Mind over music

To premiere a mere four bars of music composed by Ludwig Wittgenstein may seem spurious. But those few notes aptly symbolise the philosopher's extraordinary versatility and far-reaching cultural influence, writes Simon Tait

Ludwig Wittgenstein's only known musical work had its world premiere last week in Cambridge. It is called, according to the title that he had pencilled above his two-line score, Leidenschaftlich (in English, "Passionate"). At four bars, it lasts less than 30 seconds and is little more than a powerful, fiery flourish.

Yet it brought an invited audience of 150 curious Wittgenstein enthusiasts, unaware of his musical pretensions, to Emmanuel College's acoustically refined, new Queen's Hall auditorium, including the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, the new master of Wittgenstein's own college, Trinity; the composer Anthony Powers; and the architect Sir Colin St John Wilson, who built the new British Library.

On their programmes was a photograph of the tiny scrap of lined notepaper on which Wittgenstein had scrawled his four bars. "There's nothing particularly remarkable about it," says Powers. "We haven't found a snatch of a lost great work. But it's like the continuation of an incomplete sentence, as if he had started to say something and hadn't the words to finish it, and turned to music. That's what is really interesting."

The little phrase was discovered by Dr Michael Nedo, director of the Wittgenstein Institute at Cambridge, in a notebook of 1931. It had survived Wittgenstein's destructive frenzy of all his preparatory work because everything he wrote in his home city of Vienna between 1929 and 1938 had been sequestered at the annexation of Austria, out of his reach.

"We don't know if this was supposed to be part of something else, but what we can tell is that it was written by someone used to writing musical notation," Nedo says. "It clearly came naturally to him."

That the father of 20th-century philosophy should find himself lost for words should not be a surprise, Nedo says. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," Wittgenstein told philosophers at the end of the preface to his only book published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. What an artist understands and a philosopher doesn't is that there are other much more eloquent forms of expression than mere language.

"He is the most quoted author of our time," says Nedo, himself a physicist by training. "But no one wants to read him. It's because we have to read him as a philosopher, not as an artist - because he is translated by philosophers who use philosophical language, which was not his."

The concert, performed by the Viennese Aron Quartet, was the first in an annual series devised to highlight the philosopher's dependence and influence on art. It included the music he loved: Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and a clarinet quartet by another family friend, Joseph Labor, which Wittgenstein had always wanted to have performed in his adoptive home of Cambridge but that, until last week, never was. (The clarinet was the only instrument that Wittgenstein learnt to play.)

The concert also marked the publication, after 40 years of research and preparation, of the first 17 volumes of the complete written works of Wittgenstein, edited by Nedo, who presents them in the multi-layered way that he believes Wittgenstein would have wanted. There are perhaps another 50 volumes to go. "He wrote completely differently from the academic, more like a fugue with repetitions of themes reappearing in changing circumstances," Nedo says. "This is how you understood something, by looking at it again and again, first this way, then that, as you do a musical theme. Philosophers translating him could not understand that, and had to use their own language, which is why he has become unreadable. His heirs made the mistake of striking out the repetitions so the changing nature of his writing was lost."

Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into a wealthy Austrian family that was steeped in art. His sister was painted by Gustav Klimt, the protégé of Ludwig's uncle Paul; his grandfather adopted the 19th-century violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, whom, aged 10, was tutored by Mendelssohn, and who later taught the younger Wittgensteins.

Ludwig's many brothers and sisters were also taught piano by such family friends as Clara Schumann and Brahms. Indeed, his older brother Paul became a leading concert pianist, who, remarkably, managed to continue his platform career even after losing his right arm while fighting on the Polish front in the First World War. Richard Strauss, Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, Korngold and Franz Schmidt were among the major composers who wrote left-hand piano works for him.

Yet Ludwig never learnt the piano. "It was acknowledged that he was the one with the best ear and the best eye, but he knew too well the limitations of his creative powers as a musician, and this was not his vocation," says Nedo.

Finding his vocation took Ludwig Wittgenstein half his lifetime. He was a natural and gifted engineer, fascinated by mechanical flight. In 1908, aged 19, he went to Manchester to study aeronautics, and actually patented a helicopter system. He moved on to study mathematics at Cambridge, which turned him towards philosophy, and in about 1912 he was introduced to Bertrand Russell and G W Moore, who became his mentors. He was to be associated with Cambridge, on and off, for the rest of his life, eventually succeeding Moore as professor of philosophy.

In 1913, he inherited a large fortune from his father, which he gave away as a distraction. A year later, when war broke out, he joined the Austrian army, winning medals for bravery, and also developing the thoughts that became his Tractatus. But he suffered from deep depressions at the Front, and tried to relieve them by organising fellow-soldiers to sing or whistle multipart Bach fugues.

He completed his Tractatus soon after the war - it was eventually published in 1922 thanks to Russell's influence - and for Wittgenstein it contained all that needed to be said about philosophy: "It is in two parts," he said, archly. "All that I have written and all that I have not written." A major thesis of the Tractatus is that language has become confused, unclear and obfuscating, as if it is clothing concealing the naked truth. The covering could be torn away by the artist, particularly the composer who has a multi-layered language at his disposal, one that can not only repeat but make different statements simultaneously.

In the 1920s, Wittgenstein turned his back on philosophy to become a village primary- school teacher (which is when he was obliged to learn the clarinet), devising an entire curriculum and a primary-school dictionary. He also repaired the steam engine at the local weaving mill, experimented with photography and tried his hand at sculpture. Then Wittgenstein became a gardener's assistant at a monastery, and at one point described himself as an architect. He actually designed a modernist house in Vienna for his sister Gretl, which still stands but is a sadly run-down monument to his extraordinary versatility.

Then, in 1929, Russell and Moore persuaded him to return to Cambridge to teach at Trinity, and until war broke out again, he divided his time between there and Vienna. He stayed in Britain during the Second World War, working as a hospital porter, and returned to Cambridge at the end but resigned his professorship in 1947 to concentrate on writing his Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, two years after his death, at 62, from cancer.

"Wittgenstein was not only inspired and comforted by art, he was an inspiration for artists," says Nedo. His taste, says Anthony Powers, was surprisingly conservative: his favourite painter was Pissarro, and he seldom went anywhere without the poems of Goethe or Kleist, or the writing of E T A Hoffmann, another polymath from a century earlier who left behind a symphony, nine operas and two masses.

"You would think that with his modernist turn of mind, he would like modern music, but though he knew people such as Schoenberg and Webern, his likes didn't get far beyond Brahms," Powers says.

He does, nevertheless, inspire modern composers. Elisabeth Lutyens wrote a motet inspired by him, and Powers himself has composed a chorale based on the Tractatus. "The phrasing, the form of words he uses, the way some sentences look as if they have meaning but actually go nowhere, are all amazingly musical, and it seems a perfectly natural thing to put it to music," Powers explains.

Wittgenstein has also been a major influence on contemporary artists such as Barnett Newman and John Latham, and Derek Jarman, who made a stark television film about Wittgenstein shortly before his death in 1994. Jarman is believed to have been heavily influenced by Wittgenstein for his strange last film, Blue.

And the architect Sir Colin St John Wilson has also been a lifelong adherent to Wittgenstein. By an extraordinary coincidence, the house he built for himself in Cambridge in the 1960s is now the home of the Wittgenstein Institute. "I'm a devoted fanatic, but I would regard him as a rogue architect. Even so, though I had never seen Wittgenstein's house in Vienna, the similarities between the ideas in it and in my house are quite startling."

Philosophy as a discipline was too protective, Wittgenstein said, and failed for him because it could not look beyond its own tight confines. "The creative ambition of an artist, on the other hand," says Michael Nedo, "is to make us see things differently, to see the world afresh. As Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus, '...then he sees the world rightly'."

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