Read Schmelzer's essay on Nicholas of Cusa and Polyphonic practice

On the occasion of the Cusanus event (concert and conference) in Deventer (9-10 February 2024) Björn Schmelzer wrote an extensive essay on the philosopher's thought and the practice of polyphony.

published in:

The Philosophy of Cusanus and Polyphonic Practice: a rudimentary attempt to explore their (non-)relation   (1°draft, January, 2024)

Björn Schmelzer

‘Mysticism is as impenetrable to me as music’ (Sigmund Freud, quoted in Michel de Certeau, Mysticism)

(All my gratitude to Inigo Bocken for inviting Graindelavoix to this musical and philosophical adventure and for the treasured conversations in preparation of this project)

The polyphonic séance

In 1453 Nicholas of Cusa sent a treatise called De Visione Dei to the monks of Tegernsee in Bavaria. It was accompanied by a painting of a so-called “all-seeing face”. This kind of paintings had been known in the Byzantine iconic tradition and was revitalized in the West through the famous paintings of the Flemish Primitives like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Book and painting had to be used together and inform each other. This was a wonderful, quite eccentric idea of Cusanus himself, without precedent. The monks were requested to interact with the painting and use the treatise as a sort of manual to experiment with the question of mystic experience.

Mystical experience, in a nutshell, circled around the question if wholeness could be achieved in this life, or to put it in more medieval terms: if one would achieve seeing God face to face, the ultimate experience of satisfaction and completeness. In the medieval tradition the mystics seemed to have a privilege of this experience or better, a privilege in describing what this experience was and was not. All kinds of practices and techniques were connected to it, including prayer, meditation, liturgy, rituals and of course song and music.

The highly original approach of Cusanus and its intellectual and artistic consequences, seemingly inexhaustible and continuing to trigger interpretations till today, are partly the reason why Nicholas of Cusa is not completely forgotten.

The endeavour of the concert is as challenging as it is simple: could we imagine our gathering in the spectacular Bergkerk of Deventer as a contemporary alternative to the experimental séance Cusanus invited the Bavarian monks to?

In what follows I will try to explain why such an endeavour could be legitimate, although not deprived of manifold complications and difficulties. We will come to that.

Let me start with the end, trying to formulate you the imagined aim or goal of this endeavour. Is the strange transposition we propose from image to polyphonic sound, not offering us a double profit?

We are not only negotiating the thinking of Cusanus in the light of the concrete performance of polyphony and its (non-)relation with it, but also the other way around:  the glasses of Cusanus could shed a completely new light on the essence and potentiality of late-medieval polyphony. Taken together, could the performance of polyphony be a practical way to an alternative understanding of Cusa’s philosophy?

The possible relation, resonances, and proportions, but equally non-relation, inadequacies and disproportions could help us to think new aspects of Cusa’s thinking, its potentials and its limits. They open up to something previously unthought about polyphonic music itself, undisclosed or difficult to reveal through historicist, contextual research. These revelations and resonances are not the effect of a blunt anachronistic approach either, the musical repertoire being of approximately the same time and space as Cusa’s. However, their combinatorium or coincidence is of a rather untimely (unzeitgemäß) character, one revealing the unthought in the other, like an enfolded reality, a sort of pure past which is then unfolded into a narrative through the other.

Of course, a musical polyphonic work is a kind of image, be it a peculiar, more obscure, dark one. It is often the elaboration of a sacred text, used in the liturgy. It is somehow unclear what it exactly adds to the orthodox form and meaning of the original message, what it is exactly an image of, and what kind of mysterious image it is, in the end. In a simplified way, one could say that it offers nothing, but the sensation of surprise and confusion, even less than nothing, as it offers an enigmatic, veiling surplus to a truth that could be approached, so it seems, simple and uncomplex.

Intuitively we see Cusanus as the perfect partner-in-crime of such a paradoxical twisting, as he himself loved the concept of coincidentia oppositorum: an image that obscures, a representation that blurs or even better (or worse) that tricks us, an image beyond representation, to engage our desire, triggered by the absence, that the image constructs and presents.

Excess of experience

The first thing to consider is what polyphonic works could have in common with an image or a painting, such as the one Cusanus sent to the Tegernsee monks. Let’s not forget that apart from the sacred qualities of the painting, it had the capacity of a trompe l’oeil, a visual trick or trap for the eye of the onlooker. In this sense the aim of the painting was not divine contemplation or aesthetic pleasure, but it aimed first of all at a sensation of admiration or even bafflement. Cusanus wants us to be perplexed, puzzled, bewildered and disconcerted. As in all his writings, here is a philosopher who likes to play, to amuse us, to laugh, maybe to show off even, through a virtuoso discourse, mixing and juggling with concepts and ideas as objects in a Wunderkammer.

Above all the painter should hook our desire, steal the look of the viewers and hold them in its grip.

On a very first, superficial level, the experience of polyphony in the 15th century, for better or worse, was very similar. We underestimate that art in that period shared a very strong immersive purpose, not so different from now (till today art should be conceptually smart or capable of grabbing the attention and desire of the spectator).  

Just imagine the use of sound and visuals in the secular culture of courtly pleasure gardens, that thrived on ingenious trompe l’oeilpainting and mechanical automata, deployed to trap spectators in transgressive immersive experiences we would hardly accept today. Maybe they are mirrored in contemporary escape-rooms and experience-games and -parks, or in their fantasized deadly versions in survival tv-series. The sensation of excess causing stupefaction was more easily accepted in painting and architecture than in polyphony, where it was usually severely dismissed, no doubt because of the physical and often embarrassing presence and involvement of human beings.

An image is usually experienced individually and in simultaneity (we see all at once, so to speak), while a musical work needs time to unfold, nevertheless penetrating the ear of the listener, unable to escape. What the renaissance called Paragone, is not just comparison and distinction between the arts but often also the transposition of features and qualities from one art to the other.

Being baffled by the excess of an artwork can provoke two reactions: acceptance or refusal.If one accepts, still different possibilities are offered how to engage with or domesticate the excess. Unacceptance or refusal has at least the advantage of being rhetorically and dialectically interesting because the emphatic expression of horror safeguards the excess or unacceptable, not trying to domesticate it as something usual, normal ore falsely transgressive.

There are wonderful descriptions of the stupefaction caused by polyphony sung by the papal choir in the 15th century, an ensemble that Cusanus must have heard and experience intensely during his career. Famous example is the inauguration of the dome of Firenze by Brunelleschi in 1436, featuring Guillaume Du Fay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores, an occasion probably witnessed also by Cusanus. One wonders what his musical experience might have been. What did Cusanus in general think of polyphony?

One could paraphrase the scholarship investigating the topic of music in the writings of Cusanus: music is so primordially an essential feature of the structure of Being for him (just think of Platonic or Pythagorean Number, Proportion and Harmony etc.) that music is everywhere and nowhere. The danger of course is that we take this “nowhere” at face value and don’t look for it in the inside mechanics of his thinking itself.

Cusanus didn’t write much about actual music. However, it must be said, either did he on painting or other arts.  How he really valued art and music must be read inside of his thoughts and in between the lines, or better, along the lines (in a structural analysis not so foreign to his own theorizing).

A second danger is to misunderstand the few claims he makes about concrete performed polyphony.

For example, take an infamous passage in De Quaerendo Deum (1445) that deserves quoting because it didn’t receive much attention, arguably causing some embarrassment to the reader, stumbling upon it.

“In the kingdom of hearing, the concordant resonance-of-all-voices and the pleasant harmony there, as well as the indescribable variety of all [the musical] instruments, together with those melodies from golden organs, as well as the songs of sirens and of nightingales, and all other exquisite riches of the king of the kingdom of hearing; in the court of the greatest and best King of kings [all these] are [as if] dung/shit stuck to the floor (faeces adhaerentes pavimento).”

Instead of quickly dismissing this passage as a sort of slip of the pen, would it not be worthwhile to engage with it? Is, on closer inspection, this not the most adequate (and most truthful) statement Cusanus could have made about polyphonic performance, calling it shit or waste? Trying to understand this statement offers a nice example of how a Cusanean Durcharbeitung of paradoxical thinking could play out, working through the obvious interpretations, leaving them finally behind, even if they seem to be the most evident. Predicating church music that was often compared with divine, angelic, elevated singing, in such a negative way (shit stuck to the floor) should raise neo-platonic, apophatic alarm bells, recalling for example the favoured description of dissimilarity of the divine by Dionysius the Areopagite.

It is of course much easier for us to support the perspective of the older, 14th century scholar and prolific writer on music, Nicole Oresme, whose texts betray an appreciation of music as a speculative domain of scientific research (secundum imaginationem). Using Lady Geometry as his mouthpiece in his Tractatus de commensurabilitate vel incommensurabilitate motuum celi he would defend the use of harmonic dissonances or incommensurable music (the sirens and nightingales), ridiculing celestial commensurable but boring music, calling it the song of the cuckoo. Cusa played obviously a whole different card.

Experience of excess

When Cusa calls polyphony bluntly shit or waste stuck to the floor, it is not the first or last time he mentions concrete music. The other time however it doesn’t sound very positive either: (in De filiatione Dei, 1445) “Likewise, they (schoolboys) use in an intellectual way, not in a sensory way, the vocal words by means of which they are taught, so that by means of these vocal signs they attain unto the mind of their teacher. But if there are those who delight rather in signs, then they will not attain unto a mastery of philosophy but, remaining ignorant thereof, will degenerate into writers, painters, orators, singers, or cithara players.”

(To speak in Cusa’s defense, he puts singers here together with artistic professions he clearly admired in other writings, of which he saw at least the potential of some serious intellectual engagement. Obviously, something else is at stake here…)

Nevertheless, let’s move to another obvious interpretation, the way his friend the theologian Denis the Carthusian (who may have accompanied Cusanus on his papal legation through Germany and the Low Countries – if that is true, both must have heard a lot of polyphony in each other’s company…) considered and rather dismissed polyphony, or what he called discantus, or fractio vocis, two technical terms and perfect signifiers for exactly the excessive aspect of polyphony in its virtuoso form of melismatic counterpoint laced with lot of small notes and fractalized/diminuted passages:

“Besides it may be inquired whether it is praiseworthy to admit counterpoint or the breaking-up of the voice [or of sound] in the worship of the Deity. In which connection it is noteworthy that the aforesaid Summa [Summa de vitiis et virtutibus by William Pelardus] states: The breaking-up of voice appears to be reprehensible in song. Whence we find in the Life of St Sebastian: 'Do you think that a man who loves to go to the barber, styles his hair, covets flavours and breaks up [his] voice, should be reckoned among the Christians?' The breaking-up of voice appears to be a sign of a broken soul. In the same way as the [artificial] curling of hair is reprehensible in men, the pleating of garments in women, so [is] the breaking-up of voice in singers; just as the wind customarily produces ripples in the water, so the wind of vanity customarily produces this trembling and breaking of the sound. This according to the aforesaid Summa. This gains support from the fact that certain people, who have become accustomed to sing this way as occasion serves, admit that there is pride and a certain lasciviousness in music of this kind. Further, if it should be excused in any way, it does not appear to be excusable or commendable unless instituted and performed to arouse devotion. For some people are powerfully stirred to contemplation and devotion by harmonious sounds: that is why the church allows organs. But if it should be practised [merely] to offer delight to those present, including women, then it is undoubtedly reprehensible, as St Augustine has said as well: But whenever the song pleases me more than the sense [of the words], or that which is being sung, every time I acknowledge that I am committing, just as many times, a sin deserving punishment, and then I would prefer not to hear the singer. Finally, although counterpoint in particular may provoke some people to devotion and to the contemplation of heavenly things, it does seem very much to divert and impede the individual who listens and prays, from [giving] attention even to the sense of his prayer. Hence St Bernard says: It is of insufficient benefit to sing only with the voice, without attentiveness of the heart. God, from whom nothing that is done unlawfully remains hidden, does not demand gentleness of voice, but purity of heart.”

Is it strange that the most beautiful descriptions of polyphonic practices, full of passionate desire, invariably come from their strongest adversaries? In one of the most colourful pages of the famous book “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” (1919), Johan Huizinga quotes from this same passage elaborating it extensively for his argument.

Not only is it a truism that “renunciation of enjoyment is also the enjoyment of renunciation”; these adversaries understood, standing in a tradition that goes back to St. Augustine, better than nobody else, the libidinal dangers that radiated from musical practices.

The excess of polyphony is here compared with several social examples and images of excess, which are often transgressions of the gender roles (vain and effeminate men, unstable and with a broken soul). The excess is not so much about the music itself, but about the practice, or let me say, about the disturbing physical and vocal presence of the singers, as if in an ideal way, music could be split into pure music and its remainder or waste, the performers. The experience of excess is located in this split. But at the same time, it seems as if Denis the Carthusian is onto something more profound with the ontological potential of excess in dis-cantus and fractio vocis, splitting musical performance as it were from within.

It seems, at first glance (from his own short remark) Cusanus would agree with his colleague. But would he really?

One could imagine that not only from a moral and liturgical point of view, but equally from a financial point of view, engaging professional singers was considered rubbish and waste of money. Something we forget today: without the continuous engagement of physical singers, there would not be any music and no experience of it either. On the other hand, one could imagine how difficult serious immersion or contemplation for a deeper understanding of this repertoire and practice must have been at the time. It would hardly be possible to hear a piece more than once. This existential fragility must also have contributed to the equally fragile appreciation of the art itself.

However, although the opinion of Denis the Carthusian shared its negative formulation with Cusa’s, there seems to be a crucial difference between them.

While Denis is talking from a human, moral(istic) point of view, Cusa takes the point of view of God, which could not be more than a boutade for him, an impossible, nonsensical perspective, because absolutely unknown. It is this absurd point of view which elevates it beyond any moralism, liberates it of any practical judgement. It should be interpreted structurally or ontologically, so to speak.

No doubt Cusanus is not just reacting against the courtly pomp for which polyphony was often engaged, exploited to make tangible the imagined divine status of secular lords and rulers, who would fetishize music and its performers, often stressing the beauty and elegance of their voices and presence. A connection could be made here, with Cusa’s critique on art or craftsmanship that is not aware of its own speculative or conceptual potential, a potential that would not just mimetically reproduce that what is outside in reality, but is articulating itself, resonating with Cusa’s constant stress on self-referentiality and mise-en-abyme.

Moreover Cusanus reacts here against a certain holistic positivizing of the experience of polyphony: the idea that polyphony is the “harmony of the spheres”, or allows at least for a direct access to it, making audible the divine, the impossibly to perceive music of God and the heavens.

Maybe he wanted to shock the aficionados in the same way Sigmund Freud was dismissive of the (pseudo-)mystical idea of music (and of spirituality in general) as the key to the “oceanic” suggested by his friend, writer and musicologist Romain Rolland, “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world.’’ (in Civilization and its Discontents, 1929.

For Cusanus, one could imagine, polyphony makes no sense as mimetic resonance but only as a diagrammatic, structural one.

His point is anti-moralistic and, in this way, opposing the position of Denis the Carthusian.

Polyphony as waste or remainder is not only safeguarded as something outside clear meaning, but the excess also opens the field of desire, like his other outlandish speculative inventions: the bowling game, the interactive painting, the diagrams, the conjectural thinking, his love for fantastic tricks, trompe l’oeil, paradoxes, riddles and mise-en-abyme, traps for the senses, opening to the excess or, what the Certeau called:  Cusa’s madness.

Arousing desire and pleasure in art and music are primordial for Cusanus, tickling the speculative, as Joyce would say (mentioning Cusa, somehow cryptically, more than once in Finnegans Wake), to avoid the fake stance of asceticism, which is just another more perverted way of instrumentalising pleasure.

Diagram – Measuring – conjectura

Let’s return to the initial idea, comparing the painting of De Visione dei with a polyphonic work of art.

An obvious analogy (of difference) seems to be articulated by the famous Cusanean conceptual couple: complicatio – explicatio (enfolding – unfolding). Leonardo da Vinci would use the exact same comparison some half century later, in his famous Paragone: a painting is pure enfolded simultaneity and, in this sense, virtually eternal. The onlooker sees, so to say, all at once. A polyphonic work has only a simultaneous aspect in the sense of several voices (e)merging together, but its main character is the unfolding in time in a successive experience. While painting potentially remains forever, music “dies by birth”, as Leonardo aptly remarked. Music’s unfolding is at the same time also a disappearing or dissolving. Therefore, music is bound or stuck to repetition, it is the only way to get it back. Music has in this sense a strange paradoxical status of being and non-being, it is marked by a weird simultaneity of appearing and vanishing. The Maastricht humanist Matthaeus Herbenus signalled this very aspect in 1496 claiming: “But what would [the ancients] have said about our songs which, before they can be imprinted in the memory, have already flown away? I should more rightly call them the daughters of Mercury! By these, the singers of our time completely deprive us of judgment, exerting themselves only in order to please their own feelings.”

The fragile fleeting character of polyphony not only makes it impossible to get a grip on the art and its content, leaving us with a feeling of lack and dissatisfaction, according to Herbenus, but confront us on top of that with the narcissism of singers in an act of self-pleasuring.

However, before continuing this path, let’s take a step back and have a look how the unfolding of sounding music happens. What kind of enfolded reality is unfolded here?

On this level another striking similarity between polyphony and Cusa’s thinking appears.

The source or starting point for a polyphonic performance is, of course, a written score which is a sort of musical diagram. It is fascinating that the sounding result or unfolding of such a diagram can be experienced as excessive and illusory, but that the score, which is its cause, is in a strict sense totally rational, geometric and fully quantified. One could speculate that the “broken soul” of Denis the Carthusian refers unconsciously to this split in the musical work itself between the written version (often confused with the work itself) and the performed, subjective rendition.

Cusanus would understand this conditional, necessary subjectivity in order for a figure or a diagram to emerge beyond itself.

“Therefore, the mind—which itself is not free of all otherness (not free, at least, of mental otherness)—sees [geometrical] figures as free of all otherness. Therefore, it views them in their truth, but it does not view them beyond itself. For it views them, and this viewing cannot occur beyond itself. For the mind views [them] mentally and not beyond the mind—just as the senses, in attaining [them] perceptibly, do not attain [them] beyond the senses but [only] within the scope of the senses.” (De Theologicis Complementis, 1453)

Since the 14th century, music was called musica mensurata or cantus mensurabilis. Similar to the ideas developed in Cusa’s De Conjecturis, the reading of a score could be imagined as a sort of continuous measuring. Singers had to interpret the quantified musical signs on the levels of height and duration but also had to deal with the complexity of changing proportion signs which could alter the meaning of quantity of certain musical material. Often musical diagrams were accompanied by puzzling canons or rules that would change the way to read a particular part of the music.

Take for example the so-called proportion canon Le ray au soleil by Johannes Ciconia, a piece that Cusanus could have heard in Padua in the early 1420’s. On paper there is just one melody written. However, the canonic rule, accompanying this melody, requests that it would be sung simultaneously with three voices in a proportion of 1:3:4. This means that for every value in the lowest voice, the other voices have to sing respectively 3 or 4 smaller values. The proportion 1:3 or 1:4 doesn’t cause any irrationality, but the total result, including the proportion 4:3 between the two highest voices, causes a dazzling and irrational effect, of course obfuscated on paper. The sounding effect of what seems a simple melody is indeed baffling. One gets the impression to hear one singular melody, spatially unfolded through different acoustical layers, with a delay moving forwards and backwards at the same time, creating a dazzling dizzying sound effect. Who knows if the composer took inspiration from the symbolic evocation of the fraction of a sunbeam, described in the text. The idea could have affected Cusanus as well.

Recently musicologists have been proposing other possible encounters between notated mensural compositions in the 15th century and the concepts of Cusanus. Jason Stoessel hypothesises that a real influence of Cusanus on composers and their works could be traced from the late 1450’s on and shortly after Cusa’s death in 1464, for example in a mass by an anonymous Franco-Flemish master (in the style of Ockeghem), kept in a Sistine Chapel musical manuscript in Rome. Especially in the last part, the Agnus Dei of the Missa L’Ardant Desir (refering to the French song with this title that was used as cantus firmus, sounding surprisingly like a reference to Cusa’s mystical endeavour, “cum ardenti desiderio” as he would write), Stoessel points at the unprecedented canonic rule to swap the note values maxima with minima, commenting: “The equating of maximas with minimas and vice versa in this section of the mass presents itself as an uncanny musical representation of Cusanus’ coincident opposites, the Absolute Maximum and Absolute Minimum, symbolising for feeble human minds the incomprehensible God”.

Of course, we are here on the level of diagrammatic writing. Although it has consequences for the end result in performance, once achieved, it is not as such perceptible in sound, and it shouldn’t be. The character of this inaudible change or manipulation could be compared to absolute, substantial subjectivity, only subsisting in the sounding result, similar to Cusa’s concept of the not-other (li non-aliud), an otherness which is substantial and not accidental.

However, examples could be given, in works of Johannes Ockeghem and others, were resonances of a Cusanean logic are clearly graspable with the ear. In his Missa Caput for example the Caput-melody (in fact the last word on a long melisma of an antiphon featuring Christ washing the apostles’ feet, playing with the symbolic opposition of caput and pedes) is written on a normal tenor height with a canonic rule to sing the “Caput” in the feet (to transpose it an octave in the bass). The result is remarkable: the whimsical caput melisma, including some unusual jumps of a fourth) is now sung by the bass against which three other upper voices move in a different mode, a coincidence of opposites if you like, which even a non-trained ear could perceive.

Another motet by Ockeghem, Alma redemptoris Mater seems to provide us with another paradigm: Cusa’s legendary recuperation of the much older idea of the absence of a centre, or rather that there are only shifting, displaced centres, and hardly any border or circumference. The plainchant melody used by the composer as model, providing structure to the motet, is scattered all over the four voices, sometimes even appearing in the bass voice, performing cadence formulas that are rather for a top voice, interchanging structural roles. Listeners who know the original plainchant and try to follow its melodic shape are continuously displaced and lost.

Even Martin Luther’s praise of polyphony (and his open scorn of people unaffected by it, to whom he advices listening to some “shit-poet” (merdipoeta!) or the music of the pigs) is in the end still pre-Cusanean, if we look closer to his domesticating description of a fixed tenor voice singing a steady cantus firmus with the other voices whirling around. In Ockeghem we discover a complete decentring of this plainchant with all voices participating in it.

We see in Cusanus’ writings this excess or decentring emerge on all the levels of the discourse, from its subject to the narrative form itself and finally to the meta-level, in order to provoke or force thinking, to offer something to the mind that cannot be swallowed completely, like a bone in the throat.

Matthaeus Herbenus and (lack of) experience

Although starting from a graspable, rationally interpretable musical diagram, the image produced by the performers seems to be not without problems for the listener. It is devoid of clear meaning, it is obscure or at least troubled, there is an irreducible excess at work here.

Soon after Cusanus, humanist thinkers, such as the forementioned Mattaeus Herbenus of Maastricht, have tried to engage with this problem. In his De natura cantus ac miraculis vocis of 1496 Herbenus pinpoints very clearly what is at stake in polyphony regarding comprehensibility and image. He claims:

“As a matter of fact, I myself have known certain songs which, proceeding with wondrous simplicity, captured the senses of some men in such a way that they completely shuddered at other, more artful songs, that leapt about like goats. Also, [I have known] men unlearned in music, [but] endowed with a natural gift and a certain grace in singing, who fashioned some vernacular songs with simple counterpoint in such a way that they not only aroused the love of their companions, but brought even experts in this art to particular astonishment, because their notes, being uttered in syllabic fashion, could be easily made out by all. […] The mind is easily carried off to a higher contemplation by those singly understood notes, together with properly placed syllables, the beauty of the song being so aptly maintained. So what are your note divisions to me, when you chatter in such a way that I can recognize neither a word nor even one syllable, nor any virtue in the composition? In composed works I should have thought that this must be avoided at all cost. […] For how will you think your eyes have been gratified if someone who is going to show you some beautiful picture dazzles you all of a sudden, before you can fix your gaze on it, with many paintings that change color? I should think that you’d be annoyed rather than delighted, because you could render no certain judgment about it. Now, what I say here about the sense of vision I could say about all others as well. For the senses need proper space for taking in the meanings: if that [space] is not granted, how can reason judge about those imperfectly formed ideas? In those songs, therefore, which fly past the ears so swiftly that they vanish before there could be a judgment of them, the capacity to judge is overwhelmed.”

Herbenus seems to believe that lack or excess of meaning in polyphony is not structural but can be overcome by reducing the music and making it simpler, taking out all useless ornamental melismas and diminutions, keeping only syllabic phrases: meaning would thus be provided by the text, supported by the sound. That music is, in a way, always the meaningless vehicle, providing subjective engagement of singers, wrapping a common text message with desire, escapes Herbenus. Instead of clear messages, we get a decentred excess of paintings and quickly changing colours to deal with, impossible to swallow. Let’s be clear here: Herbenus is not at all against polyphony (as Denis the Carthusian was not principally against it). He is against the excess it produces, caused by a lack of textual support or better, by the music that gives too much space to meaningless singing as such, instead of being supportive or submitted to the meaning of the sacred text. Polyphony should be text based, syllabic, homophonic and declamatory, safeguarding rationality and understanding. As said, although the music itself is mensural and in this sense completely rational as such, Herbenus only accepts the meaning of the sacred text as meaningful. It is interesting that the debate about mysticism, experience and (loss of) meaning, today as in the 15th century, circles around the same problem.

Is not something similar happening in De Visione Dei? The original moment where I fantasize a sort of symbiotic reciprocity of me looking at the portrait and the portrait looking back wherever I go, is shattered and divided through the voice of the other who proclaims to have the same imaginary experience as me. Cusanus talks about a moment of surprise and disbelief, hardly acceptable. The moment the other appears as a voice, doubling my experience, is the loss of my experience. Or better, it is only through the other who appears as this voice, as an echo of myself, nevertheless breaking for ever the possibility of unity with what I saw, splitting the perceptive field, that I can become a desiring being.

My point would be that in the exploration and development of the mystical experience by Cusanus a similar kind of problem as in polyphony is at stake, namely the problem of desire, absence and loss and fundamentally the crucial experience of the other and its meaning.

If we think of the two statements of Herbenus mentioned above, it seems that what made him anxious is this loss of fixed meaning. Or better, it seemed only meaningful for the singers themselves, or at least pleasurable, excluding Herbenus as a participant of this meaning, who experienced nothing but lack. It is weird, one could even imagine that Herbenus would have known most of the stereotypical liturgical texts of the polyphony he was listening to. Why did he need to hear them so clearly? My claim would be that it is not only the loss of meaning that causes this anxiety, but the fact that one experiences the empty meaninglessness as meaningful, capable of engaging one’s desire. Polyphony is thus the creation of a strange field of desire, a field of the other and of subjectivity, not dissimilar to the mystical experience (of absence) as explored by Cusanus.

Herbenus looks from the outside and from a distance and seems only capable of substantialize the others, apparently enjoying themselves, on behalf of him. This is how the other appears, at least to Herbenus, wholly and fully identifying, depriving him from a meaningful, enjoyable experience.

We need however to switch perspective and move inside the polyphonic practice in full action.

Are we not entering the prototypical scene of the Cusanean game? Above all, polyphony as a practice is nothing else than a thorough experience of measuring. Performing subjects don’t exist before the game. They come into being through measuring and discover each other and themselves through measuring. Singing polyphony is nothing else than embodied measuring in action, in an attempt to unfold all the potentials of the musical diagram. Cusanus offers us a very adequate toolbox to tackle what is happening in polyphonic performance.  At the same time, this seems a wonderful occasion to redeem his thinking for understanding the logic of polyphony.

Most revealing is probably the experience of a rational enfolded complexity that becomes subjectified in its unfolding, how it opens up a field of the other and an experience of some gap or excess, often obfuscated or domesticated in either an oceanic discourse or one of meaningfulness. Both reduce polyphony to a mere field of phenomenological experience depriving it of speculative potential.

The oceanic moment of imaginary identification with the polyphonic work, seems to be similar to the substantializing of the look in the beginning of De visione Dei, at the moment when the onlooker is fascinated by its imaginary reciprocity, when his look is answered by the look of the portrait, a moment of fantasized symbiosis, in itself based on a deceptive, visual trick or trompe l’oeil.

Believing a trompe l’oeil is the equivalent of fetishist disavowal, I know very well it’s just a trick, but nevertheless…The real appearance of the other in the perceptual field breaks my symbiotic moment and opens it to the social as forever lost. What Michel de Certeau in his brilliant essay on De Visione Dei calls “madness” is this crazy acceptance of the excessive voice of the other.

Although the voice of the other breaks my fantasy, it allows me also to hold on to what I lost.

This ambiguity is at play in the dismissal of the 15th century critics of polyphony.

The shared anxiety and impossibility to accept the other in the embodiment of the singers of polyphony by Denis the Carthusian and Herbenus is ventilated through a discourse on excess and the need for moderation and meaningfulness, so called lost in the enjoyment of the other, who corrupts the ecclesiastical space itself (like mystics) with enjoyment and desire, and the promise of a meaningful polyphonic practice. What is obfuscated is that these performers are themselves divided though their own singing practice of measuring and othering, as we will explore soon.

The structuralism of Cusanus understands and acknowledges the primordiality of desire and enjoyment, mediated through the other. It is fascinating how Cusanus deprives the other of any phantasmatic or substantial otherness, being a sort of empty subject, having the same experience as oneself. Or should we understand this as the return (or repetition) in the discourse of the other of what had been given up in the first symbiotic moment?

The other is structurally the one who decentres us, who shifts our position through this moment of loss of meaning.

How is the other appearing in the experience of polyphony? The other can be disavowed through the oceanic fantasy (fetishist disavowal) or through fetishization of beauty. For Herbenus and Denis the Carthusian polyphony itself appears as excessive other, embodied by lascivious, enjoying singers.

Wall – Clock – Imago - Aenigma

After the emergence of the other, Cusanus seems to shift from the portrait to the “wall of paradise”, an image that reminds us structurally of the (trompe l’oeil) curtain painted by Parrhasius to deceive his rival Zeuxis, a story from antiquity, accounted by Pliny in his famous Natural History, evoking how painting stimulates the viewer’s desire, not just through the realist trompe l’oeil painting itself, but by simulating that something is hidden or absent through an obstacle. The experience of this wall of contradiction, the limit of the coincidence of opposites, is the core of mystic experience, if there is any. The wall is the creation of desire for desire itself, so to speak. What the wall enfolds is explained by Cusanus in a comparison to a mechanical clock. Is this clock not functioning exactly as a musical score, enfolding already in itself everything that will be unfolded in concrete duration in performance? The clock is the musical work itself, as it emerges somehow obscurely and somehow after the job is done with the unfolding of the score. It seems to provide a perfect paradigm explaining how singers as desiring subjects come into being.

A musical work unfolds in time, but it is the unfolding of an enfolded diagram or clock, producing retroactively a picture or image of this work, the clock in itself, so to speak. This image can only emerge after the fact because it is the result of what we are getting to hear, stitching together a sort of totality after the fact with all what we just heard before. When the moment occurs to remember or to re-imagine the work, it has already been unfolded completely and nothing is left of it. It seems to have withdrawn itself once again in its enfolded, unimaginable existence. Herbenus emphasized this: the vanishing or disappearing (through its very emergence) is so profound, that it is utterly impossible to remember anything, inducing a feeling of lack for which the self-enjoyment of the singers is responsible according to Herbenus.

Repeating the work and listening once more, could be helpful, if we weren’t confronted with our permanent change of listening perspective, hearing now things we didn’t hear before, not only material acoustical things, but also the changing relations between the different sonorous elements in simultaneity and in retention, contaminated by our imagination that constantly differs and displaces the focus, grabbing on to new centres, changing and moving infinitely.

Cusanus seems to favour a sort of repetition drive in the successful failure he propagates through all his endeavours, a never ending “going on” of human beings, even when it seems absurd to effectively go on, transforming this repetition drive, that never stops doing or trying, in a meaningful act in itself, becoming its proper aim. Maybe it could be connected to a sort of kenotic drive, a structural emptying out as the essence of music itself, suddenly graspable for a listener while hearing a singer engaged in his part. One would need to further explore and ruminate how the idea of a clock could be connected to the transformation of the painting in the wall of contradiction (a vanishing of the symbiotic image, the unfolding in time or kenosis, and finally, Christ as an ultimate image, or better a strange surplus of loss.)

The unfolding of the musical work is experienced as a continuous loss. The loss or split is double, happening in succession and in simultaneity as well.

Every note performed is potentially the last. Herbenus cannot find any reconciliation here, no image could be fixed, and nothing could be remembered, the only thing one is left with, is the unacceptable enjoyment of the other (Herbenus does not see that the other’s enjoyment also exists for the singers among themselves.)

Then there is loss experienced in simultaneity: the musical work is split between a score, retroactively imagined as the work in its ideal form, and its subjective realisation, which is structurally a failure, or better, an excremental process, producing nothing than waste.

In this sense the experience of a seemingly “successful” performance is always in the grip of fetishist disavowal, as if there is something achieved or gained to which the audience could get direct access. The Cusanean way of looking at this would be to accept the structural failure and work through this insight, the artist being an essential part of, and expressed through, the unfolding experience of the work.In his Idiota de Mente Cusanus makes the crucial distinction between imago mortua and imago viva. Only the last one can express the structural, subjective failure as the proper condition of the successful realisation of an artwork, to paraphrase Inigo Bocken. A perfect simulation or trompe l’oeil, like the portrait of De visione Dei is in the end rather an imago mortua, as it doesn’t seem to transcend imaginary identification. The works of Van Eyck are in this sense only imagines vivae in so far as they succeed in curving the reality they seem to reproduce.

The embodiment of the score is of course not just failure: it is the condition to get access to the music itself. Voices and instruments embody through the measures and proportions written in the score. The procedure is in principle strictly mimetic. Singers mimic or reproduce the quantified notation (let’s not forget that polyphony is like a train one jumps on, without stopping or going back, or a machine that doesn’t allow for any subjective decision or choice that is not somehow limited by what is written; performative freedom is bound by the material and by the other performers, potentially negated from within, through operations of plasticity) but in this process of transposition or transference, from diagram to image in performance, radical difference happens, from being abstract and absolute in itself, to being externalized, contracted, through failures, disproportions, failed attempts etc. While performers perform the work, at the same time they also perform themselves: the incarnated image is as much an externalized image of the work in the score, as it is of the artists themselves, being a sort of vanishing mediators of an ideal work that always withdraws.

Yet, measuring or proportioning is not just execution, as it is accompanied with one’s proper blind spot in the field of the other’s simultaneous initiatives. Every initiative is conjectural, there is no correction possible, and no overview gained. This weird measuring seems to be completely pragmatic, potentials put into action on the spot without any predication or knowledge. This actual non-relation with each other is what drives the performers.

Performers or singers are inside the work, being an indispensable, living part of the realisation itself (which looks like a self-realization of the work, as no part can decide or do anything on its own), yet, they are at the same time completely detached from the work in its sounding result and lack any overview or distance of the work, that would give them the opportunity to hear it. Totally inside and part of it, yet, blind of any result.

The only way to get an overview is to step out, which would mean: losing the intrinsic part. Staying inside however, one hears only oneself (even this only partially) and the others (more or less). Through listening and hearing the others (more or less, or hardly), decisions are automatized and help the singers to move inside and even vanish in the work, leaving space to the other.

What caused Herbenus’ and Leonardo da Vinci’s anxiety, the incessant vanishing of the music in the moment it is emerging, is the very principle and condition of the plasticity of the musical work itself (all musical dynamics are a play with modulating presence-absence), and the failure to remember, only in aenigmate so to speak, its very proof of success.

To whom is this enigmatic image, a paradoxical kind of image, hardly graspable and for that reason in demand of repetition, addressed in the end? There seems to be nobody who can get an idea of it and all perspectives are only partial experiences. Being outside, one is not inside; being inside, one cannot hear the result from outside. Singers seem to be like monads grasping some virtual idea of the outside, of an absolute, unknown otherness, having an inner notion of the outside, without having a window towards the outside or being connected to it in any way. There seems to be this mysterious resonance, reflected in experience of an outside as the most profound inside of oneself. How could singing be possible otherwise?

Musical plasticity not only thrives on this constant dying, distinguishing it from the so-called enduring simultaneity in painting, it also creates a different inside and outside, both mutually excluding each other, nevertheless being produced at the same time. Cusanus would probably say that only God can hear the inside and outside at the same time, being the inside and outside in an absolute way.

The figure or persona of the conductor (not in a historical but in a structural sense) has a liminal position between inside and outside for the performers, almost like a prosthesis that reaches out to an otherwise unreachable outside. However, the conductor is somehow also inside, following and accompanying the inner pulse, the individual initiatives and the total sound, without really adding to the material itself. Therefore, he is not fully inside, which exactly allows for being also somehow outside. But being still very much inside, one is only partially outside, still not enough detached to have a panoramic overview, a position that would rule out the necessary shaping interventions and punctuations. The mediating role of the conductor is that of an idiot or a clown, a pure antenna that knows nothing, only transmitting signals and impulses, functioning as a minimal physical point of reference without any insight or knowledge.

Although Cusanus never conceptualized such thoughts, they nevertheless seem to be provoked by his way of thinking.

An interesting paradox is that the musical work in its totality, through this structural, conditional blindness of the performers, making them act and perform, nevertheless completely escapes them, maybe even more than the listeners, who are often not aware of this impotence on the side of the performers.

The “divided soul” of Denis the Carthusian could in this sense also unconsciously refer to the split that is conditional for the emerging of musical work. Performers whose actions and perceptions are separated from its totality, articulate a strange separation or division inside the work, mostly obfuscated in performance. Being aware of this division excludes any oceanic experience because it is cut by the appearance of the other. What produces the artistic experience is at the same time what it blurs. Would this not fit with the position of Cusanus concerning the mystical experience, not as symbiosis, bus as the appearance of the other in the field of experience? The other is not the one that I could identify with, looking back at me in unity and with whom I can speak in mutual recognition. The other is the one who makes such a position impossible.

Unfolding a score (in essence an act of doubling, of mimesis and repetition) is an act of externalizing it, emptying it out. In this way it is also an endorsing and engaging with the fundamental non-relation to the score, creating an image in dissemblance or in aenigmate. Is a performance of polyphonic works of Ockeghem & co not the most convincing simulation of the unexpected lines of curvature traced by the hollowed-out ball thrown in Cusa’s bowling game (as explored in his De ludo globi, 1463)? The beauty experienced here, is in the deviations from the ideal straight line, caused by the hole in the ball, which is nothing else than the structural, ontological blind spot in the subject.

For Cusanus there is no mystical experience as empirically understood by William James. Mystical experience is rather the experience of a non-experience, mediated through the other.

What Michel de Certeau called the “madness” of the mystical experience, is the acceptance of others’ enjoyment, to once more refer to the 15th century critics of polyphony, traumatized by the experience of the singers’ appearing and vanishing, splitting the work from within.

As Inigo Bocken has shown, in his latest writings Cusanus seems to make an interesting, crucial shift from beings as living image to beings as living harp or hymn. Is there a way to relate this late concept to what I have tried to explore here?

References to the most important works used for this essay:

Nicholas of Cusa:

English translations are slighty modified versions of original English translations by Jasper Hopkins

All to be consulted here:

Inigo Bocken:

On De Conjecturis:
De kunst van het verzamelen. Historisch-ethische inleiding in de conjecturele hermeneutiek van Nicolaus Cusanus, Damon, Eindhoven, 2004

On Idiota de Mente and the Cusa’s thinking on art and image:

De leek over de geest, Damon, Eindhoven, 2001

On De Visione Dei:

Het zien van God, Kapellen, 1993

On Cusa and praise:

Doxological (Im)Purity? Nicholas of Cusa's 'Art of Praising' and Liturgical Thinking in 21st Century. Religions; 2022; Vol. 13; iss. 8

Michel de Certeau:

The Mystic Fable, volume 2, University of Chicago press, 2015.

Mysticism, in, Diacritics, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 11-25

Rob Wegman

Passages from Denis the Carthusian and Matthaeus Herbenus to be found in his indispensable book and article:

The Crisis of Music in Early Modern Europe, 1470-1530, Routledge, 2005

"Musical understanding" in the 15th century, in, Early music vol. 30 (2002) pp. 46-66

Works focusing on Cusanus and music:


Kathi Meyer-Baer, Nicholas of Cusa on the Meaning of Music, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 5, No. 4, June, 1947, pp. 301-308

Heinrich Hüschen , Nikolaus von Kues und sein Musikdenken (1971), in Symbolae Historiae Musicae - Hellmut Federhofer zum 60. Geburtstag, Mainz, 1971, pp. 47-67

Franz-Bernhard Stammkötter, Nikolaus von Kues über Musi, in Intellectus und Imaginatio. Aspekte geistiger und sinnlicher Erkenntnis bei Nicolaus Cusanus, ed. By João Maria André, Gerhard  Krieger and Harald Schwaetzer, Amsterdam 2006, pp. 143-149

Werner Schulze Werner, Zahl, Proportion, Analogie: eine Untersuchung zur Metaphysik und Wissenschaftshaltung des Nikolaus von Kues, Münster 1978

Werner Schulze, Harmonik und Theologie bei Nikolaus Cusanus, Wien 1983

Werner Schulze, Musik und Harmonik bei Nikolaus von Kues. Zur Theorie der Musik zwischen Mittelalter und Neuzeit, in Harmonik & Glasperlenspiel. Beiträge `93. München 1994

Predrag Bukovec, Musik bei Nicolaus Cusanus. In Cusanus. Ästhetik und Theologie, ed. by Michael Eckert and Harald Schwaetzer, Münster 2013, pp. 83–101 (Texte und Studien zur europäischen Geistesgeschichte; B,5)

Johannes Leopold Mayer, Die Musik als „ancilla philosophiae“ – Überlegungen zu Ludwig Wittgenstein und Nikolaus Cusanus, 2008

Cusanus and irrational number and the half-tone

Peter Pesic, Hearing the Irrational: Music and the Development of the Modern Concept of Number

In, Isis, Vol. 101, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 501-530

Oscar João Abdounur,  Ratios and music in the late Middle Ages: a preliminary survey, 2001

Oscar João Abdounur, The Emergence of the Idea of Irrationality In Renaissance Theoretical Music Contexts, in Mathematical Journal of Interdisciplinary Sciences Vol. 3, No. 2, March 2015 pp. 155–17

quote from Abdounur (2001)

(…) it seems that (…) irrational numbers and/or incommensurable magnitudes were arising in musical contexts, where previously the sound produced by such ratios had not considered music. The evidence suggests that it occurred for the first time with Nicholas of Cusa, who as- serts in his Idiota de Mente of 1450 that the musical half-tone is derived by geometric division of the whole-tone, and hence is defined as an irrational number. Nicholas was the first to formulate mathematically a concept that is the cornerstone to the comprehension for the equal tem- perament proposed in the work of the high Renaissance music theorists Faber Stapulensis and Franchino Gafurius published half a century later (Goldman, 1989, p. 308). Cusa’s work also influenced the German theorist and cossist Henricus Grammateus (Heinrich Schreyber) in his Ayn new kunstlich Buech, which is a tuning handbook considered essential in the development of equal temperament. Cusa was at the University of Padua between 1417 and 1423, where he studied with the mathematician and music theorist Prosdocimus de Beldemandis, who attacked Marchetto’s division of the whole tone into 5 equal parts in his Tractatus musicae speculative published in 1425.“

David P. Goldman, The Divine Music of Mathematics. How music theory proves what ancient mathematics thought impossible, in :

Musicologists on Cusanus

Manfred Bukofzer, Caput: A Liturgico-Musical Study, in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, New York, 1950.

Cusanus (and devotion moderna) as possible influence mentioned on pp. 291-292

Jason Stoessel, Redemption and the Missa L’ardant desir, in:

Therese Bruggisser-Lanker, Dulcis harmonica concordantia – Nicolaus Cusanus' Konkordanzbegriff und die Emanzipation der europäischen Kunstmusik. In Music and Culture in the Age oft he Council of Basel ed. by Matteo Nanni, Turnhout 2014, pp. 31-49.

Peter Gülke, Guillaume Du Fay. Die Musik des 15. Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart 2003 (Cusa features frequently and almost as Du Fay’s philosophical shadow)

Adam Knight Gilbert, Concealment Revealed Sound and Symbol in Ockeghem's Missi Quinti toni and Missa Prolationum, in Explorations in Music and Esotericism, ed. by Marjorie Roth and Leonard George, 2023, pp 101-124

Cusa mentioned in articles discussing of polyphony and mysticism in the 15th century make sense or not:

Lawrence F. Bernstein, Ockeghem the mystic: a German interpretation of the 1920s, in Johannes Ockeghem: actes du XLe colloque international d'études humanistes, Tours, 3-8 février 1997 ed. By Philippe Vendrix, Paris, 1998

Lawrence F. Bernstein “Singende Seele” or “unsingbar”? Forkel, Ambros, and the Forces behind the Ockeghem Reception during the Late 18th and 19th Centuries, in The Journal of Musicology
Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter 2006), pp. 3-61

Lawrence F. Bernstein, Jean d’Ockeghem, in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth Century Music, ed. by Anna Maria Busse Berger and Jesse Rodin, Cambridge (2015) , pp. 105-118

Lawrence F. Bernstein The modern reception of the music of Jean d’Ockeghem in The Cambridge History of Fifteenth Century Music, ed. by Anna Maria Busse Berger and Jesse Rodin, Cambridge (2015) ,pp. 811-822

quote from Bernstein (1998):

“One of the most puzzling characterizations of Ockeghem's music is its portrayal as a mystical expression on pietism. Held to be irrational, the music is likened to the docta ignorantia of Nicholas of Cusa. Just as God can only be defined as what he is not, Ockeghem's polyphony is described in terms of the absence within it of the standard accoutrements of rational organization in music - cadences, imitation, profiled motives, and other sources of regularity. Two aspects of this argument are troublesome: there is no evidence linking Ockeghem to pietistic devotion, and his music conveys a sense of coherence that is suggestive of anything but irrationality.”

Adam Knight Gilbert, Concealment Revealed Sound and Symbol in Ockeghem's Missi Quinti toni and Missa Prolationum, in Explorations in Music and Esotericism, ed. by Marjorie Roth and Leonard George, 2023, pp 101-124

quote from Gilbert (answering to Bernstein) (2023) :

“I absolutely concur with Bernstein that linking Ockeghem to Cusa by dint of shared irrationality is inappropriate. The assessment of Cusa as being irrational is itself considered outdated. Cusa's theology is replete with imagery related to the paradoxical coincidentia oppositorum ("coincidence of opposites"). This ranges from paradoxes at the heart of De docta ignorantia and its mathematical contemplation of the irreconcilable squaring of the circle, including descriptions of the maximum-minimum and minimum-maximum angles, to a paradox inherent to his Idiota de mente, in which the uneducated layman teaches the philosopher. Although these paradoxes reflect the impossibility of a rational understanding of the divine, they are themselves presented in extremely rational and logical ways. There are other reasons, however, for linking Ockeghem to Cusa that have less to do with irrational mysticism than with how Ockeghem employs compositional craft to create examples of musical symbolism with uncanny correspondence to specific and rational elements of contemporary symbolic theology, particularly to passages in treatises by Cusa.”

Gayle Kirkwood, Kings, confessors, cantors and archipellano, Ockeghem and the Gerson circle at St-Martin of Tours, in Johannes Ockeghem: actes du XLe colloque international d'études humanistes, Tours, 3-8 février 1997 ed. By Philippe Vendrix, Paris, 1998

Vincenzo Borghetti, Johannes Ockeghem, figure mystique?, in Musique, théologie et sacré, d'Oresme à Érasme, ed. by Annie Cœrdevey and Philippe Vendrix, Ambronay, Center Culturel de Rencontres 2008, pp. 149-184

Wojciech Odoj, Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420–1497) – a Mystic?, in Studia z Dziejów Średniowiecza, t. 24, 2020