cover image Orpheus in the Underworld: Essays on Music

Orpheus in the Underworld: Essays on Music

Theodor W. Adorno, trans. from the German by Douglas Robertson. Seagull, $25 (300p) ISBN 978-1-80309-322-2

German philosopher Adorno (1903–1969) celebrates new music, pans the old, and bemoans a philistine culture industry in these knotty essays written from 1922 to 1968. Himself a pianist and composer, Adorno champions such avant-garde music as Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone compositions, which ditched coherent melody and harmony to achieve “the liberated enforcement of historical necessity,” while attacking musicians who clung to crowd-pleasing tonality. Later pieces critique classical music for the masses. For example, the title essay condemns Germany’s chart-topping classical albums in 1968—not one avant-garde composition among them—as mere entertainment, “the underworld... that passes itself off as Heaven.” Ably capturing Adorno’s worldview, the volume reveals a thinker who foresaw a dying world reborn in a fusion of high modernist aesthetics and vehement radicalism—“No music that does not potentially carry forward the critical assault on the existent down to its innermost cells of its technique has any right to be written”—only to sour on the masses when they found the revolution unlistenable. Adorno’s trash talk is smart and cutting, and when he sticks closely to the music, his observations are wonderfully evocative, as when he praises composer Anton Webern’s “pianissimo, his tenderness, his tendency to let the music hang in the air.” Unfortunately, those moments too often get obfuscated by distractingly cerebral prose, 200-word sentences, baffling abstractions, and dour dialectics. Music scholars will find value, but others can skip this. (June)