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

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