AN INTRODUCTION TO T.W. ADORNO
AND A CATALOGUE RESUME OF HIS WRITINGS
Including Remarks On His Correspondence
|by Christopher Fulkerson|
Begun January 2010. Most recent update April 2013.
Sections of this essay that appear here are:
This is to become a full assessment of the life and thought of T.W. Adorno, the great philosopher and critic of Modernism in music. I plan to read all his writings, including the key philosophical works. It will probably take some years to do, since there is quite a lot to read, but in time I hope to shape this document into a one-stop resume of what he wrote, so that newcomers to Adorno will get a precis of each of his works, and of key aspects of his ideas. I will include remarks about his correspondence.
Like anyone in Classical Music with knowledge of the real Twentieth Century, I have often encountered Adorno in many biographies and critical writings. My Berkeley professors generally ignored him, with the exception of Richard Felciano, which wasn't to me a strong recommendation, since Felciano was of "Downtown" affliation, and it is just like a Downtown type to quote his worst enemy as proof of his own viability, in the assumption that all Leftists must agree, and hoping that the people listening don't know very much about what they're hearing. I am reminded of those San Francisco jaywalkers who point at the red light they are violating, as if it is proof of their right of way, while they jaywalk against it. I love the Left mentality, and I always say the English did the right thing booting our precious Pilgrims out of their country, but I hate that type of posturing from Leftists. The Slavicist Simon Karlinksy, one of my Committee members, hated Adorno because Adorno hated Stravinsky. I remember Karlinksy disparaging Adorno for, according to Karlinksy, claiming to say in his PHILOSOPHY OF MODERN MUSIC "I will now proove mathematically why Schoenberg is superior to Stravinsky." Schoenberg in turn absolved himself from Adorno's hero-worship by hating Adorno. That's typical of Schoenberg, who, though a chronic paranoid, at least was paranoid at a time in history when it was a sign of insanity not to be paranoid.
During 2009 I began to catch up on Adorno's life and thought after doing some reading in Richard Leppert's big book of 'ADORNO ESSAYS ON MUSIC' that the UC California Press had published not long before, and after reading the Wiki Adorno page. When at last a full scale biography of him appeared, ADORNO, by Stefan Mueller-Doohm, it became possible for me to use my preferred approach to learning any topic. I like to start with a biography or similar authoritative overview, and proceed from there as seems appropriate and interesting. I have used this method all my life: when I was a kid, I read one by one every volume of a children's encyclopedia that my parents would buy as they appeared at Raley's, the local supermarket. When I studied Webern, I read Moldenhauer's biography of him and then studied every one of his 31 opera in some detail. The Karen Monson biography of Berg was my portal to that composer, and it is not as a big a deal to say I listened score in hand to all of his music. Since Schoenberg wrote so much more than his two famous students, it was not so easy to do a thorough follow-up of him after reading his Stuckenschmidt biography, but I listened to enough of his music to have things to say about it, and to hear in it. I did not consider myself to have a competent start in the study of history until I had read all eleven volumes of the Will and Ariel Durant STORY OF CIVILIZATION. When I decided to catch up on religion, I learned the ancient tongues well enough to pronounce them and read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. My method might take some time, but one of my mottoes is, "Do it right the first time." Of course I don't live up to it fully, no human could.
Theodore Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno was born on September 11, 1903, and died on August 6, 1969. That is to say, he was born 98 years to the day before the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, and died on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the American attack on Hiroshima. He had nothing to do with these things of course, but it is typical of the prescience of his thought that the chronology of his life should be framed in this way.
He was a social philosopher who also trained in music as a composer and involved himself in, and wrote, some of the most important music criticism of the early Modernist era, which means, he wrote some of the most important music criticism of all time. He was an associate of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, a member of the movement known as the "Frankfurt School." In 1934, during the Second World War, after a sojourn in England he emigrated to the United States but then returned to Germany in 1956. His principal writings were, in general philosophy, NEGATIVE DIALECTICS; in musical philosophy, THE PHILOSOPHY OF MODERN MUSIC; and in music criticism, such essays as "The Social Situation of Music." He was a very prolific writer, and a frequent radio and panel guest.
There is quite a lot of real gold in his writings, some stuff that is off-base, and there is some muck. The philosophical writings seem pretty well worked out and stay to a reasonaly high plane, though you have to accept some turgidity. You don't have to read the philosphy to get what you need from the music criticism, which is mostly in essay form. This criticism is his best work, usually superb, often clairvoyant, and that is where most of the gold is, though there are exceptions to its high value, as when he tries to write about Jazz. The muck is usually easy to distinguish, and occurs not so much in the writings published during his lifetime, but in his correspondence, most of which has been published by now. He had some salvageable things to say about Jazz as he knew it, but his attempt to describe its psychology tells us more about himself than about Jazz: he was sexually rather a strange person, and his attempt to apply a Freudian description is not his most astute sociological accounting, certainly not the most sophisticated use of Freudian ideas. As I have suggested, this sort of thing doesn't obscure his criticism very much, his philosophy perhaps not at all. In one instance, which is the subject of the first entry to be written in this introduction to him, he almost certainly did some harm to an innocent person. Well, he was after all a critic.
I am not so interested in the man Adorno, but some of his characteristics and some of the things he did require inclusion here when they provide important information about his character or impinge on the lives of other persons, at least such persons who had some importance in the development of Modernism in music. Of these persons there is Alban Berg's widow, Helene. I had already a working definition of Adorno as the patron saint of Modernism in music, when, after reading about his correspondence with Frau Berg I decided that in the case of his dealings with her he did some things that were really not right.
Adorno was very clear-headed about how to think about musical sociology. No account of modern music can ignore his observations about the real state of new work and of Classical music generally, especially as regards the warping by the Culture Industry, as he calls it, of culture and cultural values. To dismiss him, as some have attempted, is cavalier. But he was not equally clear-headed about how to be a Know-It-All. In person he could be a bit of a dandyfied "intellectual" type, of the sort that many people of down-to-earth mentality don't like. He wanted to impress people with the particularity of his articulation, and in his writings he is not innocent of writing in a pellucid way. In my method of omniscience I have warned against appearing to know all the facts. But Adorno belonged to a generation that seemed to believe that to be an authority meant to be able to proove you knew everything. And there will always be a contingent that hates that sort of thing. Yet Adorno was an intellectual prodigy and, in fact, wielded the sword of wisdom brilliantly most of the time.
The short answer to your question as to whether you should buy it is, if you have any interest in getting it right about Adorno, you have no better opportunity to do so than with this book. If you were to read only one book about Adorno, this should be it. One thing I can say is, get the hardback version; the binding on the softbound copy isn't the best. Here is a link to my review of this book:
Adorno was engaged to his childhood sweetheart, the beautiful businesswoman Margarete Karplus, for about a dozen years before they married when she followed him out of Nazi Europe. Theirs was a strange engagement, and a somewhat unconventional marriage. For most of their engagement, they lived in distant cities and only took vacations together, or would catch a weekend here and there. Meanwhile, Adorno, at least, had a few affairs, and it seems quite possible, if you ask me after reading the Mueller-Doohm biography, that Miss Karplus saw rather more of Adorno's good friend Walter Benjamin than most fiancees see of other men than their betrothed. In fact, there were periods of time thatn Karplus seems to have seen more of Benjamin than Adorno did. But from the way Teddie and Gretel later conducted their marriage, this is not necessarily sordid, merely unconventional.
The Karplus - Benjamin correspondence is extensive and full of intimate and sometimes cryptic descriptions of their feelings for each other and their daily activities. To Benjamin, she calls Adorno their "mutual problem child," and says she would like to adopt Benjamin as her own child, though they were about the same age. Since she calls her stated fiancee and lover her "problem child," I think it is not unreasonable to suppose she was doing with Benjamin those same loving things she did with her "problem child." I doubt I am pushing the facts too far out of shape, if at all. Psychologically it is not extremely sticky, it is just a little bit sticky. My belief is that Adorno and Karplus always had an open relationship, and did not hide from one another who their other paramours were; in fact, they were all good friends. Like many leftists, Adorno and Karplus did not opt for marriage until flight from Europe made it a good idea, even politically necessary. During their marriage, Adorno had many affairs, about which he was quite open with Greta.
After they got married, Greta also became an important partner with Adorno in his writing, in a working method that sometimes involved her taking down his essays as dictation, and often typing them. She became a practical authority of his work, and was involved with his legacy after his death, and until her own. If you think open marriage is all right, you could say they had a good marriage. Whatever may be said of it, they do not seem to have deceived each other once they were married. If I am correct that Greta had an affair with Benjamin before her marriage, it may be that Mueller-Doohm leaves this pellucid because of the politics still existing within the Leftist community of implications of her having been involved with Benjamin, who was a well-known writer, or because he is less easily persuaded of such things than I am. Or, there may be a Benjamin scholar who strongly refutes this possibility, and Mueller-Doohm needs to let readers make up their own minds, to keep the peace with other scholars. The way I read his book, I think Mueller-Doohm knows, and is merely silent about, Karplus and Benjamin, and I don't think I am out of line to suggest that one of the most infuential Leftist writers of the Twentieth Century has a biographer who handles certain sensitive things in a Left sort of way.
THE T.W. ADORNO - HELENE BERG CORRESPONDENCE
This was the first entry in this Introduction and Catalogue. Apparently Alban Berg confided to Adorno his long and passionate affair with a woman named Hannah Fuchs; much has been written about this relationship. As is well documented, there are numerous cryptic references to it in Berg's music, and at least one major Berg composition with a secret program about the affair, namely the LYRIC SUITE for String Quartet. As romance in modern music, it is wonderful stuff, and blows out of the water any claim that contemporary music does not have passion, and even downright abandonment to lust, especially if you know the secret program.
After Berg's death Adorno told Frau Berg what he knew. In my opinion, this was a dastardly thing for Adorno to do. In a mode of piously sharing the truth, he wrecked Helene Berg's memory of her husband, and could be thought to have ruined her life. I am pretty dismayed that Adorno did that.
Not in a necessarily mendacious way, Adorno was trying to convince Frau Berg that he deserved to guide the completion of the orchestration of the score of the late Berg's operatic masterpiece LULU. While offering proofs of his authority in Berg's life, Adorno, who had been a pupil and close friend of Berg's, told Frau Berg all about the affair with Frau Fuchs, even citing the musical references.
Now, on the face of it, without yet going into the possibilities of more subtle readings of the motives of the persons involved, including Berg's, I think it has to be noticed that Adorno's effort backfired. For before very long, Frau Helene Berg lost her mind, and refused to allow the completion of LULU, saying that she was in touch with her late husband's ghost, and that from beyond the grave he refused to allow its completion. This was obviously Frau Berg's effort, at once crazy and easy to understand, to keep further shame from falling on her, in the form of cryptic facts about her husband's infidelities, arcana she could not decipher from the score. At the time, half-baked occultism was part of upper-class and intellectual European society in general, the Viennese had a special taste for it, and both Webern and Schoenberg were prone to it in different ways. Helene Berg opted to exercise her authority, and Adorno's attempt to see the LULU score to the public failed. So it cannot be thought prooved that honesty was Adorno's most effective policy.
It is possible to put responsibility for Adorno's action onto Berg himself. After all, it was Berg's secret, and if he meant for it to remain a secret, he should not have told anybody about it. So it could be thought that Berg did indeed want somebody to reveal the facts of the florid, morose, and evidently wonderfully sordid rutting he did with Hannah Fuchs. If Berg consciously planned for Adorno to reveal the affair, he might at the time have been assuming that he and Helene would pass from this world about the same time, thus obviating too much temptation for any initiates, and he might also have assumed more candor from Adorno than Adorno possessed. Making sure that at least one well-published music critic knew the truth does not necessarily proove that Berg wanted to hurt his wife. He may have thought that telling Adorno was a calculated risk, but one that could lead to a marvelous succes de scandal, no less marvelous for being eternal, once he was dead and gone. It's also possible that he didn't care what Adorno did, as long as he didn't do it while he himself was alive.
Begun January 1, 2010. Last updated 4/18/2013.