Opera and the Limits of Philosophy: on Bernard Williams's Music Criticism

British Journal of Aesthetics 50 (4):469-479 (2010)
Abstract
This paper provides a reading of the opera criticism of Bernard Williams in the light of his philosophical writings. Beginning with the observations that his philosophical writing lacks engagement with musical and aesthetic issues, and his operatic writing appears to present no particular philosophy of the subject, I try to draw together certain themes by mapping Williams's operatic concerns onto his philosophical project more generally. I argue that the 'excessive' nature of the artform—the idea that opera tends to exceed its musico-dramatic functions—was of particular interest to Williams, partly because it resonated with his dislike of easy theoretical solutions to thorny practical issues. More specifically, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte is related, via the way the way its emotional register exceeds its dramatic context, to the issues examined by Williams in his work on moral luck. Similarly, I discuss the way Williams's essay on Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande seems to hint at an account of the emotions which is otherwise missing from Williams's oeuvre
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