The alienated philosopher: Adorno on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis

By making failure the redemption of success, Adorno damned all classical music. Only Missa Solemnis resisted his prophetic fury.

Adorno resented Beethoven’s Missa (1819-23), op. 123, because he could not fit it into his grand narrative of “late style,” of musical evolution as the chronicle of thematized renunciation and dissolution. He called it “enigmatically incomprehensible” (569), accused it of “impotence” (580), and conducted a “disillusioning” (570) of the work in his essay “Alienated Masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis” (1959). He argued that all “great composers from Bach to Schoenberg … had to dredge up the past in the anguish of the present as sacrifices to the future” (Adorno: Essays on Music, 2002, 582). In his “greatest” work, Beethoven, by defying failure, refused to make such a sacrifice.

In his late quartets, sonatas, and bagatelles, Beethoven “disposed sovereignty over all the possibilities which had grown up in the history of his composing ” (572). “He rejected the affirmative” (580) and its untruth, the classical as classicizing, that is, the manipulation of antitheses into a forced unity of subject and object. Thus he fulfilled the penance of the failure of success by making aesthetic impossibility the “aesthetic content of the work” (581).

The case of the Missa is entirely different, and very puzzling to Adorno, who agonized over two questions. One is “the paradox of Beethoven composing a mass at all” (574). The very existence of the work is a scandal and Adorno would like to “understand fully why he did it.” The other question is how he did it — not with a unifying “dynamic pull” but with an “exploded form.”

Adorno’s basic objection is that the work is not structured dialectically: It has no “developing variations” from basic motifs, only “kaleidoscopic mixing and supplementary combinations” (574). Thus, it has no formal organizational principle of organic “process developing through its own impetus” (574) and does not reach “completion.” It is not driven by “subjective dynamics” or “expressive concentration.” Since it contains very little development, everything follows “the planned thematic looseness of the compositional process” (576).

The dearth of development due to the absence of variations left Adorno at a loss: “The lack of dialectical contrasts, which is replaced by the mere opposition of closed phrases, weakens at times the totality. That is particularly obvious in conclusions of movements. Because no direction is traversed, because no individual resistance has been overcome, the trace of the accidental is carried over to the entire work itself, and the phrases, which no longer terminate in a specific goal prescribed by the thrust of the particular, frequently end exhausted; they cease without achieving the security of a conclusion” (578-79). With its resistance to dialectics, development, totality, and conclusion, the scandal of the Missa negates everything Adorno believed about music, if not art in general.

I have been thinking about this infamous critique since attending a few days ago a live performance of the Missa and being overwhelmed by its grandiose self-confidence. If, as Adorno argued, in his late chamber works Beethoven “disposed sovereignty” over compositional history, here he proclaims his supreme sovereignty over an entire tradition by weaving in individual sections, balanced through “contrapuntal enclosure” (574), thickly textured orchestral and vocal fugues with tremendous technical erudition and command of learned techniques. This mass is a cathedral of affirmation — not an expressive/artistic, dialectical/philosophical, or messianic/religious “sacrifice to the future” but a monumental affirmation of music as fugal becoming (without development) and total immanence (without totality).

This dimension of the Missa is particularly evident in the glorious end of the Gloria with its lack of “conclusion,” the stunning double fugue starting with “In gloria dei patris. Amen,” about which Adorno has nothing to say. The tonal progression is clear but the overall sense of direction obscure because harmony does not rest on a large-scale foundation and remains in flux. This makes the fugue sectional and diffusive. Piling fugal envelopments, key changes, rhythmic dislocations, tempo increases, ascending cadenzas, and false endings creates a resounding, unresolved tension which may be what Adorno had in mind when referring to “the withdrawnness from any primary completion, which is characteristic of these fugue themes and is then also encountered in their further development of the work” (575).

With the fugue on “Gloria in excelsis deo. Amen” it becomes clear that the movement is not about hermeneutics or metaphysics but about the art of the fugue itself. Beethoven dispenses with dialectical development through variations to compose with contrapuntal development through fugues, a daring approach that would be worth discussing also from the standpoint of Edward Said’s aesthetics (and corresponding politics) of musical development as co-optative domination or contrapuntal variation. As Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” would remark, the Frankfurtian prophet of negativity must have been terrified by the concluding a capella choral shout “Amen” where music neither concludes nor absolves but absolutes.

Adorno was right when he insisted that the Missa Solemnis has sensuous “splendidness” and “tonal monumentality” (573). To use his highly charged vocabulary, it is defined by objectivity, stylization, and “archaicization” with no announcement of Christian piety (577), precisely because its human assertion is not biblical but mythical: “Not the modern but the ancient is expressive in the Missa. The human idea asserts itself in this work … only by virtue of convulsive, mythic denial of the mythical abyss” (577). Beethoven affirms ontology mythologically as musical form. In contrast to his “late works,” the aesthetic content of this magnificent composition is open-ended aesthetic possibility. “Expressed in more modern terms, it is a matter for Beethoven of whether ontology, the objective intellectual organization of existence, is still possible. … In its aesthetic form the work asks what and how one may sing of the absolute without deceit” (577). It is from this choral singing of the fuguing absolute that Adorno always felt completely alienated.

Leonard Bernstein’s sensuous, idololatric interpretation (with concluding fugue starting at 5:30) might have helped him harken!

March 17, 2017

Posted in Classical Music, Philosophy | Tagged , ,

Deleuze’s concept of assemblage in Greek Studies

I have been reading with special interest and profit very recent, published and unpublished, work by scholars in various disciplines who approach different sites, periods, and aspects of Greek culture by activating the major Deleuzian concept of assemblage. Since I too have been using this concept in my discussions of the Left Melancholy Generation of 2000, I have been especially impressed by the range and rigor of its current circulation in Greek Studies. Before I indicate some of these recent uses, here is an aural illustration of “assemblage” as a collective exercise in attunement:

In Gilles Deleuze’s own words, an assemblage is “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes, and reigns — different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning … It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind” (Deleuze & Parnet, Dialogues, 69-70).  Deleuze and Guattari call an assemblage “every constellation of singularities and traits deduced from the flow – selected, organized, stratified – in such a way as to converge (consistency), artificially and naturally, into extremely vast constellations constituting ‘cultures’ or even ages” (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 406).

In “The Construction of Community in the Modern Aegean,” Will Stroebel (Michigan) argues that in the “narration” To spiti mou/My home (1965), her invocation of her native Mykonos, Melpo Axioti (1905-73) “composed a kind of textual ‘reconstruction site’ of the island, re-assembling the space through a pastiche of primary historical documents: medieval tracts, journal entries, unpublished songs, scraps of manuscript and print.” He identifies “a network of things that … continue re-assembling themselves in the island’s communal spaces and homes—and … in the novel too, which is itself a powerful agent in this assemblage.” By taking a close look at the networks of materials and humans assembling such books (and also being assembled by them) in the post-Ottoman Aegean he recuperates “the many agencies and actors that today have been eclipsed by authors and their [national] canons.” Overall he brings New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory into dialogue with autonomist political theories by showing how, as a crucial actor in assemblages, literature too assembles the commons.

Looking also at literature, Theodoros Chiotis (Oxford) examines how modernist autogeography, through its deterritorialized documenting and archiving of “things” such as photos and maps, reconceptualizes depersonalized subjectivity as an assemblage and points the way to a new commons of interconnected assemblages as resistance to capitalist subsumption. In “An outlet won’t do any good: Contemporary Greek poetry in crisis,” he argues that poems like George Prevedourakis’ Kleftiko (2013), “written while in the throes of this traumatic experience we call crisis, … are documenting historical change in terms of assemblages, that is to say in collective events characterized by spontaneity, amorphousness and unarticulated desires.” He is also interested in textual “meta-machinic assemblages” formed by the “configuration and distribution” of digital poems embedded in computational environments where “human and machine languages become enmeshed” in both material and immaterial spaces.

In a conversation on “an Emergent Politics and Ethics of Resistance” that draws explicitly on Greek anti-austerity mobilizations, Othon Alexandrakis (York) and Athina Athanassiou (Panteion) conceive of mass protest as a “political assemblage,” a resonant arrangement that mobilizes collective practice, and reflect on its epistemic contribution. He understands it as “a political formation that emerges out of the intersection of heterogeneous interests and commitments but that produces effects and finalities that cannot be reduced to a single coalescence of these” (260). In a complementary way she defines it as a matrix of “heterogeneous, indeterminate, and situated social contingencies — such as techniques, temporalities, bodies, affects, and power relations — to be construed in nonessentialist and non-totalizable ways” (216). They are both interested in the performative work of social solidarity in assembling collective politics.

In “Sensorial Assemblages: Affect, Memory and Temporality in Assemblage Thinking,” Yannis Hamilakis (Brown) is interested in “sensorial assemblages” characterized by the contingent coexistence and flow of heterogeneous elements such as sites, things, substances, bodies, ideas, and memories, all energized by affective relations. He argues “that a fundamental property of all assemblages is their sensorial and affective import; that assemblages are arrangements of material and immaterial entities; and that they are also about material and sensorial memory, as well as about the engendering of diverse temporalities; and finally, that assemblages necessitate the deliberate agency and intervention of social actors” (Cambridge Archaeological Journal 27:1, 2017, 170). He focuses on a cumulative assemblage generated by a series of feasting and drinking occasions of communal gatherings in a Cretan landscape around 1500 BC as well as its implications not only for other assemblages in communities near and far away but also for the assemblage produced by the modern excavation and its afterlife.

Even though these scholars of Greek work in 4 different disciplines and are affiliated with universities in 4 different countries, they share many methodological interests.

a) They see their fields (criticism, poetics, anthropology, and archaeology,) as distinct, yet porous, their practices as scholarly, yet creative.

b) Their pursuits converge in the possibility of a “common,” prefigured, as it were, in narrative Mykonos, poetic computation, political protest, and Bronze Age feast.

c) They abandon modernist ontologies of recovery and reconstitution to present publishing, auto-writing, protesting, and feasting as techniques of assembling.

d) They elaborate the notion of assemblage as both method of thought and mode of being, and therefore they define as well as practice it, that is, they simultaneously describe and illustrate its uses.

e) While reflecting on assemblage poetics/politics, at the same time they practice assemblage thinking/writing as an engaged scholarship that invites others (scholars, intellectuals, artists, activists) to assemble as well.

All these recent readings remind me of an activity I often share with my “other self,” Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis: Putting together lists of musical and literary pieces that can work as courses which we will both co-teach and co-perform — experimenting, that is, with collaborative courses-cum-recitals as assemblages (as opposed to traditional syllabi or programs). More on this favorite exercise in another post.

February 28, 2017

Posted in Attunement, Autonomy, General Culture, Greek Literature, Greek Poetry, Greeks, Revolt, The Common | Tagged ,

Franz Liszt’s services to artistic sacralization

Franz Liszt (1811-86) is a pivotal cultural figure in that the entire formation of classical music as a public institution can be traced just through his career, an inescapably central nexus in the sacralization of high art. Everything that has been recognized as part of the superior musical domain (genres, sites, roles, norms, and conventions) was consolidated somewhere close to him, often with his decisive contribution. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that most European canonical 19th-century artists moved somewhere in his magnetic orbit. Even today, to learn to play or contemplate music as such is to be admitted into Liszt’s church of aesthetic devotion.

I have been thinking about Liszt’s stellar circulation while listening to the most recent complete recording of his solo piano 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846-53, 1882-85) by Vincenzo Maltempo. Regardless of their artistic merit, through their performances, transcriptions, and recordings these short pieces keep bringing back to the altar (which he himself first called “recital”) its high priest, Franz Liszt. Here is my list of preferred interpretations per Rhapsody (with clips), drawing on Scott Noriega’s splendid suggestions (Fanfare, Jan./Febr. 2017).

  1. Misha Dichter
  2. Vincenzo Maltempo
  3. Lazar Berman
  4. Earl Wild
  5. Cyprien Katsaris
  6. Martha Argerich
  7. Alexander Borowsky
  8. György Cziffra
  9. Emil Gilels
  10. Nelson Freire
  11. Alfred Cortot
  12. Murray Perahia
  13. Marc-André Hamelin
  14. Joel Hastings
  15. Solomon
  16. Michele Campanella
  17. Sviatoslav Richter
  18. Roberto Szidon
  19. Vladimir Horowitz

Approval of pianist Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” pending…

February 19, 2017

Posted in Classical Music, General Culture, Piano | Tagged

The emergence of Listening as a practice in the early 19th century

I have always been very interested in the disciplinary regimes of artistic production (such as the arts) and the hermeneutical control of their explication (such as the readings of arts). I have published an entire book on literary interpretation as a consummate technique of self-policed autonomy and remain fascinated by the corresponding performative control of musical interpretation.

Following the Takács Quartet, during a recent recital, move from Beethoven’s early quartets no. 4 and 5 of op. 18 (1798-1800) to the penultimate quartet, no. 15, op. 132 (1825), made me think of a major cultural development that took place during that period: the emergence of self-sustained Listening. For the first time in history people in Vienna stopped doing anything else (reading, talking, singing, dancing, clapping) to concentrate on a single activity, exclusive Listening. During that period, the dilettante, as adept performer in the bourgeois home, was succeeded by the connoisseur, as diligent Listener in the concert house.

Until the 1800s, the string quartet was the leading genre of Viennese home entertainment. It was played on casual and formal occasions for the edification of its male participants, with everyone present, amateur or professional, taking part in rotating roles by reading competently through parts of several works. The entertainment offered by the quartet as Hausmusik generated the performative and participatory experience of the refined dilettante.

A new institution emerged in the 1810s: The professional string quartet with fixed membership, using full scores of monumentalized complete works to perform a core repertoire of “the greatest masters” in public subscription concerts which required a long-term commitment from friends who, instead of playing at home together, would attend together. The education offered by the quartet as concert music generated the historicist and contemplative experience of the knowledgeable connoisseur, the Listener.

The institution of the quartet concert, a concert that was itself designated as “classical,” produced simultaneously the performers (professional quartet), the pedigreed genre (the leading genre of purely instrumental music), the canon (the core repertoire) and the audience (the connoisseurs). In a brilliant 2010 paper, John M. Gingerich has traced this development in the iconic career of Viennese violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830), Beethoven’s teacher and close collaborator, from establishing the first professional quartet, the Razumovski, in 1808 to launching a quartet concert subscription series in 1823. Thanks to Gingerich’s splendid scholarship, on which I am heavily and gratefully indebted here, we can understand how Beethoven wrote all his quartets not only for his friend but also with him.

The distinct aesthetic comportment of Listening was promoted as the specialized attention to special music played by specialists at a special place and time. This strictly territorialized and financially self-sustaining domain hosted an autotelic situation that produced classical music, music as such which (as work, performance, and shared experience) made the greatest claim on the attention and appreciation on the Listener, providing a supreme occasion of self-understanding. Hearing music as pure and elevated was marked as Listening, that is, as hearing/making music as a self. Listening was by definition a subject’s activity: People could listen only as selves. As an ascesis of the disinterested, contemplative self, Listening became the ultimate theoretical practice. To our day, all philosophical thinking aspires to the condition of music (listening/making).

Here is an example from the Takács Quartet concert that I attended. Commenting on the famous 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 15th string quartet program annotators always remind us to hear its “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode,” in the composer’s own words. Yet, if we pay attention to what the music is doing, rather than saying, we see that the piece is about developing the Lydian scale as a listening mode: It seeks to affirm a “new strength” not through the patient’s recovery but through the Listener’s recovery (twice) of the chorale of the molto adagio, the opening section.

By producing complex works which demanded systematic rehearsals, concert-long attention, and repeated hearings in a special public environment (rather than works written for a patron – a prince or count and his guests – which were never to be performed in public), and canonizing such works in a standard repertoire, the chamber music concert series operated as a “school of artistic taste” which assembled Vienna’s elite audience into the new cultural aristocracy of a sophisticated public. Thus during the 1810s the declining aristocratic patronage was gradually replaced by the paying Bildungsbürgertum – “an emerging class of less affluent professionals, musicians, shop owners, artisan manufacturers, and lower-echelon civil servants” (Botstein in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, 87) – while the function of music as social entertainment was upgraded to a practice of self-cultivation. (In the 1830s the piano sonata would undergo a cultural upgrade comparable to that of the quartet.)

Every time I attend a chamber music concert in Vienna with my other listening self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, I have the distinct sense that, when it comes to hearing any music (“high” or “low,” traditional or radical) to which we attribute deeper meaning, the rules of attention and the norms of retention have changed very little over the last two centuries, namely, since the institutional and discursive construction of Listening as an ascetic concentration on artistic process at a classical music concert in romantic Vienna.

February 1, 2017

Posted in Bildung, Classical Music, General Culture, Listening | Tagged ,

The concerto as ‘Bildungsroman’

Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto (1909) can be interpreted by both soloist and listener as a supreme Bildungsroman. I become fully aware of this approach when I watch the possessed Daniil turning the concerto into a bravura self-formation. He is enacting the tumultuous affective education of a young man, highlighting the Romantic plot of the work. I follow him from his early development through successive crescendos (Allegro ma non tanto) to the variations on an elusive emotion (Adagio) and the reconciliation of his early drives in a self-affirming maturity (Alla breve).


The narrative of the concerto reaches a breathtaking intensity in the famous alternative cadenza of the 1st movement, the grand ossia, where a stumbling march climaxes in a desolate cry before four successive winds sing to the piano and console its arpeggios.

In a multiple review, “Daniil Trifonov’s Sleight of Hand” (New Yorker, Jan.9, 2017), Alex Ross writes enthusiastically about a performance he attended in December 2016: “The heart of the second cadenza is an imperious elaboration of the suave, sauntering theme with which the concerto begins. Although it is marked Allegro molto, it requires a Lisztian barrage of fortissimo chords in various registers. Trifonov could have knocked it off at high speed; instead, he took a deliberate, almost labored approach, slowing to a crawl in the turn to G minor. The sound was immense, seeming to ventriloquize the orchestra sitting silently by. There was a palpable sense of struggle—not technical but emotional, a battle of the heart. The passage assumed a tragic heft that changed the meaning of the concerto around it.”

In an earlier (June 2015) Trifonov performance, the one linked above, I witness a comparable intensity  for 3 staggering minutes (10:55-13:50, though I start at 10:35 just to see his dark eyes as he is getting ready for the cadenza): This is the point of utter despair where Hölderling crossed the threshold of madness.

I believe that there are many more concerti for various instruments that can be interpreted as a Bildungsroman, starting with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (1895) and Michael Daugherty’s Fire and Blood (2003) violin concerto, based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo. I am going to think more about it, and discuss it with another virtuoso of Bildung, Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self.”

January 10, 2017

Posted in Bildung, Classical Music | Tagged ,

My auto-bibliographical trajectory [in Greek]

“Books by the bedside”/Βιβλία στο προσκέφαλο is a monthly full-page column in the eminent Greek daily Η Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών where writers “leaf through their ‘autobiographical’ bibliography” to present books that have had a major impact on them.  I am grateful to the editor of the series, Michel Fais – himself a major writer, editor, creative writing teacher, and photographer – for inviting me to contribute today’s page, whose title is “I read in order to comment and participate energetically.”

January 4, 201715895652_10211147671263249_2781216011406032575_o

Posted in General Literature, General Philosophy, Hellenism

The friend as teacher

These days many people I respect are arguing that in 2017 we will have an urgent need for old and new friends.  This appeal to a renewed fraternity brings to my mind dear friends, like my “other self.”

I never call Pantelis by his name. I always call him “teacher,” using the demotic Greek vocative daskale. Whether we are alone or with other people, I address him only as daskale.

He is a teacher to me for several reasons. First, being the son of teachers, he is an excellent music teacher himself. Second, as a committed collaborative pianist, he educates his musical partners. Next, he happily shares with people his impressive cultural learning. Above all, his embodied senses of self, his practices of identity formation are a wonderful lesson in the arts of living. Thus I learn from his artistic ethics of conduct.


I started publishing this blog two years ago today as an ascesis in Aristotelian friendship, and I look forward to continuing in 2017 my dialogue with a true daskalos and comrade, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis.

December 25, 2016

P.S.  On January 3, 2017, the day this post is published, the NY Times has an article on friendship in “Well,” its health section, which stresses:  “With strong evidence that friendship does, indeed, help save lives and promote health, social workers and researchers wish we could pay more attention to its central role.”

Posted in Friends, General