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Thinking Hard, Listening Deeply

ESSAYS ON MUSIC, By Theodor W. Adorno, Edited by Richard Leppert, Translated by Susan H. Gillespie and others, University of California Press: 744 pp., $34.95

August 25, 2002|ADAM KIRSCH | Adam Kirsch is the author of the book of poems "The Thousand Wells."

Given that whole careers are devoted to elucidating the thought of Theodor W. Adorno, an interested neophyte reader might well approach his work with trepidation. The ideal reader of his essays on music would have a thorough knowledge of the classical repertoire since Bach and philosophy since Kant as well as Adorno's other work, which runs to 20 volumes in the German collected edition.

Yet this new selection of Adorno's "Essays on Music," edited with great skill by Richard Leppert, is designed to be accessible to the serious general reader, who will be amply rewarded if he approaches the book with patience. For even at his most abstract and theoretical, Adorno's writing is always oriented toward real life. Like Marx, he seeks to understand the world in order to change it.

Born in Germany in 1903, Theodor Wiesengrund--he adopted his mother's maiden name later in life--grew up in one of those Jewish households that revered German culture. As a young man he studied composition in Vienna, immersing himself in the challenging work of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and the Second Viennese School. Though he continued to compose avocationally throughout his life, Adorno turned to scholarship, and by 1932 he was associated with the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Along with Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, Adorno would become one of the powerful minds of the Frankfurt School, where critical theory--a sophisticated application of Marxist thought to cultural and social practices--was born.

With Hitler's rise to power, the institute left Germany in 1934 for New York, where it became associated with Columbia University. Adorno went to London. By 1938, he too had immigrated to America, living first in New York and then, from 1941 to 1949, in Los Angeles, where he joined Thomas Mann and Schoenberg in the local galaxy of German emigres. Unlike those two, however, Adorno returned to Germany after the war, settling in Frankfurt by 1953 and remaining there until his death in 1969.

Adorno's time in Los Angeles was tremendously important for his development: "I believe 90 percent of all I've published [since returning to Germany]," he wrote in 1957, "was written in America." To give an idea of the range of Adorno's interests, his Los Angeles period produced not only major philosophical works such as "Dialectic of Enlightenment," but also a book on composing for films and a monograph analyzing the Los Angeles Times astrology column. At the same time, he gave crucial assistance to Mann in the writing of "Doctor Faustus."

The paradox of Hollywood in the 1940s--Schoenberg on the one hand, Louis B. Mayer on the other--is writ large in "Essays on Music." Most of these pieces, which span his entire career, fall into two categories: those dealing with popular music, which Adorno treats as a commodity churned out by the "culture industry," and those dealing with serious, or "classical" music, which has a genuine spiritual and social function.

Adorno regards music from a Marxist point of view: Culture is the superstructure built on the foundation of economics, and inevitably it reflects the injustice and alienation of society under capitalism. But the focus of Adorno's analysis is not, as in classic Marxism, the proletariat: It is the thinking individual.

In the bourgeois 19th century, this individual, or "subject," was in a heroic phase of struggle, hoping to reconcile individual freedom and social justice. Music, especially that of Beethoven, expressed this humane aspiration and marks a high point in the world's spiritual history. The corruption of capitalism had not yet permanently divided the artist from the ordinary listener. In the 20th century, the rise of monopoly capitalism and mass culture has "colonized" the subject, turning the individual into an interchangeable unit within an oppressive economic and cultural system. As a result, serious music--that which expresses and confronts the human predicament--is condemned to be difficult, rebarbative, the pursuit of a few; while "light music," really a form of mass distraction and false consciousness, seeps into the subjectivity of almost everyone else. The analysis of the New Music of Schoenberg and the critique of popular music forms such as jazz are two parts of a single diagnosis.

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