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The Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna decided to give Avior Byron the Avenir Foundation Research Grant for a one month research trip in Vienna in order to work on two books that he is writing.  

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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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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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