Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Problem Of Musical Analysis”

An art aware of itself is an analyzed art. – Theodor W. Adorno, “On The Problem Of Musical Analysis”, in Richard Leppert, Ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p, 168

I’ve spent just a bit too much time immersed in the United Methodist Church’s controversies to sit back and enjoy – if one can use that word – another essay on music from Theodor Adorno.  What makes this particular essay interesting is that it answers a long-standing question this reader has had about the meaning for Adorno of the word “analysis”.  At the same time, the essay is very late, given as a lecture just a few months before Adorno died in 1969.  The thoroughness, however, of Adorno’s understanding of analysis, and its consistency with what Adorno calls “negative dialectics” – the opposites and contradictions at all aspects of social and cultural life that are not and cannot be resolved in a new synthesis, a “whole” that encompasses and transcends both – demonstrates that, at the level of understanding music, few are more musical in their understanding than Adorno.

Adorno begins by noting the frustration composers have with musical analysis, noting that too many people equate analysis with “everything dead” (p.162).  In particular, he notes composers have little time for the questions and answers that arise from detailed analysis of a particular piece of music.  Adorno tells of giving a lecture on Mozart.  A composer in attendance stands and asks whether Adorno really believed Mozart had all the things Adorno attributed to Mozart in his head while he was composing.  The answer, of course, is a splendid defense of the unconscious motivations of which composers themselves not only may not be aware, but when doing their best work cannot be aware.  Nothing, for Adorno, is more irrelevant than the matter of the intent of the composer.

He then turns to the first level of analysis: performance:

I should like to bring your attention to a further basic requirement of analysis here: that is, the reading of music.  As everybody knows, this is a matter which is much more complicated than simply knowing the five lines and four spaces, the accidentals and note-values – the whole system of signs, everything, that is to say, which is represented graphically to be read as the score (I won’t go into more recent developments, where in many cases notation is more precise, although in other cases is also more vague in this respect).  The signs and the music which they signify are never directly one and the same thing.  And in order to read notation at all, so that music results from it, an interpretive act is always necessary – that is to say, an analytical act, which asks what it siis that the notation really signifies.

From this, Adorno notes that, therefore, analysis is “concerned with structure”.:

By structure here I do not mean the mere grouping musical parts according to formal schemata, however; I understand it rather as having to do with what is going on, musically, underneath these formal schemata.

Adorno turns to Heinrich Schenker, perhaps the most influential musicologist of the 20th century, whose analytical method still holds sway among many in the field.  Adorno’s criticism of Schenkerian method, however, is a key part of Adorno unfolding his own view of analysis:

Now what this [Schenkerian method] means, therefore, is that what constitutes the essence, of “Being,” of the composition is for Schenker more or less its very abstractness, in fact, and the individual moments through which the composition materialized and becomes concrete are reduced by him to the merely accidental and non-essential.  Thus such a concept of analysis intrinsically misses the mark, for if it is really to reveal the specific structure of the work, as I have maintained, it has to come to terms with precisely those individual moments which, in terms of Schenker’s reductive process, merely supervene and which, for him, therefore, are only of peripheral interest.

To which Adorno offers the following view:

[A]nalysis must be immanent – that, in the first instance, the form has to be followed a priori, so that a composition unfolds itself in its own terms.

After a detailed unpacking of this view, Adorno turns to the ultimate goal of musical analysis:

Analysis has to do with the remainder in art; it is concerned with that abundance which unfolds itself only by means of analysis.  It aims at that which – as has been said of poetry . . . . – is the truly poetic in poetry, and the truly poetic in poetry is that which defies translation.  Now, it is precisely this moment which analysis must grasp if it is not to remain subordinate.  Analysis is more than merely the facts, but is so only and solely by virtue of of going beyond the simple facts by absorbing itself into them.  Every anaslyis that is of any value, therefore – and anyone who analyzes seriously will soon realise this for himself – is a squaring of the circle.  It is the achievement of imagination through faith; and Walter Benjamin’s definition of imagination as “the capacity for interpolation into the smallest details” applies here.

No, the ultimate “remainder” over and beyond the factual level is the truth content, and naturally it is only critique that can discover the truth content.  No analysis is of any value if it does not terminate in the truth content of the work, and this, for its part, is mediated throug the work’s technical structure.  If analysis hits up against technical inconsistency, then such inconsistency is an index of the work’s untruth . . .

In these two very different views – that the work must be allowed to unfold according to its inner structure; that this inner structure can only be understood through an analysis of discrete, concrete moments – we have the real answer to what Adorno calls “the problem”.  This “sum”, which Adorno calls “the remainder” is the “truth” of the piece, an aesthetic judgement that is not a synthesis either of the whole unfolding according to its internal logic or the individual moments and pieces within this whole that define that whole.  On the contrary, as “remainder” it is always outside this two-way analytical movement, while at the same time being the goal of each of these movements.

This is negative dialectic applied to the truth-value of music.  This is Adorno’s well-known distaste for wholes as defining the truth value of the parts, as well as driving the parts forward toward a whole that is, in the end, predetermined by them.  By leaving the truth value, the aesthetic value, of a piece of music as a “remainder”, Adorno does with music what he did with history in his Negative Dialectics: he leaves it open to the new, the undetermined, and fresh possibilities as it moves forward.  Music, like history, is temporal.  We only come to know it as it flows through time.  Yet real understanding is only achieved by arresting this temporal flow through an analytical process that, Adorno acknowledges, splits the work from its historical moment.  It does so, however, only to return it more fully realized, its truth content allowed to breathe, even as the piece of music is open to new interpretation and analysis through performance and the work of more interpreters.  Whether it’s the simple truth of the driving force of a particular musical motif (he uses one from Mahler’s 4th Symphony, in which, Adorno insists, once it has ended the analyst realizes that ending B was always the goal, and can be heard throughout the movement toward it), or of a composition whose goal is to upset the apple cart of traditional interpretation and analysis (Webern’s “Bagatelles” are cited several times, thus their appearance at the top of this post), musical analysis in the end concerns itself with the interrelationships of notes, and how these structural matters, moving inward from the whole as well as outward from each such moment, provide the answer to the most vexing question for the analyst: What does this piece mean?

For Adorno, it is always an open question, lying both through and outside the analytical process, a process by the way that keeps the music itself alive, rather than a corpse, the complaint with which he begins his essay.  In this essay, Adorno demonstrates his musical, one could even say mystical, approach to understanding.