The Spinozist

writing by Paul Mendrik

Mozart: Desire and Joy

May 29, 2020

As a young man I was taken to a concert of Mozart’s music. My tastes back then were of the popular kind, so I was surprised to find myself overcome with passion for his work; a passion that has lasted ever since.

Of course, music in general generates emotion: it jostles us, touches us, upsets us - often permanently. But can we say that music expresses emotion? The nuance may seem subtle, but it allows for the possibility to evaluate music and to grasp the “affects” from the experience. Listening is actively capturing the dynamics of a musical work; listening evokes, as an echo, an emotional dynamic in the listener.

It is as a philosopher that I address the affectivity of the musical phenomenon. I have chosen to use the term “affects”, a term well anchored in Spinoza’s philosophy.

Perhaps Kierkegaard was the first philosopher to show his admiration for Mozart’s work, specifically with his study of Don Giovanni in Either/Or. Here, he expresses his emotions with singular intensity.

“Immortal Mozart! You to whom I owe everything: to whom I owe that I lost my mind, that my soul was astounded, that I was terrified at the core of my being: you to whom I owe that I did not go through life without encountering something that could shake me, you whom I thank because I did not die without having loved, even though my love was unhappy.”

This experience is within everyone’s grasp: music arouses many emotions. Listening to a Mozart opera, The Marriage of Figaro or The Magic Flute, especially live, is an unforgettable experience.

The purpose of my reflection on the affects of Mozart’s music, is to capture the concrete affects that can emerge from the experience. The idea that music expresses emotions is not new; it motivated many composers and was the subject of a detailed classification. In his Rules of Composition, the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 - 1704) created a classification of emotions which he called “energy modes”. He listed 18 modes each having a character, a particular affect.

Rules of Composition(1690)

B Major- Plaintive
B Minor - Melancholy
B-Flat Minor - Obscure
B-Flat Major - Majestic
A Major - Happy 
A Minor - Tender 
G Minor - Serious
A Major - Gentle
F Minor - Obscure
F Major - Furious 
E-Flat Minor - Horrible
E-Flat Major - Cruel 
E Major - Quarrelsome
E Minor - Effeminate
D Minor - Pious
D Major - Warlike
C Minor - Sad
C Major - Cheerful

The classification is precise and claims to express a range of well-defined affects, sometimes bordering on caricature. Admittedly, it is based in part on unequal temperaments, with different instruments used to emphasise tensions or harmonies to express the necessary mode. That these energy modes are reinforced by instrumental ones, is undeniable. For example,  recorders sound better in a certain pitch, d and b minor and f major, while for flutes it is d major, b and e minor. The differences between major and minor modes is well established. The major modes tend to be cheerful, whilst the minors are sad. In the same vein, musical perception - the notion of dynamics in time, movements of energy - contrasts an emotional dynamic in the listener. A dynamic which I will explain using Spinoza’s description of the affects.

The affective register comprises a diversified, varied, and contrasted field that develops along two major axes: augmentation and reduction, respectively experienced, in Spinoza’s terms, through the infinite nuances of two major affects:  joy or sadness. 

When I increase my power of being, a movement of growth is qualitatively experienced as joy or the transition from a lesser to a greater perfection. Perfection is the completion of being and in proportion as each thing is more perfect, it possesses more reality (Eth. II Def. VI). Joy is not an emotional state, it is understood in an eminently dynamic sense. The inverse dynamic of reduction is experienced in a negative manner, such as disappointment.

Let’s recall that Desire is the essence of man (Eth. III Def. of the Emotions), that is, the effort whereby man endeavours to persevere in his own being (Eth. III, 6); the effort to persevere is expressed concretely in man as a dynamism aimed at increasing the power of existence, which is the same as the power to act. Desire is not a simple force, it is a significant dynamism aiming to increase its own power. The concept of Desire as “the essence of man”means the pursuit of that which increases its power of being and, therefore,  Joy is essential.

Through this freely sought-after Joy, the human subject senses a great and splendid fulfilment of Desire. It is the expression and the search for that strong and resplendent inner Joy which is found in Mozart’s music.

The Allegro moderato of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, K.207, immediately reveals a dynamism and a determination in the simultaneous access to the theme and its joy. It is all encompassing. The internal digression in the movement, constituted in its reflected moment, is not the intrusion of an ambiguity or a reserve, but a confirmation of a first joy. In this movement, which is essentially dynamic and enthusiastic, Mozart entrust’s the soloist with the expression of tenderness and intimacy, which is at the very heart of a movement consecrated to the dynamism of a conquering joy. Love and joy are linked.

Mozart’s music is both an offering of perfect joy and an awareness of its evanescence. Everything happens in Mozart’s music, as if it were a call to the outside world to conceive, the perfection of the sensuous enjoyment the listener feels in his inner world. It all appears as if, independently of any edifying will or allegiance to orthodoxy, Mozart achieves, through his work and his joy, a bliss which is only promised by religion.

There is in this affect the essential contribution of creation that must be remembered, otherwise we risk analysing the creative movement by the yardstick of failings. The creator’s obstinacy seems to me justified by those rare but real moments of satisfaction lived, which are not always at a minimum, as we have just seen. It captivates a creative activity: a search, the transition to another period, an upheaval. 

It deduces the revival of Desire - the dynamics of a whole existence.