Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's Late Style.
Michael Spitzer is a master of detail--musicological, historical, and philosophical. He demonstrated this recently in his excellent book on the history of metaphor (Metaphor and Musical Thought [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003]). He demonstrates this again in his new book about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno's writings on Ludwig van Beethoven's late style. It is a lengthy study in which readers are offered extensive musical analyses, conceptual surveys, and modernist, philosophical arguments. Sometimes one has the feeling that the material does not hang together, not because the author is striving to reach his own late style, but rather because too much is going on. This is often a problem with books written about Adorno (I know it myself): there is an impulse to explain all and everything, from every angle, while yet explicitly resisting the idea that all and everything can be explained. Alternatively put, the writer has the aim or need to open up Adorno's thinking to contemporary readers while granting that, of historically necessity, the thought is--and must remain--hermetically concealed. Spitzer shares this aim, but compounds the difficulty of his task every time he draws on the work of other theorists concerned with similar themes. Too many names and too many thoughts: a little less material would have kept the compelling argument specifically about Adorno on Beethoven's late style more focused.
This book will most profitably be read by advanced specialists in the field of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetic theory, and musicology, though it ought also to find readership amongst those interested in the particular idea of late style. An extremely useful summary of the chapters is offered in the book's conclusion.
Spitzer's general aim is to retrieve the classicism of Beethoven against those who argue that Beethoven's works are to be understood more in terms of a romantic conception of late style. His book is written after or partially in tribute to Charles Rosen's classic book, The Classical Style (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972). Late style belongs as much to the classicists as to the romantics, even attendant commitments to the fragmentation or disintegration of form--which only shows that the very distinction between classicism and romanticism requires revision. To rethink Beethoven's classicism is to rethink his contribution to modernism and to the dialectic of enlightenment more generally. A specific aim of this book is to show why Adorno was so preoccupied with Beethoven and what, therefore, Adorno offered by way of his critical theory to our historical and musical, and specifically allegorical, understanding of tonal music. With the focus on allegory, Spitzer expands upon his previous work on metaphor. Mostly, however, this new book is a commentary on Adorno's posthumously published, incomplete book in which all of his texts on Beethoven's late style are included (Beethoven: Philosophic der Musik: Fragmente und Texte. [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993]). It remains an intriguing question why Adorno failed to complete his proposed book on Beethoven, because, in my view, the answer would reveal something deep about the contemporary impossibility (as Adorno constantly spoke of that impossibility) of producing a "philosophy of music" at all, given the late, fatal, or catastrophic condition of modernity. Spitzer does not treat this question directly, though he is manifestly aware of the throttling difficulties implicit in late modernism of producing such a philosophy.
Spitzer's book engages with several on-going debates on both sides of the analytical/continental divide as well as on both sides of German and Anglo-American musicology and philosophy. He engages with debates on musical meaning, expression, and metaphor as well as with the demarcation lines and junctures between critical theory, semiotics, and hermeneutics. These engagements are compelling, useful, and extend at moments past the literature currently available. Some of Adorno's most obscure notions are momentarily released from their obscurity--in superb flashes of insight.
Much of Spitzer's book is devoted to clarifying notions such as of convention, nature, style, and subjectivity, on the one hand, and of consistency, coherence, mimesis, caesura, on the other, to determine what role each plays in relation to the other, specifically, in the history of music theory and practice. Each notion is defined, elaborated, applied, and finally subjected to critical reflection (in a style reminiscent of Max Paddison's work in Adorno's Aesthetic of Music [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993]). Though the chapter titles might suggest that Spitzer's book is concerned overly with philosophy or cultural critique--"Late Landscapes," "Invisible Cities," "Ways of World Making," etc.--this impression is belied by the substantial musical analyses of symphonies, sonatas, and variations offered along the way. The later chapters are mostly devoted to critical analyses of specific works by Beethoven, for example, the Missa Solemnis, the Diabelli Variations, the Ninth Symphony, the Bagatelles. These analyses are to be doubly appraised by readers, on their own purely musical terms and how well they mediate Spitzer's or Adorno's philosophical or conceptual claims articulated on the music's behalf. To grant this mediation is to understand how purely musical forms and philosophical ideas make contact with one another or come historically to be aligned. Remember, this book is entitled Music as Philosophy.
In the matter of the title, however, I have a quibble. The "as" misleads if it tempts one to think that music has, in some sort of dialectical development, just become philosophy or achieved some sort of straightforward identity therewith. To be sure, Adorno was always committed to showing their deep affinities for one another, but not if that meant ignoring their differences. For, only given their differences are their affinities--their need for each other--established in the first place. If I have a quibble with the title I also have a related worry regarding the translation of the epigraph used for Spitzer's book. (The translations otherwise offered in the book are fine.) The epigraph, from Friedrich Schleiermacher, is given as "There can be no concept of a style." With the German not provided, I was thrown when I first read this sentence, specifically by the seemingly odd inclusion of the "a" before the term "style." Why not just write "there can be no concept of style"? What difference does the "a" make? Or was the point of Schleiermacher's sentence that, whereas there can be a concept of style, there cannot be a concept of any particular style, say, of classical style or of romantic style? I was still confused until I realized that attention perhaps ought to be given to the words "can be no concept of," since what the sentence more plausibly means is that no (successful exemplification of any given) style ever entirely submits to its concept. In other words, particular styles refuse (at their best) to be fixed by definition or conceptualization just as, by extension, (the best or exemplary) musical works refuse their articulation in words or even music its subsumption by or under philosophy. If there can be no concept of a style then, by extension, there can be no philosophy of music or, better even, philosophy of musical works. This is exactly what Adorno argues throughout his writings, every time he points, dialectically, on the one hand, to the resistance of the particular to the universal, and, on the other, to the antagonistic need of the universal to subsume the particulars in order for there to be philosophy at all.
As suggested above, Spitzer's book is to be read in the context of current conversations on late style. Of late, late style is most everybody's theme. In part this is because of the work Edward Said did, but also did not complete, before his untimely death (On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain [New York: Pantheon Books, 2006]). However, what these conversations increasingly demonstrate is that late style is (paradoxically, given its own impulse) about to lose its meaning altogether, the more it is used to signify everything or anything one does toward the end of one's life as a writer. Adorno used the term with some specificity; Said's use is much broader. Spitzer draws upon only those uses that show the implicit modernism of classical style. This means, most importantly and correctly, that one cannot attend to the idea of lateness without also attending to the idea of style, though, to recall, if styles resist conceptualization, then late styles do the same even more extremely--because to transgress any set or given concept of style is exactly what (at least classical) late style is meant to achieve. In these terms, Spitzer's book, for all its impressive clarification of stylistic concepts, is more deeply about what in Beethoven's late works most resists this conceptualization.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2007|
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