Musical mirror of the world

Image: Jaime Prades (Jornal de Resenhas)


Commentary on Henry Burnett's book.

Singular, the expression that gives name and content to Henry Burnett’s book – Musical mirror of the world – designates one of the most significant moments of the attempt, undertaken by the young Friedrich Nietzsche, in O birth of tragedy, to speculatively define the origin of Attic tragedy. To the latter, according to the German philosopher, we would be led by a double movement: by the abandonment, on the part of the lyric poet, of artistic subjectivity and by the union between sound – a non-figurative phonic dimension – and the word – a sphere proper to conceptual articulation.

A product of this confluence, through which music and poetry conditionally interpenetrate, popular song would then emerge, according to Nietzsche's hypothesis of interpretation, as the original seed from which the tragic spectacle was born and grew, seen here from the perspective of the so-called “ metaphysics of artistic”, as a spectrally melodic replica of the world itself: “But, popular song is worth, for us, above all, as a musical mirror of the world, the primordial melody, which now seeks a parallel dreamlike appearance, aiming to express her in poetry.”[I]

The idea that regulates Henry Burnett's book, his splendid insight, so to speak, consists of transmitting, with exegetical ingenuity and argumentative creativity, this cradle structure to the songbook of Brazilian popular music, whose emergence ceases to be genetically interpreted as a univocal and indelineable essence, to assume, in the light of a critical meditation -historical, the figure of an anthropological-cultural reinvention of a compositional and nuanced content: “In some way”, highlights Henry Burnett, “if there is a thesis here, it is that what happened in Brazil and in Latin American song was the restart of a style exhausted in Europe that, upon arriving in the tropics, brought together fragments, mixed them with an alien rhythm and reinvented an archaic and Provençal genre, which rose here to the category of cultural and identity representation” (p. 55). For this thesis alone, the book becomes essential.

Nietzsche’s “tool” use is also very well executed. Using it strategically as an interpretative device or explanatory instrument, in addition to the exclusive conceptual analysis of the signs that constitute his legacy, this is something that, in fact, would bear witness to a properly Nietzschean stance and, ultimately, a tribute to his philosophizing. As Foucault would say in this regard, “the only sign of gratitude that one can show to a thought like Nietzsche's is precisely to use it, distort it, make it sizzle and scream”.[ii]

But, by using this method, Henry Burnett does not limit himself to the hermeneutical horizon consistent with Nietzsche's consideration. After assigning him the helm of the boat, so to speak, he tries to invite other experienced traveling companions to board – such as Mário de Andrade, Theodor Adorno, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Caetano Veloso, José Miguel Wisnik, etc. –, and all willing to navigate the archipelago, certainly extensive and rich in nuances, of our most ancient popular musical repertoire.

For this reason, if I am not going to say more than necessary, it could be argued that its mirror ends up becoming, throughout the book, a kind of kaleidoscope in which the theoretical stars that guide and ensure the the direction of exploration. So much so that, in formal terms, the text does not fail to echo, in its own way, the “constellation” typical of Theodor Adorno’s style.[iii]

As for its content, it also does not fail to re-update the task, so dear to Mário de Andrade, of bringing together, in Brazilian classical music, the unknown sound of folkloric and rural songs, which would bring forth, from a “new” ground. , characters hitherto unforeseen by Brazilian musical criticism – as if educated technicality had no other mission left than to consume itself in its own assumptions, enabling, in this way, the emergence of a renewed national musicality.[iv]

And, from a methodological aspect, Henry Burnett's book, in an equally revealing way, also aligns with the expository orientation of Brazil roots, characterized, according to Antonio Candido, by “a certain trust in intuition, which allows one to go beyond accumulated knowledge and establish 'empathy', a sympathetic and indefinable identification with the object of study”[v] –, and, along these lines, making the necessary differences, the method used would also be in tune with that Einfühlung (congenital and genius empathy) that Nietzsche uses to carry out his exemplary analysis of Jesus' psychological type, sometimes guessing him, sometimes imagining him.[vi]

Thus, right at the beginning of the chapter “Presentiments”, Burnett states: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that this book dedicated to the song of Brazil was, at first, imagined and not exactly thought out or planned, either as a research project or as a historical-critical study” (p. 29).

However, when bringing together music and aesthetics, oral tradition and theory, giving rise to a poetic-edifying type of reflection, the author of the Musical mirror of the world running a risk similar to that which threatened the author himself d'The Birth of Tragedy? “I always fear”, said Nietzsche, in an epistolary context, “that, because of music, philologists will not want to read it, just as musicians, because of philology, and neither do philosophers, because of music and philology” .[vii]

To answer this question, we only need to embark, without prejudice or fear, on the challenging journey undertaken by the book. However, there are other challenges facing the reader. After all, there is no obvious umbilical proximity between the Greece of Aeschylus and the Brazil of Noel or Mário de Andrade, however tempting the comparison may be, nor is it exactly a Herder of the tropics. The Rio carnival is not factually the old one Fastnachtspiel European, as well as rural samba and bumba-meu-boi are not artistically destined to reveal the arcana of some Uno-primordial or the literary-musical exploits of Archílochus.

But the interesting thing is that, in his disconcerting incursion, Henry Burnett never facilitates or forces the approach of these points of support. It is in another form of representation that he will seek the universality without time or space of the song. Because, if none of the aforementioned references reflect a unity or continuum historical, there would, however, be something in common between speaking and singing beings, or, as Henry Burnett argues, a “maximum musical-poetic expression” achieved “without losing the deep and unconscious rhythmic and melodic connection with the sonic subsoil (Tonuntegrund) which defines, according to Nietzsche, the most essential human” (p. 140).

Here, it would be a question of a totality achieved, not by the uniqueness and universality of the concept, but by an intuitive vision of a pre-discursive order, which relies on a somatic-sound base comprehensible beyond all languages ​​and consolidated if, strictly speaking, in intensive sensations of pain and pleasure. According to Nietzsche in this regard, “all degrees of pleasure and displeasure – externalizations of an original foundation invisible to us – are symbolized in sound (Ton) of the speaker”.[viii]

However, for what matters to us now, the most significant perhaps is the conclusion that the German philosopher hopes to lead us to at the end of this same note, namely, that only “for those who sing along there is a lyric, there is popular music”.[ix] Singing together, the song is popular because its experience is supra-individual and anonymous; national, because it is the sonic and amplified reflection of the instinctual arrangement of a given collective.

And, all in all, it remains that what would characterize national popular song, from such a perspective, would not only be its ethnic vectors, certainly valuable, but also, and above all, an overall multiculturalist vision that takes into account Brazilian musical creation in its pluralistic vastness – an amalgam of Amerindian, African and Portuguese – whether or not it has distinctive “native” marks. Especially because, if Brazilians were only those who were born and raised in Brazil, as Mário de Andrade once said, “the Italians also could not use the organ that is Egyptian, the violin that is Arabic, the plainchant that is Greek and Hebrew, the polyphony that it is Norse, Flemish Anglo-Saxony and the devil”.[X]

If the multifaceted and zigzagging origins of our musical soul escape even from ourselves, this is basically due to a series of cultural stumbles and formative misfortunes, fateful legacies that deregulate and dehydrate our self-understanding. Fruit of a spirituality averse to this fatality, Musical mirror of the world It therefore emerges as a hopeful and necessary ray of light.

*Fernando R. de Moraes Barros He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Nietzsche's musical thought (Perspective).

Review originally published in ArtCultura magazine.


Henry Burnett. Musical mirror of the world. Campinas, PHI Editora, 2021, 256 pages.


[I] NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe (KSA). Berlin-New York: München: de Gruyter, 1999, v. 1, § 6, p. 48.

[ii] FOUCAULT, Michel. Les jeux du pouvoir. In: DOMINIQUE, Grisoni, (org.). Philosophy Policies. Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1976, p. 174.

[iii] See JIMENEZ, Marc. To read Adorno. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1977, p.15.

[iv] See ANDRADE, Mário de. Essay on Brazilian music. Belo Horizonte: Itatiaia, 2006, p.17-24.

[v] CANDID, Antonio. various writings. São Paulo: Two Cities, 1995, p. 328.

[vi] See, by the way, NIETZSCHE, F. Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe (KSA). Berlin-New York: De Gruyter, 1999, v. 6, § 28-32, p.198-203.

[vii] Letter to Erwin Rohde of 23 Nov. 1871. In: NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Briefwechsel. Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Berlin-New York: De Gruyter, 1979, part II, v. 1, no. 170, p. 248.

[viii] NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Music and words (Posthumous fragment Nr. 12 [1], from spring 1871). Discurso, n.37, São Paulo, 2007, p. 172.

[ix] Same, same, p.181.

[X] ANDRADE, Mário de, op. cit., P. 13.

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