Friday, March 16, 2018

A Translation of "Brahms aktuell" by Theodor W. Adorno

Brahms Today

In the course of applying present-day criteria to an appraisal of the inventory of modern music in conjunction with that of the recent past, the 1926 edition of The Lexicon of Modern Music says of Brahms, “For the ‘moderns’ he is undoubtedly the least influential of all the masters, which does not derogate from his greatness, the fulfillment of his historical mission, in the slightest.”  The logic of this statement, a statement promulgated with that frolicsome enthusiasm for novelty that is basically inclined to jilt the new in favor of what in truth is utterly hackneyed provided that it has been passed off as something even newer, testifies against itself: for what could the “fulfilment of the historical mission” of someone who has been dead for scarcely more than thirty years possibly signify if at the same time it is maintained that he no longer exerts any “influence”? Despite this the statement is worth the trouble of a serious rebuttal: not on behalf of Brahms, who is in no need of any sort of defense, but rather for the sake of substantive new music, which is misconstrued and discredited by such theses and stands vindicated in direct proportion to its material distance from that zeal for celerity which in this case evinces not merely ingratitude to the past, but even more damningly an entirely superficial relation to the present.

First of all, even a historical conspectus of the origin of the new music precludes the vindication of this thesis.  Reger, who this same lexicon generously assures us was “the main link between post-classicism and post-romanticism and modern music” is simply unthinkable in the absence of Brahms: his resumption of composing absolute music within the context of sonata-form works for chamber ensembles, the keyboard movement in “Handles,” but even more profoundly his technique of breaking down unified themes, of shaping their metamorphosis through the application of the universally sovereign principal of development, and above all his style of harmonic polyphony, is unimaginable without Brahms; even Reger’s most radical legacy, the composition of musical “prose” through metrical relaxation, is indebted to Brahms’s distensions and abbreviations.  How much the young Schoenberg was indebted to him may be gathered even from a superficial inspection of the song “Am Wegrand” [“At the Wayside”] from op. 6--in other words, from a period in which his music was already evolving.  It is less widely known that the early (pre-op. 10) chamber works of Hindemith also explicitly engage with Brahms.  This ought to suffice from a historical point of view; all the same, historians could still alight on the bright idea that Brahms has been “outgrown.”  So what about that?

To be sure, nobody writes ponderous sixths over triplets with delayed downbeats anymore; there are few genuine recapitulations, even in the shortest piano pieces, and one can discern pastiches of the Brahmsian “tone”—his effortfully loosened tightlippedness, the wheezy respiration of a form of music that is, so to speak, relentlessly aging—whenever one cares to look for them; this precisely because this tone is so closely conjoined with the Brahmsian wellspring—in other words his entire method of composition.  But this tells us no more about Brahms than what “every ass can hear,” to employ one of his own expressions.

The actual essence of Brahms is not so readily discernable; and yet in a latent fashion it is all the more powerful.  It is soonest brought to light by a consideration of the material Brahms had to work with at the beginning—namely, the material provided by Schumann, that melodically homophonic music that for the sake of vocalism and its harmonic treasure trove had macerated Beethoven’s great sonata-form edifice by steeping it in subjective expression, that had transformed that edifice’s contrasts into lyrical song-play, its tectonic repetitions into the compulsorily cyclical reiteration of the hermetically isolated ego.

After Schumann’s sacrifice the objective spirit of the sonata recollects itself, so to speak, in Brahms.  His greatness has consisted entirely in the rigor with which this self-recollection attaches itself to the place and time in which it occurs.  Retrogression to Beethoven in the name of Schumannian subjectivity and its related musical material is impossible; in the context of sonata form, modern German and Chopinian chromaticism, which has not yet discovered its great success in the mature Wagner, seems for the nonce to be tantamount merely to an aggravation of Schumann’s situation.  Brahms’s solution to this problem is not to blast his way through the material, nor to turn back, at least no more than occasionally, but rather to immerse himself in it.  His music gazes intently at its material, Schumannian High Romanticism, in its self-givenness, until at length that material’s own demands bring to term an objectification: the objectification of the subjective.  What Wagner accomplishes through dynamic tempestuousness, Brahms achieves through tenacious insistence.  But his results have all the more staying-power, staying-power for the practice of later composers in particular, the less tightly they cling to the superficies of the sonic phenomenon, the less vulnerable they accordingly are to wearing out their welcome as a manifestation of “charm.”

A precise analysis of these results would be a major contribution to the theory of art—certainly no more negligible a contribution thereunto than an analysis of Bruckner’s.  Allow me just to supply some hints to the contributor: in Brahms’s music Schumann’s harmonic treasures are released from their expressive isolation, and the harmonic structure is redefined in accordance with them: they form autonomous subordinate scale degrees that make possible the meaningful chordal distribution of equilibrium even over long stretches and nevertheless pit their subjectively hermetic abundance against the “classical” schema of subdominant, dominant, and tonic.  Beethoven’s lapidary symphonic style with its sequencing of identically maintained motifs (as in the first movement of the Fifth) is as little compatible with such a harmonic consciousness as is the Wagnerian chromatic sequence: in lieu of this Beethoven’s specific technique of development is improved and elevated to an art of variation, which in the exposition and development sections generates the relentlessly new out of the familiar, the tried and tested, without granting admittance to a single “free,” constructively contingent note.  This is complemented by an art of economical dissection of themes into their smallest motifs, an art that logically develops out of the sonata much as Wagner’s technique develops out of the compulsion exerted by dramatically pregnant characterization, yet without sacrificing the shaping theme as a vehicle of substance mediating between the motif and the overarching form.  It is a grandiose, recalcitrant compositional unnaivety that is truly maturing only now, in today’s consciousness of the material, an unnaivety that Brahms, in decisive contrast to Bruckner, keeps under masterly control and whose peculiar musical character as knowledge is giving proof of his curative power only now that the dolorous emotional urgency of Romanticism has died off.  His idea that sonata form itself must be recast and reconstructed remains unmastered to this day: it is formulated most precisely in the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

But the situation of present-day music and the problematic history of its best exponents make it impossible to refuse the resumption of those Brahmsian intentions.  Now that our dissonances are no longer of use as stimuli or as expressions of a chaotic spiritual condition, but rather simply as new musical matter; now that our neoclassical retrogression is turning out to be too brief, to be alien to the material, those categories of musical consciousness that Brahms developed out of the material, categories that remain undiscovered to this day, are maturing, are transcending that very material.  Brahms’s way of thinking about scale degrees has provided the foundation of all legitimate serial composition, his cagily varying dynamics are a salutary corrective to counterfeit terraced rigidity; the economics of his art of variation perforce inculcates an economics of a mode of composition that is commensurate with the material; and let it be emphatically repeated that the reorganization of the principal musical form that is commanded in Brahms’s best works has yet to be achieved.  It may easily even happen that the substance of the new music will be found in the fulfillment of those very Brahmsian postulates—postulates that may be affined to certain theories of the elderly Hölderlin—as the disquieting sounds win their self-evidence as mere albeit undoubtedly necessary accidents.

Suppose the Brahmsian tone never exerts any “influence”; what does such overt influence really count for in art anyway?  He has instituted laws for art, laws whose obligatory precision vies for pride of place with their expectant latency.  At future Brahms performances that realize these laws rather than his academic legacy or his autumnal colors, it will be vitally important to bring them to light and thus bring to light how fruitful they have hitherto been.


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas Robertson

Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 18, pp. 200ff.