Opera of the Year (1): Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logicus

Opera of the Year (1): Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logicus


norman lebrecht

August 03, 2016

For those who like intellectual substance on stage, Balduin Sulzer has made a one-woman opera of the one-man mind-mountain.

Read here.



  • John Borstlap says:

    It’s nonsensical, merely the sounds of a lady getting excited by a text she does not understand (otherwise she would not want to sing it).

    Wittgenstein’s tractatus was an effort, comparable with Schoenberg’s 12-tone illusion: creating a perfectly logical ‘language’. But language is by definition not logical as mathematics is logical. The process of understanding in the human mind does not work in that way, as we know that understanding the world can be helped by metaphor, symbolism, etc. – non-logical, non-rational operations. Like music demonstrates aspects of the human mind and subconscious, inaccessible to mathematical logic.

    Philosophers can come up with quite some nonsensical things:

    ‘His succinct philosophy of language contains a groundbreaking claim, for its time, wrote Bertrand Russell in his 1922 introduction: “In order that a certain sentence should assert a certain fact there must… be something in common between the structure of the sentence and the structure of the fact.” ‘ If I want to describe the fact of a murder, should I include some murderous grammar in the sentence? I think some of these guys live too long on their own and don’t go out enough.

    • mr oakmountain says:

      Balduin Sulzer has a wicked sense of humour. Maybe he is making fun both of the way Wittenstein and atonal music are perceived by people.

      • Steven Holloway says:

        If so, good on him. We already have evidence here that the way some people perceive Wittgenstein needs to be made fun of. (–:

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      John: Schoenberg’s 12-tone system did not, if I remember correctly, appeal to Wittgenstein. In fact, I think he repudiated it. Incidentally, Wittgenstein was, it would appear, quite an accomplished clarinetist who played the Brahms Clarinet Sonatas.

      • John Borstlap says:

        I did not suggest that W approved of 12-tone music or Schoenberg, I merely made a comparison: two brilliant minds trying to organise an irrational field into a rational system. In W’s case, I think it was rather the shedding of all elements from language which could not fit into a logical whole, to circumscribe the territory where language could be a precise and objective, verifiable communication, so that outside this field one should not talk about things which could not be talked about. But I may be mistaken; I tried to read the Tractatus years ago and found the attempt a bit silly – a combination of open doors (‘The world is everything that is the case’) and a pedantic hairsplitting in a territory where it’s meaningless.

        W loved Brahms…. there is this story, demonstrating his opinion that music is superior to all philosophy, where he and a friend in Cambridge stopped in front of the shopwindow of a music shop where scores of Brahms could be seen. W: ‘These men knew something we will never know’. (Or something comparable.) This shows that W had the greatest respect for things outside his linguistic circumscription. The philosophical movement ‘logistical positivism’ that took the Tractatus as one of its fundamental texts, misunderstood it, and concluded that anything which could not be precisely described in the Wittgenstein way, was not worth pondering about (sounds a bit like postwar modernism: Boulez, Stockhausen, etc.).

        • ElizaX says:

          It is quite a bit more complicated than that, John Borstlap. Without specialist expertise in philosophy – especially in this field – it would be impossible to make head or tail of the Tractatus. You certainly wouldn’t be entitled to think it was “a bit silly”. It is a work of the most incredible depth and intricacy; much of it relates to the (contemporary) work of Russell and Frege on the foundations of logic and mathematics and would be impossible to understand without first understanding that. Russell himself was quite open about the fact that he did not fully understand the Tractatus: given the fact that Russell was both a genius and probably the finest logician alive at the time, that should give you some idea of its difficulty for an amateur.

          Wittgenstein later (famously) repudiated the Tractatus, thus becoming the “Later Wittgenstein”. But to know what is wrong with the Tractatus, you have to descend to considerable depths, philosophically speaking. You can’t simply skim a few pages and dismiss it with a shrug.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I did not ‘dismiss it with a shrug’, I do have some grounding in philosophy, but I think lots of philosophy that is advocated as ‘very deep’ because of being very complex – here we can make the comparison with lots of avantgarde music thinking of the last century – is a bit like building a cathedral on very wobbly ground. The tractatus can be a very impressive building, but the point of departure seems to me highly questionable, that’s all. It is not a rare occurrance that brilliant minds create their phantasmagories on questionalbe assumptions, like the medieval sophists. In the same way, Schoenberg’s serialism, and Webern’s, is very impressive purely seen as an intellectual achievement, but when the points of departure are arguably wrong, or insufficient, or flawed in one way or another, all the rest does not have much viability, be it in music or in philosophy.

            Also it depends what one defines as philosophy, or music.

            Wittgenstein helped design a new villa for one of his family members (his sister? I forgot), and the result is an extremely precise, well-calculated, thoroughly-thought-out building, where W pondered on details like door knobs for months on end, and what is the result? A sterile, uninteresting place without any attractive feature, more a laboratory than a house, with ‘perfect’ proportions which are in themselves meaningless. While the ‘careless’ architects of earlier decades (19C) threw-around their ornaments and their rather carefree traditional proportions, based upon long practice, and created excellent spaces defined by humanist taste and not by endless puzzles. That sums-up the problem with this sort of 20C mind set quite aptly, seems to me – Wittgenstein’s house building was like Webern’s composing: one note per hour, carefully placed after hours of reflection and working-out of his series, glued on pieces of paper around his sketches. The intellect is not something in itself that can do everything in life, it is a vehicle of something else. I think in philosophy as in culture, purely intellectual exercises are often greatly overrated and even damaging.

  • David Boxwelll says:

    Whereof one cannot sing, thereof one must be silent.

  • Carlos Majlis says:

    I believe W. brother was Paul, the left-hand pianist who asked several composers to write something for him. Ravel did it, and so we have his splendid concerto.There’s even a recording by him, but he was no more than an average pianist, and the version is rather inferior.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Wonderful. I ordered a CD with the complete work.

    The reference to John Cage in the linked reportage is misleading: Cage used texts by Ludwig Wittgenstein and several other philosophers and writers in creating randomized wisdom with computer-based means in the middle 80’s, that only gave meaninglessness an even more cutting-edged, avangardist face. In the article there is no reference to Cornelius Cardew’s Tractatus, a graphic score for improvisations “inspired” in LW’s work. Relating these works by Cage and Cardew to the real Tractatus is simply insulting. As for atonal and dodecaphonic music, there is no evidence that LW had any consideration for it.

    LW comes from a very musical family, and he started composing a music piece about 1030 but stopped abruptly after three bars; check the link:


    A funny remark from a friend of mine some years ago: Probably after about 20 seconds of music he had solved all musical questions in his mind, and thus it was not worth the effort to complete the piece.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “……… that only gave meaninglessness an even more cutting-edged, avangardist face.” So much for avantgarde.