Magazine article Musical Times


Magazine article Musical Times


Article excerpt

Multi-tasking Music as philosophy: Adorno and Beethoven's late style Michael Spitzer Indiana University Press (Bloomington, 2006); 369pp; $39.95. ISBN 0 253 347246.

MICHAEL SPITZER'S Music as philosophy: M: Adorno and Beethoven s late style has much .that's fresh and persuasive to say about works which you might have thought you already knew inside-out. But this is 2007: so the author's insights come by way of a labyrinthine apparatus which requires much patience and humility on the reader's part. A mere two years after his first book, Metaphor and musical thought, rooted its invigoratingly intricate exploration of the nature of musical meaning in the complaint that Beethoven analysis was tending to downgrade hermeneutics, and to give 'a positivist scientific protocol' too easy a run as a result, Michael Spitzer is back. The title not only promises (threatens?) an analysis of the grandly general idea that music can be philosophy, but proclaims that the truth of this assertion will be proved by reference to Adorno's understanding of Beethoven's late style: or rather, by reference to Spitzer's understanding of Adorno on Beethoven with the help of a good many other understanders, in both philosophy and musicology.

Spitzer offers an outline guide to the labyrinth by way of chapter and section headings, geared to constellations of relevant topics, at the start of each chapter. But the explosive multivalence of the narrative - 'multitasking' is a favourite word - critiques such signposting even as it strives to conform to it. It's a heady brew, which left even this addicted reader with a hangover and the longing to escape into an alternative world in which one 's appreciation of late Beethoven could be set down without reference either to philosophy in general or to Adorno in particular. Fortunately, the hangover has faded, and while I'm not entirely sure that so ambitious and complex a range of topics wouldn't have benefited from another decade or so of authorial contemplation and redrafting, there 's much here that needs urgent attention from anyone aspiring to take on Spitzer-style themes in their own musicological work.

For this review to avoid a decade or so of contemplation and redrafting, I engage in a fairly radical process of translation and reduction, risking making Spitzer's materials too much my own. This, I feel, is justified in the interests of encouraging readers - especially potential authors - to try Spitzer for themselves, and to seek out their own Spitzer to put alongside (or, more likely, in place of) mine. The odds are that when I re-read Music as philosophy I will find myself taking a quite different route through the labyrinth. But the whole point of labyrinths is the non-availability of 'directed motion' as singular - even if, in the end, there is only one way out.

The easiest way to avoid reproducing labyrinthine meanderings in a review is to start at the exit, with Spitzer's summary of what some might term the Beethoven paradox.

Late Beethoven emerges as a quintessentially Classical composer, yet one who extrapolates the modernism intrinsic to the Classical style. His style is grasped as a mode of cognition - a 'music as philosophy' - the ultimate object of which, however, is musical material. Adorno's thought is portrayed as a 'tonal philosophy', distinct from the Schoenbergian, 'atonal' philosophy that critics such as Susan BuckMorss have described. Beethoven's tonal modernism becomes the model for a philosophy which mediates idealist subjectivity with the intersubjective paradigm of the linguistic turn.

This is already turning convoluted, but the elemental oppositional interactions are clear, the most significant of which I deem to be Classical/modernism (why one deserves a capital, the other not is also paradoxical).

SPITZER kicks off by endorsing a switch from hermeneutics - no more capable than 'analytical systems' of capturing 'musical meaning' - to its 'modernist cousin', critical theory: 'a critical music theory is methodologically dialectical and open-ended': no synthesis, any apparent certainty about facts subject to further questioning and doubt. …

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