Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 2 (Spring 2003)

At Last, A Bird's-eye View of the Elephant: A Reassessment of the Work of Theodor Adorno

By Sandy Thorburn

A review of Essays on Music, selected, with introduction, commentary, and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie. Theodor W. Adorno. University of California Press: Berkeley/Los Angeles/ London, 2002.

The University of California Press's new critical edition of selected essays on music by Theodor Adorno is the most useful work on this important musical philosopher published to date. Its seven hundred-odd pages feature lucid translations by Susan Gillespie and informative commentaries by Richard Leppert. It is worth the cover price simply for the biographical essay.

One could argue that Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno (1903-1969), the leading figure of the Frankfurt School and founder of Critical Theory, was responsible for raising the Second Viennese School of composition, and by extension, the entire canon of serial music, into the forefront of art music in the middle of the twentieth century, and for that act alone, he should be taken to task for distorting twentieth century music. But, asks Leppert, did he really distort it, or did he simply point out the inevitable conclusion we are bound to reach in the end - that although Schoenberg met history's challenge by using a compositional technique that was difficult for its public to absorb - he was in fact following the rigorous Germanic tradition that had been laid out for hundreds of years? That he was not so much a revolutionary as one might think? Whatever the final verdict is regarding the Second Viennese School, one quickly realizes that despite the often cranky, conservative, and bad-tempered tone of Adorno's writing, and as dogmatic and deferential as the man himself could be when faced with authority, his work is as vitally important to our current understanding of art music as the combined work of the four great composers of the century: Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Bartók and Stravinsky.

As it happens, Adorno was a great admirer of Schoenberg's style of composition, if not necessarily of Schoenberg himself; he studied composition with Alban Berg, and piano with contemporary music champion Eduard Steuermann. If one's youthful works shape one's destiny, then the rigorous academic study Adorno engaged in before his twentieth birthday served him well throughout his life. His study of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason placed him in an ideal position to understand the aesthetics of the early twentieth century, and his serious study of music made him the most effective scholar in European history at discussing how music speaks to modern humanity. He was also born into a wealthy family made up of an assimilated German Jew-turned protestant father and a Catholic Italian mother, in Frankfurt-am-Main on September 11, 1903, making him about as aware of cultural diversity as a European could possibly be in this time. He became a prolific music critic before he developed as an artist - in fact, unlike some others (from Schumann to Respighi), it seems his critical agility hampered Adorno's development as a composer. Nevertheless, composition's loss was musicology's gain, and his early essays on musical aesthetics - "Why is the New Art So Hard to Understand?" (1931), "The Dialectical Composer"(1934), "On the Social Situation of Music" (1932), "The Form of the Phonograph Record" (1934), and notoriously, "Farewell to Jazz" (1933) - have shaped the way we view this thing called music.

Today, as for the past twenty years, Adorno's influence is growing; he is cited by musicologists more than any other serious philosopher simply because "he remains the single most influential contributor to the development of qualitative musical sociology, just as he is by far the most important writer on musical aesthetics - as well as aesthetics generally - in the past century."1 To be sure, he is sometimes taken to task for his critical views on popular music, which he outlined in "On Popular Music." He described popular music as formulaic and "standardized," a characterization that, especially at the time he was writing, is not completely false. His description of art music, or "serious" music (his term) is less often criticized, despite the fact that it appears overly favouring of a music that is as fraught with weakness and formula as popular music is. He described "serious music" in this way: "every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme."2 This élitist view, it must be accepted, grew out of a predictably Euro-centric and intensely dialectical approach that, although bristling with generalizations that cannot really be accepted in the critical literature of twenty-first century aesthetics, has a certain truth attached to it. His series of generalizations are the pillars upon which much of current musicology, critical theory, cultural studies and post-modern criticism are built. Adorno might consider the biggest irony in the contemporary study of music at the academic level that the "serious" music tradition in the academy is almost always taught from the starting point of Adorno's assessment of the weaknesses of "popular" music. Consider the study of Mozart and his contemporaries: how many of us remember being told to analyze a Mozart sonata by looking for the first and second subject, told to note the key changes in the "development section" and to observe how neatly it falls into the "sonata form." The lesson taught is, effectively, that even the Olympian Mozart and the Titan Beethoven poured their god-sent musical nectar into well-worn formulaic chalices. Not exactly Adorno's point, I submit.

The trouble with serious music pedagogy is precisely that, notwithstanding Adorno's division of "popular" and "serious" music, it is extremely difficult to imagine a better way to introduce great music to the uninitiated. This series of formulas we arm our students with is actually a key to the understanding but not the final word on the great music of the "master" composers.

This repertoire of great works comprises the canon of music played in restaurants, elevators, telephone hold buttons, and dentist's offices; the resulting familiarity of the works then has the detrimental effect of squeezing every last fibre of originality out of the repertoire by sheer familiarity. This, in effect, creates a whole new class of cliché: the masterwork for the background. As it happens, Adorno has dealt with this phenomenon too. He wrote "Music in the Background" in 1934, declaring: "in our immediate life there is no longer a place for music."3 Always circumspect, Adorno pointed out that at least here the "art connoisseurs who go 'Shhh!' are implacably exposed as comical."4 The fact is, background music - and Adorno includes live café music - is an acoustical light source: indiscriminate and ubiquitous. Nevertheless, and despite its ubiquity, the light music, the background music, the soundtrack to our lives is described by Adorno as "pure commodity"; it is a sham because rather than reflecting any of the realities of the world, rather than describing any of social misery, it falsifies the cognition of reality by pushing reality away and replacing it with the satisfaction one receives from its spell. By defining light music as "kitsch", it is divorced from any possibility of criticism because of its inherent irony and its self-conscious lack of taste.5

Where did a man educated in the great works of German academia get these ideas from, one might reasonably ask? Adorno was a close friend and colleague with some of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century, including philosophers Walter Benjamin, Ernst Krenek, and Max Horkheimer, authors Thomas Mann and Berthold Brecht, musicologist Edward Dent, composers Hanns Eissler, Kurt Weill, and the three composers of the Second Viennese School. He left his native Germany for England in 1934 and immigrated to the United States in 1938. His most prolific period was when he was living in Los Angeles between 1941-48. He himself claimed, "90 percent of all that I've published in Germany was written in America."6 Despite his great output he was not happy in America as he explained in his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, a deeply personal work finished in 1946, published in 1951. And it may in fact have been this émigré aspect of his character that nudged Adorno to write about those things threatening his idea of Kultur. Certainly, his views on the role of National Socialism on music and culture in general are far ahead of his time. Even before the defeat of the Nazis, Adorno warned of the victory of the fascist aesthetic in America. He wrote about Wagner in new ways too, describing his plots as "flimsy allegorical disguise" for Nazi doctrine. These ideas were based on his understanding of the writings of Wagner's son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose racist writings and militant anti-Semitism were heartily endorsed by the Bayreuth circle. It is not certain, to my mind, that these ideas were necessarily in the mind of Wagner, and it is even less certain to me that had Wagner been alive in Adorno's day, he would have created a similarly hyper-nationalist art object in his Ring. But then, neither am I certain that if Adorno were writing today, he would write about fascism with the same passion and anger. Nevertheless, I believe he was right and continues to be right, but that is no longer his fight, but mine.

Walter Benjamin, one of Adorno's most important influences, notes that stylistic concepts like "Baroque" (and by extension to Adorno's ideas of "musical modernism") were ideas made manifest by their motion through history (in his dissertation on Baroque drama, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels), terms that were not simply definable in a dictionary. Ultimately, Adorno's idea of judging the style by its most extreme and unusual manifestations was the best means of revealing the potential of these styles as they worked through history. In the modern era, these extremes were made manifest in the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In Schoenberg's music, it was a case of extreme rigour at the expense, if need be, of melody and even beauty; the phrase "emancipation of the dissonance" was coined by Schoenberg. In the case of Stravinsky, it was extreme dynamics, extreme chords, and effects at the expense of beauty and clarity of line, which Adorno referred to as "no less than assassination techniques."7

The most-quoted element in all of Adorno's writing is his use of the term "fetish." In "On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening," Adorno observes that taste is an outmoded concept, that judgments (i.e. aesthetic "truths") rather than tastes (i.e.personal preference) are used in serious music criticism. And the so-called business of composition represented by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and others is even worse: it is a world of fetishes, or "stars." Adorno notes that Walter Donaldson (composer of "Carolina in the Morning" and "My Blue Heaven") was described as "the world's best composer" because of his commercial success. He goes on to describe how it is not only people who become stars, but best-selling songs and records as well, and as a result of this star pantheon, the program of acceptable music shrinks, removing the moderately good and realigns the accepted classics themselves. He writes:

Melody comes to mean eight-bar symmetrical treble melody. This is catalogued as the composer's "inspiration" which one thinks he can put in his pocket and take home, just as it is ascribed to the composer as his basic property.8
"For musical vulgar materialists," he describes, "it is synonymous to have a voice and to be a singer.... In earlier epochs, technical virtuosity ... was demanded of singing stars.... Today, to legitimate the fame of its owner, a voice need only be especially voluminous or especially high.9

One might even take this argument into the present, in which a singer, in order to be famous, need only have a sound system capable of making one loud, and technology to make one's show flashy, as can be demonstrated by the technical wizardry of Madonna's entourage as compared with the minute and inept voice of the performer herself. Adorno pointed out how the situation is particularly obscene in the case of the "great" musical instrument; Adorno describes how audiences go into paroxysms at the mere mention of a Stradivarius violin when they cannot really distinguish it from a good modern instrument. It is the fetish quality of the artifact, regardless of its genuine musical use, that creates its value. Music too, he claims has become (in America) nothing more than "an advertisement for commodities which one has to acquire in order to be able to hear music."10

Adorno asked the questions that plagued him: why was contemporary ("serious") music so seldom played? Why was the art-music tradition slackening? How can new technologies be used to help the art-music tradition? Artists who loved "serious" art music quickly embraced Adorno's ideas, often to the point of the absurd. Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist, ceased to perform in public after 1964 because he believed that recorded music was an autonomous art, and the concert hall a place of "blood-lust," where he felt more like a vaudevillian than an artist. These are Adorno-like ideas, ideas simultaneously daring and conservative or new and regressive. In many ways this is the wonder of the mind of Theodor Adorno: he was prophetic in his thoughts and conservative in his habits. A kind of "do as I write, not as I do" messiah. During the student revolts of 1968, for example, Adorno was unsympathetic to the plight of the students and was even seen shaking hands with the chief of police. It left him open to criticism which descended on him in both effective and trivial ways; it has left his ideas essentially intact and his memory in better shape than almost any other thinker of the early twentieth century (compare his reputation to Freud's).

Adorno's messianic reputation was largely because he insisted on talking about music as though we should all understand it; he demanded the world pay attention to this most esoteric of the arts. Listen, he suggested, to the shape of the phrases, the construction of the contrapuntal lines, and music becomes a discursive art form, a political and social dialogue, a meaningful means of conveying emotional nuances (i.e. states of suffering) in the form of intellectual drama. He had a particular love of Schoenberg's dialectical counterpoint and dislike of the bombast he saw in the music of Stravinsky, and this view was not always entirely fair to either of them. Take for example the following comment:

The virtuosity of Stravinsky and his followers forms an exact antithesis to the mastery of Schoenberg and his school; here the game is opposed to the absence of illusion; the seductively arbitrary change of masks, whose wearers are consequently identical but empty, is set against responsible dialectics, the substratum of which transforms itself in sudden changes.11
Consider another politically charged nugget: "In the Russian Stravinsky...the relation to fascism is beyond question."12 He is comparing objectivism to fascism, and he makes his argument quite convincingly. Of course, these comments are open to criticism and so the temptation to argue with him is irresistible. Some modern scholars find endless fascination in tearing apart the personal preferences of Adorno, but we must remember he was writing about an earlier time, when acceptance of other musics was the exception rather than the rule, and despite his hatred of commodified music, Adorno's feelings on popular music, world music and National Socialism do not have the benefit of Olympian objectivity, as some of us do: he, and many of his closest friends suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Nevertheless, Adorno claims he does not feel the need to dwell on the Nazi terror but on the "after-effect of the Fascist era and its significance for America rather than the actions and crimes of the regime itself." He claimed that
the loss of interest in the products of art which may ultimately lead to a completely barbarian severance between serious artistic production and universal tastes is not a matter of degeneration or bad will but is the almost unavoidable consequence of the relegation of art into the realm of pure embellishment brought about by the technological development itself.13
Essays on Music is a collection of some long and some very short works by Adorno, with extensive and impressive critical commentary, copious footnoting, and a generally fair appraisal. There are twenty-seven essays spanning his entire career and Weltanschauung, including his views on individual composers (Mahler, Berg, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Wagner), mass culture (including jazz, popular music, National Socialism, Kitsch, background music, the recording, and the radio), and aesthetics in general. Some key larger works are not included, but a fair cross section of Adorno's work is represented, along with several new translations of some lesser-known works (among them "The Dialectical Composer" of 1934 and the peculiar "Kitsch" of 1932).

Richard Leppert, the Samuel Russell Professor of Humanities and Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, has compiled the best and most useful Adorno reader for a musically aware philosophy student at a time in history when it could not be more important to study such a thinker. Adorno has variously been branded both a conservative and a socialist, but it becomes clear in this volume that he remains what he always hoped he would be: a scholar with an remarkably broad and catholic reach, with a great deal to say about virtually every aspect of music that existed during his lifetime. He had his preferences, and he made them clear; he had no time for objectivity (the formalist, analytically-based musicologists who pullulated throughout academia since Hanslick) professed by some of his contemporaries, and valued the opinions of others as much as he valued his own. And Leppert's commentaries consist mainly in explaining some of Adorno's densest writings, providing comprehensive background and supporting materials, including copious footnotes of material that, to my knowledge, has never been explained before. Some details about his biography are discussed - why his sojourn in America was both so painful and so productive for him, for example - and other background materials about the times in which he lived help to clarify his idiosyncratic perspective on (amongst others) the Second Viennese School, the Frankfurt School, American broadcasting, Disney, popular music, and his contemporaries. Significant under-researched figures in Adorno's life like Paul Lazarsfeld, his first employer in America are dealt with, but the most significant contribution of this volume is not a radical re-thinking of Adorno, as others from Rose Rosengard Subotnik to Max Paddison have already provided, but an explication of his motives, a sympathetic understanding of the work itself. Leppert has done what no one has ever been able to do before: he has summed up the multi-faceted Adorno without ignoring any of his many sides, and without confusing the reader.

One wonders if this new interest in Adorno has come at an unfortunate time in the history of thought. With an intellectual world map coming to resemble the National Socialist repression Adorno so despised, with the term "freedom" transformed into a bargaining chip in a world ruled by an increasingly small and willfully ignorant group of neo-conservative capitalists, this volume may be the epitaph of the Adorno fad that sprang up in the twenty years of relative peace and prosperity between 1980 and 2000.

The legacy of Adorno is critical to the shaping of modern musical studies. Important musicologists have almost all dealt with the monolithic Adorno in one way or another, and yet they seem to have approached him as the four blind men approached the elephant, understanding, branding and ultimately missing his totality in the end. This new volume provides the raw material for a really serious Adorno scholar to see almost all of his musical sides and, kaleidoscopic though it may be, it is a comprehensive and valuable view.


1. Leppert, p. viii.

2. P. 439, "On Popular Music."

3. P. 506, "Music in the Background."

4. P. 506, "Music in the Background."

5. This argument is fleshed out pp. 422-6, "On the Social Situation of Music."

6. P. 8, fn 23, quoting Martin Jay, "The Frankfurt School in Exile," in Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 41.

7. P. 166, Adorno, "Stravinsky: A Dialectical Portrait" (1962-3).

8. P. 294, "On the Fetish-Character in Music."

9. P. 294, "On the Fetish-Character in Music."

10. P. 295, "On the Fetish-Character in Music."

11. P. 403, "On the Social Situation of Music."

12. P. 404, "On the Social Situation of Music."

13. P. 378, "National Socialism and the Arts."