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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817

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...

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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 empirical social science methods of project director Paul Lazarsfeld. Leppert explains that while Lazarsfeld amassed survey data in order to forecast and control consumer behavior (often at the behest of the broadcasting industry), Adorno pressed for a decidedly qualitative—and, one might add, humanistic—approach that sought to map the larger scale social, cultural, and psychological powers of modern media. As Leppert points out, the fundamental argument between empirical and qualitative approaches to social science still rages. In similar fashion, Leppert effectively parses Adorno’s argument against the presumption that radio—and, by extension, later technologies for disseminating art such as television—can democratize high culture works such as a Beethoven symphony, thus calling into question, for example, the high arts agenda of American public television.

The informed “dialogue” between Adorno and Leppert is made even more extraordinary as a result of Leppert’s meticulous scholarship, clarity, and cultural breadth and, perhaps most significantly, his empathy with Adorno the intellectual as well as Adorno the man. In addition to his astute commentaries on Adorno’s essays, Leppert contributes a lengthy and lucid eighty-two page introduction, a sweeping biography that backgrounds the intellectual streams within which Adorno’s thought developed. Leppert’s introduction also includes warmly revealing details such as Adorno’s admiration for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), a film that, like much of Adorno’s own work, challenged the supposed benefits of modernity. Equally poignant is Leppert’s account of Adorno patiently tutoring novelist Thomas Mann in the intricacies of twelve-tone serialism as the great novelist was in the throes of writing Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend (1948). Leppert is a well-read and gracious scholar whose informative footnotes brim with citations to secondary sources that pay deserved credit to an impressive number of colleagues. Essays on Musicalso benefits greatly from the new and felicitous translations of Susan H. Gillespie (and others) who catch the cadence as well as the substance of Adorno’s notoriously difficult prose.

Following Leppert’s introduction, Essays on Music is organized into four sections: “Locating Music: Society, Modernity, and the New”; “Culture, Technology, and Listening”; “Music and Mass Culture”; and “Composition, Composers, and Works.” Each section is prefaced with an in-depth commentary by Leppert. A comprehensive twenty-eight page bibliography and a useful thirty-one page index add immensely to the book’s utility as a key Adorno reference. A listing of the twenty-seven pieces included in Essays on Music and their original publication dates provides a useful overview of the range of issues surveyed by Adorno over the course of his five-decade-long career as a public and scholarly commentator on music.

The first group of essays, “Locating Music: Society, Modernity, and the New,” sketches Adorno’s attempts to situate music in modernity, stressing music’s relationship to history in general and to its culturally produced meanings in particular. Included here is the pivotal “On the Contemporary Relationship of Philosophy and Music” (1953), which outlines Adorno’s claim that philosophy is basic to musical understanding. Among other evocatively titled essays in this section are “Music, Language, and Composition” (1956); “Why Is the New Art So Hard to Understand?” (1931); “On the Problem of Musical Analysis” (1969); “The Aging of the New Music” (1955); and “The Dialectical Composer” (1934).

The second grouping of essays, “Culture, Technology, and Listening,” reveals Adorno’s concern with the social and cultural consequences of music consumed through such technologies as the radio and phonograph and his skepticism of the supposed capacity of the media to bring the arts to the masses. Interestingly, Adorno softened this virtually lifelong critique of mediated music in “Opera and the Long Playing Record” (1969), in which he takes a more optimistic view of modern mass media. The other essays in this section are “The Radio Symphony” (1941); “The Curves of the Needle” (1927/1965); “The Form of the Phonograph Record” (1934); “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” (1938); and “Little Heresy” (1965).

In the third set of essays, Leppert presents Adorno’s most important and controversial critiques of popular music, including what Adorno, writing in the early 1930’s, took to be jazz. In aggregate, these essays suggest that music in the modern age, whether highbrow or lowbrow, or whether produced under capitalism or totalitarianism, is organized through a production process increasingly driven by centralization and profit, a process that has inexorably eroded music’s traditional role in the service of truth, individuality, and emancipation. Here, one finds “What National Socialism Has Done to the Arts” (1945); “On the Social Situation of Music” (1932); “On Popular Music” (1941); “On Jazz” (1936); “Farewell to Jazz” (1933); “Kitsch” (c. 1932); and “Music in the Background” (1934).

The fourth and concluding section, “Composition, Composers, and Works,” brings together essays on the six classical composers—Ludwig von Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Igor Stravinsky—about whom Adorno wrote most extensively. As Leppert points out, Adorno’s musical interests were mostly limited to the study of Western modernity, beginning with the rise of the post-French Revolution bourgeoisie and ending with the music of his own time. An articulate and faithful advocate of the classical avant-garde, Adorno, in his early years, wrote passionately on the serial works of Schoenberg and Berg; after World War II, that passion reappeared in his writings on such postwar composers as John Cage, Pierre Boulez, and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. In this section, the accomplishments of Adorno’s heroes (Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, and Berg) are measured dialectally against the shortcomings of Adorno’s flawed antiheroes (Wagner and Stravinsky). The essays constituting this section include “Late Style in Beethoven” (1937); “Alienated Masterpiece: TheMissa Solemnis” (1959); “Wagner’s Relevance for Today” (1963); “Mahler Today” (1930); “Marginalia on Mahler” (1936); “The OperaWozzeck” (1929); “Towards an Understanding of Schoenberg” (1955/1967); and “Difficulties” (1964, 1966).

Essays on Music, again in large part due to Leppert’s illuminating commentaries and Gillespie’s new and nuanced and readable translations, is at once a landmark contribution to Adorno scholarship and a multifaceted prod to serious thinking on music. While Essays on Music is essential for scholars working in the areas of qualitative music sociology and critical studies and the general critique of modernity, it is also of substantive use to serious nonspecialist readers seeking insights into such provocative issues as why so little contemporary classical music is performed or loved, and why the art-music tradition seems increasingly less central to contemporary culture. Finally, and in contrast to musicology’s formalists, Adorno provides a reminder that music does not exist as sets of hermetically sealed relationships among specified sequences of musical events. Instead, Adorno insists on a fully interactive and interdisciplinary approach. If the creation, dissemination, and reception of music is to be fully understood and appreciated, it must be examined within and against the larger contexts of culture, sociology, psychology, philosophy, politics and, especially in terms of modernity, technology.

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 2002, p. 5.

The New York Times, September 14, 2002, p. B9.

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