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François Noudelmann, who teaches philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland and the University of Paris VIII, is also an amateur pianist who has performed Chopin and Liszt in public as a student of the French pedagogue Maguy Anduru-Mayeras. In this brief but intriguing study – which first appeared from Editions Gallimard in 2008 – Noudelmann discusses how noodling at the piano, so to speak, may have liberated some famous thinkers’ minds.

The modern French philosopher Roland Barthes practised daily, with decided tastes in pianism, favouring Glenn Gould’s neuroses over Arthur Rubinstein’s much-vaunted love of life. Describing his own solitary playing, Barthes called himself a ‘sight-reader without velocity’, adding: ‘I know how to read a score, but I don’t know how to play.’

Major studies have already discussed Friedrich Nietzsche’s passion for piano duo playing and piano reductions of operas – especially Bizet’s Carmen. Noudelmann underlines how even in Nietzsche’s latter days of mental decline, he practised at the keyboard with inspiration. Before then, as an itinerant author staying at boarding houses, Nietzsche would systematically rent pianos, although how other boarders reacted to his playing has not been documented. The pages on Jean- Paul Sartre tell of how Sartre associated the piano with his mother and domestic intimacy, as opposed to his father and grandfather’s taste for stern church organ music. All three philosophers preferred Romantic piano music; Barthes worshipped Schumann, while Nietzsche and Sartre chose Chopin.

Unfortunately, this book is marred by sometimes clumsy translation. Still, the clear message comes through: playing the piano is conducive to free-ranging brainpower.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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