Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's Late Style

By Goehr, Lydia | Notes, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's Late Style


Goehr, Lydia, Notes


Music as Philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's Late Style. By Michael Spitzer. (Musical Meaning and Interpretation.) Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. [369 p. ISBN-10 0-253-34724-6; ISBN-13 978-0-253-34724-4. $39.95.] Music examples, bibliography, indexes.

Michael Spitzer is a master of detail-musicological, historical, and philosophical. He demonstrated this recently in his excellent book on the history of metaphor (Metaphor and Musical Thought [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003]). He demonstrates this again in his new book about Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno's writings on Ludwig van Beethoven's late style. It is a lengthy study in which readers are offered extensive musical analyses, conceptual surveys, and modernist, philosophical arguments. Sometimes one has the feeling that the material does not hang together, not because the author is striving to reach his own late style, but rather because too much is going on. This is often a problem with books written about Adorno (I know it myself): there is an impulse to explain all and everything, from every angle, while yet explicitly resisting the idea that all and everything can be explained. Alternatively put, the writer has the aim or need to open up Adorno's thinking to contemporary readers while granting that, of historically necessity, the thought is-and must remain-hermetically concealed. Spitzer shares this aim, but compounds the difficulty of his task every time he draws on the work of other theorists concerned with similar themes. Too many names and too many thoughts: a little less material would have kept the compelling argument specifically about Adorno on Beethoven's late style more focused.

This book will most profitably be read by advanced specialists in the field of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetic theory, and musicology, though it ought also to find readership amongst those interested in the particular idea of late style. An extremely useful summary of the chapters is offered in the book's conclusion.

Spitzer's general aim is to retrieve the classicism of Beethoven against those who argue that Beethoven's works are to be understood more in terms of a romantic conception of late style. His book is written after or partially in tribute to Charles Rosen's classic book, The Classical Style (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972). Late style belongs as much to the classicists as to the romantics, even attendant commitments to the fragmentation or disintegration of form-which only shows that the very distinction between classicism and romanticism requires revision. To rethink Beethoven's classicism is to rethink his contribution to modernism and to the dialectic of enlightenment more generally. A specific aim of this book is to show why Adorno was so preoccupied with Beethoven and what, therefore, Adorno offered by way of his critical theory to our historical and musical, and specifically allegorical, understanding of tonal music. With the focus on allegory, Spitzer expands upon his previous work on metaphor. Mostly, however, this new book is a commentary on Adorno's posthumously published, incomplete book in which all of his texts on Beethoven's late style are included (Beethoven: Philosophie der Musik: Fragmente und Texte. [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1993]). It remains an intriguing question why Adorno failed to complete his proposed book on Beethoven, because, in my view, the answer would reveal something deep about the contemporary impossibility (as Adorno constantly spoke of that impossibility) of producing a "philosophy of music" at all, given the late, fatal, or catastrophic condition of modernity. Spitzer does not treat this question directly, though he is manifestly aware of the throttling difficulties implicit in late modernism of producing such a philosophy.

Spitzer's book engages with several on-going debates on both sides of the analytical/continental divide as well as on both sides of German and Anglo-American musicology and philosophy.

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