Adorno on listening to new music – an excerpt from The Faithful Répétiteur

April 23, 2008

Translator’s Note

Adorno published Der getreue Korrepetitor in 1963. Subtitled Lehrschriften zur musikalischen Praxis it was taken up after his death into volume fifteen of his Gesammelte Schriften or collected writings, which volume also contains Komposition für den Film, a book he co-authored with Hans Eisler in 1944. Parts of The Faithful Répétiteur derived from Adorno’s time in America as well, namely from the studies he made of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour. They provided much material for the book’s first chapter, from which the excerpt presented here is taken. The excerpt begins at the point in the chapter at which “the negation of music appreciation turns into the plan for an idea of structural listening”, as Adorno says in the book’s preface. There he contextualises the book in relation to essays he had already published. “The Faithful Répétiteur takes up the considerations put forward in Dissonances and in the essays ‘The Maestro’s Mastery’ and ‘New Music, Interpretation, Audience’ from Sound Figures and pushes them further, into the area of musical practice. The attempt is made to progress from the insight into a number of failures of contemporary interpretation and reception to an account of how new music could be correctly heard and presented, and how the new technical media could be correctly employed.” Once the idea of structural listening has been announced in the last pages of the chapter on music appreciation, The Faithful Répétiteur goes on to make good on its prefatory promise. There is a chapter providing ‘Directions for Listening to New Music’, a set of ‘Interpretive Analyses of New Music’—which consists in analyses of three works by Anton Webern, and one by each of Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg—and a chapter on ‘The Musical Employment of Radio’.

The Excerpt

[Adorno has just been criticising the NBC Music Appreciation Hour.]
The answer to that would be education for adequate listening. Instruction would have to lead towards the ability to apprehend compositions structurally, that is, to mediate their moments with each other such that a context of sense is illumined. The present crisis of musical sense can itself only be grasped against the foil of that context. It is, as something negated, preserved precisely in those works that resist merely asserted sensefulness. The resistance to musical sense today is, as it was already during the revolutionary period of the Schönberg school, the resistance to the faking of sense by means of the traditional forms, which are themselves by no means identical with the only thing that counts, the concrete musical figure. It is this, and nothing else, which the listener must be helped to experience. Even in the case of living music of the traditional type, acquaintance with its typical forms is perhaps a necessary but by no means a sufficient condition of adequate listening. Being musical—what gets hypostatized under this name as being is a becoming, something that has to form itself, something that is open in principle—does not mean the subsumption of what is heard under its covering concept; not merely the capacity to say which position the details have within the logically superordinate schema. It means, rather, the ability as sounds unfold to think that unfolding in its necessity with one’s ears. The ideal of structure as of structural listening is the ideal of the necessary unfolding of music from the individual to the whole, without which the individual is indeterminate. Insofar as in traditional music this dynamic was not external to the formal types, but was as much nourished by them as they, in turn, constituted themselves only in their specific unfolding, musical education needs consciousness of the historically established forms; to act as if each work began again from the beginning, without presuppositions, would be just as Bœotic as reducing it to the skeleton that it has in common with countless others of the most various rank. But consciousness of the forms always involves consciousness of the divergences at the same time; the forms live in that wherein they are unidentical with themselves, and their substantiality is in many ways one with their capacity for modification. Little of conservative composition teaching was as fruitful as the demonstration of the difference of Bach’s fugues from the fugue type, which scholastic rules had abstracted from Bach himself; say in the free treatment of the transitional phrases in his fugues, compared with the mechanical recipe for producing sequences with inversions of the sequence members in double counterpoint. The student who learns to write a respectable fugue must feel the drive towards such divergence in the analysis of the Bach models, just as he must be aware of that from which they diverge. Insofar as authentic new music all places the specific structural moments, to the detriment of the typical façade, on the outside, the desideratum of structural listening could also be put this way: that every piece of music since the beginning of the thorough-bass age should be heard as if it were modern. The lay belief that in order to understand music one has to have studied the usual theoretical disciplines, harmony and counterpoint, or even with respect to newer constructions mathematics, is silly. That music appreciation is still stuck below the level of scholastic knowledge is no reason for the restoration of the latter; the scholastic disciplines have themselves been abstracted from musical history and the concrete works, then made didactically independent and with the help of natural-scientific hypotheses wherever possible, hypostasized as absolutely valid. They are already reifications of just that which an adequate apprehension would have to call to life. A person can have in their power all of the rules of pure harmonisation, all of the prescriptions of counterpoint, and nevertheless be incapable of spontaneously following the first movement of the Eroica.
That is the response to the accusation of intellectualism, behind which resistance to the aesthetic obligation to the matter in hand likes to hide. No listener should be burdened with acquaintance with concepts that don’t inhere in what he listens to; concepts that don’t present themselves to him as mediated through the concrete structure. But the anti-intellectualism to which the old aesthetics of pure intuition has been reduced in the intellectual economy of the comfortable consumer won’t let itself be satisfied at that. Such anti-intellectualism gets itself annoyed at even the first sign of the synthesis of what appears sensuously. It is through this synthesis that the latter first becomes art at all; in it reception converges with the law of form. Anti-intellectualism tells itself that such effort would rob it of the enjoyment that it demands of art as something to be occupied with during free time. While, at least in ideology, it won’t do without the cultural concept of art as a spiritual matter—for why else listen to serious music?—it wordlessly defends its supposed naïvety with the idea that the intellectual moment is the expression of a feeling, and is always present in the singular sensual moment in time; it need do nothing more than nothing at all: than surrender to that which pleasantly flows over it. But there it deceives itself. In music, as in every art-form, that which the language of philosophy calls sensual and categorial moments are in each other. If the stubborn naïve listener is right that art tolerates nothing intellectual that does not appear sensually, then contrariwise the sensual itself already has an intellectual destiny. It is an illuminated window, and it has the light to thank even for sensual beauty. The perception of the sensual now and here is a function of structural perception, of the turn to the whole, and this is more than just intuition. In the subjective reception of music the place where the spiritual and the sensual each end, where one becomes the other, is contingent, psychological. For the sake of the structure the neophyte, or the deconcentrated person, has to direct his attention intellectually to parts that have already passed away, parts that are no longer in his ear, so that the balance obtains that is produced when what has passed returns again. The experienced listener carries out such a synthesis not by means of the “recognition in the concept” but through the simultaneously active and involuntary reproduction in imagination. The spiritual moment in the force-field of the artwork just as in the adequate relation to it is subject to no logic external to the sensual; there is nothing one would have to think at that point—a suggestion which Hegel already ridiculed. Rather, the spiritual moment is the self-transcendence of the sensual and its presence at a particular point. The reception of artworks is not attention for the sake of orientation. With the labour of self-oblivious openness it lets itself be driven by such transcendence rather than be blocked up in the mere existence of the moment. It is a kind of thinking, just not a conceptual one; its own strength consumes itself in absorbing that which is locked up in the work, and is virtually extinguished in it. Art’s stringency is sui generis; art comes closer to the image of freedom as that which takes leave from empirical reality the closer, the more purely it structures itself according to the necessity of being just so and not otherwise: this necessity constitutes its objectivity. As a simile art anticipates for humanity how complete domination of the material could introduce a state free of domination, how rationality could restore nature. It takes more than memory and expectation to know that in listening to music. The relationship of these indispensable categories is dynamic, one of tension and release; it decides the question of stringency. For that reason sensuality and thought are related reciprocally in the work: perception, as the tension which draws unto itself, determines the non-present just as much as this latter, as fulfilment, either seals that which was perceived earlier, or subverts it. The whole becomes, the sum of all relations, those of succession and also of simultaneity; because music takes place in time, is not already there at an isolated point in time, the structure is not present for the listener as something primary either. It is only a result, and the sense something mediated. That is why the comportment towards music that hopes to receive everything exclusively from the sensual moment in time is insufficient. And yet the totality of the work’s relations, in which the temporal tensions balance each other out, may lift it up out of time’s stream, and the pure time-art do away with time. If it is the wish of primitive consciousness that music kill the time of boredom, then it is mature consciousness that arrives back home at this goal, after first liberating itself from it and thereby healing music of boredom. For time to halt, as the image of the end of all transience, is the ideal of music, of the experience of it and also of musical instruction. This ideal is an ideal of insights, but not of any insight about art, but rather that insight which art itself is, as the correlate to the scientific: knowledge from within. Artworks are the only things in themselves; they stand proxy for the reconciliation with things, which are lost, with nature. The listener’s co-execution of music is the successful self-externalisation of the subject into something that thereby becomes its own: an anticipation of a condition in which estrangement would be nullified.


2 Responses to “Adorno on listening to new music – an excerpt from The Faithful Répétiteur

  1. Susanna said


    Ich weiß nicht, ob das hier so gut reinpasst, aber ich habe auch eine Webseite, die ich in andere Sprachen übersetzen möchte, bis jetzt wurde mir nur eine Agentur dazu empfohlen:


  2. SCHAHED said

    Great Blog, Thanks!

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