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On Adorno On Music

Night Music: Essays on Music 1928–1962
By Theodor W. Adorno, translated by Wieland Hoban
Seagull Books, 492 pages, $29.00.

Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was a philosopher only after he was a composer, as if the music he made in his youth required an entire system, and a later age, of interpretation. There was a method to this method, too. First he discarded European thought; then European thought, or the governments that gave it political sanction, discarded him. In 1938, Adorno left Frankfurt for New York, then for the Promised Land of Los Angeles, where he summered even in winter alongside his collaborator Max Horkheimer and peers Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann.

During the 1940s, before returning to the Reich, Wiesengrund was abbreviated to W.; Theodor became “Teddie” forever. For Adorno, second movements were always the more significant, their function to emotionally reveal what any preamble could only gesture at, or intellectually justify; he lived for development; he exposed his soul in mechanics. After the spikily clichéd “Bewegt” of his first piece for string quartet, Opus 2, the second piece, “Variationen,” opens with a music of rare sensuousness — a voluble singing of strings.

Adorno, so concerned with his own language, was equally discriminating about the writing he set to music: poetry by Theodor Däubler, Georg Heym, Georg Trakl. Adorno’s Opus 1 was a setting of four poems by Stefan George, the second of the set beginning, “Wir schreiten auf und ab im reichen flitter.” The style and imagery, as always with George, are cluttered like a bourgeois parlor; the poem is like a single twig tied in knots as if an aide-mémoire. Its concluding stanza reads:

Wir fühlen dankbar wie zu leisern brausen
Von wipfeln strahlenspuren auf tins tropfen
Und blicken nur undhorchen wenn in pausen
Die reiden früchte an den baden klopfen.

We’re grateful for the hints of rays that glisten
From treetops down to us in weightless flood;
We look up only now and then to listen
When back to earth the ripened apples thud.

That klopfing thud, that fall from grace of Eden’s apple, was the seeding subject of Adorno’s philosophy. Adorno was a catastrophist; wherever he lived was terminus, and perhaps that’s why he did so well in America, land of catastrophe, home of the terminally free and apocalyptic. History was ending all around him — Europe amid war, America amid postwar consumerism — and all the traditions and artwork of before could tell him (so he told us) only what we should, today, culturally avoid. Because yesterday, criticism was subservient to art, tomorrow, art will be subservient to criticism; because the music of the past was tonal, the music of the future must, necessarily, exile the tonal, and seek the atonal, or an alternative praxis: the dodecaphony of Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Adorno had a lifelong rivalry.

Adorno’s compositions were overwhelmingly atonal, then dodecaphonic, or 12-tone, a technique that involved, in the words of Schoenberg, “composition with 12 notes related only to one another.” And his philosophical practice was comparable: It sought to re-systematize the way in which meaning was to be thought about, which led to a re-systemization of the way that meaning was to be meant. Adorno’s theory — only later, when it moved to urgent New York, was it dubbed Critical Theory — was that everything had a theory: that one could deduce the hidden vestiges of an age or a politic from the consideration of any artwork by gazing (or listening, or thinking) below its surface. Though they’re only oil or acrylic, watercolor or gouache, the shapes taken by a painting, even just the daubs on a painter’s palette, could tell you, or could tell Adorno, everything you or he needed to know about the age in which the painter painted. This wasn’t psychology, or diagnosing the artist by the disease of his work; rather, this was Freud applied in macro. This was diagnosing society by the art it had enfranchised, or by which it was opposed.

For Adorno, especially for Adorno the formerly practicing musician, melody was more than melody, and more even than melos, antiquity’s ideal of a musical phrase set between two breaths like commas. It was, instead, the very essence of communication, unmediated. He did not, however, mean this poetically. Adorno believed that the essential abstraction of music made it the purest medium, and that its preverbal, immaterial nature might save it from cooption by a rapacious mass-market (it should be remembered that Adorno was a Marxist, or at least a profound skeptic about capitalism). Adorno’s great musical failure — and this failure is perhaps attributable to his Europeanness — is that he misunderstood the popular, which is to say he misunderstood America.

Leaving America just when music had been definitively converted to product (the long-playing record; home and car “stereos”) from the processual, Adorno realized only too late that his beloved discipline — the interpretation of marks inked across the five lines of the musical staff — was reaching its finale; performance was the new composition; going to a concert had become as much participatory as it used to be an exercise in subjugating one’s will to the musicmaker’s, and Adorno had no desire to participate; he was the soloist; Adorno never audienced, or played ensemble.

Adorno’s occasional writings on music, collected here in a new volume (a companion to the more formal “Essays on Music”), span 1928 to 1962, three decades during which music changed more dramatically than it had during the previous three centuries. The 17th century to the 20th is a matter of skipping from Bach to Stravinsky, or from Handel to Schoenberg (pairings that still make excellent sense), but from 1928 to 1962 means to jump, in Anglo-America, from unamplified Dixieland jazz and early big band to the British Invasion; in “classical music,” or “contemporary classical,” it means to fastforward from prewar modernism to postwar computermusik — from Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who wrote for humans, to Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who labored over electronic contraptions instrumented with tricolor blinking lights and fortissimo sirens. Indeed, in rereading this paragraph, I find I myself have succumbed to Adorno’s fury. I have just written from the end of the record, the last band. When we get there, it’s time to retract the turntable’s arm and set the needle to begin again. But there are no more turntables. We just have to press a button to reset. It is amazing that books like Adorno’s are still being published.

Adorno wrote essays in the opposite of sonata form, where every theme is brought back, after exploitation, to a restatement. His thought itself often takes that form, however, its inner structure one of self-reference, of recursion, as each sentence’s dialectic is completed: thesis, antithesis, synthesis in a new key. He says of Late Style that it knows it is a style, and says, too, that Beethoven’s classicism ended when he discovered that it was Classical. Adorno knew how modern he was, and that’s why his Modernism is over; its own consciousness destroyed it. In an essay on Beethoven, Adorno writes, “Death is imposed only on creatures, not their creations, and has therefore always appeared in art in a broken form: as allegory.” Of course, an author’s posterity is just another creation, and so only the physical death of Adorno’s émigré generation — Adorno died a week before the Woodstock festival of 1969 — can be an allegory for the death of an intellectual West; Adorno’s reputation, as is his friend Walter Benjamin’s, is fine and assured.

A coda: The secrets revealed by Adorno at his most reckless, by Benjamin in mystical mode, and by a few other German-Jewish hierophants of Theory before it became Frenchified and just another requisite of the core curriculum were, perhaps, the only secrets of an openly barbaric century — not because they were, rather because their creators said they were. Any description of their evanescence can more effectively be elided, made concise, in music: the opening violin germ of Berg’s “Kammerkonzert,” or Webern’s six quartet bagatelles that last no longer than three minutes; the soprano entrance of Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, or the piercing needle of his “Streichtrio.” Ernst Krenek. Stefan Wolpe. And we’ve confined ourselves to Mitteleuropa. As making any program notes on this music would be to write mere prose again or, at best, a punctuated poetry (Paul Celan’s “hearing our way in with our mouths”), it would be better even to listen to silence, or — Adorno, hold your ears — to something genuinely pop.

Joshua Cohen last novel was “A Heaven of Others”(Starcherone Books, 2008). He lives in New York City.

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