Discussion Thread #2: Adorno and Ortega y Gasset

RT pulls no punches when it comes to the work of T.W. Adorno. Indeed, he makes his opinion clear in the introduction that the Frankfurter is “preposterously overrated.” With his strong views in mind, the lead-up to the 20th century these last three volumes has been filled with taut anticipation. How is Prof. Taruskin going to grapple with the ideas and the legacy of Adorno, this paragon of “new musicology”?

Gingerly, it turns out. If you’re expecting a devastating repudiation, you might be disappointed. RT outlines some of Adorno’s big ideas and major works with a dispassionate approach that belies the stormy rhetoric of “preposterously overratedness.” (For example, see p.189, where he speaks of how “the influential German social philosopher” “felt” about Stravinsky.) It seems that his approach here is to not overtly take a side, giving Adorno his due insofar as his ideas have proved influential, but largely withholding judgment otherwise. His view of Adorno is perhaps most patent, in fact, in what is not said in the text. Frankfurt theory plays a puny role in the volume. By the numbers (according to the index), Adorno comes up on a mere 11 pages (out of 796). By contrast, José Ortega y Gasset, who tends to be relatively neglected in most musicological literature, appears on 27.

This omission is, in itself, significant. Just as Kant and Burke are the accepted aesthetic authorities for 18th century music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for 19th, Adorno has become, over the last 30 or so years, the poster-child philosopher for understanding 20th century music, particularly its social significance and political economy. During this time, “new musicology” has painstakingly deconstructed the canon, but in doing so, has appeared to canonize this fascinating, prickly, frustrating, and endlessly complex thinker. It’s an odd paradox: those Adornian ideas that have had the most currency in the discipline – namely his thoughts on the sociological agency of music, on aesthetics and musical meaning in the age of the “Culture Industry,” on the historical “truth” of music as social critique – are precisely where Adorno can be the most regressive, ethnocentric, and just plain snobby. There seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on in Adorno reception: people accept the liberal political and cultural arguments that come from his work while ignoring his more ignoble claims (his thoughts on jazz are particularly egregious in this regard). Like a well-loved elderly relative who occasionally lets a bigoted comment slip (“oh, grandpa!”), we seem to be able to hold this cognitive dissonance together, admiring his many good qualities while gently admonishing his faults. It is peculiar, though, that the same scholarly movement (if you can call “new musicology” that) that has strove to bring respect and academic currency to the study of popular music also has the tendency to lionize a man who so infamously denigrated popular culture. Indeed, contradictions abound in Adorno’s place in musicology.

By privileging Ortega y Gasset, RT does a few things. Most pragmatically, he stays clear of the hornet’s nest of these contradictions, a debate in which he has, in other venues, vigorously taken part. More significantly, though, he subtly shifts the balance of power in 20th century historiography away from Germany. By signalling the 1920s as an aesthetic turning point (and the beginning of the “real” 20th century), he tilts our attention away from the problematics of Viennese atonality and nods instead to the hyper-rationalism of Stravinsky. Highlighting Ortega (a Spaniard) and neoclassicism (associated with Franco-Russian impulses) over the early-century composers, techniques, and thinkers that usually play the leading role in 20th century histories (read: Schoenberg, atonality/12-tone, and Adorno), RT makes a bold counterclaim to the “germanoromantocentric” biases that inform much of the conventional wisdom regarding this important period.

I think it’s a courageous and elucidating approach, but I anticipate many OHWM readers will feel otherwise. Adorno remains a delicate and invidious matter, in part because his writings are so dense and – let’s face it – often so totally inscrutable that it can be easy to think you know him, only to embrace and promulgate a misreading of his ideas. (I have been guilty of this in the past, alas; I’m a lot more skeptical of Adorno now, though my opinion of him is a lot better than RT’s.) I certainly wouldn’t want to instigate a screaming match here, but I’m curious: what role does Adorno play in your thinking, research, and teaching? How about Ortega y Gasset? And how do you think RT handled the ideas and influence of these two major thinkers?

1 Comment

  1. “I’m curious: what role does Adorno play in your thinking, research, and teaching? How about Ortega y Gasset? And how do you think RT handled the ideas and influence of these two major thinkers?”

    Dear Friends,

    As a PhD and composer who no longer teaches but lives in Germany, I want to ask you a question in answer to your questions? But with a comment first.

    I have read Adorno in original and in English translation, and only a modicum of O&G. I confronted Adorno in my orals as one on my committee was a fan, and poked him full of holes, defending my position and winning the debate. Therefore….

    Why do you assert Adorno and Ortega y Gasset are so important to working musicians? I think they are not, and judging by the fumbling defence of my advisor in his losing debate, others agree.

    In teaching music and musicology, one need not employ these supposedly “seminal thinkers.” One can without prejudice, ignore them quite easily and productively move to the making of music, music and music.

    Best wishes for a fine and interesting site.

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