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Henry Burnett. Nietzsche, Adorno e um pouquinho de Brasil.

São Paulo: Editora Unifesp, 2011, 264 pp., ISBN 978-85-61673-27-7.

Reviewed by André Luis Muniz Garcia

The papers collected in Henry Burnett’s Nietzsche, Adorno e um pouquinho de Brasil (“Nietzsche, Adorno and a Little Brazil”) focus on investigating various cultural tendencies in Europe and Brazil in terms of popular music, or Volkslied. This is Burnett’s focus not only because he wants to analyze Nietzsche’s failed alliance with Wagnerian art regarding the “rebirth of tragedy”—the concern of the first part of the book—but also because he wishes to reflect on music’s role as a guiding thread in debates in early twentieth-century Western culture. In particular, in the second part of the book, Burnett considers the role of popular music as the modus operandi of cultural edification in Western capitalism. Understanding culture as that which individuals immediately communicate and comprehend, Burnett’s aim is to conceive of Volkslied as the universal condition of any intersubjective construction of a Weltanschauung

These concerns also provide the background for the final chapter of the book, “Um Projeto—Autenticidade, Comunidade, Povo: A Canção Popular em O Nascimento da Tragédia” (“A Project—Authenticity, Community, Nation: Popular Music in The Birth of Tragedy”), in which Burnett presents his future research into Volkslied as a guide to the diagnosis of culture, and, in particular, Brazilian culture. In this review, I shall concentrate on this project and how it illuminates the preceding papers in the book, since it touches on a subtle and decisive insight of Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy. There Nietzsche claims to have understood how a new artistic “unification [Vereiningung]” of Greek culture emerged from Archilochus’s introduction of “Volkslied” into literature. Questioning the conception of Volkslied, he writes the following.

[W]hat is folk song, as compared with the wholly Apolline epic? Nothing other than the perpetuum vestigium of a union of the Apolline and the Dionysiac; the fact that it is so widely distributed amongst all peoples and grew ever more intense in an unbroken succession of births bears witness to the strength of that artistic double drive in nature, a drive which leaves traces of itself in popular song in much the same way as the orgiastic movements of a people are eternalized in its music. Indeed it ought to be possible to demonstrate historically that every period which was rich in the production of folk songs was agitated by Dionysiac currents, since these are always to be regarded as the precondition of folk song and as the hidden ground from which it springs. (BT 6; trans. Ronald Speirs, Cambridge University Press, 1999)

This passage reveals more than Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Greek culture. For it suggests that such “Dionysiac currents [dionysische Strömungen]” would manifest themselves as popular music in different cultures over time. Burnett appears to pursue precisely this insight when he investigates how culturally productive periods were stimulated by “Dionysiac currents.” 

Furthermore, by thus pursuing a philosophical understanding of popular music throughout the book, Burnett is led to examine not only Nietzsche’s philosophy but also that of Theodor Adorno, one of the harshest critics of popular music, and the thinking of Mario de Andrade, Brazilian poet, novelist, musicologist and a founder of Brazilian modernism. Despite the absence of a systematic dialogue between Nietzsche, Adorno, and Andrade, their fears concerning the deterioration of Western culture, and especially its artistic powers, emerge as a common thread guiding Burnett’s thought. 

Adorno considered the death of the nineteenth-century conception of culture to begin with its appropriation by the mechanisms and techniques of industrial production. Burnett shows, however, that Andrade saw in Brazilian culture of the first decades of the last century reasons for thinking just the opposite. Since Brazil was not then undergoing the massive changes in the capitalist system that afflicted Europe and the United States, Andrade thought that it was possible to map and order the various and hybrid sources of the nation’s culture. And it was in popular music in particular, in the unity of its diverse manifestations in Brazilian soil, that he sought the origins of Brazil’s rich and “impure” —interracial and polysemic—culture. In a similar way to Nietzsche, Andrade seems to have understood the Volkslied (in Portuguese, canção popular) as the perpetuum vestigium of the popular in Brazilian culture.

Although Burnett brings this similarity out interestingly, in my opinion, Nietzsche’s concern with popular music is more complex than Burnett suggests. This is not only because popular music is treated only generically in his early writings but also because it is not treated on the basis of a social theory, as it is by Adorno and Andrade. Instead, Nietzsche’s concerns are better related to the Kulturkritik tradition of thinkers such as Herder, Burckhardt, and Goethe. Herder is considered the founder of the modern concept of culture, while Burckhardt is considered responsible for dissolving it into a plurality of historical processes—that is, into cultures in the plural—on the basis of his cardinal conception of Geisteswissenchaften. But concerning Volkslied, Goethe is the author with whom Nietzsche frequently dialogues in the Vorstufen of The Birth of Tragedy (see KSA 1:8[47]; 9[85]; 9[146]; 19[270]), and this points to a significant insight. 

Goethe incorporated Volkslied in his lyrical poetry, claiming to find there the creative force of the Individuum (Genie), understood as the most spiritual form of linguistic manifestation of nature. Nietzsche’s various studies of lyrical poetry converge in his effort to understand the poetical-musical element present in the most genuine “Lebensäusserungen eines Volkes,” whose “unity [Einheit]” could be called culture (see HL 4, KSA 1, p. 271). However, in dealing with the function of lyrical poetry in the formation of Greek musical drama, Nietzsche does not give it the Volkslied form. He knew that the relationship between Melodie and Strophenform was the conditio sine qua non of the Lied-form, as Burnett rightly observes. But it does not follow that the modern Lied is the exclusive form of musical communication and construction of sense, or Weltanschauung, as Burnett claims. By speaking of a peculiar characteristic of the Greek language—the so-called “Musikvokal”—in an important passage of Das griechschiche Musikdrama, Nietzsche points to a subtle nuance regarding the “Lied-form” and “Gesang-form”: “The Greeks could learn a Lied only through Gesang: but while listening they also felt the most intimate unity of word and sound” (KSA 1, p. 529, my translation). Here, Nietzsche employs the two terms and then combines them, indicating that, rather than a conceptual distinction between Gesang and Lied, he is concerned with how a Lied can be universally understood. His answer is that it can be understood as Gesang—that is, as a unity between Tonsprache and Wortsprache. In the Greek language, the unity of the vocal timbre, the rhythmic tone, and the articulated phonetic sign (the word) had not yet been broken, and thus understanding something like a Lied did not mean understanding the lexical aspect of the song, but only its pure musical-vocal aspect. In my opinion, Gesang can therefore be interpreted as a more general form of communication and understanding of (musical) meaning—that is, as the becoming-common or making-popular of a musical-vocal component of language in its function of structuring meaning and sense.

As an example of this, Nietzsche analyzed this “popular communion” of meaning at the end of the famous note 12[1] of 1871 (KSA 1, p. 369). There he considers the transition from singen (Lied) to mitsingen (Gesang) in the construction of meaning in a way that helps to explain a confusion that may arise in articulating the concepts of Volkslied and Volksgesang. The exemplary case of this confusion is Adorno’s criticism of popular music (always associated with mass music) in his famous essay of 1938, “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening”. Although Burnett does not explore this, it is worth noting that Adorno’s criticism ignores, for example, the diagnosis provided by Johann Weygardus Bruinier, who had already highlighted the nuance regarding Volkslied and Volksgesang in his book, Das deutsche Volkslied: Über Werden und Wesen des deutschen Volksgesang (1921). There Bruinier presents a decisive argument in support of Nietzsche’s insight concerning Gesang and Lied in all popular and artistic manifestations.

Volksgesang is the Gesang of the living circles of popular worldviews, free from the customs of a combined choir, i.e., sounding without the baton’s control, but still sounding in the resulting choir, and then always from memory. Only when fixed custom has maintained this common, free singing from memory is Volksgesang still alive, and where the Volksgesang fails to resound in the effervescence of life, there the free, common, memory-governed singing must become the singing of custom. Volksgesang and Volksdichtung must be distinguished from Volkslied. Volkslied always derives from Volksgesang, and it sounds in the mouth of the individual and of those who no longer exercise the Volksgesang as custom; while it remains Volkslied, it is not performed as Volksgesang.  (Johann Weygardus Bruinier, Das Deutsche Volkslied: Über Wesen und Werden des deutschen Volksgesang. Leipzig and Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1921, pp. 23-4, my translation) 

Bruinier thus presents three main hypotheses: first, Volksgesang is essentially a popular intuition, or a popular and non-conventionalized sentiment, which cannot be petrified in customs, since customs (die Sitten) are rather preserved for the sake of Volksgesang; second, Volksgesang seems to be a paradigm of public recognition, a model for the understanding and communication of customs that are preserved only by “musical memory”; and, third, Volkslied is a special form of song that, at the time of its production, represents both a rupture with the “Volksgesang als Sitte” and the permanence of musical power in the creation of meaning for popular experiences. Thus Volkslied is a musical form that, oriented through individual action (the “Munde des Vereinzelten”), does not aim to practice popular music as convention (Sitte). In my opinion, we can identify here the origins of the lyric poet, who wants a new Sitte, a new convention, and therefore needs to break with the previous one. In the Volkslied we have the moment where an individual act is expressed as a popular sentiment, a sentiment that needs more power in order to aggregate new customs. This might benefit Burnett’s future research project, insofar as Bruinier’s third hypothesis could help to understand Adorno’s error concerning the “individual” aspect in the production of popular music, discussed by Burnett (p. 217), and the second hypothesis could contribute to Burnett’s attempt to explain Andrade’s insight that the mnemonic value of popular music remains unquestioned in Western culture (p. 231).

These are some reasons for thinking that the project that Burnett proposes in the last chapter of his insightful book can help us better appreciate Nietzsche’s contribution to our understanding of the role of popular music in the formation of contemporary culture.

Universidade de Brasília