From My Commonplace Book - 25


by Robert Walser

Music is the sweetest thing in the world. I absolutely adore notes. I'll run a thousand paces just to hear one. Often when I'm walking through the hot streets in summer and hear the sounds of a piano from an unknown house I stop in my tracks, ready to die on the spot. I'd like to die listening to a piece of music.

I imagine this is so easy, so natural, but naturally it is quite impossible. Notes stab too softly. The wounds they leave behind may smart, but they don't fester. Melancholy and pain trickle out instead of blood.

When the notes cease, all is peaceful again within me. Then I go to do my homework, to eat or play, and then forget about it.

A piano, I find, sounds most enchanting of all. Even beneath the hand of an amateur. It's not the playing I hear, just the sound.

I could never be a musician. For music-making would never be sweet enough, intoxicating enough for me. Listening to music is far holier.

Music always puts me in a sad mood, but sad in the way a sad smile is sad. A friendly sadness is what I mean. The happiest music isn't happy to me, and the most melancholy music fails to strike me as particularly melancholy or disheartening.

Listening to music, I always have exactly the same feeling: something's missing. Never will I learn the cause of this gentle sadness, never will I wish to investigate it. I've no desire to know what it is.

I've no desire to know everything. As intelligent as I think myself, I possess, generally speaking, very little thirst of knowledge. I suppose that's because by nature I am the opposite of curious.

I'm perfectly happy to let all sorts of things go on around me without bothering my head about how they happen. Certainly this is deplorable and unlikely to help me make a career for myself.

Perhaps I am not afraid of death, so I'm not afraid of life either. I see I'm starting to philosophize.

Music is the most thoughtless and thus sweetest of the arts. Purely intellectual people will never appreciate it, but they are the ones who benefit most deeply when they hear it.

You can't want to understand and appreciate an art. Art wants to snuggle up to us. She is so terribly pure and self-satisfied a creature that she takes offense when someone tries to win us over. She punishes anyone who approaches with the intention of laying hold of her.

Artists soon find this out. They see it as their profession to deal with her, the one who won't let anyone touch her.

That's why I never want to be a musician. I'm afraid of the punishment so fair a creature would administer. It's fine to love an art, but you must be careful not to admit it to yourself. Your love is warmest when you don't admit it is there.

--Music hurts me. I don't know if I truly love it. It finds me wherever it happens to. I don't go looking for it. I let it caress me. But these caresses are injurious.

How should I say? Music is a weeping in melodies, a remembrance in notes, a painting in sounds. I can't rightly say.

Just so no one takes my statements about art up there too seriously. They're certainly to miss the mark somewhat as not a single note has struck me today.

There's something missing when I don't hear music, and, when I do, then there's really something missing.

That's the best I can say about music.

"Music" is part of the early plotless novel Fritz Kocher's Essays by Robert Walser (Swiss, 1878-1956). The novel purports to be a collection of essays by a schoolboy.

Robert Walser wrote "Music" as a single paragraph. I've taken the liberty to break it up for ease of reading for PR members. Forgive me, dear Robert.

This translation of "Music" is included in a collection of Robert Walser's work,
Masquerade and Other Stories, translated by Susan Bernofsky.


Wow, Merry; that is one of the most exquisite and redolent pieces of writing re the ineffability of music I have read; probably THE most{Rushes to Amazon}.Is Walser ALWAYS that good?; and it relates to the Sacks book group thread!Steve
Yes, lovely philosophising here Merry, I especially enjoyed his "music is thoughtless" which we know and therefore of the emotions, and "I'd like to die listening to a piece of music". But "something missing" in the hearing - now that I don't find at all. Nor his "you can't want to understand and appreciate art". Perhaps it is that Art is my background and seeing good art is to appreciate and be involved in the beauty. "Music is the sweetest thing" though and just the thought brings melodies to mind, so thank-you Merry.
Great piece! Like enid I have things I agree with and disagree with according to my individual outlook on music.

In agreement, my favorite quotes:
"Music is the most thoughtless and thus sweetest of the arts"
"You can't want to understand and appreciate an art. Art wants to snuggle up to us"
I know this is essentially the nature of all art, but I love how music is so interpretive one piece can be seen infinite different ways. This is what makes it such an interesting journey to me. When you listen to a song you never know what youre going to get its new every time, with every listener and every listen.
"Music always puts me in a sad mood" ... "something's missing..."
To me, good music is an interpretation of the purest feelings imaginable, and when I hear it I cant help but feel aware that I am only experiencing a shadow of what inspired the artist to create the music, and I cant help but marvel at what I dont know about the music. But not knowing is much of the beauty of art.

"I am the opposite of curious". Not me, I am pretty much as curious as they come. But I have to put curiosity on hold when I listen to music.
"I could never be a musician. For music-making would never be sweet enough, intoxicating enough for me." Although I myself am a musician (saxophone and flute), I understand where the author is coming from here. There are significant technical barriers between the amateur musician and "holiness" of music-making. For me it took approximately 9 years of rote practicing to overcome these barriers. But now that I feel more confident in my ability to speak the language of music, it has become one of the most freeing experiences for me. I never understood how people "play their blues", but now I do (and CFS has given me plenty of blues :p ).

Overall, I agree: music is one of the most sublime things in my experience, because it means so much to me, but I know so little about why.

I'm glad you like this. "Music" is certainly typical of the short prose pieces Robert Walser wrote. I can think of others I like better and may post another in the coming weeks.


Robert Walser's "essays" were improvisational. I read (don't ask me where) that he claimed never to have altered a sentence. He liked throwing in contradictory statements. As he says in "Music", "Just so no one takes what I say about art above there too seriously."


A pleasure to meet you. Thanks so much for talking about your own experiences listening to music and performing. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say on PR. Perhaps you'd be interested in joining in the thread that is called something like "PR Book Choices"? We've have been talking about Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia and about ME/CFS and music.

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