Theodor W. Adorno, Two Essays On Beethoven

In his late period the composer did not, as one might think, blindly follow the dictates of his inner ear, nor did he focibly estrange himself from the sensual aspect of his work.  Instead he disposed over all the possibilities which had grown up in the history of his composing. – Theodor W Adorno, “Alienated Masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor Adorno: Essays on Music

Now we’ve arrived at the final section of Leppert’s essay collection, “Composition, Composers, and Works”.  The two essays that begin this section are related not only because they concern themselves with the same composer.  The are related because they concern themselves with the particularities, and what Adorno considers the peculiarities, of what he calls in the title of the first essay, “Late Style in Beethoven”.  The second, looking in detail at the Missa Solemnis, considers how it is this piece is praised by so many, from music aficionados to the academic community, without anyone being able to offer a coherent reason why this is so, precisely because the work itself is, as the title of the essay suggests, so distinct as to be alien from what one would consider Beethoven’s “style”.

The first, very brief, essay, seeks to remove discussions of Beethoven’s late style from the realms of the composer’s alleged psychology, and consider the sounds themselves – a thoroughly musicological approach – as clues as to what constitutes this late style.  Adorno notes that for far too long, academics and other commentators have relied upon Beethoven’s deafness and fear of death as a way of explaining the changes in his compositional style later in his life.  Adorno sets that to one side and offers the following, by way of summation, on page 566 of Leppert’s edition:

Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.

In other words, rather than fearing death, Beethoven is staring it in the face, daring it to dictate the terms of his (musical) demise.  Rather than enforce a strictness of thematic development, Beethoven allows the music to breathe, even if that means abrupt changes, odd caesuras, and an absence of thematic through-play.  When the subjective I confronts Being in this way, the I announces victory even before the final curtain comes down.

Adorno ends as follows, on p. 567:

[T]he very late Beethoven is called both subjective and objective.  Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which – alone – it glows into life.  He does not bring about their harmonious synthesis.  As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal.  In the history of art late works are the catastrophes.

His approach to the Missa considers the strangeness, for those familiar with Beethoven’s work, of the piece as a whole.  Indeed, Adorno asks if those ignorant of the work but otherwise familiar with Beethoven, would be able to identify the Mass as the composer’s work. (p.573)  Yet, before doing so, he has some rescue work to do:

Neutralization of culture . . . posit[s] as a more or less general reflection that intellectual constructs have forfeited their intrinsic meaning because they have lost any possible relation to social praxis and have become that which aesthetics retrospectively claims they are – objects of pure observation, of mere contemplation. . . . They become cultural goods, exhibited in a secular pantheon in which contradictions, works which would tend to destroy each other, find a deceptively peaceful realm of co-existence . . . (p,569)

Before considering the work in detail, Adorno must steal it away from those academics and musical museum masters who would lock it away by calling it a masterpiece, without allowing anyone the difficult task of analysis.  For surely, as Adorno makes abundantly clear, no piece of music in Beethoven’s oeuvre deserves analysis more than the Missa Solemnis.  As a general description, Adorno writes, on p. 574:

The internal construction of this music, its fever, is radically different from everything which distinguishes Beethoven’s style.  It is itself archaic.  The form is not achieved through developing variations from basic motifs, but arises largely from sections imitative in themselves, similar to the method of the Netherlandish composers around the middle of the fifteenth century, and it is uncertain how well Beethoven knew their work.  The formal organization of the whole work is not that of a process developing through its own impetus – it is not dialectical – but seeks accomplishment by a balance of the individual sections, of the movements, ultimately through contrapuntal enclosure.  All the estranging characteristics can be seen in this light.

Several commentators have wondered whether the strange beauty of the Missa derives from Beethoven’s lack of orthodox faith.  One commentator even noted the repetitive nature of the word “Credo” during the Credo section of the mass, as if Beethoven were willing himself to affirm the words of the creed.  Adorno himself notes differences in accents and climaxes from Bach’s Great Mass, accentuating completely different elements of the recitative.  As a whole, however, Adorno says, “Not the modern but the ancient is expressive in the Missa.” (p.577)  As for the “modern” aspect of the Missa, which accounts for its strangeness – its alienation – Adorno writes, on pp.579-580:

The Missa Solemnis is a work of such exclusion, of permanent renunciation.  It is already to be counted among those efforts of the later bourgeois spirit which no longer hope to conceive and form in any concrete manner the universally human, but which strive instead to accomplish this end through abstraction, through the process of exclusion of the accidental by means of maintaining a firm grasp on a universal which had gone astray in the reconciliation with the particular. . . .  This residual nature of truth, the rejection of the permeation of the particular, condemns the Missa Solemnis not merely to being enigmatic, but stamps it in a principal sense with the mark of impotence.  It is the impotence not merely of the mightiest composer but of an historical position of the intellect which, of whatever it dares write here, can speak no longer or not yet.

As a final comment on both Adorno’s general consideration of Beethoven’s late style, and the Missa in particular, this demonstrates the power of Adorno’s insistence that attempts to understand the aesthetic power of a particular piece of music apart from the social conditions of the historical moment, as well as how the sounds themselves reflect that history, can and should bare fruit not only for musicologists, but musicians, educators, and anyone interested in greater understanding of how a single individual can change so much over time, without reducing such questions and answers to matters of psychology.  What we have, rather, is the possibility of reminding the listener of the creative nature of music – as opposed to “natural” – and that, as a fully human creative act, it is as subject to historical forces as all else.