I think it was when the eminent Brahms scholar Styra Avins confided to me that much of Theodor Adorno’s writing on music was “impenetrable gobbledygook,” that I felt a sigh of relief. Then it’s not just me! We all had to suffer through our share of it in college, and if you think it’s difficult in English, try the original German.
Adorno (1903-1969) was an influential sociologist/philosopher, trained as a classical pianist, who also studied composition with Alban Berg. His advocacy for the so-called “12 tone” composers and their music placed them firmly in the academic canon, some would say strangling other forms of musical expression for decades.
One of his frequent themes is what he called “the blare of the culture industry,” situated as he was, nearly at the beginning of the development of various electronic means of recording and dissemination of musical performances, to which we are all beholden today. I myself am guilty of what I think is a “crime” of listening to the Bach sacred cantatas on my iPod all over New York City. I can’t help it! I’ve been perverted I guess. Sorry Theo.
Adorno had no shortage of confidence in his own abilities and judgments. “I understand the language of music as the heroes in fairytales understand the language of birds.” But his way of expressing that understanding in dense prose makes me wonder whether it was all head and no heart.
“The curves so enjoined are to be traced by contemplation, rather than by ratiocination on the music from an ostensibly fixed standpoint external to it, in the pharisaic manner of the ‘New Objectivity,’ tirelessly toying with clichés such as that of the titanic late Romantic.” Does that say “Mahler” to you?
I’m not trying to take him “down.” He’s certainly an important thinker. But when you describe Italy as “the whole of life, lived as it were to the point of destruction, resists constant stabilizations and mirrors its own transience in illusion,” I venture to say you’re missing out on something.
Perhaps I should take his advice and look deeper: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.”
© 2012 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs