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What Adorno Makes Possible for Music Analysis

Author(s): Kofi Agawu


Source: 19th-Century Music, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Summer, 2005), pp. 49-55
Published by: University of California Press
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What Adorno Makes Possible
for Music Analysis
KOFI AGAWU

It is well known that music as object, process, ism cannot be accorded the status of the last
desire, and, above all perhaps, metaphor played word on the subject. Yet one senses in Adorno's
a central role in Adorno's thought.' Yet his critical responses to various composers a depth
vision of music analysis as praxis remained of insight into musical style that presupposes
diffuse, contradictory, and elusive. Periodic and careful analysis, or at least careful listening.
seemingly programmatic assertion of the ne- Whether he speaks of compulsive repetition
cessity for music analysis alternates with a stra- figured as infantile in Stravinsky, or repetition
tegic reticence about modeling practice. Re- of timeless themes in Schubert, or concentrated
sponding to the pedagogical challenge was sim- motivic working in Berg, or the subtle
ply not on Adorno's agenda. For empirically reconfiguration of the idea of unison in Mahler,
minded Anglo-American analysts, such ideal- Adorno's technical designations command our
attention, even if we are not in full agreement
with his aesthetic, or for that matter ethical
'See Max Paddison, Adorno's Aesthetics of Music (Cam- valuation of their compositional manifestation.
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), and Adorno,
Modernism and Mass Culture (London:Kahn & Averill, Evidence of analytical thinking thus exists
1996) for a comprehensive introduction. Most valuable are alongside a near absence of anything that might
the substantial commentaries that introduce a selection of be regardedas the application of standard ana-
Adorno'swritings on music in Theodor W. Adorno, Essays
on Music, selected, with intro., commentary, and notes by lytical technique. How is it possible to achieve
Richard Leppert;new trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley analytical insight without, as it were, doing
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002).
Charles Rosen reviews some key ideas with appropriate analysis? What, in consequence, does Adorno
skepticism in "Should We Adore Adorno?"New YorkRe- make possible for the music analyst? Is music
view of Books (24 October 2002), pp. 59-66. analysis indeed possible after Adorno?

19th-CenturyMusic,XXIX/1,pp. 49-55. ISSN:0148-2076,electronicISSN 1533-8606.? 2005 by the Regentsof the University 49


of California.All rightsreserved.Pleasedirectall requestsforpermissionto photocopyor reproducearticle content through
the Universityof CaliforniaPress'sRightsandPermissionswebsite, at http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.
19TH This article-which originated as a response jecting its technical baggage. And this is neces-
CENTURY
MUSIC
to the four responses to Adorno's "Schubert" sary in order to improve access to Schubertian
by Esteban Buch, Jonathan Dunsby, Scott specifics. Forthe peculiarly Schubertian is what
Burnham, and Beate Perrey included in this Adorno is after. It is also, by implication, what
issue-proceeds from the belief that the aporias the analyst-as distinct from theorist-should
produced in the course of the unfolding of be after. Style, then, becomes a pertinent cat-
theory, metatheory, and practice in Adorno's egory; matters of structure are relevant only to
writing have not been sufficiently appreciated. the extent that they lead us back to style. Teas-
Analysts who seek to domesticate Adorno's ing out the elements of Schubert's style is a
thought by aligning the more or less explicit multifaceted process for Adorno. It includes
methodology of canonical analytical techniques the deployment of organicist and nonorganicist
with the implied methodology of his peculiar metaphors, alongside images that crystallize
philosophical or poetical formulations are al- into a landscape that, in turn, serves as a kind
ways rewarded with a deficit because, as the of analytical backdrop. The analysis is neces-
outcome of acts of translation, such aligning sarily comparative, sometimes explicitly-as
underestimates the degree to which technique seen in passing references to Beethoven and
itself is alreadysocially embedded. On the other Wagner--sometimes implicitly. Schubert's
hand, analysts who reject the Adornian chal- idiolect is described with the aid of categories
lenge on principle often end up committing the like theme, harmony, form, and relationship
very errorsthat he sought to expose in the first between text and music. With regardto theme,
place. This double impossibility is instructive. for example, Adorno acknowledges Schubert's
It suggests that Adorno's theory of music analy- great lyrical gift, notes asymmetrical construc-
sis must be located in the interstitial, the hy- tion, and then gets hooked on the idea of rep-
brid, the in-between. And while the reported etition, including the very repeatability of
outcome of analysis is normally designated in Schubert's themes. The harmonic principle,
and by language, the phenomena it subtends exemplified by devices like modal mixture and
often lie beyond it.2 abrupt modulation, is of interest not only be-
The first thing to be said about Adorno's cause of the kinds of coherence or incoherence
"Schubert"essay is that it contains no analysis that Schubert's choice of pitch promotes, but
of the conventional kind-no Schenkerian for its effects, the kinds of narratives that such
graphs, paradigmatic charts, annotated scores, effects elicit from attentive listeners. Schubert's
interval counts, or circled sets. Although forms are sometimes expressed as potpourri or
Adorno has things to say about individual com- additive on a large level, contrasting with a
positions, he never embarks on a blow-by-blow determined organic thrust at more local levels.
account of any passage. Nor is he bound by the But here, too, repetition may override the sense
ontological boundaries of musical works. He of outer form and forge its own path to under-
subscribes instead to the idea of open works. (It standing. This is why narrative metaphors are
is possible, incidentally, that a rather rigid and hard to resist in analyzing Schubert. Finally,
deterministic view of beginnings and endings the composer's choice of song texts provides
remains a significant obstacle to Anglo-Ameri- access to another realm of artistic expression.
can assimilation of Adorno's theory of music Indifference to the relative qualities of his cho-
analysis.) sen poems represents one extreme in the ongo-
Rejecting conventional analysis means re- ing negotiation of the boundaries that separate
the world of words from that of tone.
A simple content analysis such as the fore-
2For a stimulating explication of in-betweenness in going cannot possibly do justice to the compos-
Adorno'sthought, see LydiaGoehr'sproposed "philosophi- ing out of Adorno's thought. But as points of
cal theory of Schweben (suspension),"designed to capture departure for reflection, these themes serve a
the ontological intersections between music and philoso-
purpose in reinforcing Adorno's enduring strat-
phy: "Adorno, Schoenberg, and the Totentanz der
Prinzipien-in Thirteen Steps," Journal of the American egy, that is, to name but never completely, to
Musicological Society 56 (2003), 595-636. explore possibilities as rigorously as possible

50
without being blinded by the given, to seek to musical details at arms length lest their pro- KOFI
AGAWU
eliminate remainders knowing all along that duction become routine or undifferentiated, and Music
they are ultimately ineliminable. This strategy to find imaginative ways of naming without Analysis
is designed to produce a nuanced understand- actually naming, thus ensuring that your reader
ing, one that generates only provisional an- is on the same page but not in the same way.
swers. When pursued authentically, it leads us Jonathan Dunsby, a practicing analyst, reads
toward the truth content of a composition. Adorno sympathetically for ways in which his
Esteban Buch writes that "Adorno's contri- thinking might be extended. According to him,
bution to music theory has still to be properly there are numerous "leads in Adorno's star-
acknowledged ... and used." But what exactly tling essay that merit being followed up theo-
should one acknowledge, and how should one retically and in music-analytical exegesis."
use it? The contexts set in motion by Adorno's (Modal interchange and the popular element
thought are invariably multilayered, so a basic are examples.) The missing "analytical details"
lesson for the analyst is to think beyond the that Buch mentions can therefore, Dunsby im-
first level by maintaining a metatheoretical plies, be supplied through close analysis. Does
awareness at all times. Such awareness may that mean that Adorno's retreat is not strate-
also emerge from giving rein to the compara- gic, not essential to his project, but a matter of
tive impulse, for with increasing accumulation lack of time, interest, or skill, perhaps?Dunsby's
of individual analyses, today's analyst has no demonstration in his article retains some of
choice but to engage-selectively rather than Adorno's equivocality. His remarks about the
comprehensively-with other analysts. Analy- Wanderer Fantasy are of a critical-aesthetic na-
sis thus becomes a dialogue in which tech- ture that may well remain unimproved by the
nique and ideology are exposed. Buch follows accumulation of analytical details. Similarly,
Adorno's example in constructing a productive his claim that certain music-theoretical terms
dialogue out of different critical responses to of introversive provenance are unsuitable for
Schubert's Bb-Major Piano Sonata by Felix analyzing parts of the "Largo"requires no fur-
Salzer, Otto Vrieslander, Tovey, Adorno, and ther substantiation at this level. Adding "ana-
Schoenberg.3 lytical details" may have pedagogic or feel-good
The turn to metatheory and meta-analysis value, but the conceptual points remain unal-
may sometimes seem to mask a retreat from tered. Dunsby reaches a potential impasse here
confronting the thing itself-opportunistic, in seeking, on the one hand, to retain Adorno's
parasitic, and unoriginal. For the analytical will to radical exegesis, while endorsing, on the
majority who regardanalysis as a hands-on ac- other, acts of professional musical exegesis.
tivity, this turn is welcome chiefly as a supple- Some might argue that Adorno's reticence says
ment. If, however, it devalues the phenomeno- it all, and that assimilating this aspect of his
logical gain in doing, it will not be so welcome. thought would require us ultimately to give up
Commenting on Adorno's contribution to the our shiny tools-Schenkerian, semiotic, set-
discourse around Schubert'ssonata, Buch draws theoretic, transformational, neo-Riemannian-
attention to the ways in which Adorno's poetic and turn to poetry and philosophy.
or metaphorical mode captures the sense of Even further to the right from an analytical
musical gestures-including their effects and point of view is Scott Burnham's response to
significance-without reducing their identity Adorno's "Schubert." Like Dunsby, he focuses
to technique. Yet he admits that Adorno "does on a single work, this time the G-Major String
not go into analytical details." This may well Quartet. But unlike Dunsby, who appears to
be the crux of the analytical challenge: to keep inhabit Adomrno's world, Burnham develops his
analysis in familiarly conventional terms. No
doubt Adomo would have approved of several
3The fragments gathered together for a projected book on of Bumrnham's technical designations-cycles of
Beethoven provide a magnificent example of Adorno'sown
comparativist leanings. See his Beethoven: The Philoso-
thirds, for example-while some of his images
phy of Music, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. EdmundJephcott would probably have elicited a knowing smile.
(Stanford:StanfordUniversity Press, 1998). This meeting of minds is possible because, for

51
19TH all intents and purposes, Burnham started with sody on the essay, like Dunsby's, inhabits
CENTURY
MUSIC Schubert, not with Adorno. This put him in a Adorno's world, but where Dunsby broaches
better position to appreciate what Adorno said analytical detail and meta-analytical concerns,
he heard. And he found some wonderfully cor- Perrey invokes overarching characterizations-
roborative ideas-such as ex-centric construc- centered on the notion of repetition-as a prop
tion of Schubert's landscape, or the repetition in pursuing the verbal-poetic side of Adorno. It
and repeatability of themes. Following Burn- could be argued, in fact, that this direction is
ham's example literally would commit us to indeed the pertinent one, for no reader is likely
scanning Adorno's thought for reinforcement to miss the self-consciousness of Adorno's lin-
or support, going to him to see if he agrees with guistic manner-images, metaphor, language-
US. in working through the essay. Thus Perreyreads
This way of appropriatingAdorno seems op- Adorno's epigraph (taken from Louis Aragon)
portunistic; it also suggests ultimately a crisis to reinforce the interpenetration of style and
of authority within the community of writers content in Adorno, and to show what "seman-
who, it might be argued, turn to the more self- tic shadows" it casts over the rest of the essay.
possessed Adorno for an occasional pat on the Taking writing seriously or indeed defining
back. Such opportunism is neither new nor analysis as a mode of writing is not unheard of
avoidable given the nature of practical analy- among Anglo-American music theorists, but
sis, for unless a work is true for the individual pursuing its implications through radical ex-
analyst-as, say, the Wanderer Fantasy is true ploration of writing as such is an activity await-
for Dunsby or the G-Major String Quartet for ing fuller exploration. Perrey's reminder and
Burnham-it has not been analyzed. Adorno's example are in this sense timely.
mediation cannot but be temporally displaced-- No matter how much they value insights
sought after only in the wake of the analyst's indigenous to natural language, music analysts
own initial engagement with the work. are not likely to be dissuaded from asking
AppropriatingAdorno opportunistically com- whether any final truths about musical mate-
mits Burnham to a selective strategy whereby rial or process emerge from a particular under-
potentially conflicting aspects of his thought taking. One of Perrey's Adorno-inspired obser-
are simply ignored. Yet, if one retains the full vations is that, formally speaking, Winterreise
Adornian context while reading Burnham, cer- is a set of variations. At first blush, this seems
tain interesting tensions arise. For example, an unpromising claim because the twenty-four
commenting on the passage from the finale settings of affectively contrasting poetic texts,
where cycles of thirds find their culmination expressed through contrasts in key, mood, and
(mm. 652-end), Burnham's language turns ag- temporal profile, seem more readily perceiv-
gressively organicist: "This passage sounds as a able as a collection upon which the listener is
dizzying review and culmination of all similar invited to impose some kind of unity. But the
passages in the finale, as well as of all the other "theme" of Winterreise is, in Perrey's under-
third-cycles throughout the quartet, both ma- standing, not a conventional phrase structure,
jor third and minor third." Adorno would not melody, or harmonic sequence, but rather a
have allowed himself to write this, for having condition: "the emotional arrest of the
identified potpourri organization as basic to wanderer's world," ultimately a death-inspired
Schubert's form, he is not (ethically) at liberty idle fixe. It is this obsessive sameness, this
to push such an orthodox organicist line with- semantic standstill or affective constancy that
out massively qualifying it. characterizes the entire Winterreise cycle. Al-
The case for reconciling the imperatives of though Perrey recognizes an element of "over-
institutional music analysis to Adorno's drive" in the last song of the cycle, she does
thought has been made by Buch, explored sym- not recast her framework in terms of a teleo-
pathetically by Dunsby, and demonstrated in logical obligation. Schubert's winter journey is,
earnest by Burnham. But there is another re- for her, a set of "frozen variations."
sponse that pursues a different direction in Perhaps the level of abstraction here will
Adomo's "Schubert." Beate Perrey's poetic rhap- have left a few skeptical analysts unmoved,

52
and this in turn may reflect impatience with, devolve upon ways of being in time.5 To say KOFI
AGAWU
or simply envy of, the poetical mode. The au- with Stockhausen that time passes differently Music
thority for this arrangement of priorities is in the course of a Schubert work is to adopt a Analysis
Adorno himself. What Adorno makes possible condition of possibility that may well stimu-
may be framed as a heightened and fully en- late a special analytical adventure.6
gaged poetical response that does not rush into Time is shaped into form, and form, profiled
divulging "analytical details" but maintains its in a variety of ways, guides a certain kind of
dependence on them. Perrey is at her most listening. With the category of form we enter
Adornian when she stages this central contra- into one of the mainstays of musicological criti-
diction. cism. Yet, with Schubert, we are confronted at
These are only four of the many possible every stage with exceptions and contrariness,
responses to Adorno's "Schubert." There will not normative enactments. Schubert's music is
surely be others, for Adorno's message, what- "immune to idealized synopsis," Adorno says.
ever it is, does not seem to be one that we can It is equally immune to "the phenomenologi-
affordto ignore. And this is partly because there cal exploration of 'coherence'." So much for
is not a single fundamental aspect of Schubert's the Schenkerian Ursatz! Are we perhaps better
music that is not mentioned or alluded to in off with strategies that invest in the coherence
this remarkable essay. At the thematic level, of fragments? Adorno implies that about the
then, the essay serves a recapitulatory function only thing possible-critically speaking-is a
which should assure Schubert scholars that constructed or, more likely, a posited "tempo-
what is new here is not the historical record as rary unity." Schubertian form thus becomes a
such but the nature of the critical agenda. To surprising potpourri, "putting bits of music to-
ignore this text would be to risk reinventing a gether." Schubert as a composer of potpourris?
few wheels. So let me, in closing, take stock-- What happened to organicism?Adorno says that
again-by passing through once more the land- potpourri construction "denies the music any-
scape of Adorno's "Schubert." thing to do with organicist theory," and-al-
It all begins in the realm of temporality, the most in defiance-he names Weber and Bizet
realm of time crafted, time inhabited. We are as Schubert's partners in crime. As often with
reminded that time is domesticated differently Adorno, it is not the overarchingverdict-about
by different composers. And we know this by form, in this case-that matters, for anyone
comparison. According to Adorno, Schubert's can cite counterexamples to undermine every
music "may not always have 'the power of one of his attributions; rather, it is the material
active will' that rises from the inmost nature of contours of a particular characterization and
Beethoven." Dahlhaus, too, was struck by this the way those contours inspire dissent or rap-
stylistic or manneristic distinction, which al- ture that matter.
most hinges on a reversal of teleological en- Description is never neutral, innocent, or
ergy: "in Schubert, unlike in Beethoven, the objective. For Adorno, the site of description
most lasting impression is made by remem- becomes the site of provocation. And so we are
brance, which turns from later events back to forced to dwell on why some themes are re-
earlier ones, and not by goal-consciousness,
which presses on from earlier to later."4 In-
deed, some of the most provocative recent read- SSusan McClary, "Constructions of Subjectivity in
Schubert's Music," in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay
ings of individual works by Schubert point to and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood,
alternative "constructions of subjectivity," in and Gary C. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Susan McClary's formulation, which in turn 6For three out of numerous English-language analytical
adventuresinspired directly by Adomo, see Rose Rosengard
Subotnik, Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in
Western Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
4Carl Dahlhaus, "SonataFormin Schubert:The FirstMove- Press, 1991); Daniel Chua, The "Galitzin" Quartets of
ment of the G-Major String Quartet, Op. 161 (D. 887)," Beethoven, Opp. 127, 132, 130 (Princeton: Princeton Uni-
trans. Thilo Reinhard, in Schubert: Critical and Analyti- versity Press, 1995); and James Buhler, "'Breakthrough'as
cal Studies, ed. Walter Frisch (Lincoln: University of Ne- Critique of Form:The Finale of Mahler's First Symphony,"
braskaPress, 1986), p. 8. this journal 20 (1996), 125-43.

53
19TH peatable and others not. Again, there are nega- When minor third is replaced by major third,
CENTURY
tive examples in Schumann and Wagner,where he notes, we come to understand the minor as
MUSIC
what might be called errors in aesthetic judg- a "mere shadow" of the major. Therefore the
ment occur in the form of "the repetition of the progression from minor to major dramatizes a
unrepeatable." Schubert, on the other hand, sameness in difference, a transformation of self,
has it just right, and in a way that many listen- a change of perspective, or even a collapse of
ers will attest, especially since they have learned tenses. But it is not merely a matter of identity,
to live with and love the say-it-again gestures of boring and arcane nomenclatures; it is, above
that occur both locally and in global contexts all, a matter of effect: "Salvation happens in
in many works. In Schubert, there may not be the tiniest move, in the transformation of the
development in the Beethovenian sense, only minor third to the major." Salvation? How far
"repeatability of unaltered truth-characters." our secular age has drifted from the putative
This insight should surely tempt us into mak- spiritual climate of Schubert's music!
ing a typology of Schubert's themes, imagining We could extend this stocktaking exercise,
them in different guises, swapping them where of course, by referring,for example, to the traces
possible, and asking why we never tire of them. of "simple joys," to the bourgeois element, to
Thus Adomo suggests a new way in which techniques of variation, and so on. But the point
we might value repetition, a way that is not of such a list would only be to confirm both the
merely structural but hermeneutic. By dispens- need for and the ultimate poverty of enumera-
ing with development and substituting repeti- tion. Concomitantly, the list would hint at the
tion, Schubert achieves something more. His contradictions and antinomies that undergird
forms, Adorno contends, "are forms of invoca- the best music criticism. When, toward the
tion of what has already appeared;they are not end of the essay, Adorno considers the prospect
transformations of something that had been that Schubert's music is "music we cannot de-
invented." Thus the associative dimension is cipher," he is reflecting on something pro-
activated for the listener, challenging the taken- foundly constructive, namely, that by exempli-
for-granted linear mode of perception for fying acts of decipherment, in however oblique
priority. Listening becomes an unavoidably a fashion, we begin to acquire a strong appre-
intertextual exercise; at our most engaged, we ciation of impossibility.
revel in the material content of layers of asso- Adorno's truths, then, are truths for our con-
ciation instead of charging forwardlike bulls to temporary times, truths that aim to restore a
the next cadence. Let the finale of the C-Major measure of authenticity to music-making and
Symphony be our witness. Let it offer the gray- to writing about music. Although an increas-
ness of counterassertion that criticism destroys ing number of scholars have drawn inspiration
when it postulates its basic distinctions. from Adorno's way of proceeding, neither mu-
How do these observations facilitate analy- sic theory nor musicology as current institu-
sis as we know it? Adomo offers a tiny conces- tional practices are fundamentally invested in
sion when he comments on Schubert's har- the spirit of Adorno's critical practice. Music
mony. The alternation between major and mi- theory's closed systems may be useful in dem-
nor is too salient a feature of Schubert's music onstrating a certain empirical and thoroughly
to be missed. Adorno locates this as a facet of worldly coherence, while the monumental cer-
the harmonic dimension, "the true measure of tainties of the neo-Riemannians provide a cer-
music's profound nature." There is no doubt- tain assurance of occupation, but these have a
ing Schubert's "command of the harmonic prin- tendency to squelch the spirit of idealization
ciple," as, for example, in situations in which that writers on Austro-Germanic music find
certain modulations engender "a collapse of irresistible and that Schenker-rather than
perspective." And there are some "wonderfully Schenkerians-sought to give voice to. Recent
wayward paths" that we are all too glad to interpretative musicology's insistence on lay-
embark upon with Schubert as tour guide. It is ing bare certain first-level narratives ostensibly
against this background that we can appreciate sedimented in Schubert's music-inscriptions
what Adomo does with a technical description. that typically match a biographical circum-

54
stance to a musical moment-may provide tem- what has been said may be false, incomplete, or KOFI
AGAWU
porary gratification for those who require it, inadequate, and that there is always more to Music
but this mode of correlating runs the risk of not say and especially to ask-this is what Adorno Analysis
seeing beyond the literalness of iconic codes; it makes possible for the dedicated music ana-
risks exposing itself as a kind of semiotic infan- lyst. Whether this constellation of stances-
tilism. Such narratives ultimately block access which has no corporate currency, and whose
to the evolving truths that Schubert's music peculiar shapes prove too unruly for domesti-
makes possible. In order to begin to make good cation for mass teaching-can be generalized
on Adorno's legacy, music analysis must be and institutionalized as "theory" is debatable.
willing to take nothing for granted, must not In any case, it presupposes an ethical stance
delude itself into imagining definitive analyses that is not framed by the cowardly dictates of
or final states, must glorify present engagement political correctness and critical opportunism,
instead of deferring to the supposed authority but by an embrace-which we might as well
of past criticism as transmitted by historians of call "strategic"-of a simple yet powerful be-
thought, and must be willing to stage ongoing lief that it is possible-indeed desirable-for
enactments and reenactments of the musical one musician-writer to write something A
work (or parts thereof) not only in actuality that other musicians find edifying.
but, more potently, in imagination and in a
manner consistent with music's performative Abstract.
essence.7 Conceivedas a commentaryon four responsesto
It is the certainty of provisionality and the Adorno's1928 essay, "Schubert,"by EstebanBuch,
provisionality of certainty, the conviction that JonathanDunsby,Scott Burnham,andBeatePerrey,
this article explores some of the implications of
Adorno'sessay as they centeron notions of hybrid-
ity, the interstitialandespeciallythe provisional.It
7Ina recent radical critique of hermeneutic and formalist urgesa criticalstrategythatis self-critical,thatseeks
analytical discourses, Carolyn Abbate explores the conse- to name without naming,and that drawson rigor-
quences of taking performance seriously. See her "Mu-
sic-Drastic or Gnostic?" Critical Inquiry 30 (2004), 505- ous formalanalysiswithoutpresentingits outcomes
36. as endsbut as meanstowardvariousnarrativeends.

55