in the darkest days of World War II, Mann develops his view of German culture and its evolution through the rise of fascism. In the process he draws on the ancient legend of Doctor Faustus, the man of learning who made a pact with the devil—to tell this story, drawing in the process more on Marlowe than on Goethe. As Burckhardt suggests, we must strain and look backwards to find the roots of our current culture, and this is what Mann undertakes. Mann gives us a Germany which has almost literally gone to the devil.

However, Doktor Faustus is also a novel about music and its exploration of culture therefore takes a musical focus. In the early pages of the novel, composed by Mann in August 1943 in Pacific Palisades, California, we find the three principal characters in a small fictitious Saxon city called Kaisersaschern. This little city, whose name tellingly speaks of “emperor” and “ashes” is supposedly in between Leipzig, where Bach served as cantor of the Thomaskirche, and Halle, where George Frederick Handel was born and raised. One of the characters is a man who represents the emigration of German ideas to a healthier medium, the American music scholar Wendell Kretzschmar. His first name was lifted from Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie while his last name derives from a well-known German music scholar of the pre-war era. In a visit to Kaisersaschern, Kretzschmar performs Beethoven’s final piano sonata, no. 32 in C Minor (op. 111), delivering some comments as he does so. (In Thomas Mann’s journals we learn that just at this time, Mann visited the philosopher T.W. Adorno, then teaching at UCLA, who performed the same work for him, interlacing it with commentary.) Why did Beethoven not compose the conventional third movement? Kretzschmar reminds his listeners that the late Beethoven is hindered by profound deafness but his writing features a return to early principles of music—whereas the middle Beethoven is personal and subjective, his late work (one thinks also of the “Great Fugue” string quartet and the Ninth Symphony) is polyphonic and thus objective. He talks about the amazing second movement, the arietta, filled with pain—a pain born of love he says. It is a transcendent work, Kretzschmar tells us. And having broken the mold, how could Beethoven then attempt a third movement? The ideas presented here about Beethoven’s late style are remarkably like those found in Adorno’s Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. The promethean image of Beethoven and his final piano sonata appear to foreshadow the protagonist of the novel, Adrian Leverkühn, whose heroic struggle as a composer comes to an end in 1930, as the Nazi march to power begins in earnest. Mann’s examination of cultural-historical roots points to tragedy and failure, but it also recognizes a heroic and unrealized potential. But what is the role of this curious American music scholar, so much obsessed with Beethoven? Kretzschmar reflects another of Burckhardt’s charges, namely to scour the past critically and carefully to extract what is good, useful and uplifting from it.

Listen to Artur Schnabel perform Beethoven’s final piano sonata, no. 32 in C Minor, op. 111:

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