Milan Kundera: An Unbearably Easy Philosopher of Music Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Milan Kundera (1929-2023) was one of the most prominent writers of the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, an author who spoke with unbearable ease about Immortality, Identity, Laughter, and Oblivion; an eyewitness who observed the destruction of the world with an ironic smile; a reasoner who noticed everything but imposed nothing.

Milan Kundera, being an intellectual and a thinker with an impeccable knowledge of art and music, addressed music in almost every text he wrote. In the essayistic digressions that were so characteristic of his novels and, especially in the essays themselves, he appeared as a musicologist-philosopher who scrupulously researched, subtly felt, sincerely loved, and believed in music to the end.

Life and music: first lessons

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, [the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic — L. B.] in the family of the famous Czech musicologist and pianist Ludvik Kundera. His father taught Milan music notation and piano, and, later, took his son to composition lessons. However, as Milan Kundera recalled in his essay Testaments Betrayed, his father desired composition lessons for him, not so much because of his unique talent, but rather because of his father’s “quiet tact”:

It was during the war, and a friend of his, a Jewish composer, was required to wear the yellow star; people had begun to avoid him. Not knowing how to declare his solidarity, my father thought of asking him just then to give me lessons.

Eventually, after a short period of joint lessons in harmony and counterpoint, the teacher was deported to a concentration camp. Milan Kundera, as an adult, recorded several images-memories of his teacher. This is one of them:

Seeing me out after a lesson, he stopped by the door and suddenly said to me: ‘There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven. But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones. It’s like a lawn – if it weren’t there, we couldn’t enjoy the beautiful tree growing on it’.

According to Milan Kundera, this short episode, where “a man who, a while before his hideous journey, stood thinking aloud, in front of a child, about the problem of composing a work of art”, haunted him throughout his life.

“This little nation has never had any artist greater than he”

Milan Kundera’s artistic and musical preferences were largely shaped by his father, who, according to the writer, was his “number one friend.” The undisputed idol in the world of music for both generations was Leoš Janáček. It should be noted that the writer’s father, Ludvik Kundera, was Janáček’s student and later became a director of the Brno Conservatory, established by the composer. Radomyr Mokryk [ a Ukrainian historian and an expert on Eastern European studies — L. B.] notes that Ludvik Kundera, in 1937, came to Kyiv to arrange for the staging of his teacher and idol’s opera in local theaters.

Ludvik Kundera. Photo: BLESK.CZ

The figure of Janáček appears very often on the pages of Milan Kundera’s novels and essays. He reflects on the composer’s personal and artistic life, carefully analyzes his works on both the aesthetic and purely technological levels and provides detailed musical examples.

The writer thinks of Janáček as a “great modernist”, a composer who, in search of a new aesthetic, opposes romantic sentimentalism with its “falsification of feelings” with deep expression. Recognizing the essence of the composer’s creative insights, Kundera calls it nothing less than a tragedy that this “beautiful garden laid out just next door to History”.

While the recognition of other prominent modernists “was delayed by historic catastrophes (Nazism, war),” the writer says, “in Janáček’s case it was his small nation that completely took over the role of the catastrophes.”

Here, as is typical of Milan Kundera’s prose, his reflections expand in concentric circles with the problem of the artist becoming a mirror of the problem of the national culture of the so-called “small nation.” Such nations, dependent on the interests of empires, always remember or even directly experience a state of threat. They have “passed through the antechamber of death”; the life, history, and culture of small nations remain little known to the world, their art is mostly of local importance, and their discoveries came late.

According to Milan Kundera, the main obstacle that prevents the art of small nations from entering the world stage is that “everyone (critics, historians, compatriots as well as foreigners) hooks the art onto the great national family portrait photo and will not let it get away.” 

Kundera immediately confirms his global thoughts with a specific argument:

“The common view in Bohemia, meant as favorable, tears him out of the context of modern music and immures him [Janáček – L.B.] in local concerns: passion for folklore, Moravian patriotism, admiration for Woman, for Nature, for Russia, for Slavitude, and other nonsense.”

Milan Kundera’s essay “My Janacek” with the author’s signature. Photo: DIVADELNI-NOVINY.CZ

It seems that by calling Leoš Janáček, who was not properly accepted in his homeland, the “unloved child of the family,” Milan Kundera, to some extent, associates the composer’s fate with his own since the quoted essay was written in 1993, when the writer was in exile in Paris. Milan Kundera decided to emigrate a few years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; the theme of Soviet occupation has not left his works since then. Back in the early 1970s, the authorities recognized the writer as a “second-category enemy element,” and a few years later, after he and his wife left for France, they deprived him of his Czechoslovakian citizenship and banned his books.

Returning to the topic of Janáček, it is he who the writer bitterly calls the greatest artist of his “small nation.”

Weaving the threads of history

The conflict between art and state ideology, or, more broadly, the conflict between the continuity of traditions in musical history and its one-sided perception, is another important milestone in Milan Kundera’s artistic reflections. Being thoroughly versed in the history of music from the Middle Ages to modernism and being well versed in contemporary art, the writer creates a wide panorama to prove his points. In the text The Call of the Past he gives the following example:

Glenn Gould gives a concert in Moscow for the students of the conservatory. After playing Webern, Schoenberg, and Krenek, he gives his audience a short commentary, saying: ‘The greatest compliment I can give this music is to say that the principles to be found in it are not new, that they are at least five hundred years old’; He then plays three Bach fugues. It was a carefully considered provocation: socialist realism, the official doctrine in Russia at the time, was battling modernism in the name of tradition. Glenn Gould meant to show that the roots of modernist music (forbidden in communist Russia) go much deeper than those of the official music of socialist realism (which was actually nothing but an artificial preservation of romanticism in music).

Milan Kundera polemicizes with the ideological doctrine in its various incarnations. On the pages of Testaments Betrayed and, in the essay, What is Superficial and What is Profound? the writer begins an absentee discussion with a musicologist who called the works of the Renaissance composer Clement Janequin Birdsong [Le Chant des oiseaux] and Women’s Chatter [Le Caquet des femmes] descriptive. Kundera added that “Janequin is a far more complete artist than people are willing to admit, for aside from his undeniable pictorial gifts, his work displays a tender poetry, a penetrating ardor in the expression of feelings. “

Milan Kundera immediately “catches” key words from this text — the poles of bad and good, designated, respectively, as superficial descriptiveness, on the one hand, and depth of feelings, on the other. But Kundera does not accept this interpretation at all.

Milan Kundera says about Janequin’s music, which echoes city noise, birdsong, and sounds of battle or hunting: “This is an art that is elegant, playful, joyous, and full of humor.” Play and laughter are one of the most important factors in Kundera’s prose (his early collection of short stories is called Laughable Loves wherein he looks at virtuous feelings through the prism of laughter, whether funny, ironic, or bitter, but laughter).

That’s why Milan Kundera defends Janequin before the short-sighted musicologist, advocating the right of art to laugh. At the same time the writer immediately goes further, to the even deeper essence of this music:

For Janequin’s critic, superficial are ‘the pictorial gifts’ and ‘description’; profound are the ‘penetrating ardor in the expression of feelings’ and ‘tones of tenderness, admiration, respect’. Thus ‘profound’ is what touches on the feelings. But one could define ‘the profound’ in another way, as what touches on the essential. The problem Janequin touches on in his composition is the fundamental ontological problem of music: the problem of the relation between noise and musical sound.

Janequin’s art reminds us that there exists an acoustic universe outside the human soul, one that consists not merely of nature sounds but also of human voices speaking, singing, and giving sonic flesh to everyday life as well as to festive occasions. He reminds us that the composer can give a great musical form to that “objective” universe.

“The Universe Outside the Human Soul” is a modernist approach upon which Milan Kundera’s musical taste was built. The writer, being sensitive to detail, found these principles in Renaissance music, threading modernity into the eternal spiral of history in his own way.

From the Unknown to the Real

In his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera builds his own take on the history of music using a touching childhood memory, not just by reflecting on the evolution of tonality. The author recalls how his father explained to him, a five-year-old boy at the time, how the tonal system works. The author’s father compared the tonal system to a royal court where the king (tonic) rules, and his two princes (subdominant and dominant) are subordinate to him, as well as “four other dignitaries, each with his own special relation to the king and princes. The court also takes in five other tones, which are called chromatic. They of course occupy first-rank positions in other keys, but here they are only guests.”

From this children’s fairy tale with its metaphor of a court hierarchy, the writer, as if unwinding a ball, draws out the history of music, where eventually the monarchy fell and “a single empire based on equality called the twelve-tone system” emerged.

Kundera writes:

The sonority of music had become more interesting than before, but listeners, accustomed for a millennium to following the keys in their royal-court intrigues, heard a sound without understanding it. Anyway, the twelve-tone empire soon disappeared. After Schoenberg came Varese, and he abolished not only keys but tones themselves (the tones of human voices and musical instruments) replacing them with a subtle, no doubt magnificent structure of noises, but also inaugurating the history of something different based on different principles and a different language.

It’s no secret that the otherness of new music, its difference from the perception of the very essence of music that was common in the classical-romantic era, caused active discussions throughout the twentieth century, and sometimes scandals and a flurry of rejection.

Milan Kundera reflects a lot on how his contemporaries, sometimes the leading musicians of the century, accused modernist composers of being anti-romantic, trying to find “affective activity” in their works and thus “to “salvage” the music of composers who might have too little heart.”

Kundera himself perceives this music in a philosophical way:

For nonsentience is consoling; the world of consentience is the world outside human life; it is eternity; it is the ‘sea that has gone off with the sun’ (Rimbaud). I remember the gloomy years I spent in Bohemia, early in the Russian occupation. I fell in love then with the names Varese and Xenakis: those pictures of sound-worlds that were objective but nonexistent spoke to me of a life freed of human subjectivity, aggressive and burdensome; they spoke to the sweetly nonhuman beauty of the world before or after mankind moved through it.

Milan Kundera has always been a philosopher in music.  Deep reflections on music, like episodes snatched by a keen eye from the vast panorama of history, counterpoint the action in his novels. He knows music, reflects on it, and with the same unbearable ease he weaves Music with Life.


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