Book Review: François Noudelmann’s The Philosopher’s Touch

The philosopher’s intimate confidant: the piano of Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes

Friedrich Nietzsche at the piano: He loved Chopin, seemingly at odds with his nihilist ideas | Photo: Cambridge University Press

Friedrich Nietzsche at the piano: He loved Chopin, seemingly at odds with his nihilist ideas | Photo: Cambridge University Press

Eavesdropping on a Private World of Music

Asking a new acquaintance about their favourite music always has a subtle undercurrent: “Is this a person I could love?” Like movies, food or books, sharing music is a means of discovery. Tell me what you listen to and I will tell you who you are. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “All of life is a discussion of tastes and colours.”

But when the French philosopher François Noudelmann was shown a film of Jean-Paul Sartre playing the piano, he noticed a striking incoherency. When at home, Sartre played Chopin. How did this fit? The revolutionary intellectual playing pieces by the sentimental Romantic?

The thoughts aroused by these questions led Noudelmann to writing the lovely slender volume The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano, three essays plus a prologue and a short coda about the piano playing of Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Roland Barthes. All three philosophers were proficient amateurs and played the piano daily.  Noudelmann lets us eavesdrop on their choice of music, style of playing, and the composers they loved.

The author describes his book as a “stroll”, a stroll with a leitmotif – the piano as these famous thinkers’ intimate confidant. Playing the piano provided them another “voice”, a private one that was often very different from the words they wrote, or how they spoke in public. But Noudelmann also believes that playing the piano “allowed them to think differently about the world.” We are thus given a remarkable new way of considering both them and their philosophical work.


The ‘total intellecutal’

Sartre had an insatiable curiosity, and as a “total intellectual”, he felt himself authorized to write about any discipline. As described by Noudelmann: “Intellectuals, on principle, get involved with what doesn’t concern them.” Was Sartre interested in music? Yes, in the 1970s he began to discuss the avant-garde music of Stockhausen, Messiaen, Xenakis, Berio. But where did his heart lie? With Chopin and the piano. It was here, in his private realm, that he could allow himself to find the feminine, a state of mind that was “utterly against society, violence, language and revolt.”

Nietzsche’s relation to music is better known, especially his intense admiration and later break with Richard Wagner. Nietzsche was also a composer, and longed to be considered a serious musician. But he remained a dilettante, a passionate improviser who continued to play the piano even during his last days, when mental illness had taken away all other forms of communication. Nietzsche also loved Chopin. As Noudelmann remarks, there are some who would say that this is merely a detail. “But a great deal, if not everything, gets told through such choices.” They reveal “affinities of thought more profound than any conceptual opposition.”

Barthes played the piano out of love, “he flirted with the music.” His relationship to music was serious and sensual, as indeed the best relationships are. The reader searching for a semiology of music in Barthes will be disappointed: His scattered reflections on music are often about the pleasures of amateurism. His texts contain personal descriptions of “his tastes, his sensitivity, indeed his sexuality, all of which [were] linked to the piano.”

But Noudelmann doesn’t stop at biographical anecdotes. These three philosophers and their pianos are merely a catalyst for Noudelmann, who has begun here to create his own philosophy of music. “Playing music carries with it a whole life of feelings, a life that extends into our social and intellectual activities.” While inspired by the philosophers under consideration, the eloquence of musical description is Noudelmann’s own.

Happily, the translation by Brian J. Reilly does not flatten the lush French-ness of the book, which has a certain density that sometimes feels as if the author is looking for a metaphor to explain the metaphor. The florid style reveals a luxurious mode of thinking that moves leisurely yet flexibly. There are also moments of gentle wit. My favourite: “Jazz is like bananas: it has to be eaten on the spot.”


The pleasures of the text

Those who don’t play an instrument are not left out. Noudelmann’s insightful reflections on the differences between reading words and reading notes – both connected to “the pleasure of the text” – will perhaps let them understand the unique subtleties involved in playing music. And his clear descriptions of the touch of ivory keys let us feel in our own fingers, however briefly, what it must be like to play the piano.

In addition to teaching at Paris VIII, the innovative university founded in 1969, Noudelmann also has a radio show on the public channel France Culture called Je l’entends comme je l’aime (“I listen to him as I love him”). The title is a quote of Barthes describing how he listened to Schumann. But it can also be read as “I understand it the way I love it.” Here Noudelmann is continuing the thoughts first stirred by Sartre, Nietzsche and Barthes.

The Philosopher’s Touch flows with its own musical rhythm; it follows its own musical metaphors and patterns. It is an improvisation on the theme of the piano and philosophy, this supported by Noudlemann’s own rich knowledge of both subjects, as well as his emotional response to them. This is not musicology, it is not a music history nor is it musical biography: It is a musical reverie, a meditation, best if savoured slowly.

Philosopher's TouchThe Philosopher’s Touch:
Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano
by François Noudelmann (translated from the French by Brian J. Reilly)
Columbia University Press, (2011)

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