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The Symphonic Subject: Beethoven, Hegel, Adorno

Graphic by Michelle Jia : Images Wikipedia (I) and the Noun Project (I)

On a chilly October day in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte's army laid waste to Prussian troops on the outskirts of Jena, a university town in central Germany. The sounds of his canons reverberated through the town, providing a sound track for the young philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as he put the finishing touches on a work that would change the course of history.

The Phenomenology of Spirit would be published the following year, a book of such suggestive power that it helped engender Marx and Engel's scientific materialism, Alexandre Kojève's vision of postwar European universalism, and Francis Fukuyama's argument for neoliberal capitalism as the natural end of history. As Hegel sat at his desk, finishing his epic story of how the human Spirit comes to full self-consciousness and absolute knowing, he imagined that history was coming to an end: the French emperor bringing with him a new form of government that would shatter for ever the hold of feudal lords on men's wills and that of an archaic church on their souls; and Hegel bringing them a new form of thought, a philosophy that could grasp the very movement of thought itself, and that could therefore never be surpassed.

In December of that year, a young composer, already the toast of Vienna and recognized heir to its musical royalty, Mozart and Haydn, would premiere his Violin Concerto in D Major. Finished in haste and almost too late for the premiere, the Concerto was at first not a success, and the soloist slated to perform it inserted some of his own music out of frustration.

Although Hegel was wrong about history having come to an end on that chilly October day, he was not wrong in sensing that he had articulated an idea that would dramatically change the way philosophers would conceptualize coming to know the world and themselves. Likewise, the music that Beethoven would begin to create from around 1803 on also signaled a fundamental change in human history.

These changes, one in philosophy, one in music, are profoundly related.

As the philosopher and music theorist Theodor Adorno wrote in his fragmentary notebooks for a never-completed project on Beethoven: "To say that Beethoven's music expressed the World Spirit, that it was the content of that Spirit or suchlike, would undoubtedly be pure nonsense. What is true, however, is that his music expressed the same experiences which inspired Hegel's concept of the World Spirit.”

What does it mean to say that Beethoven and Hegel were expressing the same experiences, when the former composed his world-changing music and the latter penned his world changing philosophy? Adorno was clearly not referring to the casual, particular experiences of two individuals as they grew to manhood in different parts of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What he meant, rather, is that they experienced the same historical moment—in the sense of how culture at large was changing and articulating that change in different ways. As he put it, "Beethoven's music is an image of that process which great philosophy understands the world to be. An image, therefore, not of the world but of an interpretation of the world."

In making this argument, Adorno was trying to move our understanding of how music communicates away from the commonplace idea according to which we listen to music and it in turn generates images of the world. Instead, he insisted that Beethoven’s music be understood as an image of an interpretation of the world, and specifically of the process that great philosophy understands the world to be. That process that Beethoven's music communicated in its own language was the same process Hegel's philosophy tried to express: the process of human consciousness coming to understand itself.

For Hegel, Spirit can only achieve true knowledge when it stops seeing itself as separate from the world it is trying to understand; when it has learned that every empirical experience of the world already contains within it the entire history of consciousness and all its incessant change.

For Adorno, Beethoven occupied a position of privilege between the genius of Mozart and the experimental excesses of the Romantics. Beethoven came on the scene at a moment when the conventions of the classical style still ruled; he “composed as he wanted” in the face of those restrictions, hence opening the doors for all to follow him, while at the same time removing the very constraints that helped make him unique.

The conventions that Beethoven exceeded from within are a musical version of historically specific knowledge, the particular instances that Hegel's consciousness discovers along the path of history. His innovations, the concussive effects of his musical creations as they broke those conventions, were his version of Hegel's consciousness freeing itself from the bounds of time and place and reaching for the universal.

In the dialectic of knowledge that Hegel composes in the Phenomenology, again and again consciousness discovers that some inert, particular aspect of its existence, which it apparently comes upon for the first time, is itself already the dynamic result of the history that led up to this encounter. By coming to know this new thing, consciousness is already something else and is, together with that new thing, both destroyed and preserved in a new form, itself subject to new encounters.

In the Violin Concerto, as well as in the famous Pastoral Symphony that Beethoven premiered only two years later, we find, Adorno writes, “the idea of expressing tranquility through motion.” How is it possible,” he goes on to ask, “that in Beethoven, even where antagonistic moments are simply absent, as in the closing movement of the Pastoral—symphonic tension is nevertheless created? Through the transition to the general. This happens, however, precisely through an act of subjective will…. and in this we also find the rupture, the secret negativity."

What Adorno was perceiving in Beethoven was a musical expression of the sort of revolution in thought that Hegel's work initiated. For Hegel, the transcendental anchor that holds Spirit's identity intact was no longer God, the soul, or even an Ego or internal subject perched in the back of our brains witnessing our lives and history march by. The core of Spirit's identity over time was nothing but time itself; the movement of thought grasped as change; a subject becoming itself and only then discovering the past that it makes its history through an act of subjective will. In its musical manifestation, this is the very idea of symphony; the whole work that subsumes and gives identity to its parts, its components, its movements. In Adorno's words again, "In the Beethovian form the present creates the past."

The idea of the pastoral is, in fact, the perfect setting for revealing this aspect of Beethoven's musical philosophy. Arcadia, the bucolic Golden Age, a prior and perfect time lost forever to man's destructive urge to change nature. Beethoven's pieces don't convey or represent such an image, but by their structure and movement they elicit the emotional complexity of modern society's relation to such virgin tranquility. The past does not predate us, pristine and uncorrupted; the present creates the past as its lost predecessor, positing and depositing there its desires and broken dreams. We create Arcadia and are already longing for it, nostalgic for it. Our desire is always laced with sadness, even as we construct out of it our greatest works of beauty.

This version of the return to nature had a personal meaning for Beethoven, and one soaked in an almost unbearable pain. In 1802 Beethoven moved from the fourth-floor flat he had been renting in Vienna's third district out to the town of Heiligenstadt, a picturesque latticework of stone streets running through corridors of low-slung buildings painted in the gentle yellow beloved of the Hapsburg Princes, and nestled among the gentle hills and vineyards that abut the famous Vienna woods to the city's north. Beethoven's doctor had advised him to make the move in order to create a distance between the city with its constant bustle and the ever-worsening ringing in Beethoven's ears, which would gradually and irrevocably deprive him of his greatest, most vital sense.

For Beethoven, the tranquility of Heiligenstadt was simultaneously a retreat from the world of his fellow men and a banishment into the silence of his ever-growing solitude. As he wrote in 1802 in a letter to no one in particular, which he would keep with him in secret until his death in 1827, "born with a lively, ardent temperament, also susceptible to the diversions of society, I was, at an early age, obliged to cut myself off, to live my life in solitude; if, once in a while, I attempted to set all this aside, oh how harshly would I be driven back by the doubly bad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was no possible for me to say to people: speak louder, shout, for I am deaf; ah, how would it be possible for me to reveal a weakness in the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others, the one sense that I once possessed to the highest degree of perfection?" Thus was the tranquility of his country idyll at once a constant reminder of his loss, his solitude, and his burning desire for communion with his fellow men. "Forgive me if you see me draw back from you," he continued, "when I would gladly join together with you…. For me there can be no recreation in people's company, no conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas."

Hegel believed that music was the highest form of sensual art, going the furthest in Spirit's quest to free itself from the constraints of the material world. From there spirit's journey could only be carried further by the word, first in poetry, finally in a philosophy that learned to grasp the movement of thought itself.

Adorno appreciated the idea but ultimately questioned the hierarchy. Could it not be, he wondered, that music itself is the highest form of human expression, freed as it is not only from the material weight of any given moment of expression, but also from the particularity of the words and concepts that poetry and philosophy cannot exist without? He could always best experience Beethoven's music, Adorno claimed, when he read it in silence, the way Beethoven must have composed it already in the years when he put the notes of the Violin Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony to paper. Those notes, issuing from the curse of an unimaginably cruel irony, approached an idea and a set of emotions that could be painted in colors or described by words. But could words or images fully express the wrenching simultaneity of happiness and loss, desire and its unattainability that Beethoven's "tranquility through motion" affords us? Even these words are mere approximations and but the vaguest interpretations, a scaffolding from which, perhaps, to glimpse a fragment of what may be—just may be—the truth of what Beethoven gave us.

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches on Spanish and Latin American literature, literary theory, and the relation between literature and philosophy. He is the author of How the World Became a Stage (2003), Perversity and Ethics (2006), A Wrinkle in History (2007), The Philosopher's Desire (2007), The Theater of Truth (2010), and In Defense of Religious Moderation (2011). He is also co-editor with Mike Sandbothe of The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy (2004), translator of Lisa Block de Behar's Borges, the Passion of an Endless Quotation (2003, 2nd edition 2014), and co-editor with David E. Johnson of Thinking With Borges (2009). His most recent book is The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World (2016).