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Adorno's "Motifs": a selection

A collection of aphorisms on music written by Theodor Adorno between 1927 and 1951.

Theodor Adorno22 February 2018

Adorno's "Motifs": a selection

Below is a selection from "Motifs," a collection of aphorisms on music written by Theodor Adorno between 1927 and 1951 and published in Quasi Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, translated by Rodney Livingstone.  All our Radical Thinkers are 50% off until February 25, 23.59 EST. See more details here.

Beethoven comments on the cadenza of the E-flat major Concerto, ‘Non si fa una cadenza, ma s'attacca subito il seguente' [Don't play a Cadenza, but go immediately into the next section]. Schoenberg uses ‘free' as a binding expression mark. In this way the exceptions prove the rules of their age. Whereas Beethoven takes the Cadenza, the last vestige of the freedom to improvise, and subjects it to the composer's subjective intentions, freedom nowadays is strictly required of the interpreter in order to soften the strictness of the interpretation which is specified by the freedom of the composition.

Nothing could be more revealing of the melancholy which lies at the heart of all inwardly directed music than Schumann's direction, ‘Im frohlichen Ton' [ln a cheerful tone]. To name the cheerfulness is to deny its reality, and the 'in', which presupposes that the cheerful tone is both known and exists in the past, simultaneously proclaims that it has vanished and attempts to conjure it up once more.

No revolution is to be feared from Stravinsky. He provides both bomb-plot and life insurance on his own initiative and in the same policy. Accompanied by 'sightseers' he travels in the state coach of the ancien régime to inspect the bomb-craters created the previous day. And in no time at all the blue-bird is building its peaceful nest in them. 

The plight of organs is a sorry one indeed. The orchestral organs with their endless, arbitrary stops and their expressive mechanisms are losing credibility and it is not just the advocates of a musty inwardness who emerge as their resolute opponents. However, the archaic organs from the age of Buxtehude have also ceased to provide a welcome change. They will probably all have to fall silent. 

Ravel's Valse seals the fate of the waltz as such. To be a revenant means that you have first to have died.

The meaning of foreign words in operettas merits investigation. Originally, no doubt, they were meant to distinguish the banal, bourgeois world, which defines the imaginative horizon of the operetta, from the pathos of the romantic opera, which employs consecrated language and boycotts all mundane expressions. The romantic opera and the banal, bourgeois world constituted a coherent whole. The operetta invokes both. In the 1880s the foreign word acted as an index of the ironically accentuated lowlands to which art feels superior. Subsequently it became the isolated theatre-prop of a cultivated style of conversation which has ceased to exist in reality.


What Kant and Beethoven have in common is defined neither by the reliable moral principles nor by the long-since vanished pathos of the great personality, of which Kant once remarked that it was nothing to write home about and which is completely negated by the alienated constructs of the late Beethoven. It is doubtless true that only a forceful personality is capable of such acts of creation in isolation from his social context. However, the constructive plan soon squeezes the personality out of works whose temperature falls so dramatically. Yet there is something here which is common to both Kant and Beethoven and unites them in the same historical space. In the hierarchy of the Kantian system the narrow realm of the synthetic a priori judgements contrives to preserve the outlines of a vanishing ontology in diminished form, freely creating it once more in order to salvage it. And this act of creation both succeeds and perishes at the vanishing point of the subjective and objective. In the same way, in Beethoven's works, the images of long-since vanished forms arise from the abyss of an abandoned mankind and illuminate him. Beethoven's pathos is the gesture of the hand which lights the torch. His success is the depth of shadow in which the mourner hides from the end of the light. His suffering is enacted in the stony glance that catches the fading light as if to preserve it to the end of time. His joy resembles the flickering reflections on walls that are closing in.

The use of old, formal concepts to explain the new music might be acceptable if only the old categories were employed to demonstrate the difficulty of expressing the strangeness of the new in terms of the familiar. Thus the concept of tonality may indeed be applied to the later Schoenberg; but not so as to show that he too composes tonally — for in the final analysis what music might not be described in terms of the diatonic system? Indeed what music might not be described in terms of the twelve-note row? Instead, the concept should be used to show that he does not compose tonally; and that the use of a tonal scheme is an incomparably more complicated way of grasping what is actually happening than a more adequate system. However, the customary explanations are not in fact attempts to reduce music to schematic systems of representation. Instead the old descriptive modes are credited with a natural dignity. Thus to explain something in terms of the old modes of description means to ground the music in a dehistoricized nature. Hence at a stroke a descriptive system is transformed into a yardstick which gives good marks to what fits in easily and bad marks to whatever causes trouble. Thus the very attempt to understand the new music historically ends up by obscuring its genuine historical features. One is almost tempted to believe that in the absence of a newly discovered technique every explanation of music in terms of a static, material principle suppresses the best and distorts the work by forcing it into the straitjacket of an antiquated framework. 

There is a lot of talk about serenitas nowadays. It is said to be the coming thing, along with its comrade-in-arms, the New Sobriety. If only we knew why we were suddenly all supposed to be more cheerful. Have we really only forsaken the dying Tristan in order to urge him to ‘keep smiling' and twist a face distorted with pain into a grimace of pleasure? If expression in music has become a dubious matter why must this expressionlessness, whose purpose lies shrouded in mystery, force itself to assume a mask of gaiety? Would it not be both harder and more important to make this expressionlessness a reality? When it comes down to it, it may turn out that this serenitas was hastily invented to persuade people that emptiness is the most sacred characteristic of their community. Or could it be the case that serenitas is supposed to prevent them from inquiring too closely into the nature of their community? There is an authentic serenade in our time: it is by Schoenberg. There is nothing very cheerful about it. 

Many a music critic may be adequately characterized by his use of the genitive of the indefinite article before an author's name. 'The impressionism of a Debussy'. Such critics devalue the concrete oeuvre which they have failed to comprehend by reducing it to the example of a type which does not exist. Culture is what mediates between the two. 

Among the most infamous of the phrases used to defeat changes in musical consciousness is that of the 'trendsetting or pioneering work'. A work of art legitimates itself historically only by virtue of its uniqueness and intrinsic validity. Only works which have truth and consistency can impinge on the historical process. The specific work can never be reconstructed or deduced from the historical totality; on the contrary, the totality is contained within its most minute cell. But by substituting a connection with the presumed course of history for insight into that unique concrete artefact the critic defects from the work and escapes into a future which, as often as not, turns out to be the past. If a work points in new directions it raises the hope that it will not be necessary to expend too much effort on it, since it is nothing but a stopping point along the track which will surely lead into the Grand Central Station of the great platitudes. Thus Schoenberg has been consistently reduced to the status of a scout or precursor. It is as if he had composed the Erwartung purely for the sake of the Handel renaissance and the Latin Oedipus [The reference is to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex], whereas the truth is that such enterprises have their origins in the fear of having one day to compose music as real, truthful and enduring as the Erwartung

The problematic nature of music criticism may well be aggravated by the fact that for a long time the phenomenon of the collector was really unknown in music. The only way to collect music was to lock it up in cupboards. The connoisseurship of the non-specialists is always tied to the actual performance of music and hardly ever possesses the concrete familiarity of the hand that passes over the sheet of graphic art. For this reason the dilettante is to be found on the margins of music and the way to the centre is normally barred to him. The dilettantes are unable to establish any standards, whereas in the other arts it is often they who create a genuine critical distance. The fact that music, unlike pictures and books, cannot be physically owned has meant that, for all its popularity with the bourgeoisie, it has always remained esoteric.

The child trying to pick out a melody on the piano provides the paradigm of all true composition. In the same tentative, uncertain manner, but with a precise memory, the composer looks for what may always have been there and what he must now rediscover on the undiscriminating black and white keys of the keyboard from which he must make his choice.

Someone should write a musical aesthetics dealing with the art of omission. There are composers, and indeed whole genres, which are more accurately defined by what does not occur than by the positive events that take place in them. Abundance is not the only sign of a composer's imaginative powers; no less important is the force with which his intentions blast a void into all the possibles with which they are concerned. The power of an original musical intuition traces figures in the fine dust of discarded opportunities and it is these which often have to be deciphered if the nature of the composition is to be revealed. Of the more recent composers Debussy is the pre-eminent master of such discarded opportunities.

Many a contemporary composer is praised for his 'dynamism'. In the world of machines, which we insult when we compare that sort of music with it, it is a matter of moving masses of material or people. But musical dynamism is ideologically a law unto itself: nothing is moved and why the only visible purpose, that of the work of art, should be achieved by means of movement for its Own sake, remains a mystery. For this reason it is inevitable that movement should soon turn out to be mere pseudo-motion in the static structure of this 'dynamic' music in which nothing that occurs is forced to change. They are all running on the spot like soldiers on the parade-ground. If you really want to dismantle humanity, you should at least try to find more intelligent excuses.

It's touching. Where do they get it from? Where did the Germans suddenly discover this powerful drive towards a new objectivity, a drive which is preparing itself to eliminate all individualism and décadence, subversiveness and aestheticism, and all this shoulder to shoulder with the Youth Movement and in tune with the pithy utterances of secondary-school teachers? Where did all this collective healthiness spring from all of a sudden? In music, at any rate, the example has been set by Stravinsky and Cocteau, the advanced exponents of a big bourgeoisie to whom the sphere of the individual and the particular has no new sensation left to offer. It is evident that their sense of chic conflicts with any desire to be an individual at all. Instead, they now enjoy, for the sake of the sensation, the laws of an existing collective, or rather of a collective that does not yet exist. In their eyes it exerts an indeterminate charm that lies somewhere between sport and neo-Thomism, and they unhesitatingly reach out for every social cement that promises to steady their nerves. In this respect the reconstruction being undertaken under these highly implausible auspices is not without a real foundation. Not indeed in terms of its unimpeachable intellectual and spiritual resources, but on the economic plane, which, even if they have gambled away their own interests, they have every reason to persuade others to accept as a God-given order and an unimpaired reality. And here they meet with astounding success. Petty bourgeois who cannot afford psychology are provided with the pretext to outgrow it before they have properly understood what it actually is. This is the road that runs from Raymond Radiguet to the musicians' guild. ‘It's a long way to Tipperary’. [Raymond Radiguet (1902-23) was known for two brilliant novels of psychological analysis, Le Diable au corps and Le Baldu Comte d'Orgel]

There is one sphere in which the previous generation has failed us after all: musical pornography. Tristan's ecstasies between night and day, the complex and resonant soul of Princess Salome and, lastly, the cosmic utterances of Alexander Scriabin — however exalted their aspirations may have been, their goal ultimately was always the musical representation of a consummated sexual intercourse. But this they were unable to achieve. Notwithstanding Schreker's notable experiments and Skriabin's valiant efforts, the orchestral euphoria remains paltry when compared with the ecstasies of physical intercourse. The fate of that idea of unattainable joy inaugurated by romantic music is now sealed. It is not simply that it has lost the idealistic Divine Spark which it had ostensibly been striving for. Even worse, the actual bodily pleasure which was its real focus was denied it. So the belief that the erotic music of the nineteenth century was impotent is more than just psychologically valid and the state prosecutors who left it in peace had good reason to do so.

Every great, authentic piece of musical kitsch — and this holds good even more for the sentimental than for the jaunty variety — is capable of acting as the accompaniment to imaginary catastrophes. Beneath the bright, shining deck the water is flooding into the ship's hold and threatens disaster. Where the tapdancing is at its most assured, the boiler threatens to explode. Even on the basses of Gern hab ich die Frau'n geküßt [How I've liked kissing women], the listing Titanic presses down like a shadow from which there is no escape. The ship exploding against the backcloth of the lurid red evening skies, the burning house, an inferno literally engulfed in flames reaching up to the sky; the bridge breaking in two and crashing down into the Mississippi, taking with it the thundering train belonging to the Pacific Railway — all these images of unmitigated despair, which we have retained from our childhood, from illustrated books and our fears of falling asleep, rise up again as a warning in musical kitsch and illuminate the night sky as constellations of horror.



Cavalleria Rusticana: migrants who go to the Argentine from Southern Italy return home rich and build themselves villas as white as Circe's palace, poised above the azure of the eternal sea; temples adorned with columned halls, scattered randomly around the historic landscape, a gloriously radiant barbarism. These buildings, financed by profiteering on potatoes, are more easily tolerated than their gentler sisters on the Ligurian coast. With its shapes and colours the volcanic soil's ever-present threat to destroy everything on it encroaches up to the very edge of the architecture and justifies for a moment the illusion which it kindles in those superannuated forms. For this illusion is founded on death. For the brief space of their life these buildings may borrow the mythological images which are invoked by the proximity of death. The transitory nature of the landscape immortalizes the brittle glaze with which men clothe it. In the same way the superficial, precarious and half-dilettantish music of Cavalleria Rusticana derives a luminosity from its proximity to death and so cannot be understood in terms of the antithesis between culture and kitsch. It is an improvised island upon which the mythical passions, however distorted, are abruptly elevated above the historical world, only to sink back at once and vanish again. How else to explain how this dusty framework, as small as a memento, can positively teem with all kinds of ordinary people, and seem to twitch with wild excrescences when it is violently shaken. 

Chopin's form is no more concerned with the development of the whole through a series of minute transitions than with the representation of a single free-standing thematic complex. It is as remote from Wagner's dynamic thrust as from the landscape of Schubert. For all that it still contains the inherent contradiction that dominates the whole of the nineteenth century, the contradiction, namely, between the concrete specificity of the parts and their abstract, subjectively posited totality. He masters this contradiction by removing himself, as it were, from the flow of the composition and directing it from outside. He does not high-handedly create the form, nor does he allow it to crumple before the onslaught of the themes. Rather, he conducts the themes in their passage through time. The aristocratic nature of his music may reside less in the psychological tone than in the gesture of knightly melancholy with which subjectivity renounces the attempt to impose its dynamism and carry it through. With eyes averted, like a bride, the objective theme is safely guided through the dark forest of the self, through the torrential river of the passions. Nowhere more beautifully than in the A-flat major ballade, where the creative idea [Einfall], once it has made its appearance like a Schubert melody, is taken by the hand and conducted through an infinite vista of inwardness and over abysses of expressive harmonics where it finds its way to its second confirming appearance. In Chopin paraphrase and doubtless every kind of associated virtuosity is the resigned expression of historical tact. 

What Debussy's music, the very epitome of Impressionism, means in the technical history of music, and what its relationship is to contemporary painting, became evident once its topicality disappeared. Something of its secret is revealed by a remarkable passage in Maupassant's novel Mont-Oriol, which illuminates the impressionism to which it belonged in more ways than one. In a description of the small spa we find the following: 

They came to the park which was lit up by lanterns suspended from the branches of the trees. The 'casino' orchestra played a slow, classical aria, which sounded as if it were limping, so full of gaps and pauses was it. The same four artists played it, wearily, without interruption, morning and evening, playing in this solitude only for the foliage and the stream, in an effort to create the impression of twenty instruments. 

The gaps and pauses in such nineteenth-century music have grown longer since then. But it was Debussy who composed the music which strove to cover them up with the dense yet loose texture of its cells. It serves the same function: the shrubbery and the dream are to be consoled for their isolation, for being completely cut off from mankind. Hence the music absorbs their disappearing reflex into itself. Subjectivity produces the bright glow of the shrunken objects in order to salvage it in an image. The wretched piano, which has imprisoned the objects in the meshes of its strings, has to resound like an orchestra, so that the gardens in the rain will imagine that they are being serenaded by twenty musicians, whereas in reality only one is mourning for them. 

I once heard, in the great Galleria in Naples, cinema music coming from outside. It was not the jumble of posters that revealed the fact that it was coming from a cinema: it was evident in itself. Not simply from the crude medley of tunes, but from the peculiar feeling that it was an accompaniment, even in the voices bearing the melody, a feeling that could not be explained in precise technical terms. This is how music sounds from which something is missing. But since it was not specially composed for the film, its interpretation turns towards the film. Confronted with the film, the melodies taken from exhausted operas are so drained of their force that they can only serve as background music. This is why they cannot exist for the listener as music, but exist musically only for the film. The music comes to the film because the latter is silent and it rocks the film gently into the darkness of the audience, even when it makes the gesture of passion. It is not meant for the audience. The listener only notices it when the film passes him by at a distance, separated from him by an abyss of empty space.

The resolute specificity of pieces of music based on folklore is justly punished by the abstract similarity which they all have with each other. Confronted by the present state of consciousness, the musical structures which deny its existence all draw closer to each other. What previously was supposed to bind each of them uniquely to a particular landscape, now binds them uniformly to each other. In Hungary as in Spain the monody of earlier centuries suppresses the more recently developed dimension of harmony. The ritual repetition of one and the same motif becomes an unconvincing means of creating form, once the motifs themselves have become interchangeable. Listening to them from the standpoint of the rational tonality of European music whose subsequent modifications they appear to be, even though they may be older in fact, it becomes difficult to distinguish their primitive keys from each other. Indeed, the motifs themselves converge in a remarkable manner. In this way the very music which aimed to preserve the distinguishing marks of its origins now falls under the same dominance of the universal which, as the music of the people, it revolves around, now that its substance has withered away. Nowadays the only music which can achieve concrete specificity is music which traverses the entire realm of reason right to its very end, preserving in it anything natural that has survived the experience. 

The more specifically an instrumental work is written with an eye to the potential of the instruments which are to be deployed, the easier it is to transpose it into a completely different instrumental sound, to 'arrange' it. And the less closely it is tied to its original medium, the more problematic it is in any other. It is well known how much of Strauss's fresco-like conception still remains intact in the piano score. Mahler, on the other hand, in the interests of thematic clarity, ‘orchestrates' more than Strauss, and is less influenced by timbre as such. Yet his music often sounds distorted on the piano. It is no less striking that Debussy and Ravel are infallible in their use of instrumental peinture, in their ability to remain faithful to the French origins of the 'arrangement'. Thus pieces like Le Tombeau de Couperin display the same perfection whether played orchestrally or on the piano. What this means is that only the truly concretizing work is capable of the transformations which it adds to the historical repertoire. Only when the instrumental tone has been precisely imagined and realized can it be rethought through. The transposing imagination is given a firm lead by a clearly defined structure, whereas it can never orientate itself among the vague possibilities of a general tone. 

Nowhere is the struggle against the expert, which Mechtilde Lichnowsky called for, more necessary than in music. For nowhere is the power of the dilettante greater. But expert and dilettante mutually complement each other. [Princess Mechtilde Lichnowsky (1879-1958) was a well-known writer of novels, plays, poems and essays. In her novels she took her subjects from the life of the aristocracy. Following her second marriage in 1937 she settled in London. Her works are now neglected.] The dilettante feels he has been raised to a higher plane as soon as he understands the expert, whom he thereby elevates in his turn. The expert needs the dilettante in order to prove to himself that he isn't one. Together they form the twin poles of a middlebrow musical life whose hour has now struck. This is why it is so essential for the critic to extend his immanent listening as far as possible, while at the same time approaching music radically from the outside. To think about twelve-note technique at the same time as remembering that childhood experience of Madama Butterfly on the gramophone — that is the task facing every serious attempt to understand music today.


There is music from the nineteenth century which is so unbearably solemn that it can only be used to introduce waltzes. If it were left as it is, people listening to it would fall into a despair beside which every other musical emotion would pale. All the feelings of great tragedy would surely overwhelm them and they would have to veil their heads with gestures that have fallen out of use since time immemorial. This music no longer possesses a form with which to clothe its minor key. Chords are struck alternating with plangent tunes, and each stands on its own so that the listener is exposed to them in their naked immediacy. Only the excess of pain helps which springs from the certainty that things cannot go on like this. The double attack of F in the violins, the dominant of B-flat minor — a pathetic remnant of sadness together with a tiny E grace note, which a moment later will drive on the waltz melody in sharp, jolly spasms, always staccato and always in the train of the E. Nowadays such music thrives for the most part only in the band music played in zoos or in the small orchestras in provincial spas. Children are its greatest fans. It sounds best when heard at a fair distance, where the sighing flute is made to depend entirely on the passage of the great drum roll.

Very brief musical passages quoted out of context often seem banal, particularly in the case of older vocal music to which monothematicism is an unknown concept. I still remember from my earliest studies of music history how I would be overwhelmed by feelings of disdain when I was confronted with certain ostensibly expressive phrases from Josquin or Senf and even Schütz. Nor could anyone work through Lohengrin in detail without being made to feel claustrophobic by the countless chords in minims in which feeling is stretched to the limits, even though they would scarcely attract attention on stage. And why? The less securely the musical phenomenon is embedded in the context in which the constructive imagination has placed it, the more conspicuous is its basic material. Whenever the compositional technique is unable to govern it, the material finds itself refuted by technique and stands convicted of banality. Hence the most stringent test of any music is to see whether its smallest components make sense, and whether they can be quoted in their own right. This is only possible where nature itself finds expression in the technique, as in Schubert, or where the composer's freedom is able to grasp and shape the material down to the individual note, as in Schoenberg. Between these two extremes lies the realm of the ‘creative idea’ [Einfall]. But in the banality of the singular the mythical illusion of surface totalities stand revealed: it is of these that blind nature gains control.

Composers who distrusted and shunned each other in the light of day often come together in secret: Wagner and Offenbach in the crimson salon of a God-forsaken love. In the passage following the Rome narrative, when the degenerate Tannhäuser goes on living without hope and then enters the luminous sphere of Venus for the second time, ‘To thee, Lady Venus, I return once more / to the sweet night of thy enchantments’ — doesn't the artificial, Winter-Garden-like transparency of the music recall Offenbach, Helena's waltz and Hoffmann's stories in The Tales of Hoffmann? On the word 'sweet' [hold] the anticipated tonic under the first inversion of the leading-note triad, the diminished seventh and the triplet flourish in the vocal part could all come from Dapertutto's Mirror Aria which helps to cajole Giulietta's second victim. How thin is the crust which separates the upper world from the menace beneath and which just manages to protect the world of order above. In Offenbach the different spheres merge in parodic ecstasy without either gaining the upper hand. In Wagner the lively sense of horror just contrives to retain a hope of salvation in which even Wolfram does not truly believe as he begins to tremble in his fear of lust. But what would have become of the nineteenth-century opera if Offenbach and Wagner had been serious about liberating the underworlds of their singers, Orpheus and Tannhäuser? The turning point would only really have come if they had been able to gain entry there. If Elisabeth had followed Tannhäuser into the Venusberg with the gesture which she finds at the end of Act II, then he would have ended by expelling the Landgrave and his family and banishing them to the empty heavens. 

It is an oddity that many of the most perfect melodies sound like quotations. Not like quotations from other pieces of music, but rather as if they had been taken from a secret musical language from which the ear picks out snatches here and there, which it does not even understand, but which present themselves forcefully and with the most patent authority. Instances of melodies with such authority are occasional creative ideas [Einfille] of Schubert's, subsidiary ideas — never main themes — in Chopin and a few things of Beethoven's. The most extreme example is also one of the most familiar: the major mode refrain 'L'amour est enfant de Boheme' from Carmen's Habanera, a primeval quotation which sounds familiar to everyone hearing it for the first time. Only the profundity of such memories can justify such banalities. Our music, produced as it is in isolation, has long since forgotten how to conjure up such quotations. The only composers who still know something about it, albeit without ever being able to achieve it, are the operetta composers. When countless hit songs narrate the prehistory of their own refrain in melodically unstriking couplets, their aim is to make them quotable by ensuring that they first appear as a quotation, a quotation from the banal sphere behind whose banality the banality of primal images lies buried. One is almost tempted to believe that this was the reason for inventing the refrain in the first place.

For all the respect due to Handel the time is surely ripe to do away with that ludicrous coupling which still joins his name to Bach's. It originates in that infamous juste milieu which can no more tolerate one of its great men on his own, without his heavenly twin, than the morning prayer on the wall can dispense with the evening prayer. It pairs its classics off like opponents in a gladiatorial contest. For counting off your artists in a military rhythm, one two, one two, releases you from the gravest obligation of the work of art, that of its uniqueness. Of course, even dinosaurs may feel some inhibitions when talking of Goethe and Schiller in a single breath. But musicologists do not hesitate to yoke the homophonic Handel and the polyphonic Bach to the crude plough of stylistic history. It is not necessary to deny the greatness of Handel's late works and many a fulfilled moment in the earlier ones, or to fail to recognize the purity of many individual melodies, to admit that according to very specific and reliable technical criteria the musical quality of the overwhelming majority of Handel's works cannot justify their performance nowadays. Whereas in Bach's case, even in the plethora of cantatas there is scarcely a single one which would not repay performance with a host of fresh insights. Behind the official, pharisaically emphatic admiration for Handel's expressive power, simplicity and objectivity what lies concealed is resentment and the inability to judge the music as composition. The essential lesson that Handel has to teach is one of economy of means. The best part of this was assimilated into the bare, austere power of Beethoven's oeuvre. All that remains today is the hieratic gesture, which no longer suffices.


From my childhood I retain very clear impressions of the associations aroused in my mind by the name of Richard Strauss. I recall the moment when, shrill and very new, it first entered my consciousness where Schubert's Rondo and the Kreutzer Sonata had long since enjoyed a secure place. As had even Chopin's Nocturnes, which I really only knew about from the composers' version of Happy Families, which I especially loved and to which I owed my knowledge of Spohr's works. To me the name of Richard Strauss suggested music that was loud, dangerous and generally bright, rather like industry, or rather what I then imagined factories to look like. It was the child's image of modernity that was set alight by his name. What attracted me were the stories about the rumbustious plays he had composed which my parents and my aunt had heard. I was attracted even more strongly by their painful refusal to tell me the content of those operas which anyway I was still too young to understand — I had been persuaded that the head in Salome belonged to a calf, and similarly, they had tried to convince me that all the excitement in Otello was about a handkerchief that had been mislaid.

But more than all this my imagination was kindled by the word Elektra. This word was explosive and full of artificial, seductively evil smells, like a large chemical works close to the town where we lived, whose name sounded very similar. The word glittered cold and white, like electricity, after which it appeared to have been named; a piece of gleaming electrical machinery that poured out chlorine and which only adults could enter, something luminous, mechanical and unhealthy. When, at the age of fifteen, I got to know some of Strauss's music, it had hardly any connection with that old sense of excitement I had felt and which was comparable to the prospect of an excursion to the Eastern docks. By then I knew about Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, and was studying the theories of instrumentation. The description of a bass clarinet, an English horn or even the obsolete serpent gave me the same thrill as the self-contained machinery of the mysterious Elektra had done in the past. And in Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, which I knew directly, I sought only to identify those instruments. Only much later did I notice that the images generated by my imagination in advance of any knowledge actually fitted the music far better than the verification procedures I subsequently conducted. Thus the latent content of a work of art may well be transmitted uniquely in the aura you enter when you touch it, without any real knowledge, whereas it is too encapsulated in the solid kernel of its form to reveal itself to us until that form is shattered. But that aura is created as an emission of rays; it hovers before us as a sign of the material which our eye is doubtless able to perceive in the form of fluid particles, but not in a solid mass. It is extinguished and then flares up finally once more, once our mind has penetrated to its core. No work is truer to its aura, and more deceptive in its form than that of Strauss, and it would scarcely be going too far to maintain that you only know it, if you know it by hearsay, rather than by hearing it.

A similar phenomenon may be observed on a journey through places in which you have never stayed, but whose towns and cities are familiar. Even when you are no expert in the geography of the regions you are travelling through, you can guess the sequence of the stations simply from the atmosphere of each place name, which seems to suggest how close it is to, or distant from, other places in the same region. Fulda: the next station has to be Erfurt, since its aura suggests that it lies between Hesse-Cassel and Thuringia. You then expect Weimar, which does indeed lie in the fantasy realm of Thuringia, but, unlike Halle, is far from being so clearly located in a state with a Saxon dialect. If you then stop over in Halle and Erfurt these differences may easily shrink and the people and cities may turn out to be very similar. Only when you have looked at the map and constructed the constellation which all these towns form together does the original picture reimpose itself. What is needed is a precise overview of the Straussian province. Even more, you have to have left it behind you in order to discover once again the chemical, highly industrialized and neon-lit character of his Art Nouveau that was once advertised by the name Elektra.


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