Friday, July 19, 2019

A Translation of "Antwort des Fachidioten" by Theodor W. Adorno

The Narrow-Minded Specialist’s Reply
On Der Spiegel's Interview on Televised Music

From the outset I would like to make it clear that my criticism does not impinge on works that were developed in response to the actualities of television; for example, the extraordinary Antithèse by Mauricio Kagel.  Now that I have tried in “Art and the Arts” to distill the essence of the tendency of the boundaries between those arts to “fray,” I would be the last person to pine for the good old days if television assisted such tendencies.  But moments of such assistance are rare exceptions that prove the rule, and the prevailing practice can serve as a sufficiently enlightening token of the will of the majority.

By no means do I regard every presentation of music on television as pointless or tasteless.  For example, I very recently saw a broadcast of a rehearsal of Berlioz’s arrangement of the “Rákóczi March” under Solti’s baton.  Every hint of spectacularly crepitating atmosphere was avoided; the image really did help to elucidate the work that goes into the realization of a musical structure.  The optical gaze escorted the viewer into subtle musical processes.

The only thing that actually upsets me is the disfigurement of music by high-class kitsch.  In this category I would include not only the drifting clouds accompanying Brahms’s German Requiem but also the coupling of so-called baroque music with cinematic shots of its purportedly authentic milieu.  It injects an element of artistic and historical prostitution into the aesthetic object.  The latter is being sold short whenever it is enrobed in any sort of adventitious aura.

Not that there is any need to adopt a stringently puritanical stance towards the visual moment.  When somebody once suggested to Mahler that he should have the house lights turned off during a concert, he refused, saying that any performance that didn’t make its listeners automatically ignore extraneous sights and sounds was a worthless one.  There is really not much difference between a darkened concert hall and a candlelit one.  Nevertheless, Joachim Ernst-Berendt is wrong, or at least extremely intemperate, in maintaining in a letter to the Spiegel’s editors that music is a “total phenomenon that affects the entire human individual” to such an extent that by contrast with it “the modern division of all its characteristics into acoustic and visual ones is so much bloodless hairsplitting.” Musical sublimation is intrinsically vectored away from all things visual.  The fact that today such sublimation is in danger of foundering seems to me a regressive phenomenon.  Is a person splitting hairs or rather evincing heightened musicality when he reads a Beethoven quartet and forms a better idea of it than he can get from the way it is almost invariably performed? Moreover, as a general rule, the more complex a piece of music is, the more its optical accompaniment disturbs the acoustic concentration that such a work demands.  When a few years ago West German television undertook the essentially highly meritorious project of broadcasting the world premiere of Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Jacob’s Ladder, even listeners already familiar with the structure of such music scarcely found it possible to follow the musical proceedings closely owing to repeated changes of scenery that scarcely even bore any relation to the latter.

As for the question why the televised Figaro was no Figaro, it may be most simply answered in words furnished by Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “The here and now of the original is coextensive with the concept of its authenticity…although the circumstances into which the product of the technical reproduction of the work of art can be introduced may otherwise leave the work of art’s holdings intact, in every case they obliterate its here and now.”  But I must further demur that the optical treatment of music on television causes the culinary moment to triumph over the objectively musical one—this because the listener, to whom one is ultimately beholden, is thereby defrauded of what he had every right to expect to receive: the aesthetic object, those qualities to which Figaro owes its entire reputation.       

I would very seriously like to take issue with the Spiegel reader Reinhold Tauber.  The differences of opinion here are not differences of the sort that separate intellectuals from non-intellectuals.  If it is correct, as Tauber concedes, that clever people bring to such quarrels the fruits of rational reflection, the measure of the worth of those fruits is not their bearers’ subjective intelligence but rather the extent to which the latter proves itself in objective terms.  An intelligent person is any person who recognizes something that is true as true.  To state this explicitly is simply to grant such a person his minimum due.  But the much-preferred course is to heap abuse on people by dividing them into highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows, as though these were God-given categories that were set in stone.  The kind of stupidity that is very much the opposite of the cleverness that Tauber sets such great store by is for its part socially produced and reproduced. Talk of educating the public will be meaningful only when it orientates itself towards the ultimate purpose of such prospective education and does not passively cleave to a stage of consciousness beyond which every human being has a right to be guided.  Even the rhetorical question, “Would it be best to have no music on television at all?” is not in the least bit terrifying.  The notion that all available capabilities simply must be exploited at all costs is questionable even in the context of material production; in that of intellectual production it is superstition.

The subject of the last letter is the narrow-minded specialism of my views.  But it seems to me that a person proves that he is a narrow-minded specialist not by understanding a thing or two about something but rather and in particular by understanding it exclusively in the light of its social implications.  I would at least be surprised if Mr. Otto Waldeck wished to accuse me of all people of doing that.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2019 by Douglas Robertson

 Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 19, pp. 570ff.

The original was first published in Der Spiegel, May, 22, 1968.  It was a response to letters to the editor provoked by the interview “Televised Music Is Balderdash,” which had appeared in the February 26 issue.

Friday, July 12, 2019

A Translation of "Orpheus in der Unterwelt" by Theodor W. Adorno

Orpheus in the Underworld

On Chart-Topping Gramophone Records
and the German Record-Buying Public

It would be naïve to attempt to contemplate the sales chart for so-called serious music simply as a gauge of public taste.  The public’s preferences have been shaped by too many factors to constitute preferences as such.  Its politics of selection are driven by the centrally governing authorities.  Only what the record companies include in their production schedule and release with auspicious prospects of distribution on a massive scale can become a chart-topper.  This might be the main reason for the cheapness of almost all the records on the chart; on the other hand this cheapness is presumably also dependent on the pre-accumulated success of individual records, which are then thrown into the marketplace with slashed price-tags, much like paperbacks.  Advertising contributes as well—not only via explicit commendation, but sometimes even in the very titles of the discs, e.g., Concert for Millions; it banks on the attractive force of visibility, of catch-phrases, of the prestige of individual works and, above all, of famous performers. All of this figures just as much into the public’s reactions, just as conversely these factors have been multifariously generated by the ossification of the standards of public taste over several decades.  If one speaks critically of manipulation, this is not to be regarded as referring to a one-sided octroi imposed from on high.  Any industry that merely reproduced the immediate status quo would have to be obdurate indeed.  Only the most refined investigations could separate what has been foisted on the public from what lurks within it, to the extent that such a distinction still has any meaning.  Practical musicology has hitherto neglected such questions and gainsaid them out of the world wherever possible via its own definition of them.

Having conceded all of this from the outset, one can most certainly have recourse to the sales-chart as an inventory of prevailing and prevailed-upon musical taste and try to discern what it perchance betrays about that taste.  Only interested parties will misunderstand this attempt as an aspersion on the public and turn what it discovers about the true state of affairs into an accusation.  Admittedly, such blame-shifting under the auspices of the label of intellectual snobbery is quite common nowadays. Contempt for the masses is the charge invariably leveled at anyone who articulates what the world has done to the masses and what is reflected in them, and at anyone who does not bow down before the outrage that human consciousness has been condemned to suffer and that human individuals cling to through every fault of their own, as Kant put it.  Ideologues, who pay the loudest lip-service to values, are in the cynical habit of commending values to demographic groups that have invariably been brought into existence and kept in line by the powers that be.  These ideologues are the true snobs: contempt for human beings fairly oozes from their indulgent slogan “Just let the people have their fun.”  The feasible emancipation of humanity is anathema in their eyes; by this point in history it is the cliques of controlling interests who are to blame for the fact that this emancipation has not been achieved.

One must not forbear from asking the question of whether the choice made by consumers is specific at all, of whether it is even based on their actual personal experience as music-listeners.  The unexpectedly high demands made by some works, the inanity of others, render this improbable.  For many of them it may be more important to reaffirm their sense of their own status by buying a disc than to treat themselves to what they actually like.  This is complemented by such obstacles to making a good selection as the notorious ban on packages of trial discs.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the most conspicuous thing about the chart is what is missing from it; first and foremost, the entire modern repertoire, including middle-of-the-road and well-established works that happen to have been written after 1900, like Der Rosenkavalier.  This aversion to modernity is taken for granted, even though music that hails from the same intellectual environment as that of its presumptive listeners should actually be more highly cherished by them.  But they favor compositions whose content lags behind their own experience, sometimes so far behind as to lead them to believe that this content is an ideal beyond their reach rather than something readily accessible to them in real life.  Then there is a threshold of complexity: nothing that is as richly and densely wrought as Brahms, and that therefore requires as much concentration, appears on the chart; nor does any Wagner. 

The last three Mozart symphonies and all of Schubert and Schumann are notably absent from the chart’s roster of works of the so-called classical and romantic periods.  But especially glaring is the absence of the entire corpus of great chamber music from Haydn to Schoenberg. 

There can be no doubt that this corpus as a whole—and not just the late Beethoven quartets—is on par with, and in many ways superior to, the symphonic repertoire.  But the bourgeois worship of means independent of their ends has taken possession of musical taste, especially among those new groups of listeners who are unfamiliar with the intimate musical tradition and who first come into contact with serious music via the technological media.  They are smitten with glamour—this English word defies translation—whose template is supplied by the musical titles of the commercial cinema.  Pomp and splendor take precedence over internal structure, over what is going on inside the piece as a composition in the fullest sense.  A primitive concept of variegation seems to be exerting a veritably hypnotic force, as if the buyers believed that in purchasing a record they were being issued a voucher for the impartment of a smattering of color to their lives. On surveying the chart, one is initially struck by the potpourri-like character of the discs in virtue of their inclusion of a multitude of things in one place.  Relatively short and undemanding pieces are strung together on each disc; these pieces exact little concentration and do not expect the listener to attend at all closely to the development of a formal argument.  The crude alternation from one thing to another blends smoothly into the listener’s distracted consciousness.  The old-style coffeehouse music is dying out; the word potpourri is now given a wide berth by the sales charts for serious music, but they are the shamefaced heirs of that déclassé branch of the musical family.

Even though the chart continues to presume to track sales of serious music, many of the discs near its top are simply highbrow entertainment, representatives of a category to which the Americans have come utterly unironically to apply the invincible label semi-classical.  On the one hand nobody wants to sacrifice their cultural pretensions; the lovers of highbrow entertainment must be allowed to fancy themselves intellectually and socially superior to aficionados of light-music, the hit parade, and, most recently, the beat. On the other hand, the repertoire of the semi-classical is as complaisantly easy on the listeners’ ears as light music.  They can revel in the readily understood melodies in the upper voices, the highly simple rhythmic schemata, the insinuated emotional gestures.  The administratively customary division between serious and light is actualized ad absurdum.  Many of the chart-toppers that are classified as serious according to accepted standards are intrinsically light in character or at any rate rendered banal and shopworn by countless repetitions: what was serious can become light.  Moreover, performance practice as perpetuated by the chart-toppers frequently compels seriousness to accommodate lightness.   Their debt is paid to the reification of the cleanly divided musical domains.  Whatever is opposed to such reification is struck down in virtue of their separation.

The Wunderlich disc and the Concert for Millions that figure at third and fourth places on the chart are light music in disguise.  Wunderlich starts out with two Mozart arias as with an obligatory examination passed with flying colors only to move onto the most famous operatic showpieces like La donna è mobile and Puccini followed by Lehár and finally end with a few unspeakable cuts; whether they are supposed to be the “folksongs” promised on the jacket remains undetermined.  The late singer’s lack of disdain for kitsch is milked as a praiseworthy quality by the liner notes: “It was completely in keeping with his outlook on life to sing folksongs and bravura arias from operettas.” 
He gave his all to beauty.”  As if the difference between the beautiful and the abhorrent were not precisely the difference between Mozart and Messrs Grossmann and Neuendorff; with such pieces dirigiste cultural semi-literacy is directly furthering barbarism.  Wunderlich displays his magnificent voice with great cultivation, some monotony, and little contrast; it has obviously been boosted by the sound engineer.

The “Concert for Millions” by contrast consists of nothing but cultural staples, several of them excellently performed—for example, the “Hallelujah” Chorus from the Messiah and the overture to The Magic Flute under Böhm’s baton and the scherzo from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Kubelik’s; others, like the first movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata, played much too slowly, with preposterously melodized triplets, are less easy to stomach.  At the end Karajan celebrates the Radetzky March; he first steps into action much earlier with the famous air from Bach’s D major suite; unsurpassable in sonority, unaffectedly ingratiating, but melodically somewhat shapeless, such that the inconceivably grandiose melodic line, whose luster no amount of wear and tear could ever scuff or tarnish, fails to come fully into its own.  All told, the record suggests that one may cheaply have the entirety of musical culture delivered to one’s home in a single densely packed bundle of top-class performances, and that one could comfortably assimilate this entirety in less than an hour. 

In starkest contrast to these stands the group of records doing business as Baroque Music.   Two such discs, the first dedicated to Handel, are situated at the top of the chart; they are sequestered from a third one entitled Virtuoso Trumpet Concertos.  Most likely in the eyes of these records’ purchasers the concept of the baroque functions basically as a guarantor of prestige; it is impossible to imagine that all of this stuff, much of it quite lethally boring, could either entertain the least musical or captivate the most musical of listeners.  The title Festive Baroque that has been found for the second-place finisher, provides part of the explanation for these discs’ success.  An intoxicating notion of edification devoid of any regard for the underlying musical architecture, together with a general adulation of stylishness, most likely provides the rest.  In the case of the Handel discs the nicknames “Fireworks Music” and “Water Music” also come into play by fraudulently promising a version of impressionism, for in these works there are assuredly no reflets sur l'eau or feu d'artifice. Despite everything, this group is at least close enough in character to elevated entertainment to be effortlessly admitted into the latter’s secure pigeonhole.  What is more, the decided superiority of Handel to the rest of the twitterers is quite palpable: amid all the ephemerality of the routine, he was a composer of great power and magnanimity.  Admittedly the range of the basic figures available to him is so limited that even here monotony quickly sets in and leaves listeners with little consolation apart from the knowledge that at least they already know what is going to happen next. Mozart, who in Schoenberg’s words cut sequences from the Messiah by the meter, was in the right as a composer, whatever may be said against his method of working from the point of view of the history of style.  Handel’s music historically-official synthesis of Italian operatic homophony and German counterpoint can only sound convincing to somebody who doesn’t know what counterpoint is: Handel fails to honor the obligations that are dictated to the composer from the start of every polyphonic composition.  No fabric of voices is ever fully woven; the nexus of voices never establishes the form; the expositions of his fugues tend to founder illogically and brittly in harmonic shoals after their first statement. During performance his stiff inner accents coincide with notes tied across the bar line.

The disc entitled Festive Baroque presents Mouret’s relatively variety-packed and merry “Fanfare,” Handel’s admittedly quite feeble and flaccid 100th Psalm, and a concerto for two horns by Telemann, a work lacking any kind of physiognomy but also no worse than most others of this sort.  Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, the one with the high trumpet, has somehow stumbled onto this record.  This work’s decided superiority to the rest is self-evident, but in such company even Bach gets sucked into the maelstrom of mindless tootling.  What comes to the fore here is the sort of typicality that wrongly awakens a sense of the compulsory and authentic in artless souls.  Here Bach was manifestly obliged to seem to accept as a stylistic imperative that infelicitous custom of having the leading concertante motif bite its own tail.  Despite its fame this concerto does not display the real Bach; rather, it is an example of what is nowadays known as a contribution—a contribution to the golden surplus of superfluity.

Regarding the disc of trumpet music it may at least be said to its credit that it defies one’s usual apprehensions about this chart-topping instrument by not pandering to military desiderata; the pieces on it are of a pre-Frederician innocence and pontentiate nothing but tedium.  What a strange emotional constitution the Bishop of Olomouc must have had if he expected to be amused by these sorts of short-winded structures that barely get beyond their opening sections and resemble one another as closely as rotten eggs.  This disc comprises works by his favorite composers, a few of whom, such as Biber and Poglietti, were quite famous in their day.  May they rest in peace, the peace of archives and dissertations.  The masterly trumpeter Scherbaum deserved better vehicles.

In the third group, the Slavic complex, at least something is happening.  They provide fodder to the emotional listener, who pictures Slavs as savages oscillating dramatically between melancholy sentimentality and Samartian violence.  In sixth place the disc called Music from the Great Tradition, an Introduction to the World of Slavic Music, succeeds in performances recorded in Prague.  It scarcely effects such an introduction via Borodin’s Steppes of Central Asia, a piece that has long since sunk into the sphere of spa music, and an ultra-academic product like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, which evokes nothing better than the dreary hopping about of that sort of ballet that prides itself on its classicality.  A fragment of Janáček’s Glagolithic Mass doesn’t help here either.

But then there’s Tchaikovsky: the victors in the Russian competition named after him and a disc by Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic.  Here the public probably cast its sincere vote.  In Germany, Tchaikovsky has had a hard time being taken seriously as a great composer.  Now he is manifestly getting quite popular in defiance of the cultural tradition and coming to occupy the place in consumers’ hearts that he has long held in America.  If virtuoso conductors have always delighted in giving him all they’ve got, it is now being spontaneously lavished on him.  His giftedness is patently audible; genius and mediocrity are commingled in the most curious fashion. His facility at devising figures of extraordinary power, and, for that very reason, of undeniable vulgarity, is impressive. But the solution to the mystery of the effect is to be found in a very deep stratum of infantilism.  Tchaikovsky’s music, that of a man condemned to unhappiness by Victorian stuffiness, is nourished by an ungovernable longing for happiness; it gets drunk on the fulfillment that is denied to him, a man who regales himself with grand passion in his daydreams.  This is the way children orient themselves towards happiness; the greatest artists are granted the privilege of holding onto some portion of this orientation.  But perhaps that portion, a reminiscence of the irrecoverable, is only a refracted yearning for what can never again be equaled.  Tchaikovsky’s longing for happiness has not experienced this refraction in musical terms: his imagery is not sublimated but left crassly intact.  This is as emphatically responsible for the striking extremity of his themes as for their hyper-distinctiveness and immediacy.  For all the dexterousness of his symphonism, it is hardly symphonic: it is utterly devoid of any capacity for integration. It paves the way for atomistic listening.   A short path leads from string melodies like the ones from Romeo and Juliet and the [First] Piano Concerto to Gershwin via Rachmaninoff: they are prototypes of hit tunes in whose company one can reliably feel like an aristocrat despite their popularity.  Whether his success is also being abetted by repressed Slavophilism, an anti-Western element of the German mindset that subsists beneath the official Russophobia, is difficult to determine; he has so many things going for him.  That Karajan’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet does its unsurpassable utmost to wring out every drop of effect contained in this piece, probably Tchaikovsky’s most powerful work, goes without saying.  The winners of the competition, Tretyakov and especially the boy pianist Sokolov, will disappoint nobody.  Chart-toppers must meet certain standards; the goods are exchanged in kind.

Now for the pièces de résistance, the Beethoven discs, at fifth and ninth places on the chart.  Artur Rubenstein has recorded the complete piano concertos articulately, and unlike many pianists of the following generation he does not give one the feeling that he is actually handling Beethoven like jazz.  The public is soft-soaped by such novelties as the slight over-extension of lyrical themes; in contravention of the direction andante con moto, the tempo of the slow movement of the G major concerto is sluggish.  The foundational rhythm of the principal theme of the rondo finale of the E flat major concerto, a rhythm of decisive significance for the entire movement, is not hewn out of the surrounding material with sufficiently sculptural plasticity.  But the success of these discs is justified, and even understandable from a musician’s point of view.  Not, to be sure, that the outrageous passage for the basses at the end of the andante of the G major concerto is patently mistaken for accompaniment by the master engineer—oh, what a master!—and kept inaudible.

The choice of the Missa Solemnis under Karajan’s baton with the Vienna Choral Society and, once again, the Berlin Philharmonic, is quite surprising.  The work is unfathomable, and to this day it has yet to be fully deciphered by anybody.  In its outward aspect it is the very antithesis of accessibility; the listeners allow themselves to be convinced by the master that it is his oeuvre plus accompli without being able to maintain without scruple that they can auditorily fathom its quality; a textbook example of what may be termed mandatory listening.  All the same, it is hardly by chance that this disc has found favor with this phenomenon.  Karajan disguises its enigmatic character via euphony, with the aid of the finest available vocal soloists—Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich, and Walter Berry.  Keeping the sonic mirror polished outweighs all other concerns; thus the central piece, the fugue Et vitam venturi from the Credo, is handled with indescribable circumspection and moderation, so that absolutely nothing happens; this at the cost of its intensity.  Much to the detriment of the harmonic process, the instrumental basses are banished into the background.  Amid all the mastery, the primacy of the sound blurs contours and phrasing.  On the other hand it is probably the engineer who is to blame for the fact that the beginning of the Et carnatus est is virtually inaudible at a normal volume setting.  It is nevertheless astonishing that Karajan, who enjoys the reputation of also taking great pains about the details of technical reproduction, leaves certain passages glaringly overexposed, a practice that is out of keeping with his usual espousal of an ideal of sonic continuity. A suggestion is not amiss here, a suggestion, namely, that on every record player, the dial that monitors the dynamics should be equipped with a scale gauging the decibel levels—in each case, a scale commensurate with the apparatus in question.  Then on their records the conductors, like the directors of films, would be obliged to note the decibel levels intended by those ultimately responsible for the recording.  That would constitute something like a translation of the principle of the metronome into the terms of dynamics.  It would guarantee a certain measure of objectivity in the ratios of sonic forces during the playing of the disc.

Not a few readers will truculently demur, “What difference does it make, as long as people are entertained by all this?”  But the very concept of entertainment is of disputable validity.  It remains true that in a state of affairs in which technology is supposedly making human beings’ lives easier, people ubiquitously feel overwhelmed and still actively seek compensation for the repugnant labor that the relations of production impose on them in a form of reimbursement that merely covertly replicates that labor’s monotony.  To do battle against the right to entertainment and a grudging populace with culture as one’s chosen weapon would be schoolmasterly presumption.  Nevertheless, entertainment objectively does that populace an objective injustice; it is a misfortune to them, and they subjectively yearn for it. It is nothing other than a substitute for what is denied human beings elsewhere, and this is demonstrated by the subaltern, spurious, and friable quality of a large portion of the material that culture perpetually showcases for entertainment’s sake while at the same time repressing and ridiculing it.  Via their transformation into commodities, cultural treasures are having the life driven out of them.  Jazz fans are on the right track to the extent that they give pride of place to the spontaneity of the performance and of their own reaction to it, even if their object of adulation is admittedly no less of a commodity than the hifalutin musical culture industry against which they rebel. What is happening in this industry attests to the emergence of a far-reaching phenomenon, the miscarriage of culture among those who fancy they possess it and for that very reason do not possess it.  From time to time, one asks oneself what is still left to be defended against the onslaught of open and admitted barbarism.  The world of entertainment [Unterhaltung] is the underworld [Unterwelt] that passes itself off as Heaven.  


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2019 by Douglas Robertson

Source:  Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 19, pp. 545ff.

Original first published in Der Spiegel, Nov. 11, 1968, pp. 200–206.