Tag Archives: music

Leibniz and Burnett and Toland and Bach

Some non-expert meanderings…

Reading Eric Silbin’s The Cello Suites, a book about J.S. Bach, his cello suites, and Pablo Casals, I came across this passage: “When Bach was hired at Cöthen in 1717, the court Capelle consisted of sixteen musicians, the core of whom came from the disbanded Berlin Capelle, courtesy of rising Prussian militarism” (p.63). That was the Capelle that was in Berlin under Frederick I, and disbanded after he died in 1713. Now Frederick I had been married to Sophie Charlotte, who had died in 1705. And Sophie Charlotte is somewhat familiar from the history of modern philosophy, at least because of her connections with Leibniz.[1] Other philosophically engaged figures had connections here too. For example, John Toland travelled there, and described the court in a book, and Leibniz’s correspondent Thomas Burnett, about whom I’ve been writing, had been there too. Thus, for example, Burnett wrote to Catherine Trotter from Berlin on 5 December 1704:

I have no delight in the hearing or seeing any woman, since I came abroad, like the queen, who, never, I believe, spoke, but with satisfaction to the hearer. Her concern for me is so great, that I am ashamed therof. It hath made me many open flatterers, and it may be hidden enemies.[2]

So these philosophical types had been at the court in Berlin. And some of Bach’s musicians in Cöthen had also been at the court in Berlin. So, I wondered, were any of those musicians who moved to Cöthen in 1713 among the musicians who might have been heard by the philosophers in Berlin?

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Sympathy, spirits, and strings

[Cross posted from Modsquad.]

This post brings me back to my earlier themes of materialism and panpsychism. But it largely developed from my trying to understand one of Henry More’s examples. More believed there to be incorporeal substances, including human minds, ghosts, and a further spirit quite unlike the others, the spirit of nature. More’s central argument for the existence of a spirit of nature relied on a series of examples of phenomena that could (allegedly) only be explained with reference to such a spirit.

One such phenomenon was the sympathetic resonance of unison strings. Roughly speaking, given two strings that are tuned to the same note, if the first is sounded, the second will start to sound the note as well, even though it has not been plucked or otherwise touched itself. As More puts it, there is a power that “makes strings that be tuned Unisons (though on several Instruments) the one being touched, the other to tremble and move very sensibly, and to cast off a straw or pin or any such small thing laid upon it” (More 1659, 451).

More was far from the first philosopher to notice this phenomenon. The example occurs in such diverse places as Plotinus’s Enneads (4.4.40-4, quoted at Gouk 1999, 87), and Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum (Bacon 1627, 72). Hume later used it to help illustrate his psychological sort of sympathy. Of most immediate relevance, however, is a discussion in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle.

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