The reputation of Theodor W. Adorno continues to grow. A powerful and wide-ranging intellectual whose voluminous writings embraced such seemingly disparate fields as philosophy and political theory, Adorno was in the vanguard of those twentieth century thinkers who seriously examined the place and role of the arts against the backdrop of modern society in both its capitalistic and totalitarian manifestations. Although Adorno wrote at length across the humanities and social sciences, it was music that was his muse, his passion, and the subject to which he returned time and time again.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1903, Adorno, an only child, enjoyed the benefits of being raised by loving and prosperous parents. His rigorous intellectual training included tutoring in philosophy by Siegfried Kracauer (who later gained fame as a film theorist). There were also demanding studies of classical piano and composition that extended from his childhood to his early twenties. In 1924, at the age of twenty-one, he completed a doctorate in philosophy at Frankfurt’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, which encompassed studies in philosophy, sociology, psychology, and music. It was during this period that Adorno formed important and lasting friendships with Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the founders of the influential Institute of Social Research (commonly known as the Frankfurt School) in Frankfurt in 1923. During the 1920’s, Adorno also became a public intellectual, balancing scholarly work with music journalism, a regimen that continued throughout his life. Adorno’s enduring intellectual legacy can be traced through an extensive bibliography which includes hundreds of journalistic commentaries as well as an array of scholarly books and papers, many of which were published by the Institute of Social Research, which he formally joined in 1938 during its American exile.
Following his death in 1969, Adorno’s influence in music circles diminished. In place of his sophisticated, multilayered expositions which discussed music in its sociological, psychological, political, and technological dimensions, musicologists and music critics of the 1970’s practiced a more formalistic approach devoted to internal analyses of individual compositions with little reference to the social conditions that gave rise to them. In short, Adorno was regarded by the formalists as impressionistic. Adorno’s influence was further attenuated since much of his work had not been translated into English; moreover, due to often incompetent translations, those works available in English often missed the nuances of Adorno’s ideas and style. In the 1980’s, as music and humanities scholars increasingly grounded their work within the social and cultural milieus of their subjects, the cross-disciplinary Adorno increasingly came to be seen as an inspiration and, indeed, a model worthy of emulation. There were also fresh reappraisals of Adorno by scholars such as Martin Jay and Rose Rosengard Subotnik, who were crucial in helping position Adorno as central to the development of the discourses in the burgeoning fields of qualitative music sociology and critical theory. These discourses are now further enriched by the publication of Essays on Music, which enlarges the historical and contemporary appreciation of Adorno’s scholarly and journalistic legacy.
Essays on Music, which includes twenty-seven of Adorno’s key pieces (almost half of which appear in English for the first time), is more than an anthology. Indeed, thanks to the erudition and stylistic grace of editor Richard Leppert’s copious and insightful annotations, the massive tome reads like a conversation across the years. While allowing a better appreciation of Adorno’s often complex ideas and the specific historical moments out of which they appeared, Leppert is equally adept at underscoring the relevance of Adorno’s work to the present. The inclusion of Adorno’s “The Radio Symphony” (1941) and Leppert’s astute commentary on it illustrate the point.
Leppert first paints the historical backdrop. Adorno, having just arrived in the United States from Nazi Germany in 1938, begins work on the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Princeton Radio Research Project, an appointment arranged by his friend Max Horkheimer. After two years, funding for Adorno’s radio music division is cut off, largely because of Adorno’s unwillingness to adapt to the narrowly...
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