Whistling Brahms

A guy in the subway is whistling loudly the theme of the finale of Brahms’s 1st Symphony.

Theodor Adorno is so annoyed by this incident that he mentions it at least twice, in his essays “On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening (1938) and “The Radio Symphony: An Experiment in Theory” (1941). In the former essay he avers:

“The works which are the basis of the fetishization and become cultural goods experience constitutional changes as a result. They become vulgar­ized. Irrelevant consumption destroys them. Not merely do the few things played again and again wear out, like the Sistine Madonna in the bedroom, but reification affects their internal structure. They are transformed into a conglomeration of irruptions which are impressed on the listeners by climax and repetition, while the organization of the whole makes no im­pression whatsoever. The memorability of disconnected parts, thanks to climaxes and repetitions, has a precursor in great music itself, in the tech­nique of late romantic compositions, especially those of Wagner. The more reified the music, the more romantic it sounds to alienated ears. Just in this way it becomes ‘property.’ A Beethoven symphony as a whole, spontaneously experienced, can never be appropriated. The man who in the subway triumphantly whistles loudly the theme of the finale of Brahms’s First is already primarily involved with its debris” (Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Leppert, 2002, p. 298).

Adorno is referring to the tendency of musical reproduction to reify certain isolated parts at the expense of the totality of a work. He criticizes the romanticizing fetishization of particulars that vulgarizes works into cultural goods, reducing musical structures to ready-made pieces, processes to results, active understanding to passive enjoyment, thoughts to emotions. This vulgarization of the whole musical work by “the stubborn and spiteful adherence to one’s private emotional sphere” (268) turns the consumed product into the “debris” of fetishization.  In the later essay Adorno insists: “It is highly doubtful if the boy in the subway whistling the main theme of the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony actually has been gripped by that music” (268).

Jerrold Levinson’s defensible protest against Adorno’s snobbish indignation (Musical Concerns: Essays in Philosophy of Music, 2015, p. 44) may be taken much further. Perhaps Charles Ives too was whistling Brahms’ 1st when reactivating it in his own 2nd Symphony (1987-1901). Perhaps Henze too was whistling it “triumphantly” when quoting it in his Tristan (1973). Perhaps most recently Detlev Glanert too when basing on it his “Brahms-Fantasie:  Heliogravure for Orchestra” (2011-12). After all, Brahms himself fetishized the “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s 9th, snatching it out of its original context and away from its purported “intellectual functions,” and refunctioning it in the “private emotional sphere” of the last movement of his 1st, thus dignifying what Adorno calls contemptuously “quotation listening” (263).  Indeed it is Brahms who is whistling triumphantly the end of Beethoven’s 9th at the end of his 1st Symphony, declaring his own Beethoven’s 10th!

I too sometimes whistle a tune loudly and repeatedly, not to isolate it from its integral work but to historicize my attentive listening to that work with my friend pianist Pantelis Polychronidis by recalling when we heard and discussed it together. Which engaged activity is after all a central axis of this entire blog – thoughtful listening to music with my self-defining “other self” who both reads Greek and whistles for me.

October 3, 2015

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