Opera and the Limits of Philosophy: on Bernard Williams's Music Criticism

Bernard Williams was working on two very different projects when he was diagnosed with the cancer that ended his life in 2003. He postponed the first, a collection of essays on the subject of opera, in favour of the second, which would turn out to be his last philosophical book. Published a year before his death, Truth and Truthfulness quickly established itself as one of the most intriguing recent defences of the notion of truth in the face of the perceived encroachment of relativism on scholarship and everyday thinking. Instead of offering a theory of truth, Williams put forward an argument for the necessity of truthfulness—of truth-telling and truth-intending—based on the idea that neither individual nor a community of language users can function without prizing truthfulness and its supporting virtues of accuracy and sincerity. His argument was highly unusual in espousing a commitment to truth in evaluative terms—roughly, that it is necessary to uphold truth because being truthful is so valuable to us—and in unfolding an account of truthfulness along genealogical lines similar to those he had used in his earlier and well-known elaboration of ‘thick’ evaluative concepts.

It is not to be regretted that Williams gave priority to this book over his collection of opera essays, especially considering that the latter consisted of articles previously published elsewhere. After his death, the volume was edited by the philosopher's widow, Patricia Williams, and published at the end of 2006 as On Opera, with an introduction by his Cambridge colleague and opera-going companion, Michael Tanner.

There is nonetheless a sense in which one might have wished Williams had been allowed more time to work on the collection (in such as way as to make a whole greater the sum of the parts). Although it is clear in all the essays of which On Opera is comprised (and in particular in the opening essay, ‘The Nature of Opera’) that their author is not only an exceptionally learned and thoughtful student of opera but also a philosopher, the reader misses any sense of a philosophy of opera being advanced or developed. This is all the more of a shame when one considers that Williams himself apparently lamented that the amount of ‘helpful operatic criticism’ was so small. As Tanner puts it,

the questions, which it was [once] routinely assumed that critics should deal with, of the meaning and significance of a given work of art, and also of the art form to which it belongs, simply don’t get dealt with in most of what passes for opera criticism.

At the same time, there is a relatively little material specific to opera in the otherwise burgeoning literature on the philosophy of music. Given that Williams was both a thinker of unusual clarity as well as an opera lover of rare cultivation and critical self-awareness, the volume's failure to offer something approaching a through-composed philosophy of opera seems like a missed opportunity.

This thought should not of course be taken as a negative assessment of the volume. Taken on its own terms—as a volume of musicologically and philosophically thought-provoking essays—On Opera surely makes for required reading for anyone who takes the genre seriously. A number of the essays, such as those on Don Giovanni, Così fan Tutte, Tosca, and Pelléas et Mélisande are classics of opera criticism. Others, such as the transcribed 1974 BBC radio lecture on ‘Mozart's Figaro, A Question of Class?’, or the previously unpublished lecture on Verdi's Don Carlos, might well have become classics too. And while some, such as the commentary on Paul Robinson's 1985 Opera and Ideas,6 or the address ‘Authenticity and Re-creation’ to the International Musicological Society, show Williams as aware of and responsive to recent developments in academic writing about music and opera, most are refreshingly free of reference to intellectual trends or of jargon. They bear instead the mark of an astute mind and passionate listener paying his dues to and teasing out the deeper meaning from some of the operas he loves.

To be sure, Williams's opera criticism counted as a labour of love. This is quite evident in the last of the essays, dedicated to Isaiah Berlin, where Williams applies Schiller's distinction between the ‘naïve’ and the ‘sentimental’ to opera. Williams argued that just as there can no longer (after Verdi) be any naïve operas, so there can no longer be any naïve experience of opera. None the less, he observes, even if the entirety of operatic experience is shot through with reflectiveness, there remains one element left of the naïve. ‘Opera is one case in which love is almost entirely expressed in enjoyment. What you love, you straightforwardly enjoy; you look forward to a performance, or at least one that promises to be tolerably good, with pleasure.’

In Bayreuth, the year before his death, Williams made a remark deeply telling of his interest in opera to his student Lydia Goehr: ‘I know a good deal about music, and a good deal about philosophy, but nothing about how they are connected—nor do I particularly want to.’ Williams's love for opera might in this respect be characterized as ‘naïve-sentimental’ in the sense that he attended to it and wrote about it with the intellectual tools and cultural sophistication at his disposal, but wanted to maintain a distance between his musical passions and his philosophical work. If this is right, perhaps we should not look too closely for connections between his operatic writing and his philosophy. And yet, and this is what I aim to show in the remainder of this essay, the points of contact are potentially illuminating for both sides.

Read the complete essay here, or as a pdf here

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