Hear a 19-Hour Playlist of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Favorite Music: Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and… Yvette Guilbert

Among his many var­ied interests—which, in addi­tion to phi­los­o­phy, includ­ed aero­nau­ti­cal engi­neer­ing and archi­tec­tureLud­wig Wittgen­stein was also a great lover of music. Giv­en his well-deserved rep­u­ta­tion for intel­lec­tu­al aus­ter­i­ty, we might assume his musi­cal tastes would tend toward min­i­mal­ist com­posers of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry like fel­low Aus­tri­an Arnold Schoen­berg. The “order­ly seri­al­ism,” of Schoenberg’s aton­al music “does seem an obvi­ous com­ple­ment to Wittgenstein’s phi­los­o­phy,” writes Grant Chu Cov­ell. “Observers have won­dered why the famous­ly arro­gant thinker who attempt­ed to infuse phi­los­o­phy with log­ic didn’t find Schoenberg’s 12-tone sys­tem attrac­tive.”

But indeed, he did not—in fact, Wittgen­stein despised almost all mod­ern music and seemed to believe that “noth­ing of val­ue had been com­posed after the 19th century’s demise.” While his philo­soph­i­cal work made as rad­i­cal a break with the past as Schoenberg’s the­o­ry, when it came to music, the philoso­pher was a strict tra­di­tion­al­ist who “liked to say that there were only six tru­ly great com­posers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schu­bert, Brahms and Labor.”

This last name will hard­ly be famil­iar to most read­ers. Labor, a blind organ­ist and com­pos­er, was a close friend of the Wittgen­stein fam­i­ly and a teacher of Ludwig’s broth­er Paul (and of Schoen­berg as well). Although he lived into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Labor main­ly drew his influ­ence from ear­ly music.

The extrav­a­gant­ly wealthy Wittgen­steins were a musi­cal family—both Ludwig’s old­er broth­ers became musi­cians. Wittgenstein’s par­ents and grand­par­ents knew Brahms, adopt­ed vio­lin­ist Joseph Joachim, a dis­tant cousin, into the fam­i­ly, and fre­quent­ly host­ed such lumi­nar­ies as Gus­tav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Lud­wig him­self learned to play the clar­inet and “was a fas­tid­i­ous lis­ten­er,” Cov­ell notes. “Acquain­tances mar­veled at his vir­tu­oso whistling. His reper­toire includ­ed Brahms’ Haydn Vari­a­tions and oth­er sym­phon­ic works. He would unhesi­tat­ing­ly cor­rect oth­ers’ inac­cu­rate hum­ming or singing.” He sup­pos­ed­ly had an “untir­ing obses­sion with per­fect recre­ations of the clas­sics.”

The philosopher’s per­fec­tion­ism lead to some harsh crit­i­cal judg­ments. “Brahms is Mendelssohn with­out the flaws,” he wrote. He declared Mahler “worth­less… quite obvi­ous­ly it took a set of very rare tal­ents to pro­duce this bad music.” What did Wittgen­stein val­ue in music besides an ide­al of per­fec­tion? Gram­mar, silence, and pro­fun­di­ty. “The music of the Baroque era… made use of the spe­cial effect of silence,” writes Yael Kaduri at Con­tem­po­rary Aes­thet­ics. “The gen­er­al pause of the Baroque was used to illus­trate con­cepts such as eter­ni­ty, death, infin­i­ty and silence in vocal music.” These con­cepts “did not dis­ap­pear in the tran­si­tion to the clas­sic era.” Haydn’s music in par­tic­u­lar “con­tains so many gen­er­al paus­es that it seems they form an intrin­sic com­po­nent of his musi­cal lan­guage.”

Wittgen­stein had oth­er cri­te­ria as well, much of it, sure­ly, as enig­mat­ic as the prin­ci­ples that gov­erned his thought. What does become clear, Cov­ell argues, is that “Wittgen­stein could only have been attract­ed to com­mon-prac­tice tonal­i­ty, with its cod­i­fied rules and delin­eation between orna­ment and form.” He need­ed “a sys­tem the details of which enhance an under­ly­ing struc­ture.” In the playlist above, you can hear a selec­tion of the philoso­pher’s favorites. Com­piled by Wittgen­stein biog­ra­ph­er Ray Monk, the playlist omits Haydn, for some rea­son, but includes Wag­n­er and Roman­tic com­pos­er Georges Bizet.

You’ll also find one rare excep­tion to Wittgenstein’s obses­sion with clas­si­cal musi­cal order: cabaret actress and singer Yvette Guil­bert, favorite sub­ject of artist Hen­ri Toulouse-Lautrec and one­time star of the Moulin Rouge. The famous­ly soli­tary, severe, and ill-tem­pered philoso­pher may have, it seems, nur­tured a soft­er side after all.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus Logi­co-Philo­soph­i­cus Sung as a One-Woman Opera

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Lud­wig Wittgen­stein & His Philo­soph­i­cal Insights on the Prob­lems of Human Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

Lud­wig Wittgenstein’s Short, Strange & Bru­tal Stint as an Ele­men­tary School Teacher

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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