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Hermann Hesse : On Music (quotes)

Dernière mise à jour : 9 avr. 2023

Portrait of Hermann Hesse

by Ottilie Roederstein, 1909

"In prehistoric times music, like the dance and every other artistic endeavor, was a branch of magic, one of the old and legitimate instruments of wonder-working. Beginning with rhythm (clapping of hands, tramping, beating of sticks and primitive drums), it was a powerful, tried-and-true device for putting large numbers of people "in tune" with one another, ngendering the same mood, co-ordinating the pace of their breathing and heartbeats, encouraging them to invoke and conjure up the eternal powers, to dance, to compete, to make war, to worship.

And music has retained this original, pure, primordially powerful character, its magic, far longer than the other arts. We need only recall the many testimonies of historians and poets to the power of music, from the Greeks to Goethe in his Novelle. In practice, marches and the dance have never lost their importance..."

The Glass Bead Game / Magister Ludi


“Well," he said with equanimity, "you see, in my opinion there is no point at all in talking about music. I never talk about music. What reply, then, was I to make to your very able and just remarks ? You were perfectly right in all you said. But, you see, I am a musician, not a professor, and I don't believe that, as regards music, there is the least point in being right. Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education and all that." "Indeed. Then what does it depend on ?" "On making music, Herr Haller, on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable. That is the point, Monsieur. Though I carried the complete works of Bach and Haydn in my head and could say the cleverest things about them, not a soul would be the better for it.

But when I take hold of my mouthpiece and play a lively shimmy, whether the shimmy be good or bad, it will give people pleasure. It gets into their legs and into their blood. That's the point and that alone. Look at the faces in a dance hall at the moment when the music strikes up after a longish pause, how eyes sparkle, legs twitch and faces begin to laugh. That is why one makes music.”

Hermann Hesse


"If I were a composer, I could without difficulty write a melody for two voices, a melody that would consist of two lines, of two rows of tunes and notes that correspond with one another, complement one another, fight with one another, limit one another, but in any case at every instant, at every point in the sequence, have a most profound interrelationship and reciprocal effect. And anyone who can read music could read off my double melody and always see and hear with every tone its counter-tone, its brother, its enemy, its opposite.

Now it is just this, this double voice and constantly advancing antithesis, this double line, that I would like to express in my own medium, in words, and I work myself to the bone trying and do not succeed. I am always attempting it and if anything at all lends tension and weight to my works, it is this intensive concern for something impossible, this wild battling for something unattainable.

I would like to find expression for duality, I would like to write chapters and sentences where melody and counter-melody are always simultaneously present, where unity stands beside every multiplicity, seriousness beside every joke. For to me, life consists simply in this, in the fluctuation between two poles, in the hither and thither between the two foundation pillars of the world."

Hermann Hesse

A Guest at the Spa

Romantic Songs, by Hermann Hesse (1899)

“I like listening to music, but only the kind you play, completely unreserved music, the kind that makes you feel that a man is shaking heaven and hell. I believe I love that kind of music because it is amoral. Everything else is so moral that I'm looking for something that isn't.”



"I cannot understand nor share these joys, though they are within my reach, for which thousands of others strive. On the other hand, what happens to me in my rare hours of joy, what for me is bliss and life and ecstasy and exaltation, the world in general seeks at most in imagination; in life it finds it absurd.

And in fact, if the world is right, if this music of the cafés, these mass enjoyments and these Americanised men who are pleased with so little are right, then I am wrong, I am crazy. I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him."



"Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours."



"At about the age of six or seven, I realized that of all the invisible powers the one I was destined to be most strongly affected and dominated by was music. From that moment on I had a world of my own, a sanctuary and a heaven that no one could take away from me. Oh, music! A melody occurs to you; you sing it silently, inwardly only; you steep your being in it; it takes possession of all your strength and emotions, and during the time it lives in you, it effaces all that is fortuitous, evil, coarse and sad in you; it brings the world into harmony with you, it makes burdens light and gives wings to to depressed spirits."


Hermann Hesse

"Music of the Lonely Man" (1914)

"It was as if by becoming a musician and Music Master, he had chosen music as one of the ways toward man's highest goal, inner freedom, purity, perfection, and as though ever since making that choice he has done nothing but let himself be more and more permeated, transformed, purified by music — his entire self from his nimble, clever pianist's hands and his vast, well-stocked musician's memory to all the parts and organs of body and soul, to his pulses and breathing, to his sleep and dreaming — so that he was now only a symbol, or rather a manifestation, a personification of music."

The Glass Bead Game


"Remember this: one can be a strict logician or grammarian and at the same time full of imagination and music."

The Glass Bead Game


"The human attitude of which classical music is the expression is always the same; it is always based on the same kind of insight into life and strives for the same kind of victory over blind change. Classical music as gesture signifies knowledge of the tragedy of the human condition, affirmation of human destiny, courage, cheerful serenity."

The glass bead game


“That’s how I feel”, she said to Anselm in her voice that was as light as a bird, “whenever I smell a flower. Then my heart tells me each time that a memory of something extremely beautiful and precious is connected to the fragrance, something that had been mine long ago and became lost.

It’s also the same with music, and sometimes with poems — all of a sudden something flashes, just for a moment, as if all at once I saw my lost home below in a valley, and then it immediately disappears and is forgotten. Dear Anselm, I believe that we are on earth for this purpose, for contemplating and searching and listening for lost remote sounds, and our true home lies behind them.”

Hermann Hesse



"The many-voiced song of the river echoed softly. ...

Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He'd often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices - the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice.

The all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They're all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om — perfection. ...

From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the string of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things."

Hermann Hesse




Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major. The arch
Of the high window stood full of light.
A splendour had settled upon
Your serious face as well.

In no night did the silent silver moon
Ever move me thus again,
So that in my innermost being I felt,
Unutterably sweet, a song of songs.

You fell silent.  I, too; the mute distance
Dissolved in light.  There was no life
Except a pair of swans in the lake
And above us the coursing of the stars.

You stepped into the arch of the window,
And about your outstretched hand 
The moon etched a silver rim,
And about your slender throat.

(Translation © 2018 by Sharon Krebs)

Frédéric Chopin - Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 55, No. 2

by Ignaz Friedman (1936)

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Autobiographical Writings, by Hermann Hesse

Autobiographical Writings, by Hermann He
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