The Purpose of Art

Posted on Posted in What I Think

The following is an excerpt from Pulitzer Prize finalist Christoph Wolff’s biography on Johann Sebestian Bach entitled “A Learned Musician”.  In it Birnbaum, a contemporary and friend of Bach is described by Wolff as “…Bach’s mouthpiece articulating the composer’s view on art and nature…”  The excerpt describes music as a “mixed mathematical science” insisting, to be beautiful, art at its core must express a rational and logical order that is achieved through discipline, study, imitation and devotion.  I hope you enjoy it.

“The essential aims of true art are to imitate nature, and, where necessary, to aid it.  If art imitates nature, then indisputably the natural element must everywhere shine through in works of art.  Accordingly it is impossible that art should take away the natural element from those things in which it imitates nature-including music.  If art aids nature, then its aim is to preserve it, and to improve its condition; certainly not to destroy it.  Many things are delivered to us by nature in the most misshapen states, which, however, acquire the most beautiful appearance when they have been formed by art.  Thus art lends nature a beauty it lacks, and increases the beauty it possesses.  Now, the greater the art is-that is, the more industriously and painstakingly it works at the improvement of nature-the more brilliantly shines the beauty thus brought into being.  Accordingly it is impossible that the greatest art should darken the beauty of a thing.”

…Birnbaum’s argument draws in part on Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus), a 1725 counterpoint treatise whose author, Johann Joseph Fux, refers to “art which imitates and perfects nature, but never destroys it.”  Bach owned a copy of this important Latin treatise and may well have directed Birnbaum to emphasize the ancient Aristotelian principal “art imitates nature,” a dictum that lay at the heart of what Bach considered musical science.  For Bach, art lay between the reality of the world-nature-and God, who ordered this reality.  Indeed, Leipzig philosophers subscribed to that relationship, especially when defining beauty and nature.  “What is art? An imitation of nature,” writes Bach’s student Lorenz Christoph Mizler in the same year and place as Birnbaum’s defense of Bach.  It follows, then, that musical structure-‘harmonia’, in the terminology of Bach’s time- ultimately refers to the order of nature and in it’s divine cause.  Or, put more lyrically, “Music is a mixed mathematical science that concerns the origins, attributes, and distinctions of sound, out of which a cultivated and lovely melody and harmony are made, so that God is honored and praised but mankind is moved to devotion, virtue, joy, and sorrow.”