Vladimir Jankélévitch: Zauber, Improvisation, Virtuosität. Schriften zur Musik, translated from the French by Ulrich Kunzmann, edited by Andreas Vejvar, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2020
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The thinking of French philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch has been known to German-speaking readers since 2016 thanks to a formidable translation of his 1961 tract La Musique et l’Ineffable (Music and the Ineffable): with its German version, Die Musik und das Unaussprechliche, the duo of skilled translator Ulrich Kunzmann and editor Andreas Vejvar provided access to a milestone of 20th-century French music philosophy. This project now has a successor, a volume entitled Zauber, Improvisation, Virtuosität. Schriften zur Musik [Magic, Improvisation, Virtuosity. Writings on Music]. In it, Kunzmann and Vejvar present what they call the “soundboard” of Jankélévitch’s principal work of music philosophy. This collection of texts previously unavailable in German provides an introduction to the musical world of French modernism. It is with stupendously deep knowledge of the repertoire that the author reflects, for example, on the “calm and magic in the oeuvre of Gabriel Fauré”. In another text, he develops a definition of musical simplicity on the basis of Henri Bergson’s philosophical optimism. And Jankélévitch’s writing also explores the overtones of musical “charm” and audible “verve”. One is impressed by the systematic way in which Jankélévitch addresses musical improvisation, as well as by his enthusiastic and philosophical view of the mystery of emergence as manifested in musical virtuosity. These texts, which bear witness less to analytically dissective logic than they do to a fluent and virtuosically improvising intellect, draw a historical arc from 1942—the era of the French resistance—to 1985, the year of Jankélévitch’s death. It seems as if throughout this period, the great themes characterising his reflections on music, history, society, and morality remained the same. The notion of complimentary interaction between darkness and hope is expounded upon both in the deeply touching 1942 text entitled Nocturne that begins this volume and in a posthumously published conversation that he had with Jean-Pierre Barou and Robert Maggiori. In that exchange, the philosopher (who came from a family of Jewish intellectuals) addressed experiences—namely: the tragedy of anti-Semitism and the magic of forgiveness—that had played formative roles in his life and his thought.

As escapist as Jankélévitch’s meditations on music may seem at first glance, it is precisely this that they never, in fact, are. To the author of these texts, music is not a thing of beauty but a route of access to a world that he inhabits, one in which dichotomies collide. These sorts of premises from Jankélévitch’s music-philosophical cosmos inform both the editor’s very worthwhile afterword and Kunzmann’s remarkable translation. This German rendering preserves the mysterious qualities of the French language, doing without triumphal gestures of comprehensive understanding and instead—fully in keeping with the precepts of Walter Benjamin—interpreting the never-to-be-equalled original through a fresh outsider’s gaze.

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