Here is an early example of Adorno’s stark formulations:
“It is conceivable that Beethoven actually wanted to go deaf – because he had already had a taste of the sensuous side of music as it is blared from loudspeakers today. ‘The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.’ Karl Kraus” (31). Then he quotes George Groddeck: “‘Beethoven went deaf so that he could hear nothing but the singing daemon within him.’” Later, Adorno comments on the composer’s solitude in the midst of “the plebian habitus of his humanity…which – suffering and protesting – feels the fissure of its loneliness. Loneliness is what the emancipated individual is condemned to in a society retaining the mores of the absolutist age” (45). As his music “goes beyond” the conventions of “bourgeois society,” Beethoven “exceeds the bounds of a reality whose suffering imperfections are what conjures up art” in the first place (47).
The first forty or so pages of Adorno’s book offer many such stark paradoxes (often seeming to mix Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche) in what amounts to a sort of overture of fragments, a disassembly of motifs; these motifs are also presented in a more integrated fashion in a sequence titled “The Mediation between Music and Society” from Introduction to the Sociology of Music (43-49). From about page 50 to 123, the commentary focuses more fully on Beethoven’s middle period and particularly on the significance of sonata form with some attention to the powerful example of the Appassionata sonata (also, in the midst here, there is a chapter discussing the symphonies, the Eroica, etc.). The seventy pages following page 123 are focused more fully on Beethoven’s late works.
For Adorno, the significance of Beethoven’s music results, on the one hand, from its power as form, its autonomous structure of expression, and on the other hand, from its resistant engagement of his society’s “ideology,” its assumed values and power relations. This dual emphasis is clear at the very start of Adorno’s commentary when he declares that the “ideological significance” of Beethoven’s music is that it is “a voice lifted up, that it is music at all,” and this significance is heightened beyond the ordinary because, for Beethoven, the very possibility of having an uplifted voice is placed into question by bourgeois ideology – is falsified by its domination of thought and expression (6).
Beethoven’s music attempts to overcome that “crushing” domination and the seemingly patent “a priori untruth” and falsity of having a voice in the first place in such a society, and he does so by creating music which is continually in process, absorbing, moving, and dodging among conventions, and “unfolding truth” from “nothing,” from the barest motifs: “Beethoven’s work can be seen as an attempt to revoke the a priori untruth of music’s voice, of its being music at all, through its immanent movement as an unfolding truth. Hence, perhaps, the insignificance of its starting point: this is nothing…” (7). I’m reminded of the notion of “making music” I broached in my last post – that in performing Beethoven’s work, one seems to be not only witnessing but participating in the creation of the piece, the working out of motifs, the resolution of tensions, the upwellings of feeling: in short, we feel we are participating with Beethoven in ‘making’ the music.
What we witness and “realize” in sound, in Adorno’s view of Beethoven, is music in the very process of creation: music that “brings forth itself...as a tour de force, a paradox, a creatio ex nihilo…a ‘floating’” experiment, forming music out of the simplest details, even as – in this Marxist-Hegelian view – its form is “mediated” and “comprehensible only in terms of its function within the reproduction of society as a whole.” The “liberated details” of his music enact and resist – through a process of estranged open-endedness – the concept that in “bourgeois” society all is “interchangeable” or “fungible,” that no individual detail (no musical note, banknote, or person) exists in itself and everything exists in relation to the whole (34). Beethoven’s reimagining in music of the relation of parts to the whole confronts and intentionally disturbs the typical bourgeois listener, for whom the “amusement” of music is embraced as “a way to defeat boredom” (8), as a distraction from the ennui familiar to Baudelaire.
“If Beethoven is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is esthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer. His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” (43), and the music does so by “reconstructing out of freedom” the otherwise self-deluded bourgeois assumptions about the power of self-projection and the free will to impose a masterful unity.
“By its power, his successful work of art posits the real success of what was in reality a failure,” for “that bourgeois society is exploded by its own immanent dynamic – this is imprinted in Beethoven’s music,” whose creative process both reproduces and puts to shame (“explodes”) the “esthetic untruth” of bourgeois expressiveness and freedom, which are revealed as a deluded nullity in comparison to the power of the music (46).
Though my account here may well misrepresent (or at least fail to clarify) Adorno’s difficult formulations, I’ll keep trying and turn to Adorno’s treatment of the Appassionata sonata in my next post.