Friday, August 16, 2019

A Translation of "Reflexionen über Musikkritik" by Theodor W. Adorno

Reflections on Music Criticism1

The very purpose of the event that we are privileged to be inaugurating in such an extraordinary setting obviously requires me to center my remarks on problems in music criticism.  The matter at hand might best be served if I don’t strictly separate questions of theory and of praxis from one another.  Even before I start I would like to ask Dr. Kaiser, in whose presence I am especially delighted to be, to pardon me for making a few incursions into the territory to which his own lecture will be dedicated.  Music criticism itself is of course two things in one, an activity that belongs to theoretical consciousness but at the same time an activity that is practically invasive, often with significant consequences.   My intention is not, for example, to develop for you a long-winded theory of music criticism out of any sort of premises, a mode of thinking about which I harbor some very serious philosophical and theoretical reservations.  I would much rather expatiate on some of the nerve-points of the problematics of music criticism.

I would like to speak mainly about the possibility of music criticism in general, about the tasks that must be set for it, and even about its proper object of attention; then I would like to say a few things about the necessary qualifications of a music critic before concluding with some comments on his modus operandi.

First I would like to adduce the thesis that music criticism is not, as it often appears to be, a mere medium of communication; that it does not merely consist in forming impressions,  passing judgments, and finally, for some by no means transparent reason, making these judgments accessible to the widest possible circle of people.  Music criticism is, rather, when taken seriously—and this is undoubtedly true of every kind of criticism of works of art and of their presentation—a form in its own right, not a mere medium.  In saying that music criticism is a form I must be understood as saying merely that it has an objective, material function and not merely a communicative one.  In other words, if music criticism is to serve as anything more than a journalistic or didactic undertaking, it must in a certain sense be prompted by the demands of the music itself rather than merely by those of its recipients.  The latter would be a travesty of music criticism, a caricature that is actually becoming such a widespread reality that a listener frequently learns whether or not he liked a performance from the review of it he reads the next morning.  This surely cannot be the function of music criticism.  Of the motives that are essential to this function and ought to actuate criticism, I would like to name only three without laying any claim to exhaustiveness.

The first of these is the indigence of the works.  It is scarcely even possible—and I must ask you to forgive me for only asserting this thetically without grounding the thesis in specific examples—to doubt the notion that in an emphatic sense there can never be any such things as perfect works of art.  I would unhesitatingly apply this thesis even to the discredit of works that make the most extreme demands and enjoy the greatest authority.  In this assertion there lurks not an iota of disparagement of these works but rather a hint at a state of affairs intrinsic to art itself—the fact that it would like to utter, to capture, the absolute, but cannot utter it.  Even as it is saying it, it is losing it again at that selfsame instant.  The prospective task of criticism is to determine the objective moment of the fallibility of those works without nigglingly depreciating great, authentic works in the process.  As a result of the fact that it traces the inadequacies of works to their innermost structure, to their inconsistency, it must to some extent rally to the works’ defense, it must assist them even as it articulates the logic of their inadequacies, of their limitations.  Works of art are essentially an intellectual phenomenon; they are works of art only insofar as their sensuousness is mediated as something intellectually determined and terminates in their intellectual content—in what may indeed justly be termed their truth content.  This intellectual quality of works of art is not present in them once and for all; rather it is itself in constant motion, the same motion that every work of art already constitutes in and of itself.  Artworks are themselves a process, and they unfold their essence in time.  This essence is processual.  The media of this unfolding of art are commentary and criticism.  The significance of criticism for the development of artworks can best be clinched by saying that contrary to a very widespread and persistent assumption, history does not automatically take care to establish the truth content of the works, that instead the process via which the truth and untruth of the works of art is wrested free of the bad contingency of public taste and historical preferences is sited in the foundational correlations offered by criticism.

At this point, many of you, particularly those of you who are disenchanted with current criticism, will voice the usual demurral about the relativity of opinions about art in general and consequently about the relativity of music criticism.  Some very famous critics who are highly significant in their own way have defended their own authority in defiance of this relativism—for example, the late English critic Ernest Newman, the author of a magnum opus on Richard Wagner that has yet to be translated into German.  All the same, it is remarkable that he wrote concert reviews for many successive decades of his very long life.  Although I have opted—and quite advisedly—not to debate the entire question of relativism in depth with you, I believe that this particular version of relativism is bogus, a bogus assumption that criticism terminates in the contingent judgment of the critic, that it is bound fast to this contingency.  Such an assumption is put paid to by the critic’s immersion in the aesthetic object, provided that he is what I would like quite dispassionately to term a loyal and qualified critic. This has a direct and immediate consequence that I, in accordance with the Hegelian philosophical tradition, regard as the center of criticism: that criticism that is compelling must not bring to bear any sort of rigid, firm, fixed criteria.  The initial task of criticism is to detect new levels of form.  This is not particularly obvious.  As a fairly young person, one approaches an artwork with the tacit presupposition that it is automatically striving for the utmost, the absolute.  That is not the case.   Innumerable works, even highly illustrious ones, bear a moment of resignation within themselves from the outset to such an extent that they by no means make the utmost emphatic demands on themselves.  Competent criticism will initially have the task of giving an account of such levels of form if it does not wish, as Stefan George said, to make the Milky Way into butter, or, to apply a more trivial but more precise image, to shoot sparrows with cannons.

Some consideration must now be given to the itinerary to be pursued by such criticism.  The first stage of this itinerary is the confrontation of artistic purposes, the confrontation of what a famous Austrian art historian, Alois Riegl, once termed the will to artistic form (Kunstwollen), the will of an epoch and not of an individual work, with the means that are employed in the service of this will.  This affords me an opportunity simply to emphasize that the talk about the relativity of aesthetic judgment is seldom seriously meant; that it is for the most part merely an excuse to dispense altogether with the effort of devoting serious attention to works of art, and that it is only interested in reinforcing the philistine’s presumption that works of art are intellectual foodstuffs at best.  The simplest version of music criticism is a form of instruction, of teaching.  Everybody who has ever received music lessons will recall that provided his teacher understood a thing or two, in the course of these lessons he was taught the difference between a correct and an incorrect passage in four-part harmony, between a fingering that facilitates the playing of scales and one that does not do that, and other such things.    In the course of putting these differences into practice, the pupil will naturally lock horns with his teacher in certain situations; he will articulate counterarguments, and as a result he may even deliberately fail to follow his teacher’s instructions.  He will consequently observe that when playing the piano it is sometimes appropriate even to linger over the black keys and so forth, but he will have a hard time doubting the legitimacy of his teacher’s overall approach. What criticism in a higher sense signifies, and what allows it to fulfill its intellectual function, is primarily its emancipation of such an approach, the approach of an intelligent and competent teacher, from the patterns, the tightly prescribed rules to which one is committed by every form of instruction by the books, and its translation of its questions into the adequately purposive terms that self-evidently constitute the proper locus of immanent criticism.

I would never be so naïve, and most certainly never so mendacious, as to regale you with the fiction that one can set to work practicing this immanent criticism more or less immediately.  There is no critic or any person at all critically disposed towards works of art who does not apply his own experiences, views, and even postulates to the works.    Anybody who listened as a tabula rasa would presumably not be listening at all and hear nothing whatsoever; he would find himself in the situation that a Viennese psychologist has nicely encapsulated in the observation that to an ignoramus everything is new.  Everyone is to some extent genetically compelled to bring to bear extraneous material on works of art.  If this were not the case, no relationship between the aesthetically and intellectually discriminating subject and the object of his judgment could ever be established.  It is therefore concretely exigent for the critic to learn on the one hand to incorporate what he brings to bear on the works into his experience of the works, but also and on the other hand to give an account of this incorporation and thereby seamlessly effect the transition between transcendent criticism and immanent, determinate criticism.  To put this another way: in order to understand a work, in order to form any meaningful opinion about it, one must engage in a bit of make-believe.  Anyone who cannot make believe at all about a work of art, who on hearing the first few measures of a piece of music cannot abandon himself to the eager sense of anticipation a child feels the moment the curtain rises, who is not then wondering what will happen next, and is not prepared to follow along even if the course of the work turns out to conflict with his expectations, will never be a competent critic.  This very attitude of partial make-believe towards the work of art also contains a preemptive corrective to the usual superficial version of the notion of freedom towards the aesthetic object, the notion that one can say any old thing one wishes to say about it.  Accordingly, I hope that none of you just now suspected me of harboring any attachment to the aesthetic of the “authentic utterance.”  Immanent criticism must also not be regarded as a spineless quest to determine what was intended in each work, for in intentional terms every work could be vindicated.  I have had experiences of my own and perhaps I may be permitted to share one of them with you.  I once voiced a negative opinion about a contemporary work, a piano sonata by Egk.  A man who is no great admirer of Egk but is generally averse to harsh opinions immediately offered the most astonishing arguments in favor of this sonata, which I believed I had quite conclusively shown to be a truly poor work, a mere decorative trifle, or something of that sort; he said everything that occurred to him in its defense.

A composition’s right to special treatment as an artwork ends at the exact moment when it becomes evident that in such a composition the means that it is employing are delivering a slap in the face to the task that it has set itself, however modest that task may be.  Their authoritativeness merits criticism not in virtue of its lack of a standpoint but rather as a result of the fact that its standpoint is neutralized in a double sense, that it is absorbed into the object and vanishes in it. One might be said that criticism is the paradoxical unity of a thoroughly passive, almost pliant abandonment to the object and the firmest resoluteness of judgment.  For all that I would hardly deny that there is something like a shadow of relativism in critical judgment, especially in relation to very great phenomena—to Brahms, for example.  It is necessary to pose the question whether notwithstanding the utmost adequacy of means to the purpose, the purpose itself, meaning the objectification of an intellectual situation that I would like to term private inwardness, does not have something idiosyncratic, weak, and inauthentic about it vis-à-vis the content of Beethoven’s music.  What may in an emphatic sense be dubbed the higher criticism, if I may poach this term from philology or historiography and transfer it into the domain of criticism, would broach these questions with precision and then, to be sure, unfold their entire dialectics; it would in particular have to answer the question, specifically, of whether in art the accurate, adequate depiction of an intellectual state that may in itself be questionable is a worthier undertaking than attempting to depict a supposedly superior intellectual state in an epoch that no longer permits its depiction.

In saying this I am only indicating a problem, and I shall leave its unspooling to you.  I am the last person to discourage the practicing of such a higher criticism, and I believe I have already made a small contribution to it.   But at this point of all points I am not about to say to you, “The coast is clear.”  Before the threshold that I have just been speaking of can be reached, drastically objective distinctions must be drawn.  In the first place, why Brahms, Schoenberg, and Webern are great composers and why Sibelius and Pfitzner are bad ones is something that can be palpably demonstrated.  Every self-respecting composition teacher ought to be able to demonstrate it if he is truly a master of his craft.  However disappointed you may be in my assignment of this modest task to music criticism, the fulfilment of this task is initially adequate to the needs of the little man.  To be sure, the telos of criticism, the goal to which it is orienting itself, is the truth content of works of art, and to this extent criticism is ultimately definable only in philosophical terms.  But the truth content is not merely something signified by the works, something detachable from them, but rather something inseparable from them and from their unique inner coherence while by no means dissolving completely into this coherence.  It is not immediately graspable.  The mediation of the truth content is the authentic locus of criticism.  This mediation is essentially achieved via technical consistency. One must neither fetishize technique nor stoop to resorting to that empty expression mere technique.  Here we are dealing with a third activity: the deciphering of the way in which the truth or falsehood of the structure of an object is manifested in problems of technical adequacy or inadequacy. This is actually the archetype of the objective validity of criticism.  This is consubstantial with that relationship to the object whose concept I originally somewhat dogmatically slung at you as something on the far side of the contingency of the judging subject.  In connection with this two moments must be distinguished: on the one hand the quasi-blind logic of the object itself, the compositional object, to which the critic must abandon himself; on the other hand the relation of this blind logic to the idea of that object, in other words, to that which is intended by the work in a higher, super-philological sense.  Criticism must penetrate both of these moments.  From this I would conclude that nowadays technical analysis is the sole site in which criticism is being practiced nowadays, at least vis-à-vis contemporary music.  Here countless questions are becoming decidable. Thus, for example, Alban Berg in his far too little-known essay on Schumann’s “Träumeri” illustrated the extraordinary multifariousness, the wealth of technological possibilities, inflexions, and differentiations that inhere in this seemingly ultra-simple, ultra-popular piece, by way of imparting an understanding of why it may justly be regarded as a work of art of the first rank; whereas Pfitzner, against whom Berg polemized in those days, gainsaid such sound aesthetic reasoning and declared that the “Träumeriwas unworthy of any response more articulate than demented raving, that even in its outward comportment it was profoundly alien to the very notion of art.  Technical analysis, and it alone, leads to whatever transcends the technical.  Perhaps I may be permitted to comment to you on an experience I had when I was a pupil of Alban Berg. He floored me with his extraordinarily harsh opinion of Richard Strauss; at the time I could not second it, and even today my disapprobation of Strauss is somewhat more complicated and qualified than Berg’s.  But let us not dwell on that.  Now the youngster that I was countered Berg’s dismissal of Strauss by parroting to him a certain bit of nonsense that one imbibes as part of a bourgeois education and averring that surely he at least had to grant that Strauss’s mastery of technique was beyond dispute. Whereupon Berg flew into an extraordinarily violent passion and said to me that precisely because in Strauss’s music there was always something wrong with the innermost cells of the compositional structure, his mastery of technique in the higher sense had to be contested; that in this music there was absolutely no compositional coherence in the strictest sense. At the time I did not raise the difficult issue that I became conscious of only later: that the very sublation of what is known as compositional logic in the traditional sense, compositional logic as originally represented by Brahms and still represented by Schoenberg, that the very sublation of this logic to a certain extent by the irrationalistic habitus of Strauss, a sublation that is ultimately bound up with the specific content of his music, is an authentic problem of higher criticism.  But I would like to emphasize that there is a kernel of truth in Berg’s manner of querying.  Over time I have learned to give a wide berth to the expression “but that’s just a matter of technique.”  Technical problems and the question of the truth of a work’s content cannot be outwardly separated from each other.  Whatever is spiritually problematic about a work of art perforce manifests itself in the work’s construction and in the latter’s lack of consistency.  Composition is in itself already a form of criticism; Brecht made an analogous remark about poetry.  Anyone who understands anything about composition knows that a composer is incessantly having to decide between objectively right and wrong solutions, to be mindful of uninterrupted antagonisms; in banal terms, he is always standing face-to-face with the question of the lesser of two evils.  To this extent—and this may justify my thesis about its character in constitutive and by no means merely psychological terms—criticism is embedded in composition itself.  In this emphatic sense the criticism of a composition is the art or the capability of raising to the level of consciousness, of reflecting into consciousness, the immanent processes of composition, its immanent criticism of its own possibilities as it selects them.  These processes—I am saying this only to protect myself from an obvious misunderstanding—do not constitute the totality of compositions.   They also contain something different, namely the moment of spontaneity.  Moreover, if it is self-evidently necessary to be reflective in any meaningful form of criticism, it is likewise necessary not to withhold one’s reflection from the other moments of composition; one must not cultishly adulate them any more than one would the so-called technical aspects.  If objectivity in criticism is to be maintained, criticism must not be personalized; above all for objectivity’s sake, if the critic is too short-winded and too short-sighted to immerse himself in the object, he must not have recourse to so-called personality. I recently had an experience of this sort when during an oral examination I asked the candidate whether he was capable of stating in objective terms why Bach is a much better composer than Telemann.  The young gentleman—who, incidentally, I may assure you to your relief, passed the exam—couldn’t think of anything to say in reply but that Bach was a correspondingly stronger, greater personality.  Such a formula merely conceals the problem instead of solving it.  The task of the critic begins precisely with perceiving the problematic character of one of these sorts of formulas, with specifying why Bach must be regarded as a greater composer than Telemann on the basis of his music instead of contenting oneself with observing that he is greater.  The capacity for detecting problems in one’s own overall consciousness very much figures among the essential tasks of the critic.

Now let us turn to the question of the critical modus operandi.  Today it is hardly useless to repeat a certain trivial truth.  For present-day practice contradicts it in numerous respects.  Criticism must pass judgement.  Walter Benjamin once stated that one must take up a stand in the conflict between schools and not worm one’s way into the perspective of lofty objectivity aloof of the objective controversy, as Hegel put it, and only discuss the object because one is not genuinely immersed in the object.  The truth that criticism serves, that of truth unfolding in time—a truth of which I have already spoken—can be served only if the critic takes up a stand in the conflicts of his specific time. The wrong judgment that for all its erroneousness still genuinely penetrates the substance of the work contributes infinitely more to the establishment of the work’s truth than does that form of prudence that beats about the bush by adducing scruples and reservations which for the most part are nothing but masks for calculation and cowardice.  Perhaps one can give yet another turn to the argument by asserting that while it is certainly the task of the critic to disappear as a person into the object, he must apply the whole of his personal, subjective force to this disappearance.  Moreover, aesthetic truth is not merely some residual determination that would be left over after the deletion of individual qualities.  The requirement that I mentioned at the beginning, the requirement that music criticism should take the object itself as its starting point, additionally entails that in music criticism the criticism of composition should be granted pride of place.  Such criticism, and first and foremost criticism of current compositional production, is the key.  This means that in order to practice criticism seriously, one must understand something about composition, and that one must not, in conformity with the general custom, merely pigeonhole the compositions from on high as instantiations of a particular style, or be merely well-informed about more or less superficial features of the compositions like their genesis, the history of their dissemination, and other such things.  The task of the critic is to recognize the problems posed by every work of any stature and to proceed from considering the commensurateness of the means with its purpose to considering this purpose itself and the truth content.  Musical reproduction always has its specific, fundamental degree of commensurateness with the object, and to be sure the object here ultimately means not merely the notes and the expressive indications but rather the work’s subcutaneous structure.  The only sort of person who has any legitimate right to discuss musical performances is a person who in the first place can read music, and by reading music I mean reading it in an emphatic sense; but who is also capable of interpolating the structural elements from the score.  No name or authority has any right to deter him from doing this.  Thus, for example, even when his primary forms of reaction are vectored in such a direction, and even when it seems scarcely possible to shun this tendency, a critic must impenetrably and unyieldingly fortify himself against such valid criteria as sensuous beauty, against the friability of the soundscape, to the extent that they count against the structural integrity of the object.  One of the most embarrassingly conspicuous shortcomings of criticism consists in the fact that precisely in virtue of being so heavily obliged to found its judgments on sensuous impressions it renders itself blind to such impressions. I recall once saying to my friend Rudof Kolisch apropos of a new cellist in his quartet that the latter’s intonation was excruciatingly awful, and Kolisch replied: “But don’t you see?  That’s the best thing about him.”  Now despite this the cellist was genuinely bad, but the impulse that Kolisch articulated is vectored precisely in the direction I am speaking of here.  

In what I am saying to you here, I am trying to unite a certain kind of radicalism with presence of mind.  For this reason I would like to impose a limitation on what I proposed regarding reproduction.  Reproduction contains a moment that does not become entirely apparent in what one is obliged to call the interpretation of the works.  Ultimately of course in a certain sense reproduction is older; in a certain sense it is something antecedent to production from its own point of view, something mimetic, something immediate. The interpreter, the performer, invariably has something like his own unique language.  Anybody who as a child heard, for example, d’Albert play piano, heard Kreisler’s violin, knows what fails to come fully into being in pure adequacy of interpretation.  Criticism must also comprehensively embrace this moment.  I shall take advantage of the opportunity afforded by this limitation to indicate a desideratum that is all too easily forgotten precisely in the theoretical register.  Critical competence is the fulfilment of a moral obligation to an extremity of differentiation.  A critic is worthy of his vocation only if he is able to recognize and comprehend the abovementioned mimetic quality of the performer as well as the question of objective commensurateness and moreover possesses the capacity to recognize properly the specific gravity of these moments in the result, in the performance as a whole.  This renders the critic’s task extraordinarily difficult.  But it is incumbent upon the critic to run his head against a brick wall rather than make a detour around the moments I have just described.  Criticism also exacts a skill that the interpreting musician also stands in need of but that is rarely developed in music and that is seldom even paid any regard.  The critic must be able to verbalize the specific musical experience, to put it in words that are not only commensurate with this experience but that also alight on the object itself. Anyone who lacks this aptitude, who does not have at his disposal a linguistic sensorium that helps him translate so-called purely musical processes into verbal concepts, and for the most part specifically technical ones, should keep his hands off criticism.  I believe I am scarcely in any great danger of being misunderstood to mean that critics should enrobe themselves in poorly understood musicological terminology by way of furnishing proof of their expertise. In saying that the critic must have a capacity for verbalization I mean that for him the specifically musical experience and the specific quality of the work must evince itself in a verbal form.  This naturally also means that his description must not take on a life of its own at the expense of the object.  Banausic criticism, which is incapable of giving utterance to musical experience, is Scylla; Charybdis is the journalistic type of criticism in which the description is an end in itself, an end in the pursuit of which the critic forgets to externalize his cognition of the object. The most important skill for a critic to have is probably an obvious one that on account of its obviousness tends not to be given any consideration whatsoever—namely, the capacity to have intellectual and musical experiences in general.  If we take as our starting point the anthropological insight that is very timely today, the insight that the human individual’s capacity for experience is dwindling, this capacity for experience is in reality anything but obvious.  An endless amount of what is served up as criticism is actually only a surrogate phenomenon intended to conceal from the reader not only the fact that the critic does not really understand the object in a strict sense but also and more fundamentally the fact that he is no longer capable of primary experience and that, to employ a very apt expression, he is surrounding himself with every possible thing extraneous to the object solely in order to distract the reader from it.  On the other hand one must not be so rigorously opposed to what is extraneous to the object as to fall into error.  Music is not merely an aesthetic phenomenon; rather, it is always at the same time a social fact.  It is necessary for the critic to be incessantly reflecting on social facts, on, for example, problems of present-day musical life; on the festival industry, the relationship between the repertory and stagione systems, the crisis of the soloist, and countless other moments of this kind.  Kitsch, for example, and it is of course also incumbent upon a critic to call kitsch kitsch, is as much a social as an aesthetic category.  But on the other hand, in brusque opposition to established practice in totalitarian countries, I would say that the social references of music must pass through the specific experience of music and that they must not remain stuck on its surface.  It is not enough to subsume music from the outside under readymade social conceptions and evaluate it according to its degree of conformity with them.  By no means should the social influence exerted by any work whatsoever be confused with its truth content.  Criticism should try to get to the social truth and untruth in the musical complexion itself, not cringingly defer to some externally imposed ukase that says that this must be and this must not be.  I myself made such an attempt in my own day when I set about exposing the pseudo-objectivity of so-called folk music and youth music, which of course is ultimately a social phenomenon, by pointing out precise compositional defects in such music.

Allow me to indicate merely synoptically what I regard as the task of criticism.  It has got nothing to do with the impartment of information in lieu of the disclosing of the substance of the object; the verbatim-cum-consubstantial transmittal of an index-card file; the usual chitchat about the genesis vis-à-vis, if one way may term it such, the result, i.e., the work of art.  Just as little in point are one’s impressions or imagistic manifestations of mood.  If the critic has first impressions, he is permitted to share them; indeed, he is actually obliged to use them as his starting point.  But he is also obliged to carry them further into the object and to acknowledge and correct the misjudgments to which everyone’s first impressions are susceptible. Today there is most certainly a danger that in conformity with a great many other regressive phenomena criticism will dwindle into to the type of writing that used to be termed music appreciation; that the critics will fall into line with the prevailing positivism by offering nothing but so-called actualities, facts, to use the English word.  The threat posed by such informative music appreciation seems to me to be much greater than the one that may have may have been most prominent some fifty years ago, that of the appearance of a so-called musical pope.

As for the qualification requisite to being a music critic: I said that the first of these qualifications is proficiency at composition.  It should be made clear that two traditional sources of such proficiency do not on their own guarantee it.  The first is knowledge of official music history.  It is certainly good and conducive to a dynamic understanding of music to be familiar with the historical interconnections; there is probably not even any such thing as criticism completely abstracted from history, because if there were it would be skating on the abovementioned fatal tabula rasa.  But on the other hand with few exceptions the state of music history has diverged to such an extent from the intellectual content of the works as well as from their technical complexion, has degenerated so far into both conformism and historical relativism, that for all the undoubted utility of historical knowledge, the science of musicology is tending to impede rather than fulfill the desiderata of music criticism. There is a persistent tendency via the examination and certification of the alumni of musicology seminars to validate an academic monopoly on music criticism; it is especially urgent at this time to be on guard against the prerogatives arrogated by this academic authority and to make sure they do not lead to the institutionalization of a sort of authorized Beckmesser-like pedantry.

But it must likewise be conceded that on its own a conservatory education does not offer the essential qualifications for the practice of music criticism.  Out of motives about whose legitimacy or illegitimacy much could be said, conservatory training is orientating itself largely towards models, towards general directives, and stopping short of addressing the specific qualities of the object, addressing the formal law of an individual work.  However good a thing it may be to have graduated from a conservatory or music academy, one mustn’t believe that one is therefore eo ipso critically competent.  The question of what a musician or intelligent person should actually do in order to qualify himself as a critic is getting me into a bit of a quandary.  I cannot prescribe to you a sure path to the attainment of such qualification.  It is certainly useful to have proved oneself within the context of musical praxis in some fashion, even if from the outset one has no intention of sticking with that praxis.  The best course is probably to study with a genuine master, to become experienced as a composer in one’s own right.  To this suggestion it will immediately be objected that such experience puts one in danger of becoming partisan, of believing that only what is composed in accordance with the dictates of one’s school is any good, and of rejecting everything else.  I regard this danger as slighter than the one posed by the objective irrelevance of the critic who has not personally engaged with the genuine problems attending composition.  Admittedly a critic must also be expected to be involved in a constant process of critical self-reflection; to be as little prone to absolutizing his own mode of reflection, in whose absence he can achieve nothing, as to yielding to any sort of external authority; to be on his guard against resentment.  To be sure, criticism must be defended against anti-intellectual prejudice.  The sort of rancor against music criticism that is smoldering everywhere nowadays reached a flashpoint during the Third Reich, when Mr. Goebbels abolished art criticism altogether and substituted for it something for which he invented the lovely label art contemplation.  But on the other hand, the rancorous critic is as much of a living, breathing stock figure as the touring music appreciation instructor.  And he is just as poorly suited to his vocation.  Even more poorly suited to it is the musical diplomat, who is determined not to offend anyone.  Instead of moralizing at this point we should take cognizance of a problem—a problem dealt with exemplarily by, for example, Balzac in his portrayal of the typical journalist in Illusions perdues.  A critic, and most especially a critic of any repute, is always in danger of getting lost in innumerable entanglements with musicians and musical praxis.  It is very difficult to disentangle oneself from these in the course of forming an opinion.  I knew a very famous literary critic who made a point of avoiding all contact with writers.  The results were not encouraging: he lost all contact with the living movement of the object and ended up weeping and wailing about anarchy a full fifty years ago.  The critic who is not a member of the inner circle, who does not engage in highly vital discussion about artworks with artists, is isolated from the atmosphere that contributes so munificently to what I meant when I said that criticism must approach the artwork in something like an attitude of make-believe.  The critic must primarily have an affinity with the most progressive consciousness; he must not, for example try belatedly to line his own pockets as an expert on cultural treasure.  It is a criterion of the true critic that he is capable of dispensing watchwords instead of cautiously trotting along behind the vanguard and sniffing out what questions are being asked.  Legitimate criticism must be to the fore of the works that it is criticizing, it must actually discover works that it is capable of criticizing, and if it is productive enough it will then most certainly find composers who are writing such works.  Moreover, it must not be cowed by the social interpenetration of institutions and customs or genuflect before them even partly unconsciously.  In a state of affairs wherein culture and chitchat about cultural life have become to an extraordinarily eminent extent substitutes for genuine satisfaction, and indeed, substitutes for the cultural domain itself, criticism is in serious danger of merely doing its bit vis-à-vis the cultural gossip columns and drafting column-inches devoted to nothing more productive than such questions as whether Mr. Richter or Mr. Horowitz has lately turned out a superior or inferior rendition of Tchaikovsky’s [First] Piano Concerto.  In mere virtue of its medium, language, and its object, criticism is susceptible to becoming the mere advertisement of upmarket cultural goods.  Despite this it perforce involves a certain very specific kind of naivety, an uninterrupted love.  Anyone who takes no joy in music must never become a critic; from the outset such a person is a philistine.  Such being the case, the immanent moment of criticism also exacts a dash of amateurism.  Those whose relationship to music is least amateurish, namely, composers, either have given the widest of berths to music criticism or, if, like Debussy, they have engaged in it, have found themselves overweeningly opposed to the moment of amateurism.  The critic must sublimate his legitimate moment of amateurism via his experience of the object and yet the traces of his immediate love must not entirely vanish in the course of this sublimation, and he must avoid being transformed into a sullen specialist.  But probably anybody whose vital substance is music is seldom still naively capable of such love.  When one has genuinely come to find music as life-sustaining as the very air one breathes, one can no longer be what is known as a music-lover. Accordingly there also inheres in the concept the critic something that is the opposite of what I have been describing to you.  The critic must not be capable of nothing but love; he must also be acquainted with disgust.  Criticism requires one to be strong enough to negate things.  The critic must not only steel himself against clichés in music and clichés about music; he must also actively pit himself against them.  He cannot get away with playing along.  Anyone who is not critical in the sense of wanting things to be different than they are is worthless as a critic.  The type of critic whom musicians despise for clinging to artists like a bedbug is surely the least qualified of all.       

I only have time left to make a few remarks about the modus operandi of the critical mind.  To the extent that this is at all practicable, it is advisable to study the scores, to acquire knowledge of the works themselves, even though there is nothing that more readily causes the connoisseur to become jaded. How best to proceed in individual cases, whether, for example, to study the score first and then surrender oneself to one’s impression or vice-versa is something everyone must figure out for himself based on his own experience.  To be sure, when one has not taken in a complete view of the object or listened to it all the way through, one must have the civil courage to admit this.  This is a piece of critical morality.  I have not spoken to you of this morality so far because every idea that I have articulated actually moves within the ether that could be described as critical morality.  Anyone who is sure of himself must also say when he is unsure of himself.  If at all possible one must avoid expressing mere judgments of taste.  Whenever one does express them, although one obviously must act on the impulses supplied by one’s taste, one must further transpose them into objectively grounded terms.  One should never deliver pat, unfounded judgments, especially not in such a form that one imagines that one has thereby said the last word on an object, that one has subsumed it under its clinching umbrella concept.  I know, for example, regarding Berg, of whom I have spoken at various times today, that numerous critics believed that they were securing themselves a kind of preeminence in virtue of the fact that they were writing that he was really just a late romantic, as if they had already achieved something with such a statement, or a statement that this is really just expressionism, or this is really just such and such.  One of the duties of critical self-reflection is the avoidance of judgments of the form X is Y.  The most immoral act criticism can commit—an act that is again closely bound up with the present day’s informational mischief-making, its propensity for sloganeering and headline-mongering—is probably to cast aspersions on an object or an artist without consequently offering any insight into the object itself.  Equally problematic is the empty ostentation of erudition, the employment of strips and scraps of culture as a substitute for objective competence.  In this sense the total and ruthless demolition of all cliché-ridden and reified ideas is one of the most important duties of criticism.  If, in a manner analogous to that of Karl Kraus, one were ever to carry out raids on terms like born musician, rhythmic elemental powers, late romanticism, or intellectually refined—one could compile an entire index of such coinages—a procession of verbal phantoms would form, a procession from which one would recoil in horror.  Thus as a legitimate critic one must also take a stance against the stereotypical fame of epochs like the baroque and even against all glorification of individual works that is completely detached from their intrinsic quality. I myself once tried to do this in connection with the Missa Solemnis, not by belittling it but by simply showing that this work is problematic inasmuch as it is still very poorly understood and that such being the case its fame is completely illusory.  That already sufficed to raise people’s hackles.  Finally I would like to say some things in ardent advocacy of incorporating the reviewing of gramophone records, which today merely takes place alongside the critical enterprise, into the heart of that enterprise.  Such incorporation would be of great value not only on account of the increasing significance of records in musical life, but also and above all because thanks to the repeated confrontation of the faculty of critical judgment with the object that is permitted by the record, criticism would thereby come much closer to its phenomenon than ever before. The ideal form of criticism, especially in the domain of the criticism of performances, would be one that could immediately point to musical examples.  Somebody should try making use of a technique developed in radio, that of the running commentary of critical remarks on the phenomenon at the very moment it is unfolding.  If, for example, a conductor starts employing an unmotivatedly fast tempo merely for superficial effect, the critic should jump in and shout: “Why is he playing faster? That’s really inappropriate here,” or something similar.2 I have actually already tried doing this once, during a broadcast about Toscanini, and my intervention didn’t exactly make me any new friends.  Above all I would like to ask you, in the event that many of the reflections that I have made sound all too plausible to you, to bear in mind that it can be said of almost all the moments that I have highlighted here that if one seriously tries to put them in practice, they will be met with howls of resistance from even the most quiescent souls, which goes to show that the indurations and reifications against which they are vectored are more powerful than we can even imagine. To be sure, through the implementation of the proposed methods, the morality of criticism would be verifiably improved vis-à-vis the critiqued phenomenon—in this case, gramophone records.  Above all I would like to ask you, in the event that many of the reflections that I have made sound all too plausible to you, to bear in mind that it can be said of almost all the moments that I have highlighted here that if one seriously tries to put them in practice, they will be met with howls of resistance from even the most quiescent souls, which goes to show that the indurations and reifications against which they are vectored are more powerful than we can even imagine.
To be sure, through the implementation of the proposed methods, the morality of criticism would be verifiably improved vis-à-vis the critiqued phenomenon—in this case, gramophone records. In such situations the critic would really no longer be the demigod who he so cavalierly pretends to be; rather, he would be a discussant in the most literal sense.  I believe that it is the demigods above all others who would be bound to expose their own incompetence in such a discussion.

Accordingly there is really nothing left for me to say to you but that the task of the critic is to retranslate the musical work out of a congealed, indurated, ossified condition into the force-field that every such work and every performance of it actually is.  That alone, and not the so-called temperament of the critic, is what is required by the concept of vital criticism.

  1. [Adorno’s note:] Out of regard for his listeners, the author chose the form of a freely improvised talk for his inaugural address at the Symposium for Music Criticism on October 12, 1967 in Graz.   Because he believes that the spoken and written word are not mutually convertible at will, in the present publication he has left it in that form and revised it only to the extent that he regarded this as absolutely necessary for its appearance in print.
  2. The translator cannot forbear from remarking that the recommended practice is comically reminiscent of Peter Schickele’s “New Horizons in Music Appreciation.”



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. 573ff.

The original was first published in Studien zur Wertungsforschung 1: Symposion für Musikkritik. Graz: 1968, pp. 7–21.

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