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Notes 57.2 (2000) 362-364

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Book Review

Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music:
Fragments and Texts

Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts. By Theodor W. Adorno. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. [xii, 268 p. ISBN 0-8047-3515-8. $39.50.]

Although Theodor W. Adorno published monographs on Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Alban Berg and wrote extensively on Arnold Schoenberg in The Philosophy of Modern Music (trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster [New York: Seabury Press, 1973; reprint, New York: Continuum, 1994]; originally published as Philosophie der neuen Musik {Tübingen: Mohr, 1949]), it is fair to say that Beethoven preoccupied him more than any other single composer. He published an important article on Beethoven's Missa solemnis and wrote extensively on his music in numerous essays and collected short remarks. After arriving as a refugee from Nazi Germany in New York in 1938, he began to make notes for a "philosophical work on Beethoven" (p. vii). The present volume, a translation of the original German edition of 1993 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp), contains work on the project spanning thirty years, for Adorno clung to the hope of completing a book he planned to call "Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music" (the title chosen by Rolf Tiedemann, the editor, for this volume), but he never came close to achieving that goal. In a letter to Tiedemann, Adorno described the notes as "a diary of his experiences of Beethoven's music" (p. ix), and this is an accurate assessment, for, as Tiedemann explains in his preface, this book "lacks the closed, integrated structure of a completed work; it has remained a fragment" (pp. ix-x). Not only is it a fragment, it is a highly fragmentary fragment, and this explains an important aspect of its interest. Many of the entries are very brief, but even the more substantial ones possess an intimacy ("Reconstruct how I heard Beethoven as a child" [pp. 3-4]) and spontaneity that a finished book would undoubtedly lack. Moreover, because many of the entries are aphoristic, ideas are expressed with a crystalline quality that might become obscured within an extended discussion. Two good examples of this are found in Adorno's notes on tonality in Beethoven's music: "tonality and its representation circumscribe the social content of Beethoven's music," and "the tonal dynamic corresponds to social production" (pp. 49-50).

While any piece of scholarship reveals much about its author, fragments seem to do this with a particular vividness; the author, not the subject matter of the study, becomes the focus. Just as Beethoven's sketches reveal aspects of his compositional thinking, Adorno's notes take us into the process of a mind at work. We see memos to himself; for example, after the notes on tonality cited above, he writes, "All this needs to be pursued in detail." We admire his deep knowledge of German music from Bach to the twentieth century. We learn about his reading habits, or at least about the authors whose work moved him to make notes. Most striking is that he mentions very few writers on music: he takes issue several times with Paul Bekker and refers several times to Wagner, once to Hugo Riemann, and once to Friedrich Rochlitz (the founding editor of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1798 and an important early Beethoven critic). The total number of references to Kant, Hegel, [End Page 362] Goethe, and the twentieth-century critic Walter Benjamin easily exceed those to writers on music. We see also that Adorno was capable of viewing Beethoven's music critically, as in entry 190, one of many such remarks:

[S]ometimes, if one listens closely to its idiom, his music has something contrived, a calculation of effects . . . and precisely this moment of ham-acting is exposed to obsolescence. It is the reverse side of the mastery of material, and is often to be found in passages of the highest genius, such as the close of the funeral march in the Eroica. . . . Only the late style...


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