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Deep RefrainsMusic, Philosophy, and the Ineffable$

Michael Gallope

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226483559

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226483726.001.0001

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Wittgenstein’s Silence

Wittgenstein’s Silence

(p.160) Interlude Wittgenstein’s Silence
Deep Refrains

Michael Gallope

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

Between chapters 2 and 3, a brief interlude describes Wittgenstein’s parallel intuition that music was language-like, even as its sensuous inconsistency was met largely with an injunction to silence.

Keywords:   Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Schumann, Robert, Pinsent, David

Perhaps the most cryptic and haunting of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s many propositions proposes to utterly silence the din of speculative dialectics. We read it at the end of his only completed book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921):

  • Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber maß man schweigen.
  • Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Like Vladimir Jankélévitch, the chief speculator of the next chapter’s story, Wittgenstein was a philosopher surrounded by pianos and pianists. His mother, Poldi, one of his sisters, and his two older brothers all played. In fact, Paul, the younger of Ludwig’s two older brothers, following an injury in World War I that required a limb amputation, would go on to a celebrated international career as a one-armed virtuoso. Ludwig himself did not excel at piano, but developed an ear for matching pitch by whistling, managed to teach himself the clarinet, and attended countless concerts and private rehearsals that featured works by well-known Viennese composers—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms (who was apparently an occasional guest at the family home), and the like.

But the whistling philosopher was also something of an aesthetic conservative. He tended to avoid the elaborately demanding media of modern music, reportedly even walking out on concerts featuring large-scale Romantic works by Mahler and Richard Strauss, to say nothing of music by Schoenberg or Berg. Something about the consonant legibility of simple, rounded musical phrases drew him in. In 1915, in a short-lived cognitive fit, he scribbled that there must (p.161) have been some underlying grammar or logic to it all: “Musical themes are in a certain sense propositions. Knowledge of the essence of logic will lead to the knowledge of music’s essence.”1

Whatever the case, his youthful confidence in the link between the logic of prepositions and musical themes could only purport to explain short sequences of tones—seconds, not minutes, of music. It perhaps would not surprise us to find that, confronted with the gramophone in Cambridge, his listening practice, like his philosophy, collapsed wholesale into obsessive close reading and analysis.2 He used the machine to fashion himself a temporal magnifying glass on short segments of music by repeatedly picking up the tone arm and dropping it ahead of the same passage again and again, cutting musical totalities down to jerry-rigged musical loops.3

Another anecdote comes to us from a diary kept by David Pinsent, an amateur pianist and a classmate of Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge. It gives us traces of a still more intimate scene of listening:

Monday, December 9, 1912

Went to tea chez Wittgenstein at 4.30. Later we went on together to the CUMC [Cambridge University Music Club] –where we performed several songs of Schumann in our usual manner, I at the piano, he whistling.

Thursday, April 17, 1913

During the morning I did 2 hours work. Lunch in rooms at 12.30. Later I visited Wittgenstein and went with him to the CUMC where we performed several Schubert songs in our usual manner. I returned chez moi about 4.0.

Sunday, April 27, 1913

About 2.0. I visited Wittgenstein. Later he came to my rooms and we performed some Schubert songs in our customary manner.4

Wittgenstein and his classmate, nurturing what is commonly taken by Wittgenstein scholars to have been a homosexual relationship, got in the habit of taking breaks from fierce and temperamental debates about logic, and took afternoon retreats to a queer scene, together retracing the Sehnsucht of nineteenth-century Lieder, Wittgenstein whistling ohne Worte. It was a ritual of pleasure for two men that was also a relief from the territory of semantics; Wittgenstein may have been too shy to sing out, measure by measure, one-on-one, the extroversion hanging in the ether beyond, say, Heinrich Heine’s poetry in Schumann’s “Dichterliebe: Da ist in meinem Herzen die Liebe aufgegangen.” (p.162)

Wittgenstein’s Silence

Example I.1. Robert Schumann, Dichterliebe (1840), op. 48, mm. 4–12.

Source:Robert Schumann, Robert Schumanns Werke, Serie XIII, ed. Clara Schumann (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel; Farnsborough, UK: Gregg Press, 1967).

(p.163) But in the safety of a socially acceptable ritual at the Cambridge University Music Club, some kind of love (or sublimation, to borrow from the vocabulary of psychoanalysis) sprang up in the philosopher’s heart, as Pinsent used his hands at the piano to support a soaring melody curiously devoid of content. The two men made a habit of recreating yearning suspensions, the philosopher’s wordless air buoyed by Pinsent’s delicate lacing of arpeggios.

We can only guess exactly which lieder. But it is worth recalling a likely candidate, one of the more studied openings in all of musical Romanticism. In the opening of the first song of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” (example I.1), a sour dissonance begins with a major seventh in the absence of any real tonal context and grows, amidst a thicket of chromatic tones, into a very skeletal first-inversion B minor triad that twice resolves down a half step to the dominant seventh of F# minor. Schumann then swiftly changes course while we are hearing “Im wunder schönen Monat Mai,” and cadences us twice into A major, only to immediately lift us up through an ascending phrase that tonicizes B minor and D major in sequence. Quite famously, the fragmentary twists and turns keep the tonal framework ambiguous enough to evoke the jagged emotional territory of an impossible romance.5 Such complex affective traffic, structured by several media (Pinsent’s piano, Wittgenstein’s whistling lips, a score, the sound of Schumann’s experiments in tonal ambiguity and fragmentary form, and of course Heine’s unsung poetry), never constituted the substance of Wittgenstein’s propositions on music, nor did they have a place in his ordinary language philosophy. A scattering of notes seems only addressed to the most basic choreography of classical form, leaving the murkier speculations on music’s affective complexity arrested in silence.

Notwithstanding the weight of the verb schweigen, architect Paul Engelmann, a friend of Wittgenstein’s, could recall exceptions that leave traces of the philosopher’s unpublished astonishment. Singling out a particular line from Eduard Mörike’s 1856 Künstlernovelle on Mozart, he recalled: “Wittgenstein was enraptured by Mörike’s immortal story Mozart’s Journey to Prague, and in it especially by the passages describing musical effects in words: ‘coming as from remotest starry worlds, the sounds fall from the mouth of silver trombones, icy cold, cutting through marrow and soul; fall through the blueness of the night,’ he would recite with a shudder of awe.”6

But shuddering amidst a torrent of musical inconsistency, this once enthusiastic reader of Schopenhauer now yearned for logic. In 1947, with the ponderous modesty of old age, the philosopher qualified his reflections but remained fixated on the local particularity of a musical language; a certain kind (p.164) of Versprachlichung. With regard to performances by Josef Labor (his brother Paul’s famous piano teacher), Wittgenstein wrote:

Think about how it was said of Labor’s playing ‘He is speaking.’ How curious! What was it about his playing that was so reminiscent of speaking? And how remarkable that this similarity with speaking is not something we find incidental, but an important and big matter!—We should like to call music, and certainly some music, a language; and no doubt this does apply to some music—and to some no doubt not.7

But the philosopher left Labor’s pianistic proximity to speaking at that, leaving blank—and we have to assume unthought—the precise criteria for inclusion and exclusion in music’s Versprachlichung. By the 1960s, this hiatus had left openings for musically minded disciples of Wittgenstein, like Stanley Cavell, to meditate two decades later, in the heyday of institutional serialism, on what a truly intelligible “language” of music might have been. Wittgenstein had no name or real grammar for it; Cavell, who himself had tried his hand at being a composer in an institutional setting but had found a few weeks of lessons at Julliard uninspiring and the advent of total serialism objectionable, opted for the nondoctrinaire and humanist name “improvisation.”8

Though a few analytic philosophers have gone on to deepen this insight and argue that, say, certain musical practices exemplify a kind of Versprachlichung, here I would forgo the task of reconstruction.9 To draw this story into the broader narrative of my analysis, let us instead take Wittgenstein’s hiatus as a symptom. To his mind, a musical theme may have loosely resembled the metaphysical “picturing” that accompanied the logical assemblage of thought propositions and images. But in the absence of any further thesis, perhaps the famous chill of the Tractatus’s seventh proposition remains in effect, sealing music’s fate with that verb that has no real English equivalent, schweigen—something like “to be silent” or “keep quiet.” Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber maß man schweigen. Despite Ludwig’s professed love for chamber music, household pianos, public concerts, and gramophones, a befuddlement or a chiasm fell to the young author of the Tractatus, who seems to have sensed the multiplicities of meaning behind his whistled yearning and just left it at that, making sure he would not get it wrong.


(1.) “Die musikalischen Themen sind in gewissem Sinne Satze. Die Kenntnis des Wesens der Logik wird deshalb zur Kenntnis des Wesens der Musik führen.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks (7.2.15), translation mine.

(2.) For a succinct take on Wittgenstein’s musical biography, see Bela Szabados, “Wittgenstein the Musical: Notes towards an Appreciation,” in Canadian Aesthetics Journal/Revue canadienne d’esthétique 10 (Fall 2004), available online at http://www.uqtr.ca/AE/Vol_10/wittgenstein/szabados.htm, accessed October 6, 2012.

(4.) “Extracts from the diary of David Pinsent,” in Portraits of Wittgenstein, 200, 204, 205.

(8.) Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say? 200–202.

(9.) Later Anglo-American academic philosophers would adopt Wittgenstein’s isolated musical observations and link them back up with more developed branches of his thought in order to produce a fuller Wittgenstinian “philosophy” of music. See, for example, Jerrold Levinson, “Musical Thinking,” Journal of Music and Meaning 1, no. 2 (Fall 2003), http://www.musicandmeaning.net/issues/showArticle.php?artID=1.2, accessed November 14, 2012.