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Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Review of The Glenn Gould Reader

Review of The Glenn Gould Reader

I am a great admirer of Glenn Gould. I always loved the two versions of the Goldberg Variations that he recorded (as usual I have included in this post several video that you might find interesting).
However, the first time that I was really amazed from his interpretation was when I heard him play Schoenberg’s Piano Piece Op. 33a. In his performance I heard something that I cannot describe in words. It is simply magic. As he often does, Gould deviates from the score. He does it on purpose from the reason that I will mention in a moment.

I bought several months ago The Glenn Gould Reader (edited by Tim Page. Published by Vintage Books, 1990). It includes essays written by Gould to journals such as the Piano Quarterly and texts that accompanied his recordings. Some of the texts are funny and light hearted. Others have incredible insights into music, performance and musical history.

Gould on Stokowsky

His essay ‘Stokowsky in Six Scenes’ is a master piece. A passage from it may give you an idea why Gould himself had the habit of deviating from the score as well as give you a taste of his literary style:
‘Stokowsky was, for want of a better word, an ecstatic. He was involved with the notes, the tempo marks, the dynamics in the score, to the same extent that a filmmaker is involved with the original book or source which supplies the impetus, the idea, for his film. “Black marks on paper”, he would say to me a quarter-century later. “We write black marks on white paper – the mere facts of frequency; but music is a communication much more subtle than mere facts. The best a composer can do when within him he hears a great melody is to put it on paper. We call it music, but that is not music; that is only paper. Some believe that one should merely mechanically reproduce the marks on the paper, but I do not believe in that. One must go much further than that. We must defend the composer against the mechanical conception of life which if becoming more and more strong today.”’ (p. 264)
This, of course, could represent not only Stokowsky, but also Gould himself. At another place in the essay Gould tells us that Stokowsky modified his studio interpretations so that they will suite the living-room acoustics where the music will be heard. Indeed, when Gould writes about other performers, he often gives valuable and interesting information about himself.

Gould on Schoenberg

Another excellent essay is ‘Arnold Schoenberg – A Perspective’. This is was originally a monograph published by the University of Cincinnati (1964). What I love about this essay is that it makes an interesting overview on Schoenberg’s compositional development, yet it also tries (as early as 1964!) to understand his significance on the history of music. Gould raises questions such as ‘what will happen to Schoenberg in the year 2000?’ He notes the fact that Schoenberg’s technique had entered the grade-B horror movies and that it is much more acceptable in operas than in the concert hall.     
Gould had a deep understanding of the aesthetics, philosophical and technical problems that occupied Schoenberg. When he deals with technical issues, he usually does not divorce them from social and historical events (although he takes caution not to suggest too strong connections), and he describes in a very lively way what might have been the composer’s feelings when embarking on new and unknown paths of composition.


Gould on  Rubinstein

In his essay on Rubinstein he includes a conversation that tell us volumes about Gould’s philosophy of recording:
‘…when you begin, you don’t quite know what it is about. You only come to know as you proceed… I very rarely know, when I come to the studio, exactly how I am going to do something… I’ll try it is fifteen different ways… I don’t know at the time of the session what result is finally going to accrue. And it does depend upon listening to a playback and saying “That doesn’t work; it is going to go that way; I’ll have to change that completely.” It makes the performer very like the composer, really, because it gives him editorial afterthought…’ (p. 287)
It is interesting to read this, since Gould had a dream of being a composer – a dream that was fulfilled only in his performances.
Gould was an incredibly knowledgeable musician. He writes about people such as Byrd, Gibbons, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Hindemith, Boulez, Terry Riley, Rubinstein, Menuhin, Barbra Streisand and many others. I the book one can find essays about technology, recordings, Gould various broadcast and TV projects, and other interesting things. I recommend reading this book to anyone who is interested in classical music in general and Glenn Gould and performance in particular.    

Gould on Recordings and Media

Some of the most interesting essays can be found in part three of the book, which is entitled "Media". The first article, "The Prospects of Recording", is perhaps the most interesting. In it Gould explains his views on editing, the affect of recordings on the listener in particular and art in general. I also recommend reading the next essay: "Music and Technology". In this section one can find texts that Gould used for some of his broadcasts. For example, for The Idea of North. One can listen to these broadcasts, as they have been released two years ago on CDs on CBS Records.

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Further Reading

Artur Schnabel and Schoenberg’s Performance Aesthetics and Practice

Artur Schnabel and Schoenberg’s Performance Aesthetics and Practice

During my short Post-doc in Berlin (January-February 2008) I visited the Stifung Archiv Der Akademie Der Künst. I saw there interesting things concerning Arnold Schoenberg (concert programs and record sleeves as well as some items from the Stuckenschmidt Nachlass). I bought there a book which was published by the institution titled Artur Schnabel: Musiker Musician, ed. Werner Grünzweig (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2001). 

Only today, I open the book for the first time (it took me one year!). This book contains many interesting items such as writings on Schnabel, writings by Schnabel, letters, various lists and other items that only German musicology is able to collect in such a wonderful manner (and I am only half sarcastic when I say so). 

One of the most interesting items in this book is an article by Claudio Arrau (the pianist, 1903-1991) titled “Artur Schnabel: Servant of the Music”. The article is from 1952, first published in Musical America (p.31). 

The article is interesting in more than one respect. It seems that Arrau is suggesting, what may seem as a contradiction. On the one hand, he claims that “Schnabel completely rejected the nineteenth-century notion of music as a vehicle for self-expression, at the service of the virtuoso for his own self-gratification.” Arrau mentions that Schnabel was not satisfied with the Urtext edition of his time. He conducted research and “corrected” that version. 

Yet his recording and printed editions show that he used flexible tempo when playing. His editions mention tempo fluctuations that were not originally printed in the score. These tempo fluctuations were not seen as a contradiction to being faithful to the spirit of the composition. On the contrary, music was seen (as Arrau argues) as “a living organism with an inner fluctuation and flexibility above and below metronome markings”. 

This view of seeking to understand an objective musical object (or spirit, if you like) while expressing it with vitality of an “organism” was also the performance aesthetics of Arnold Schoenberg, a contemporary and friend of Schnabel.   

On the one hand, on 24 August 1909 he wrote a letter to Busoni criticizing the latter’s transcription of Schoenberg’s Op. 11 No. 2. Trying to understand why Busoni had decided to create his version of this piece, a matter that seemed to irritate Schoenberg, he enquired of Busoni: ‘I would like to ask you if you have perhaps taken too slow a tempo. That could make a great difference. Or too little rubato. I never stay in time! Never in tempo!’ (Ferruccio Busoni, Selected Letters, trans. and ed. Antony Beaumont (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 395.) Here Schoenberg admitted that his approach to performance transcended his own score indications. 

On the other hand in 1912 Schoenberg cited Mahler saying: ‘I consider it my greatest service that I force the musicians to play [spielen] exactly what is in the notes’. (Schoenberg, Style and Idea, ‘Gustav Mahler‘, 464-5.) In the preface to the first edition (1914) of Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 Schoenberg argued quite clearly that actions originating with the interpreter, which are not included in the score, have a negative effect. 

For Schoenberg and Schnabel, therefore, extensive tempo fluctuations that go beyond the score indications, was not contradictory to being a servant of the composer’s intentions. In 1912 Schoenberg claimed that playing the right notes results in the performer’s participation in ‘the spirit of the music’. (Schoenberg, Style and Idea, ‘Gustav Mahler’, 464-465.) A work of art which is a spiritual entity demands spontaneity in performance.

Pianist Arthur Schnabel Home Movie 1937

Artur Schnabel plays Beethoven Sonata #32 in C min Op. 111

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Conference paper: Schoenberg’s or Adorno’s Performance Aesthetics?

Schoenberg’s or Adorno’s Performance Aesthetics?

On 3 August I wrote a post with a selection of quotations from Adorno’s book Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (Cambridge UK and Malden MA USA: Polity, 2006). During the past few weeks I have read this book and wrote down my own thoughts on it. This is the paper that I plan to read next week in the conference on Adorno’s performance aesthetics in Manchester. The paper might pass slight changes before the conference. I plan to expand it into an article after I receive reactions. I hope you will find it interesting. Since it is a conference paper, I removed the footnotes. If anyone is interested in the exact source of any quotation please contact me.


For many years, Schoenberg and Adorno wanted to write (separately) a book on musical performance.Both authors never completed the projects and left in their Nachlaß articles, fragmentary sketches and other relevant writings on the subject. This paper will examine the relation between what we know about their performance aesthetics. My main thesis is that a clear and objective definition of its ‘essence’ is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.

The Second Viennese School performance aesthetics narrative           

Several scholars speak about the existence of a Second Viennese School with relation to performance aesthetics. In 1986 Hermann Danuser argued that the most important motivation for Schoenberg’s theory of performance is to protect performance from the will of the performer. He insisted that this is true also ‘for the total theories that came out of the performance of the Viennese School: above all those of Rudolf Kolisch, Erwin Stein, René Leibowitz, Theodor W. Adorno and Hans Swarowsky’. Although Danuser acknowledges that Schoenberg’s performance theory is fragmentary, at the end of his article he refers the reader to the theory of performance of Kolisch in order to answer questions that were not answered by Schoenberg. David Satz, a student of Kolisch, mentioned that in Darmstadt in the 1950s Kolisch and Adorno discussed performance. Satz wrote that this ‘leaves open the question of how the joint project’s scope might have related to the notes which Adorno left, or the work which Kolisch actually brought about. I believe that it is a serious mistake to assume an absolute identity between the two’. Helmut Haack referred mainly to the performance aesthetics of Kolisch in order to examine what he called, the ‘aesthetics of the school’, and argued that it was influenced by Mahler. John Butt made a comment in passing claiming that Stravinsky had a ‘very similar aesthetics of performance … [compared to the one] promoted by Schoenberg and his students.’ In this context, Butt mentioned Rudolph Kolisch, Erwin Stein, René Leibowitz, Theodore Adorno and Hans Swarowsky. Finally, in 1997 Alfred Cramer suggested that ‘Adorno’s vision of silent reading echoed Schoenberg’s own mind’.

In light of this Second Viennese School performance aesthetics narrative, I would like to raise two questions. What are the criteria to decide whether a certain thinker belongs to a certain school? What are the ideological implications of declaring that a specific individual belongs to a certain group and not to others? I suggest that it is possible to construct a different narrative that would highlight not only the similarities but also the differences between people such as Adorno and Schoenberg.

When discussing the so-called Second Viennese School with relation to performance, one finds significant differences between the aesthetics of its members. Schoenberg disagreed with some of Kolisch’s ideas in the latter’s article ‘Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music’. In a letter dated 1949 from Schoenberg to Steuermann regarding the latter’s recording of Schoenberg’s piano music, he wrote: ‘I do not at all share your anxiety lest anyone should hear a wrong note. I am convinced that it had happened only a few times in the history of musical reproduction that some wrong note did not come in.’ He stressed: ‘there is no absolute purity in this world… But I am convinced that you can play music so convincingly that it evokes the impression of purity, artistic purity, and, after all, that’s what matters. Let’s leave this quasi-perfection to those who can’t perceive anything else’. Steuermann’s refusal to release his recording for publication resulted in rupture between the two old friends. On 13 January 1950 Schoenberg wrote to Ross Russell from Dial Records concerning a plan to record his music with Steuermann and Kolisch. He warned Russel ‘not to be too indulgent’ to Steuermann’s and Kolisch’s wishes to play the music ‘over and over again, until there is nothing which … [they do] not like’. Schoenberg stresses that ‘it has no sense to aim for a perfection which is not human’. I do not wish to argue that there are no similarities between the performance aesthetics of members of Schoenberg’s circle, yet one should be very cautious about making casual assumptions about links between one aesthetic and the others. In order to point to some of the problems with this concept I will start by examining Schoenberg and Adorno’s relationship.

Schoenberg and Adorno’s relationship

Berg wrote about Adorno’s Two Pieces for String Quartet Op. 2 to Schoenberg, claiming that ‘in its seriousness and concision and above all in the uncompromising purity of its whole structure, it may be described as belonging to Schoenberg’s school (and to no other!)’. Yet including Adorno into the Second Viennese School was not part of Schoenberg’s wish. Schoenberg mentioned Adorno in his will as the person to whom he clearly does not want to entrust his Nachlaß after his death. On 5 December 1949 Schoenberg wrote to Stuckenschmidt after reading Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music: ‘I have never been able to bear the fellow… now I know that he clearly never liked my music.’ On the same day he wrote to Rufer: ‘The book is very difficult to read, for it uses this quasi-philosophical jargon in which modern professors of philosophy hide the absence of an idea. They think it is profound when they produce lack of clarity by undefined new expressions.’ On 10 December 1949 he wrote to Kurth List: ‘Wiesengrund’s attack is an act of vengeance. Once when he was getting on my nerves, I made him look ridiculous, and although I thoroughly excused myself on account of nervousness, sickness, etc., he has apparently not forgiven me for this.’ In December 1950, several months before Schoenberg died, he wrote a manuscript titled ‘Wiesengrund’. There he wrote: ‘I could never really stand him… Not without Rudi’s [Rudolf Kolisch] fault, he was regarded in our circle as a great scholar.’

Similarities between the aesthetics

Having said this, one should keep in mind that Schoenberg did appreciate Adorno. At the ‘Wiesengrund’ manuscript he wrote: ‘It cannot be disputed that he possesses certain estimable abilities. He is very musical, plays piano well, and possesses a great knowledge of the musical literature, from which he can play many pieces by heart due to his good memory. He has looked into musical-theoretical problems with a great deal and with success, and he knows the history of our art most thoroughly.’ Having studied with Berg for several months since January 1925 and being the editor-in-chief of journal ‘Anbruch’ between 1928 and 1931, it is not surprising that Adorno was influenced and possibly also has influenced the thoughts of people in Schoenberg’s circle.     

            It is interesting that both authors attacked the performance aesthetics of enemies of Schoenberg’s circle: for example, famous conductors such as Toscanini and Bruno Walter.

Both call for the help of the concept of ‘organicism’ in order to protect the work from irresponsible performers. Adorno is more ambivalent than Schoenberg towards this concept. He claimed that ‘the “living” totality of a performance, especially in larger forms, is probably a mere ideology, as in many other areas.’ Yet in the same breath he attacked the ‘”fascinating” conductor [that] is a fetish like the master violinist… [that] belong to the culture industry’. Schoenberg too attacked ‘the goat-like bleating [vibrato] used by many instrumentalists to curry favour with the public’, or singers for ‘ignoring dramatic requirements in favour of their own vocal effects’. Both authors wrote against the so called ‘beautiful tone’ for its own sake. The organic musical work is the thing that should be expressed in performance.

Yet pure objectivism was not part of their performance aesthetics. Schoenberg called for a ‘well-balanced’ performance style, one that does not veer towards either of the two extremes: the subjective over-expressive ‘romantic’ performance style and the objective performance practice of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which demanded full faithfulness to the score. This demand is echoed by Adorno who wrote that his performance study is ‘directed against 2 fronts. On the one hand official musical life, which … became part of the culture industry long ago: galvanized, spirited and culinary. On the other hand the front of abstract negation, the escape to the mensural realm. In the former case a false subjectivism, in the latter a residual theory of truth, the extermination of the subject (all forms of objectivism, from Stockhausen to Walcha, really amount to the same thing…)’. Adorno mentioned there that the ‘so-called young people protested against the “exaggerated expressivity” in Eduard’s [Steuermann] Schoenberg interpretation.’ Elsewhere he wrote: ‘Against intuitionism and positivism.’, and in another place he claimed that the ‘Secret of interpretation … [is] controlling oneself, yet not making music against oneself. One’s impulse must live on even in its negation.’          

Both Schoenberg and Adorno wrote volumes on the primacy of the imagined on the so-called ‘mere’ playing. Schoenberg complimented conductors for insisting on many rehearsals. In his essay on Mahler he claimed that Mahler the conductor demanded many rehearsals since he has a clear image in his mind of the music, and that during each rehearsal he corrected the orchestra in order to come as close as possible to this ideal.  Adorno argued that ‘Making music correctly demands an incessant verification of all real sounds in relation to the imagined… Whoever places doing before imagining in music today is guilty of regressive music-making.’

Differences between the aesthetics

Both authors suggested that it is not enough to simply play the music. There is an idea that is hidden that needs to be revealed in performance. Yet Adorno claimed that the idea ‘cannot even be recognized in its pure state, let alone realized.’ This leads to an extremely idealistic view of composition and a negative view of performance: ‘The measure of interpretation is the height of its failure’. Elsewhere he used the word ‘evil’ in order to describe what the performer does. Although Schoenberg too saw composition and the musical idea as something that is higher than performance, his writings usually do not give the impression that whatever the performer does, performance cannot communicate the musical idea. On the contrary, whether it is structure or feelings, Schoenberg strived to explain how performance can and should communicate the musical idea. Moreover, as I argue in my book on Schoenberg’s aesthetic writings on performance and interpretation (which will be published in Oxford University Press), in Schoenberg’s writings from the 1930s and 1940s he granted the performer an integral part in the role that in his earlier writings belonged solely to the composer: now both composer and performer have a mutual part in the presentation of the abstract musical idea. Although both authors’ views on this subject are not without contradictions, it seems to me that by large, Schoenberg tended to give more credit to performers and their creative role than Adorno.

On analysis and performance

Did Schoenberg, who was a world-famous theorist during his lifetime, expect performers to analyze the music they performed? Schoenberg did not write in any of his performance manuscripts explicitly about a type of analysis that the performer must undertake. On 27 July 1932 Schoenberg wrote to Kolisch that the latter had correctly worked out the series of Schoenberg’s Third String Quartet. He continued:


You must have gone to a great deal of trouble … But do you think one’s any better off for knowing it? I can’t see it that way … this [the series] isn’t where the aesthetic qualities reveal themselves … I can’t utter too many warnings against overrating these analyses, since after all they only lead to what I have always been dead against: seeing how it is done; whereas I have always helped people to see: what it is! I have repeatedly tried to make Wiesengrund understand this, and also Berg and Webern. But they won’t believe me… The only sort of analysis there can be any question of for me is one that throws the idea into relief and shows how it is presented and worked out. It goes without saying that in doing this one mustn’t overlook artistic subtleties.      


The fact that he did not insist that performers should conduct analyses before performing has great importance. It means that, unlike Adorno, Schoenberg did not consider analysis as the single path to music making.

            In ‘Notes towards a theory of musical reproduction’ Adorno mentions ‘Precise Analysis as a self-evident precondition of interpretation. Its cannon is the most advanced state of compositional-technical insight.’ In the notes taken after the Darmstadt lecture he wrote: ‘For the concept of reconstructing the neumic from the mensural, a genuine interpretation in the sense of decoding, the most important category of mediation is that of analysis as a necessary condition for interpretation.’ Adorno mentioned two meanings of the concept of ‘clarity’. The first is that ‘one can hear everything that is written’, or as Schoenberg famously wrote around 1923 ‘The highest principle for all reproduction of music would have to be that what the composer has written is made to sound in such a way that every note is really heard … that they all stand out clearly from one another.’ The second meaning of ‘clarity’, according to Adorno, which is ‘higher’, is based upon analysis: ‘Nothing should be played arbitrarily, simply because it is written’. Adorno adds that ‘this failing is one of the reasons for the incomprehensibility of many performances of new music’. In other words, Adorno seems to expect from the performer much rational and intellectual work in order to perform ‘correctly’.

Schoenberg often complains against insufficient number of rehearsal. Actually, the demand for many rehearsals is a major theme in his writings and letters. Performers who insists on many rehearsals (for example Mahler), have a clear image of the music in their minds. They seek to communicate the image by refining their performance. Adorno too complains against insufficient rehearsal, yet he connects it to the socio-economic conditions of interpretation. It can be generalized that Adorno, as an experienced philosopher and educated musician, went to great pains in order to contextualize his ideas with relation to the history of music. He related to the writings of Wagner, Dorian, Riemann and others, in a manner that Schoenberg usually did not bother to do so in such an extensive manner.

Developing theories

When one compares the fragments each author wrote during the years one finds that their theories are not internally consistent. Before 1963 Adorno believed in the ‘x-ray’ concept that reveals hidden structure that lies beneath the heard surface. During the 1960s he changed his mind: ‘My hypothesis that the performance is the x-ray photograph of the work requires correction in so far as it provides not the skeleton, but rather the entire wealth of subcutanea.’  

            Schoenberg’s performance aesthetics too developed and changed. From pronouncing anti-performance ideas in some (yet not all) of his performance writings in the 1920s, after 1933 he grants the performer more importance in the creative process. Unfortunately, this is something that is not acknowledged by scholars up to now. Leon Botstein, said: ‘we were taught by a generation of teachers in the composer and analysis world who were extremely hostile to performers. This generation was trained in its attitude to players by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who were extremely negative about performers’. Authors such as Botstein, Nicholas Cook, Alfred Cramer and Danuser, who emphasize Schoenberg’s negative writings on performers, contribute to a meta-narrative that puts him in the position of a composer, which insists on complete cultural hegemony of composers over performers, manifested in the passivity of performers in a process of communication between composer to listener. My study of Schoenberg’s performance writings and the Adorno’s recently published fragments of performance challenge this meta-narrative by demonstrating that they held various changing views on performers and performance. The alternative narrative that I suggest calls for being sensitive to both the differences and the similarities between the performance aesthetics of the two musicians, as well as being aware of their fragmentary, multifaceted, developmental and at certain points contradictory character. The definition of the core or message of these writings depends not only on the fragmentary texts, but also on us: their readers, and on our aims and values.

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How to write a book review

There are several reasons why to write a book review. It is a good way to gain experience in writing. Publishing reviews is easier than publishing articles. One is not expected to contribute something completely new to the world of research. When you submit your review to a journal you usually receive feedback from the editor and that can improve the level of your writing. Another reason is that it may help you learn the book more thoroughly than if you would just read it. Good writing is a form of teaching. When one teaches something, one remembers it forever. Moreover, this is a way that other scholars in the field (especially the one whose book your will review) will know you and what you think. In other words, this is a way to start making a name in the field. Finally, if you where asked to review a book, although you will probably not be paid for it, you will receive the book. In this post I will mention some of the things that can help you write a good book review.

Read the book

If you decide to write a book review, it is highly recommended to thoroughly read that book that you are reviewing. The person who wrote the book invested in it an enormous amount of time and effort and you would like to be fair (see also the following point). Moreover, other people who read the book will read your review. They will want to compare their view of the book to yours. If you will not read the book thoroughly they might feel it from your review. This might result in a bad impression.  

Read review written by others

The best way to learn how to write is to carefully study how the giants do it. Scan the publication lists of scholars that you admire and find their reviews. Read some of these reviews and analyze them. Write notes about the strategy of their review, the structure, the tone of voice, and other points that you think that are significant.

Do not be too critical

One of the tendencies of young scholars (but not only young ones) is to be too critical. In order to demonstrate their abilities and perhaps also because of lack of confidence, many behave in what may be considered an over critical manner. If you are at the beginning of your carrier as a scholar, it may be wise to be aware that such a tendency could be also part of your behavior (at least to a certain extent). Try to accept that other people may have different views or perspectives of music than you have, which are not completely wrong. If you find something that you want to criticize, do it in a gentle manner.

Balance your criticism

Never write a completely negative review. It is important to balance your book review also with positive remarks. This will show that you are able to see the benefits in the book. There will always be some people that may benefit from reading the book. Try to ‘speak’ to them when you write the positive arguments. People who write too many negative reviews may not be asked in the future to review book.

Show your personal reading

Beware from writing a review that will be only descriptive (the first chapter contains… the second chapter contains… etc.) Make sure that you mention your opinion about the important part of the book. Although over criticism is something that you would like to avoid. Being not critical at all is also problematic.
Showing your personal view of the book or some of the issues in it may make your review more colorful. People are interested in personal perspectives and interpretations. Make sure that yours will sound clearly.

Be helpful

Try to keep in mind that many people are reading your review in order to know whether or not to read it themselves. It will be helpful if you point out things in the book that are interesting. If you thing that this book may be of interest to some people, make sure that you mention it at the end of the book. It can be useful to mention to whom you think the book may be interesting. 

Listen to the comments of the editor

Editors are usually experienced scholars. When they will send you comments, make sure that you read them very carefully. Pay attention to both comments on writing style and arguments. Reading their comments one by one and thinking about them is a great lesson for improving your writing.
Do you have any other points that you think that one should remember when writing a book review? Have questions? Feel free to comment on this post in the form below.



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Notes from Adorno’s theory of performance

Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction

In the this post I have gathered a few quotations from Theodor W. Adorno’s notes on performance collected in the recently published book Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (Cambridge UK and Malden MA USA: Polity, 2006). The notes here are from the section titles ‘NOTES I’ on pp. 1-7. The notes do not appear in the order as they do in the book.


Title: ‘Notes towards a theory of musical reproduction’. The word ‘reproduction’ (and not performance) in the title of the study puts emphasis on the idea that one not merely performs, one reproduces something that exists a priori. This is very important since it reveals one of the main concerns of this study.

Hidden beneath the surface

‘True reproduction is the x-ray image of the work. Its task is to render visible all the relations, all aspects of context, contrast, and construction that lie hidden beneath the surface of the perceptible sound’. The idea mentioned in the title is developed here. Performance is an ‘x-ray image’ of a hidden construction. The word ‘hidden’ and ‘construction’ are important as we will see in a moment.

‘Perhaps this is the philosophical sense of the ‘x-ray image’ - to imitate all that is hidden.’ The performer needs to reveal what is hidden and then to imitate it in his or her playing. ‘The objectivity of reproduction presupposes depth of subjective perception, otherwise it is merely the frozen imprint of the surface.’ Here Adorno suggests a kind of listening that is not concentrated on the moment, but on ‘depth’ and hidden construction.

Analysis and performance

‘Precise analysis as a self-evident precondition of interpretation. Its canon is the most advanced state of compositional-technical insight.’ Since the construction is hidden the performer must reveal it through analysis. The word ‘construction’ mentioned in the quotation above is connected to ‘compositional insight’ here. Analysis is focused on the score and when Adorno speaks about context he relates to any context that might help understanding the notes in the score of the composition. Much is left outside of the game: style, playing fashion, tradition, the wish or insight of specific performers, current cultural and social issues. ‘Whereas the [musical] sense is not absorbed within the phenomenon, the possibility of its representation … consists exclusively in the phenomena. But this means: within their context. Fulfilling the sense of music means nothing other than rendering all aspects of the context visible.’

Against ‘beautiful sound’

Since the revelation of hidden construction is the goal, a beautiful sound for its own sake is almost useless. Adorno wrote in ‘Reflexionen über Musikkritikä’ [Reflections over music criticism] from 1967 the following: ‘I recall once telling my friend Rudolf Kolisch that I thought the new cellist in his quartet had a revolting tone, and Kolisch answered: “But that’s the best thing about him”. (see endnote 10 p. 237). ‘The negation of the “beautiful tone” is the true achievement of all musical mimesis’. ‘The elimination of the sensual pleasure at sound is the idiosyncrasy in which the death of interpretation asserts itself.’

Silent music making

Since all the truth is contained in the score, Adorno develops the concept of ‘silent music making’: ‘Development of the ideal of silent music-making, ultimately the reading of musical texts, in connection with falling silent (NB the utter destruction of the sensual phenomenon of music through mass reproduction). Playing from memory – ‘thinking the music to oneself’ – as a preliminary stage to this.’

Since ‘silent music making’ is the ideal, performance will always fall short of such reading: ‘It is this possibility – playing complex chamber music from memory, as inaugurated by Kolisch, and as asserting the absolute primacy of the text over its imitation – in comparison to which essentially all “music-making” already sounds antiquted… Cf. Schumann’. The editor of the book notes that Adorno is referring to Schumann’s aphorism ‘Das öffentliche Auswendigspielen’ (‘Playing from Memory in Public’). Schumann argues that playing from memory ‘will always testify to the great power of the musical spirit.’ He asks: ‘Why put fetters on the feet if the head has wings? Do you not know that a chord played from a score, no matter how freely it may be struck, does not sound even half as free as one played from imagination?’ Schumann concludes: ‘I am like that philistine who, when the virtuoso’s music fell from the stand and he played on calmly nonetheless, exclaimed triumphantly: “Look, look! This is a high art! He can play it from memory!”’. According to Schumann, real performance falls short of imagined performance. It seems that the ‘real’ performer is one that can imagine the a priori object so well, that he or she do not need a score. Schoenberg advised the Kolisch Quartet to play from memory. He was also the one who wrote several letters to conductors praising their will to make many rehearsals, arguing that people who do so have a clear image in their mind of the music. In other words, Adorno and Kolisch are echoing Schoenberg’s view on this subject. 

Schoenberg’s attitude to the text versus my own view

‘Two fundamentally incorrect notions of the nature of musical interpretation need to be refuted: 1) that of the musical text as a set of performance instructions 2) that of the musical text as the fixing of the imagined. In a more profound sense, it is not the work that is the function of the imagination, but rather vice versa (derive from the subject-object dialect of the work. NB also the epistemological argument of the unknownness of the imagined – “thing-in-itself”. NB Schoenberg’s attitude to the text versus my own view. Yet it must be said that the ideal of the work incorporates the imagined and the performance instructions as extremes of the spectrum).’


‘herein lies dissolution of the natural, “organic” aspect of music, which is a mere social appearance’. It seems that Adorno, unlike Schoenberg, did not believe in the concept of organicism. I will have to check this point as I further read the book.

Conference on Adorno

Byron will be giving a paper titled ‘Schoenberg’s or Adorno’s aesthetics of performance?’ in a conference on Adorno and Performance, 13-14 September 2008, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK

Related posts

Conference paper: Schoenberg’s or Adorno’s Performance Aesthetics?


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McClary on analysis, historical conditions and rationality

Yesterday I read again Susan McClary’s chapter “Excess and Frame: The Musical Representation of Madwomen” in Feminine Endings. One of the subchapters in this book deals with Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg. During my recent research trip in Berlin I did not have time to read the whole chapter, so I returned to it now, and I was amazed by McClary’s virtuosity, her breath of knowledge in music and other contemporary theory, and the way she builds her arguments. This chapter is a good example to authoritative writing.

Due to some of the issues that I have spoke about in recent posts (such as The difference between a poor critic and a good scholar, Musicology, Science and Postmodernism, Performance and Analysis: a response to Zecharia, and Heinrich Schenker and his followers) I thought it would be useful to quote the following from McClary’s chapter:

“That analysis is an indispensable ingredient in out study of music is beyond question. Yet we need to supplement bare formal analysis with information concerning the historical conditions that give rise both to particular repertories and also to the metatheoretical discourses that serve and explain away the ‘problematic’ aspects of music. If – as clearly is the case – a fascination with madness and transgressive behavior motivates much of the music we care about, then surly we need to take that into account before we jump into our graphs. Otherwise, what precisely are we doing? Whose rationality are we attempting to establish, and why?” (109)

What I love about this passage is that is does not go against analysis. It states clearly that analysis is “an indispensable ingredient in out study of music”. However, it suggests that scholars must go beyond the score in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding of music.

Moreover, it suggests that some of the motivation behind formal analysis is to demonstrate a supposed rationality of music that is actually motivated by irrational things (such as madness and transgressive behavior). Western culture celebrates rationality as one of its highest values and goals. It is postmodern authors (such as Michel Foucault) that demonstrate that this is nothing but a myth.

This is one of the things that I find extremely attractive about the epoch after modernism. Irrational issues such as madness, gender, identity and religion can be discussed in the open. These are the things that touch most of us and make us, at least partly, obsessed about the music that we love.

Musicology, Science and Postmodernism

There is something annoying about being a musicologist and a postmodernist. As a musicologist one is expected to be a scientist, to reach an objective truth and to say things with authority. As a postmodernist, one is expected to doubt the idea of one truth, to show various perspectives of a phenomenon and to deal with the elusive thing called: meaning. Being a musicologist and a postmodernist may seem a contradiction in terms.

There is something extremely attractive about science. It tells us stories about the truth: one truth. It gives us a sense of revelation, almost a religious one. It gives us miraculous power to control the world and to dominate it. It cures illness (often creating new ones) and promotes technological progress (are we happier?). For me, the notion of “progress” is nothing more than a superstition. Glenn Gould was aware of it, as are many others.

In the realm of music, many are still worshiping idols. It may be the romantic notion of the composer-idol. It may be a cold notion of cognition, by seeking the “grammar” behind the music. The common act of this idol worshipping is that it bypasses the concept that music meaning is something that is affected by performers, listeners and the social and cultural contexts that they live in.

Dr Flora Jersonsky-Margalit kindly pointed out an article that is relevant to this discussion. Avshlom Alizur wrote what seems to me as a simplistic article about postmodernism. I will not spend my time demonstrating why it is simplistic. Who ever is interested in reading a more comprehensive understanding of postmodernism in welcome to read first chapter of Religion Without Illusion (in Hebrew) by Dr. Gili Zivan. דת ללא אשליה

It is shocking how much time is spent on teaching how music is built while ignoring how it is experienced. A music student learns hours of harmony, counterpoint, and ear training (of the type that teaches you how to identify simple building blocks of music). The music student learns about the history of the composers (less about the history of music). Music analysis often focuses on analyzing what the composer did in his score. A better way to do things is to teach how harmonic grammar changes its meaning in different contexts. How context affects the meaning of counterpoint rules in the music of Bach and others (yes, also other composers used counterpoint…). How the same chord receives different meaning in different contexts and how very different chords sound the same in certain contexts (the music theorist Edward T. Cone wrote in 1967 a wonderful article called “Beyond analysis”).

It is true that some students start learning music with the aim of becoming composers. Yet, others simply want to play music or learn more about it in order to further enjoy it. As Eric Clark suggests in his recent articles, the crucial question is what music means. In order to deal with this question one needs to speak about performance. Performance is something social. It is a scene where certain things become more important than others. Performers, no matter whether they admit it or not, no matter whether they are conscious about it or not, always emphasize things in their performance.

Dealing with performance is one of the ways to deal with musical meaning. It is not by chance that performance studies became such a vibrant and important field in the world, when much of the academic world is increasingly influenced by postmodern thought.

Why does one cry from music? Is it because of Schenker? Is it because of the score? The score has something to do with it. However, it is only one important factor among many that play a role in the creation of musical meaning in performance.

It seems to me much more reasonable that students should compare recordings with the score and discuss the issue of interpretation. Why one interpretation is good and one is bad (the postmodernists will not like this…). Not only whether the performer is “faithful” to the score, but whether the score is “faithful” to the performer. I find both questions slightly ridiculous.

Musical meaning is a negotiation between cultural signs that are interpreted and reinterpreted. The scene is fluctuating and the “truth” depends on the performers and listeners. We can write all day about the “structure” and the “rules” of perceiving it. Yet, if one redefines in performance what in fact the structure is, than how “objective” can one be a priory to performance?

So what is the difference between a poor musical critic, who may speak about food when writing about music, and a musicologist who is supposed to transcend personal subjective metaphors and speak with slightly more authority? I will deal with this question in one of my forthcoming posts.

Heinrich Schenker and his followers

I am no Schenkerian. My knowledge of Schenker is limited and I never really did any analysis using his methods. I read criticism on Schenker’s theory, I read about his method and I know quite well several books and articles that are highly influenced by his theory. It is quite clear that Schenker is the most influential music theorist since the second half of the twentieth century. He has fanatic followers who believe in his theory and spread it. He has admirers that are influenced by him, yet are also critical to his thoughts. And there are people, like me, who highly respect his work yet feel far from it. Perhaps in the future, if I learn more about his work, I might be converted.

Recently, a book on Schenker call The Schenker Project was written by Nicholas Cook. I read parts of it and I think that it is very good. Cook has extensive knowledge on Schenker in particular and music analysis in general (he has a very good book which is ‘a must’ for anyone interested in Musical Analysis). Here is part of the abstract of the book: ‘This book aims to explain Schenker’s project through reading his key works within a series of period contexts. These include music criticism, the field in which Schenker first made his name; Viennese modernism, particularly the debate over architectural ornamentation; German cultural conservatism, which is the source of many of Schenker’s most deeply entrenched values; and Schenker’s own position as a Galician Jew who came to Vienna just as fully racialized anti-semitism was developing there.’

It is well known that Schenker’s theory ignores things such as rhythm and orchestration. Some of Schenker’s followers continued his work in very interesting ways. When I was young and naïve, I wrote a negative review on Harald Krabs’s book on Schumann (Fantasy Pieces). I still stand behind most of the criticism that I wrote at the time (a different version of part of this review can be found in my PhD in one of the chapters on Pierrot lunaire). Yet today I am capable of appreciating even more his achievements in this book.

John Rink, who was my Ph.D. supervisor, is influenced by Schenker. His is one of the theorists that include quazi-Schenkerian methods in research on performance. A fascinating article that he wrote doing this is: ‘Analysis and (or?) performance’ in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). It is interesting that this article in meant to assist performers. It advocates a middle way between those who think that one must do comprehensive Schenkerian analysis in order to perform and those who are against any kind of analysis before performing. He uses the term ‘informed intuition’.

Apart from the problems mentioned above, Schenker’s theory in misguided in the following (this is not meant to be a comprehensive list):

1) It claims to be the only truth.
2) It suggests that a work of Genius is based of certain structural definitions.
3) It claims that works of Genius are German.
4) It ignores the cultural and social aspects of music making.
5) It is based on the concept of organicism which is anachronistic.

It is important that every serious musician learns about Schenker. However, this must be conducted in a critical manner.

Since this blog deals alot with issues if performance, I would like to mention an important book that was published lately: Heinrich Schenker, ed. Heribert Esser, The Art of Performance (USA: Oxford University Press, 2002) This book includes unpublished writings on performance by Schenker. It is facinating and not expensive.

Do you have any comments? Please use the form below to add them to this post.

What should we write: comparison of “A Great Joy Tonight” and “Music-Mission and Message” (part 1)

We went this morning to a small trip to Tel-Aviv. I went to buy Susan McClary’s book Feminine Endings which I ordered. This is one of the books that that every music lover should have at home. I left the store with this book and with two other books: Inbal Perlson, A Great Joy Tonight: Arab-Jewish Music and Mizrahi Identity (Tel-Aviv, Israel: Resling, 2006), and Michal Smoira-Cohn and Herzl Shmueli, Music: A Mission and Message (Or Yehuda, Israel: Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2007).

In the post Call for papers “What there is and what there is not to read about music in Hebrew” I wrote that “I hope that the Israeli Musicological Association annual meeting will discuss not only what is not written, but also what should be written. Do we need more Schenkerian books in Hebrew that almost no one reads, or is there a more desperate need for books that might be of interest to a larger amount of readers?”

In this post I will compare the introductions of the two books in order to demonstrate the different goals of the writers and their relation to up-to-date research in other fields in Israel and music research in the world.

Music: A Mission and Message claims that “music is communication”. Michal Smoira-Cohen suggests that “the music moves from the producer [mashmia] and and listener [shomea]” The listener, she argues, feels a feeling of spiritual elevation if the got the “message”. She suggests that “music is in its entirety: emotional intelligence”. The music has a “mission”: it must reach the listener so that he or she could “internalize it and enrich his spiritual world”. The book, it is claimed, “is written out of a concern for the day of tomorrow and the fate [no more and no less] of music, which stands, this day, before a cross road.”

The argument presented in Music: A Mission and Message is problematic. Nicholas Cook wrote: “To understand music as performance means to see it as an irreducibly social phenomenon, even when only a single individual is involved… This observation derives its force from the extent to which the manifestly social practice of music has been conceptualized in terms of a direct and private communication from composer to listener. Because of this hierarchical communication model (one that reflects the traditional alignment of divine and human creation), even the everyday fact of divided authorship has been problematic for the musical academy.” [14], ‘Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance’

For Michal Smoira-Cohn and Herzl Shmueli Music is received “as if from a higher force, uplifted from man” (I guess she is speaking here about God although she if careful by using the words ‘as if’). For them, music is a message that is not being interpreted and influenced in any significant way by social and cultural circumstances. They suggest that music is an a-priori objective message that should be transmitted securely from God via the composer and performer, to the listener. It is very clear here who is active and who is passive; who is on top and who is under; who is ejaculating “the music” (the composer) and who is receiving it passively. In other words, music is not really being interpreted (in a sense that its “message” significantly changes as a result of this interpretation) it is transmitted. Its essence is left intact.

Performance becomes a passive act which has little affect on the “message” that should be transmitted faithfully to the listener. Otherwise, how can we save the world (or at least “the fate of music”)?

Inbal Perlson’s aim is slightly more modest. She wishes to reveal the mechanisms that turned the Jewish-Arab music in Israel to “Mizrachi” (eastern) music. She claims that by doing so, the Israeli Zionist hegemony neutralized the Arab component and made the music Israeli. This way the popular folk music (Zemer) could be kelp under control and it did not threat the development to the Israel-Jewish-Askenazi-white musical establishment.

I will review this book in a separate post, however, here, I will to demonstrate how the research questions are so different in these two projects. Perlson’s research is part of a postmodern project that was initiated by authors like Michael Foucault. It is dealing with power forces that control the music establishment, and affect the lives of all Israelis. Michal Smoira-Cohn and Herzl Shmueli project is pretending to be objective, dealing with “the music itself” (whatever that means). Most important: it is ignoring the cultural and social context that music is written and performed in.

Reading only the introductions of these two books, it is clear that the aims, research questions, relation to updated research on music in Israel and in the world, is completely different.

This is why I think anyone who cares why there are almost no books on music in Hebrew in the books shops, must first think what kind of books should be there. Musicologist have limited power. Yet, I saw how musicologist in England and USA were able to raise funds in order to create amazing research projects (see CMPCP and CHARM). We can do the same here. First we should make clear to ourselves and others where we are heading to. Will musicology in Israel in ten years from now will look like it was ten years ago, or will be somewhere else? What are our aims?!

If you care, comment on this post now.

Copyright Avior Byron 2023 .