The meaning of music, from the Greeks to the 20th century

Music and the Idea of a World, by Peter Kalkavage

4 minute read
Book cover. Title above on a pale background; an ancient circular music score appears below in black and red.

“Where should this music be? I’th’air or th’earth?” Quoted on the opening page, this line from Shakespeare’s Tempest is the perennial query at the heart of Peter Kalkavage’s new book, Music and the Idea of a World, out now from Philly’s Paul Dry Books. Whether knowingly or innately, intellectually or intuitively, musicians and philosophers have long dealt with this question.

Here Kalkavage—philosopher, choral musician, and conductor—explores the meaning and function of music and its bond with the world. “World” conjures many things, and he quickly defines his meanings: “the external world or cosmos, the inner world of thought and feeling, world history, and the autonomous tonal world,” along with the worlds of specific musical works, especially vocal compositions, that he explores here in detail.

Music is the melody, the world is the text

The impetus for this thoughtful and challenging book arose when Kalkavage decided to assemble four university lectures he delivered over a 20-year span. The volume traverses how music has been considered from the Pythagorean Greeks into the 20th century, a daunting swath of time and cultures.

After his explanatory preface, Kalkavage launches into the first of seven meaty sections, the title chapter in which he contrasts two philosophers separated by time, Plato and Schopenhauer. He first dives into Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, where three illustrious politicians debate the importance of music as “the mathematical harmonization of . . . the visible, touchable cosmos.” Kalkavage then turns to music as viewed by Arthur Schopenhauer, considering the 19th-century German philosopher’s seminal The World as Will and Representation “one of the most fascinating discussions of music ever written”. One of its tenets is that “music is the melody to which the world is the text”; in contrast to Plato’s view, music actually is the world.

How does music move us?

The next chapter (“Victor Zuckerkandl on Music and Nature”) explores the works of the Austrian musicologist and educator who taught at St. John’s College (in Annapolis) from 1948-1964. His books (including Sound and Symbol) are seminal texts in musical theory and appreciation. Here, Kalkavage cites diverse musicians and examples: Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, Chopin’s Polonaise in A Major, and La Marseillaise (the French national anthem), as he explores Zuckerkandl’s musical concept that tonal harmonic music is a living force, a way to access the world in which we live.

He then begins five considerations of specific musical works and their impact on listeners, musicology, and philosophy. First is “The Power of Song in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion”, focused on the soprano aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben /Out of love is my Savior willing to die”. This detailed analysis (the aria appears in the book’s appendix) reflects on the work’s emotional power and seeks to know how this (and other works like it) can so move a listener.

Mozart and Mann

Chapter four (“The Musical Universe and Mozart’s Magic Flute”) moves from “Bach’s musicalized world of divine love to the love between man and woman” with a close analysis of Prince Tamino’s aria—“Dies Bildnis is bezaubernd schön/This image is enchantingly beautiful”—as he reflects on the power of song and Mozart’s use of Masonic symbols. (This score too appears in the appendix.) In chapter five, Kalkavage considers “Schopenhauer’s Will and Wagner’s Eros”, looking at the musical world of Tristan and Isolde, a work that the author feels combines the human and the divine, culminating in “reconciliation with the external world, in which great evil is mixed with good”.

The book’s penultimate section switches to focus on a novel. “Magic Circle, Magic Square: The Devil and Dodecaphony in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus” explores “the diabolical potential of music”. The chapter begins with a summary of the principles of 12-tone or serial music, linking that movement to authoritarian images in the 1947 novel by Mann, whom Kalkavage considers “the musician among poets”.

From woe to wonder

Kalkavage concludes with “The Sanctity of Fear in Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites”. This 1957 opera is based on a historical event: in 1794, 16 nuns were guillotined in Paris. Poulenc called his opera both terrifying and “a play about grace”. Citing specific musical passages, Kalkavage posits that “through the uncanny [emotive and revelatory] power of music” great composers “point beyond woe to wonder, acknowledgement, and in the end joy.”

Kalkavage taught philosophy for more than 40 years at St. John’s College, where he was also the director of the St. John’s Chorus, and both of his passions are tightly merged in Music and the Idea of a World. Each chapter is introduced with relevant quotes, and the work is often overtly Christian. As with all scholarship, there are extensive notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and a helpful index. And the book’s cover art is “Tout par compas suy composés/With a compass was I composed”, a striking circular canon by medieval composer Baude Cordier that links science and music, visually evoking the circularity that Kalkavage explores.

At the outset, the author frankly acknowledges that “readers who are innocent of music theory will find the book difficult at times,” and he’s correct. He has packed this work with unusual extended insights, but for those philosophic-minded readers who turn the pages and follow him, Kalkavage succeeds in his stated goal: to “incorporate music into [the reader’s] thinking about life, world, and being”.

What, When, Where

Music and the Idea of a World. By Peter Kalkavage. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2024. 325 pages (including an appendix of musical scores, notes, bibliography, and index), paperback; $24.95. Get it at

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