Theodor W. Adorno
Theodor W. Adorno; drawing by David Levine


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.1 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 of Kierkegaard. For a while he published articles on music, chiefly in support of the Schoenberg circle, but could never obtain full-time work as a critic. At last he received a lectureship in philosophy at the University of Frankfurt in 1931, which he lost in 1933 when Hitler came into power, and he went into exile, ending up eventually at the Institute for Social Research, which had transferred from Frankfurt to Greenwich Village in New York, and provided a wartime refuge for many exiled European intellectuals. After the war he returned to his native city, and became a professor at the University of Frankfurt.

Perhaps the fundamental critical insight of Adorno was a recognition that works of art do not passively reflect the society in which they arise, but act within it, influencing and criticizing it. The critical concepts used by Adorno to clarify the way art criticizes social conditions were largely derived from Marx’s reading of Hegel, above all the concept of reification, the reduction in capitalist society of, for example, a human being, a work of art, or even an idea to a material object. This reification takes place when the value of anything in itself, its use, its purpose, is obscured by its exchange value, how much it is worth when it is sold. Serious art music—what we call classical music—is characterized for Adorno by its resistance to commercialism and provides, by this refusal to conform, a criticism of the ideals of the society and culture in which it is produced. For him, the Central European tradition of serious music from Beethoven to Schoenberg was a protest against the growing reification of capitalist culture: composers imposed their often uncompromising individuality, their “subjectivity,” upon the traditional language of music, even when—perhaps, indeed, above all when—the innovations were difficult for the public to accept. A balance between the objective musical tradition and the subjectivity of the composer, a balance that would allow the new works to be performed and understood, became increasingly hard to achieve, as the musical language became more complex.


The stimulus Adorno received from the Schoenberg circle was rivaled by his contact with Walter Benjamin, more than ten years older than Adorno. They were united by their left-wing political views, but it was Benjamin’s thesis on the drama of the German baroque, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, rejected by the University of Frankfurt, which inspired Adorno’s greatest admiration. His interest in Schoenberg and Benjamin was combined in his best-known and most influential book, Philosophy of Modern Music, which set out to do for contemporary music what Benjamin had done for seventeenth-century German tragedy. He makes this intention explicit by a quotation, typically hermetic, from Benjamin as the opening sentence of his book:

“The history of philosophy viewed as the science of origins is that process which, from opposing extremes and from the apparent excesses of development, permits the emergence of a configuration of an idea as a totality characterized by the possibility of a meaningful juxtaposition of such antitheses inherent in these opposing extremes.” This principle, adhered to by Walter Benjamin as the basis of cognitive criticism in his treatise on the German tragedy, can also serve as the basis for a philosophically oriented consideration of new music.2

For Benjamin, followed by Adorno, concepts of style like “Baroque,” “German tragic drama,” and “musical modernism” were Ideas, the effects of which were perceptible as they were made manifest and worked out in history, but which could not be pinned down and confined by a simple dictionary definition as they developed. An outline of their trajectory in history could be found above all by concentrating on the extreme limits that the examples of the style could attain; for Benjamin the heightened language and violent plots of the largely forgotten German Baroque dramas were the extreme examples of the Baroque theatrical style. The insistence on the extremes proposed by Benjamin was a way to avoid reducing a style to its most typical and average examples. The emphasis on the unusual and extravagant manifestations best reveals the potential of the forces at work in history.

The extremes of modern music considered by Adorno consist simply of only two: Schoenberg, along with his disciples, and Stravinsky. His treatment is asymmetrical: Schoenberg continued the central development of European art music (“Schoenberg and Progress” is the title of this part of his book) while Stravinsky was an intruder from a marginal Slavic culture trying to appropriate a past which did not belong to him (“Stravinsky and Restoration”). The book contains brilliant observations, but is skewed by this structure, which is only too obviously prejudicial. In addition, the method is essentially a misunderstanding of Benjamin. Adorno did not quote the words by Benjamin that immediately follow the sentences he presented at the opening:

Under no circumstances can the representation of an Idea be considered as successful as long as the virtual sphere of its possible extremes has not been reviewed.

The “review” has to remain virtual, Benjamin explains, because not all the possibilities of an Idea are perfectly worked out in history; a review of the “possible extremes” implies that all the extremes, even those imperfectly realized, must be considered to arrive at historical truth, which is the representation of the Idea.

Adorno, however, eliminates from his review all forms of popular music, including jazz, and refuses to consider such contemporary figures as Rachmaninov and Sibelius. Hindemith is dismissed as a reactionary and Bartók given the most cursory treatment. In this way, he reduces the picture of the modern age to two isolated images, and does not even seriously consider the relations between the work of Schoenberg and that of Stravinsky. Of course, this has become much easier to assess with the distance of time, like the relations between the opposing camps of Wagner and Brahms, who now seem more alike than they did to their contemporaries, and in a moment of clarity Adorno predicted that eventually Schoenberg and Stravinsky “will some day no longer strike the ear as so distinct from one another as they do today.”

It should now be obvious that Schoenberg’s move from the freedom of atonality to what Adorno called “the rigid apparatus of the twelve-tone system” was fundamentally neoclassical and conservative, an attempt to reconstruct the respectable classical forms like the sonata and the set of variations, which had become seemingly impossible with atonal expressionism, and that Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic use of eighteenth-century tonal formulas in his middle period was in fact profoundly radical and even subversive in many of his works.

Nevertheless, in Philosophy of Modern Music, the relation of Schoenberg and Stravinsky is mostly represented as a struggle between good and evil. Even Schoenberg’s move from the expressionist style of 1911 to 1920—in such works as Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire—to the systematic twelve-tone system, which Adorno largely deplores, is viewed sympathetically as the tragic result of the clash between the developing musical style and the degeneration of capitalist culture. Stravinsky’s work, on the other hand, is subjected to a polemical onslaught well illustrated by the sec-tion headings: Archaism, Modernism, Infantilism; Permanent Regression and Musical Form; The Psychotic Aspect; Alienation as Objectivity; Fetishism of the Means; Depersonalization; Catatonia. Remarks like “The sado-masochistic element accompanies Stravinsky’s music through all its phases” sustain the polemical tone, so congenial to Adorno, who had for his youthful journalism used the pseudonym Detlev Rottweiler. Much of this reads like a parody of the only too familiar Philistine picture of the avant-garde tradition as the work of degenerate perverts.


The pejorative vocabulary is systematic, not only about Stravinsky but about other composers such as Debussy. It should be evident, for example, that Debussy put new emphasis on sonority, giving it priority over the development of motifs characteris-tic of the German tradition. Adorno labels Debussy’s sound at once “fetishism of the material,” turning it into a vice. If a composer simplifies his style for a particular work or group of works, this is immediately called either “regression” or “infantilism.” The limit of this tendency is reached when Adorno ascribes Stravinsky’s success in dealing with the crowd scenes in Petrouchka to the incapacity of the Slav to achieve subjectivity. Subjectivity, Adorno thought, was a bourgeois product, and Russia was still largely pre-bourgeois, or, as he circumspectly presents his cultural racism: “In essentially pre-bourgeois Russia the category of the subject was not quite so firmly fitted together as in the Western countries.” That explains, Adorno remarks, why “not one of the brothers Karamazov is a ‘character'” and why “the lyricism of Mussorgsky is distinguished from the German Lied by the absence of any poetic subject…. The artist does not converge with the lyric subject.”

This absurd anti-Slavic prejudice did not, however, prevent Adorno from making fairly sharp observations about Stravinsky, in, for example, the following discussion of his motifs:

In Beethoven the motives are definitive and reveal a specific identity…. Stravinsky’s technique of archaic-musical images views the circumvention of such identity as one of its primary concerns…. The concept of dynamic musical form which dominates Western music from the Mannheim school down to the present Viennese school assumes [the] motif as a prerequisite in a firmly defined identity, even if it is minutely small…. Stravinsky’s regression, reaching back beyond this, for this very reason replaces progress with repetition…. This lack in Stravinsky’s music is, in the narrowest sense, a lack of thematic material, a lack which actually excludes the breath of form, the continuity of the process—indeed, it excludes “life” itself from his music.

In this clotted prose, Adorno contends that Stravinsky’s motifs are not dynamic: they generate neither sequences nor the developing variation that characterize the Austro-German tradition, which he thought the only defensible musical style.

By denying that Stravinsky’s motifs have identity, he does not mean that they are not striking or memorable: the “identity” of a motif here means the possibility of “drawing the consequences” from motifs through development and variation. Similarly, for Adorno, the identity of a person is not merely what he or she looks like but the past history and the future possibilities of his or her character. In this sense the “identity” of a theme in the classical tradition is defined by its transformations within the whole work. (“The thematic material,” Adorno claims, “is of such a nature that to attempt to secure it is tantamount to varying it. It really does not in any way exist ‘in itself’ but only in view of the possibility of the entirety.”3 )

Adorno was right about Stravinsky’s motifs: they do not have the dynamic charge of the German motif. Even the Schoenberg of the periods of atonality and the later twelve-tone system chose motifs that mimicked the generative effects of the German classical tonal tradition. (That is why Pierre Boulez was eventually to react against this conservative approach and write the manifesto emphatically entitled Schoenberg Is Dead.) The magnificent opening phrases of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps or Les Noces do not, indeed, invite development, but only repetition with new shaping of the accents; and the extraordinary dynamic energy of the music comes from shifts of rhythmic weight, irregular repetition, and contrasts of texture.

These motifs, which Adorno considered dead, were an invention of genius that revolutionized music. Adorno, who understood certain aspects of Stravinsky more clearly than most of Stravinsky’s disciples, could not see that his technique was in fact dynamic and generative largely because the elements were so neutral, and that they offered him an escape from the academic tyranny of the only tradition that Adorno judged viable.

According to Adorno, Schoenberg’s music, as a criticism of the commercialism of modern culture, deliberately but nobly sought out failure through its clearsighted, logical, and progressive exploitation of the central classical tradition; Stravinsky pathologically betrayed this tradition. Schoen-berg’s reaction to Adorno’s view, as we might expect, was not favorable:

I know that he has clearly never liked my music…. It is disgusting, by the way, how he treats Stravinsky. I am certainly no admirer of Stravinsky, although I like a piece of his here and there very much—one should not write like that.4


For a great part of his life, Adorno worked at a book on Beethoven. He did not succeed in finishing it, but left a mass of notes, now published, along with a few articles, the most important of which are two on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and on his late style. The essay on the late style—by which Adorno meant the late quartets and late sonatas as well as the Diabelli Variations and the Ninth Symphony—reveals both Adorno’s strength and his limitations. In criticizing Beethoven’s late style he starts from the remarkably cogent observation that in the late works of Beethoven,

conventional formulae and phraseology are inserted. They are full of decorative trills, cadences and fiorituras. The convention is often made visible in unconcealed, untransformed bareness.

Adorno equates the attempt to get rid of convention with subjectivity, with the achievement of personal expression. He follows in this a well-established principle of eighteenth-century aesthetics: the conventional is arbitrary, imposed from without, and does not speak for the individual. To turn the arbitrary into the natural, to make it seem as if the language was created for the moment of writing or speaking, is the task of the poet, making the reader believe that the expressions are spontaneous, invented for the purpose at hand. Here in contrast to his view of the late style of Beethoven, in which he finds that the music has become fragmentary, he remarks on the success of the “middle Beethoven,” that is, the Symphonies Three to Eight, the fourth and fifth piano concertos, Fidelio, and the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” sonatas. About this period, Adorno writes:

For to tolerate no conventions, and to recast the unavoidable ones in keeping with the urge of expression, is the first demand of every “subjectivist” procedure. In this way the middle Beethoven absorbed the traditional trappings into his subjective dynamic by forming latent middle voices, by rhythm, tension or whatever other means, transforming them in keeping with his intention. Or—as in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony—he even developed them from convention through the uniqueness of that substance.

This accurate description of Beethoven’s technique is essentially what Guido Adler, the great Viennese musicologist and contemporary of Adorno, named in a brilliant account the defining characteristic of Viennese classicism, the obbligato accompaniment.5 With this technique, which Adler identified in Viennese works from Haydn to Mozart, the accompanying voices—what Adorno calls “the latent middle voices”—are derived from the same thematic material as the principal voice, and the accompaniment ceases to appear arbitrary or conventional, but arises organically from the basic material and conception of the work. The principal melody and the accompaniment are cut from the same cloth, and match each other.

Far from being an invention of the middle-period Beethoven, however, the thematic technique of the obbligato accompaniment is essential to Haydn from the Quartets Op. 33 (1780) on for the rest of his life. Deriving all the contrapuntal voices of a piece from the principal motifs has also been basic to Baroque style, and is exemplary in the fugues of Bach, in which all the voices are theoretically equal. What the later eighteenth century demanded, however, was a hierarchy of voices, a distinction between main voice and accompanying voices, in which one voice carries the melody and the other voices are clearly subordinate. It was largely the contemporary prestige of opera that imposed this hierarchy of solo part and accompaniment everywhere in music. The mechanical and banal accompanying figures of middle-century operatic style that resulted were given new vitality by Haydn through the new intimate relation between subordinate parts and the melody.

Blinded by his reverence for Beethoven, whose work he believed could be identified with the philosophy of Hegel, Adorno hardly noticed the existence of Haydn. In one of his rare references to Haydn, he wrote:

These moments of transcendence do not occur in Haydn, nor do we find in his work the substantiality of the human individual, the eloquence of the detail, however meagre. This gives rise to an element of constriction, even of narrow-mindedness in Haydn, despite all the grandeur. The func-tional interconnections present throughout Haydn’s music give an impression of competence, active life and suchlike categories, which ominously call to mind the rising bourgeoisie.

The last clause is an illustration of Adorno’s attempt to unite art and society with a facile metaphor.6 “Constriction” is an accurate if ungenerous way of describing Haydn’s economy, but Adorno’s lack of sympathy is evident in his disappointment that Haydn does not sound more like Beethoven.

Neglecting the tradition of Viennese classicism, Adorno misinterprets the role of convention in middle-period Beethoven. The conventions in the music that Beethoven wrote at this time of his life were often as naked as they became in the late works: they are paradoxically masked only by being magnified. The tritest possible cadence at the end of the Fifth Symphony, which would have been given two or (at most) eight bars by Mozart, takes fifty bars here. The most traditional way of returning to the main key at a recapitulation is subjected to an extraordinary inflation in the “Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53. Adorno’s perceptive observation about the conventional formulae in the late style is illuminating, but he fails to understand that Beethoven had become by then simply more laconic, more economical. Adorno, however, wishes to characterize the late style as revealing a despair at no longer being able to achieve a synthesis of objectivity and subjectivity rather than a growing impatience with the facile low-level methods of synthesis and a sustained attempt to incorporate the most disparate and opposing elements within a single structure.

As an example of Beethoven’s late use of the conventional, Adorno offers the Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110: “The first theme…has an ingenuously simple sixteenth-note accompaniment which the middle style would hardly have tolerated.” Unfortunately Adorno’s admirers often treasure the worst aspects of his work. Inspired by this claim, Adorno’s most eminent disciple, Edward W. Said, calls the accompaniment of this theme “a student-like, almost clumsy repetitive figure.”7 (It is, however, very similar to the opening accompaniment in Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, his most sophisticated and perhaps his greatest work for piano.)

It is untrue that Beethoven’s middle style would not have tolerated so simple an accompanying figure: there are many examples of equally simple accompaniment in the years from 1800 to 1810,8 but the problem lies not so much in the untenability of Adorno’s generalization as in his failure to read the significance of the passage. As he himself says elsewhere, the meaning of any detail of a work of this kind has to be read with respect to the whole structure, but he fails to ask how the simplicity of the accompaniment in bars 5 to 12 operates in the movement.9

What Adorno sees as discontinuity in the late style is in fact a more powerful integration on a larger scale, one that can reconcile the most brutal contrasts. What causes him to misrepresent the character of the late work is his too easy identification of convention with objectivity and original expression with subjectivity. This relegates the conventional to the inex-pressive, but the musical conventions have in fact an expressive charge of their own and the art of the composer lies in knowing how to release that charge with the greatest effect. Adorno perceives the importance of the conventions in the work of elderly artists like Beethoven and Goethe, but he does not see the power of the most banal aspects of the musical and poetic languages, and he is hamstrung by the Romantic view that genius consists chiefly in breaking the rules.

This is manifest in a particularly absurd note for his Beethoven study:

The works of great composers are mere caricatures of what they would have done had they been allowed. One should not assume any pre-established harmony between the artist and his time, inseparable as the two may be…. [Mozart’s] music is a sustained attempt to outwit convention. In piano pieces such as the B minor Adagio, the Minuet in D major; in the “Dissonance Quartet”; in passages of Don Giovanni and heaven knows where else, traces of the dissonance he intended can be discerned. His harmony is not so much an expression of his nature as an effort of “tact.” Only Beethoven dared to compose as he wanted: that, too, is a part of his uniqueness.

Adorno has been trapped into this extravagance by a familiar critical penchant, one that we all share. To explain the genius of an artist, we tend to concentrate on the more purple passages, the most outrageous and complex moments, the aspects that shocked contemporaries and that they found inacceptable. This is particularly egregious when dealing with Mozart, although it apparently works a bit better with Beethoven. Part of the greatness of Mozart is that he handled the conventional better than any of his contemporaries. It is, of course, possible that he might have liked to experiment more than he did. One will distort Mozart by taking him out of history, however, if one argues that he unwillingly invested the simplest cadences with extraordinary grace, that his tact is not as much a part of his nature as his more radical impulses, and that the exquisite sonority of the spacing of his music is less essential than the occasional indulgence in dissonant chromatic harmony.

The most spectacular critical failure of Adorno’s Beethoven studies is the essay “Alienated Masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis.” In an attempt to play the part of the little boy who saw that the emperor had no clothes, he claims that this work “remains enigmatically incomprehensible” and “offers no justification for the admiration accorded it.”10 The mass is indeed difficult to appreciate and to perform (the two are connected), more difficult perhaps than any other late work of Beethoven, but, as Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once remarked about literary critics, when a book meets a head and there is a hollow sound, it is not always the fault of the book.

No other essay of Adorno is so riddled with unsupportable assertions. He writes: “Who after all can sing a passage from it the way one can sing a passage from any of the symphonies or from Fidelio?” I can. Comparing Beethoven’s Kyrie with Bach’s, he claims that in Beethoven “there are complexes almost without melodic profile which delineate the harmony and avoid expression with a gesture of monumentality.” Only the chorale parts at the opening, however, are solidly monumental; the solo voices, which start a few seconds after the chorus, have clearly defined motifs that are deeply expressive renderings of the text (kyrie eleison means “Lord have mercy”). In this way, Beethoven solved a problem of church music that had beset composers for almost a century: the church wanted a setting of the opening Kyrie to be a celebration, while the aesthetic of most composers of the late Enlightenment called for a music that expressed the sense of the words. In Beethoven, the chorus with brass and strings largely affirms the dignity and the serious character of the rite; while the solo voices and the solo wind instruments give the prayer a personal and individual sense.

The most revealing point made by Adorno—revealing of his prejudice, not of the character of Beethoven’s mass—is that the Et resurrexit of the Credo “is not endowed with the pathos which is raised to an extreme pitch in the analogous passage in Bach.” Beethoven’s setting of the resurrection is one of the most astonishing moments of the work. It is, indeed, laconic—only six bars long—and is one of the rare moments in the work where the text is set without instruments a cappella; it begins with a dramatic and sudden forte and a vigorous rhythm after the exhausted pianississimo ending of the depiction of the burial of Christ. The emphasis is on the first word et with a pause after it: “AND—he was resurrected on the third day according to scripture.” The harmony recalls the medieval Lydian mode. Then the outburst of joy begins with “And he ascended into the heavens,” with the scales that sweep to the highest register sempre più forte.

Adorno insists repeatedly on the archaic character of parts of the mass, but the archaism is ostentatious only at two points, the Incarnation and the Resurrection. For a rational age, these were the two basic mysteries of faith, and Beethoven set them unforgettably into relief. The Incarnation is represented by bare and austere two-part counterpoint with the harmony of what sounds like the ancient Dorian mode, and the Resurrection by the supposedly medieval sound of voices alone. Adorno’s comparison with the Bach setting makes little sense. The B Minor Mass was never performed during Bach’s lifetime; nor was it for a century after his death (except for an execution of one movement by his son Phillip Emmanuel in Berlin), and it is unlikely that Beethoven knew it. The tradition he was working with was the settings of the text of the mass by the Haydns (Joseph and his brother Michael), Mozart, Cherubini, and other contemporaries.11 As for Bach’s treatment of the Resurrection, the music was not originally composed for that purpose at all but was an arrangement of an earlier piece from a cantata, and “pathos” is an odd word to describe it. It requires an act of will on the part of a critic as intelligent as Adorno to fail to recognize the power of Beethoven’s representation and to miss its significance; it amounts to a refusal to listen.

Adorno’s most serious charge against the Missa Solemnis is the relative lack of thematic development. The motifs are often simply restated after their first presentation, remaining identical. This is very perceptive of Adorno, and largely true, although he exaggerates the point (there is, in fact, considerable motivic development). But he does not ask why this is so, because he refuses to acknowledge what Beethoven is up to. Beethoven was clearly determined on an unprecedented setting of the text in which every syllable would receive a musical interpretation, from the descent of the dove of the holy spirit in the Benedictus, as the solo violin and two flutes descend from the heights, to the vision at the end of the Credo of the eternal life to come (Et vitam venturi saeculi amen) as the parallel scales of the orchestra rise from the depths and, continuously accelerating, disappear in the distance of the highest register. Adorno relays the cheap joke that Beethoven keeps repeating the word credo like one trying to convince himself that he believes; but for Beethoven each clause of the Credo is, in fact, a further act of faith. That is why he gives such extraordinary importance throughout to the word et: “AND I believe” is the background significance of every phrase.

For his project, Beethoven needed not the neutral motifs that were malleable and so useful in symphony and sonata, but motifs that would be in every case a sufficient and definitive expression of the particular phrase of the text. That is why, for example, the beautiful cadence used to set “Give us peace” (Dona nobis pacem) at bars 212–215 is repeated so often without alteration: it is, in the most important sense, perfectly adequate. The casting of this section of the mass as a pastoral is original, as are the interruptions of the tumult of war, which turn the prayer into a cry of desperation, and they give a musical meaning to the conception of peace.

Nevertheless, Adorno had a particular strategy in mind. For his view of the history of music and society, he needed the mass to be a failure—and not only the mass, but the whole late style of Beethoven, which he nevertheless revered. In what seems like a forecast of the movement to come of deconstruction in criticism, it is the greatness of an artist’s failure that awakens Adorno’s imagination. In order to understand the seduction of Adorno’s view, I quote the following passage:

The late Beethoven’s demand for truth rejects the illusory appearance of the unity of subjective and objective, a concept practically at one with the classicist ideal. A polarization results. Unity transcends into the fragmentary. In the last quartets this takes place by means of the rough, unmediated juxtaposition of callow aphoristic motifs and polyphonic complexes. The gap between both becomes obvious and makes the possibility of aesthetic harmony into the aesthetic content of the work; makes failure in a highest sense a measure of success.

This is eloquent and moving. It is also largely false. Contrary to what he says, the juxtaposition of disparate material begins very early in Beethoven, reaching an early fulfillment in the piano sonatas Op. 31. In the “Tempest” Sonata, Op. 31 no. 2, for example, within the space of a few seconds Beethoven forces together a slow mysterious arpeggio and a dramatic short allegro phrase. The contrasts of the late style are perhaps more difficult to accept at first hearing but a close listening reveals a powerful interaction.

The claim that “unity transcends into the fragmentary” is a fine example of Adorno’s style: the fragmentary suggests failure, the transcendence a failure that has become a nobler success. But the claim cannot be seriously defended. No quartet has ever given a more obvious impression of greater unity than Beethoven’s Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor, and for most musicians even the abrupt changes of mood and character in the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (Beethoven’s favorite quartet, he once said), have an ex-traordinary effect and become increasingly justified with repeated listening. Adorno’s characterization of late Beethoven as fragmentary comes down in the end to nothing but a more grandiose way of saying how abrupt and disconcerting the late Beethoven can be.12

The failure is not Beethoven’s but Adorno’s. Samuel Schonbaum once demonstrated that each biographer of Shakespeare saw him as resembling the biographer: Lytton Strachey’s Shakespeare at the end of his career was bored with life and bored with literature, and Oscar Wilde saw a dramatist interested in elegant young men. Adorno wanted a Beethoven that resembled him. The most autobiographical of his books, Minima Moralia, is subtitled “Reflections from Damaged Life.” Adorno’s view of the world and of culture has been beautifully characterized by Edward Said, who puts his finger directly on what was essential:

Adorno is very much a late figure because so much of what he does militates ferociously against his own time. Although he wrote a great deal in many fields he attacked the major advances in all of them, functioning instead like an enormous shower of sulfuric acid poured over the lot…. It is the Zeitgeist that Adorno really loathed and that all his writing struggled mightily to insult.

His condemnation of his time, easy enough to understand and justify, did not, however, lead Adorno to support any movement to improve or alleviate the deplorable cultural conditions that were steadily worsening. His hatred was poured into his criticism, not into possibilities of action. The sad last days of his life were colored by this refusal of practical engagement. When the student revolts of 1968 reached the University of Frankfurt, Adorno evinced no sympathy for the students, and was seen shaking hands with the stocky chief of police who brutally put down the rebellion. The students organized a Bacchanalian dance around him in the lecture room. He fled and died of a heart attack not long after.

Adorno’s contempt for contemporary society fueled his passion, and in a time of troubles, could be welcome; it strikes a responsive chord. It was brightly colored by the relentlessly polemical tone and the use of pejorative terms to express ordinary developments as if they were a failure of ethics. If Stravinsky uses tonality in an original way, that is called “mutilated tonality.” Beethoven’s increasing interest in fugue and his renewed study of Bach are pretentiously described by Adorno as if they were the acts of a desperate man:

The composer experiments with strict style because formal bourgeois freedom is not sufficient as a stylization principle. The composition unremittingly controls whatever is to be filled out by the subject under such externally dictated stylization principles.

Under Adorno’s hands, many of the terms so frequently repeated begin to lose a great part of their meaning. He himself makes a fetish of “fetishism,” as well as of “bourgeois,” “subjectivity,” “regressive,” “infantile,” and other words, which tend to become vacuous when applied so mechanically and so uncritically. I do not know what he means by “the withering of harmony” in late Beethoven, and I do not believe that it could be an adequate description of any phenomenon that I would recognize.

With all their defects, Adorno’s polemics are invigorating at a time when traditional culture seems in trouble. In addition, his sharp intelligence led him to confront important issues in the arts and culture that other critics refused to face—changes in reading and listening habits, the increasing difficulty of modern art, the influence of commercial interests in artistic distribution. His intelligence, nevertheless, was derivative rather than original. One important influence on Adorno is not mentioned by his admirers because it is no longer intellectually respectable: the Oswald Spengler of the once-famous Decline of the West. Like Spengler, he preferred intuition to empirical research and theory to empirical description. This gave his work a unique character. He combined brilliant insights into the phenomena of culture with an essentially fraudulent manipulation of terms to hide the inadequate relation of his theory to historical detail.

His view of modern culture arises from the natural despair of one who lived through the terrible inflation in the Germany of the 1920s, which ruined so many upper-middle-class families. His attack on commercial interests betrayed him into an idealization of the past: a wonderful time when subjectivity and objectivity were balanced, when listening was not regressive. In our time, he argued in “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,”

contemporary listening…has regressed, arrested at the infantile stage. Not only do the listening subjects lose, along with freedom of choice and responsibility, the capacity for conscious perception of music, which was from time immemorial confined to a narrow group, but they stubbornly reject the possibility of such perception.

This account of the present age implies that there was a time when things were much better, but Adorno is almost never precise about what life was like before the rot set in.

Once, however, he gives us a glimpse of the better world of the past. It is in the fragments entitled Minima Moralia, his best-written work. Many of its frequent aphorisms, the heritage of a great German tradition, are excellent, although a few sputter like damp firecrackers. In any case, at one point his prose rises to a truly poetic evocation of the Golden Age, a world whose disappearance is a cause of poignant regret. What was this world whose disappearance could inspire in Adorno such profound and ironic nostalgia?

Rampant technology eliminates luxury, but not by declaring privilege a human right; rather, it does so by both raising the general standard of living and cutting off the possibility of fulfillment. The express train that in three nights and two days hurtles across the continent is a miracle, but traveling in it has nothing of the faded splendor of the train bleu. What made up the voluptuousness of travel, beginning with the goodbye-waving through the open window, the solicitude of amiable accepters of tips, the ceremonial of mealtimes, the constant feeling of receiving favors that take nothing from anyone else, has passed away, together with the elegant people who were wont to promenade along the platforms before the departure, and who will by now be sought in vain even in the foyers of the most prestigious hotels. That the steps of railway carriages have to be retracted intimates to the passenger of even the most expensive express that he must obey the company’s terse regulations like a prisoner. Certainly, the company gives him the exactly calculated value of his fare, but this includes nothing that research has not proved an average demand. Who, aware of such conditions, could depart on impulse on a voyage with his mistress as once from Paris to Nice?

This Issue

October 24, 2002