No art appears as remote as music from the life and the society that produce it. Painting and sculpture reflect some aspects of the figures and objects or at least the forms and colors that we encounter; novels and poems convey experiences and aspirations that recall, however distantly, the world that we know. The sounds of music, however, are artificial and set apart: even sung music does not give the sound of speech, and instrumental music has little to do with the noises that we come upon in our daily life, and can seem to be even more abstract than abstract painting. That is why Charles Lamb compared a piece of instrumental music to a poem made up entirely of punctuation. Nevertheless, as Diderot remarked, even though the signs of music are more ephemeral and less easily definable than those of painting or literature, their emotional impact upon our senses is even greater. We would consider it unreasonable to think that music does not, in many ways, reflect the culture and the age in which it was made.
To understand the significance of music for the musicians who created it and the society in which it was produced is therefore a challenge to music-lovers. Perhaps no writer on music devoted more energy to this task than Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, and the translations into English of his writings on philosophy and music and their diffusion have been multiplying in recent years while, at the same time, his ideas have become widely influential in the US and Europe. In American, French, and Italian universities, his views are frequently cited. The admiration is rarely unmixed. Almost everyone agrees that his essay on jazz (where he attacks popular music with a snobbish contempt matched only by his ignorance of the subject) is embarrassing. His difficult prose is a stumbling block (even his closest colleagues admitted that they could not always understand his writing), but it is also an attraction; it forces one to pay attention and he achieves effects with it unobtainable by a more pellucid manner.
Born in 1903 in Frankfurt into a rich and influential family, he studied piano at an early age, but he does not seem to have shown a strong ambition to become a professional musician before 1924, when he met the composer Alban Berg and heard Wozzeck, which fired him with enthusiasm. He went to Vienna in 1925, attached himself to the circle of Arnold Schoenberg, and studied composition with Berg and piano with Eduard Steuermann.
The little I have heard of his compositions has the curiosity value of the amateur musical works of other men of letters, and may be rated somewhere below the musical endeavors of Nietzsche or Rousseau and above those of Ezra Pound. He also studied philosophy and, returning to Frankfurt, wrote a university thesis, largely a Marxist interpretation of Kant and Freud, called The Concept of the Unconscious in the Transcendental Theory of Mind, and, later, a second thesis on the aesthetics …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.