The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music
1. Introduction: The End of Aesthetics?
‘As it happens, beauty has fallen into considerable disfavor in modern philosophical discourse, having all but disappeared as a term in philosophical aesthetics. In part this is attributable to the eighteenth-century infatuation with Longinus’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, one of whose unfortunate effects was to reduce the scope of the beautiful to that of the pretty, the merely decorative, or the inoffensively pleasant; in the climate of postmodern thought, whose humors are congenial to the sublime but generally corrosive of the beautiful, beauty’s estate has diminished to one of mere negation, a spasm of illusory calm in the midst of being’s sublimity, its “infinite speed”’.(, p. 15)
‘Unlike the beautiful, its manifestation is an intuition of the indeterminate, whether one encounters it in the incomprehensible vastitude of the “mathematical sublime” or in the incomprehensible natural power of the “dynamical sublime”, though, in fact, the true sublime properly resides nowhere in the things of sensibility (which can only suggest it), but only in the mind, which discovers, even in the instant of its rapture, its own essential superiority over all of nature.’(, p. 45)
‘the marmorean repose of a child lately dead of meningitis might present a strikingly piquant tableau; Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered [...] Beauty seems to promise a reconciliation beyond the contradictions of the moment, one that perhaps places time’s tragedies within a broader perspective of harmony and meaning, a balance between light and darkness; beauty appears to absolve being of its violences’.(, p. 16)
2. Abstraction and Rationalization
‘in discarding the tonal system, Schoenberg to some extent places himself outside any pre-established musical contingency […] Such an attitude of putting the musical world ‘ in parentheses’ effectively corresponds to the act of phenomenological reduction as understood by Husserl […] for the twelve-tone composer there can be no question of an essence preceding existence; on the contrary, it is the object in existence [l’existant], entirely recreated with each new compositional effort, which constitutes its own essence as well as its own laws’.(, pp. 101–04)
3. Adorno and the Taboo on Musical Beauty
‘Today the alienation inherent in the consistency of artistic technique itself forms the content of the artwork. The shocks of the incomprehensible—which artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness dispenses—reverse. They illuminate the meaningless world. New music sacrifices itself to this. It has taken all the darkness and guilt of the world on itself.’.(, p. 102)
‘The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light’4.(, p. 247)
4. Sacred Music and New Tonality
5. Olivier Messiaen
‘The beautiful is that degree of the awesome which we can still bear ... we can admire it, for it scorns to destroy us ... Every angel is terrifying [...] The divine visions of the Prophets have this terrifying beauty. Terrifying, searing and at the same time pacifying. They leave us overwhelmed while communicating to us something of their peaceful force’.
6. Adorno or Messiaen?
Conflicts of Interest
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- 1As Rowan Williams points out in his compelling Grace and Necessity , these implications were already intuited some decades earlier in the Thomist aesthetics of Jacques Maritain. See for example Maritain’s discussion of the difference between the divine and the human creative process in The Frontiers of Poetry dating from 1927 . Describing the search for abstract art with particular reference to tendencies within French artistic life after Mallarmé, he asserts that “To order contemporary art to exist as abstract art, discarding every condition determining its existence in the human subject, is to have it arrogate to itself the aseity [being un-derived] of God”. (, p. 70). At the same time Maritain does not argue in favour of a utilitarian or merely representational view of art, recognizing that “Art itself [...] is in a way an inhuman virtue, a straining after a gratuitously creative activity, entirely absorbed in its mystery and its own laws of operation, refusing to subordinate itself either to the interests of men or to the evocation of what already exists. In short, the straining towards abstract act follows from the very essence of art, once beauty has awakened it to self-consciousness.” (, p. 72). Although Maritain’s thought and its place within the Catholic Intellectual Revival in France in the early twentieth century has lately been the object of excellent historical analysis on the part of Jesuit polymath Stephen Schloesser in his landmark study Jazz Age Catholicism , Maritain remains a largely neglected resource for contemporary reflection on artistic practice.
- 2Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music is maybe even more frequently cited by writers sceptical of the project of the avant-garde than by its supporters: for two recent French examples see the discussions of Adorno in Benoît Duteurtre’s Requiem pour une avant-garde  or composer Nicolas Bacri’s Notes étrangères: considérations paradoxales sur la musique d’aujourd’hui .
- 3Here Adorno’s thought strikingly parallels Jacques Ellul’s concept of modern Western society as a totalizing système technique. Of particular relevance is Ellul’s penetrating analysis of art within a technological framework in L’empire du non-sens: l’art et la société technicienne .
- 4This theme is profitably taken up in Jürgen Moltmann’s The Coming of God , where Jewish thinkers are credited with an indispensable role in Christian eschatology's proper reappraisal of Jewish apocalyptic: ‘For the rebirth of Messianic thinking out of the catastrophe of Christian humanism in the First World War, we are indebted to Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch and Franz Rosenzweig, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno [...] They brought reason into the Jewish and Christian hope and—even more important—hope into the reason that was self-sufficient and hence self-destroying. Out of the ruins of historical rationality they rescued hope as a theological category. Without their messianic thinking, eschatology today is literally unthinkable.’ (, p. 30). See also Moltmann’s earlier discussion of Adorno and Horkheimer in The Crucified God (, pp. 294–95). John W. de Gruchy and Johann Baptist Metz are among other writers to have explored the theological potential in the work of the Frankfurt School.
- 5This apophatic vision of course flies in the face of Schoenberg’s own positive view of dodecaphonic technique as providing a unifying force for music endowed with the same level of structural power as tonality, a totalizing project which would assure German musical superiority for coming centuries. Adorno’s analysis is underpinned by the belief that the immanent characteristics of artworks as objects take precedence over the intentions of their creators: he dismisses the naïve belief that an idiom historically derived from dissonance as the articulation of suffering or psychological collapse (as in a piece such as Schoenberg’s Erwartung) could somehow be translated into an affirmative system harnessed to technological progress, which he in any case views with extreme scepticism. This is highly ironic in that here he arguably anticipates the dead-end of a great deal of music written after 1945, where the technique of the Second Viennese School, in itself intimately linked with and shaped by a certain philosophical and cultural Central European climate) was adopted as an international “language” and therefore lay itself open to the criticism of reification as a mere self-legitimating style divorced from any deeper meaning, thereby degenerating into the antithesis of artistic freedom—conformism:‘What the attentive ear discovered is distorted into a trumped-up system in which the criteria of compositional right and wrong are to be abstractly verified. This explains the readiness of so many young musicians—especially in the United States, where the sustaining experiences of twelve-tone technique are wanting—to write in the “twelve-tone system” and their elation at the invention of a surrogate for tonality, as if freedom were aesthetically intolerable and needed to be furtively replaced by a new compliancy’.(, p. 55)
- 6This is not altogether surprising given that Adorno’s writing presupposes an acquaintance with the categories of German philosophical thought with which the majority of composers are unfamiliar (even Pierre Boulez has admitted that as a young man with limited philosophical baggage he felt intimidated by Adorno). For a clear and penetrating discussion of the central Adornian issues concerning music, see Max Paddison’s Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music . A detailed but far more difficult exegesis of the Philosophy of New Music can be found in David Roberts’ Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adorno .
- 7Although their work does not feature so frequently in discussions of sacred music, here I would include Steve Reich and Tom Johnson, whose output includes the imposing and theologically engaged Bonhoeffer Oratorio (1988–1992) and the monumental Zen-influenced cycle Organ and Silence (2000).
- 8Górecki’s most successful work is arguably not the highly moving but somewhat one‑dimensional Third Symphony (especially when to my taste spiritualized out of its rugged, earthbound context in the polished bestselling recording conducted by David Zinman with Dawn Upshaw) but the wider-ranging “Copernicus” symphony Op. 31 of a few years earlier which combines elements both of Górecki’s modernist and minimalist periods.
- 9I doubt whether Pärt, Górecki or Taverner would be unduly concerned at allegations of musical fideism; although I would not like to assert clear categorical boundaries in this respect, the primary aim of their works would appear to be worship rather than theological reflection or apologetics.
- 10Curiously, Jean Boivin’s La Classe de Messiaen  suggests that Messiaen as a teacher was not untouched by the repressive attitude found in doctrinaire avant-garde circles towards melodic writing and ‘forbidden’ intervals (pointing out the appearance of octaves in his pupil’s compositions, for example, or advising his student Akira Tamba in 1963 that ‘There are currently two ways of approaching contemporary music: one must either go through twelve-tone technique or musique concrète, so choose’ (, pp. 379–80). A charitable interpretation would be that Messiaen’s comments reveal a realistic pedagogical concern for the acceptance of the younger composers’ work in a rigid musical climate, rather than a statement concerning the aesthetic validity of the styles in question.
- 11See Peter Bannister, ‘Messiaen as preacher and evangelist in the context of European modernism.’ (, pp. 29–39).
- 12Translation and italicization (quote from Rilke) mine.
- 13An awareness of this political background helps to understand the occasional excesses of Adorno’s polemical style as exemplified by his seemingly unjustified and mis-directed tirade Glosse über Sibelius written for the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in 1938. Although it is difficult to detect any unsavoury political undertones in the admittedly nationalistic compositions of the by-then ageing Finnish composer, it is not hard to see why the Nazis would have been interested in co-opting his pantheistic symphonic music in the service of their own Nordic pagan mythology. For Adorno the link between nature-worship and Fascist regression is explicit: ‘Sibelius’s supporters scream in chorus: nature is all, nature is all. Great Pan, and where necessary blood and earth (Blut und Boden), step up into the picture.” An example of the avant-garde’s view of the illegitimacy of appeals to nature—and by implication the evocation of natural beauty—can be found in an article for Die Reihe, a journal associated with the Darmstadt school, written by Herbert Eimert in 1957: ‘In the recent past, nothing was more in vogue than ‘Nature’; not its secondary version, dominated by the supra-natural authority of the artist (as is sometimes understood in our milieu) but primal, pseudo-ontological nature decorated with Orphism, where one finds grouped together the categories of race, people, blood and soil. This hijacking of nature is perhaps one of the reasons why art can no longer be brought back to nature. What despotism wants is not reason and order, but the “return to nature”, or, to speak like Günther Anders; “the little word Nature is the one favoured by terror.” (Cited Esteban Buch, Figures politiques de la technique sérielle (, pp. 213–26. Translation mine.)
- 14Writing in the 1960s in a far more genial tone than two decades earlier, Adorno himself commented on the negative consequences of the “disempowerment of the living, listening act as the authentic constituent of music” (, p. 657).
- 15It is interesting to note that, writing in 1961, Antoine Goléa—who was Messiaen’s translator in Darmstadt—interpreted the latter’s insistence on the superiority of natural to human music as an expression of pessimism concerning humanity stemming from the personal difficulties in Messiaen’s life in the 1950s, most notably the mental disintegration of his first wife Claire Delbos (see Antoine Goléa, Rencontres avec Olivier Messiaen (, pp. 234–35).
- 16In Brigitte Massin, Olivier Messiaen; une poétique du merveilleux (, pp. 164–65).
- 17Critics have not been slow to disqualify Adorno’s musical aesthetics on the grounds of their over-reliance on a Hegelian view of history and an ethnocentric refusal to acknowledge socio-historical contexts other than that of Central Europe (exemplified by his spectacular mistaken judgement on jazz). Post-colonial theory in particular has exposed the element of domination in the Adornian conceptual framework, somewhat ironically given that suspicion towards meta-narratives is one of the cornerstones of his project and one of its most successful aspects. This does not however in my view invalidate Adorno’s analysis of his own tradition; nor should it be concluded that his method cannot necessarily be applied to other traditions given appropriate adaptation.
- 18An excellent if limited treatment of this aspect of Messiaen’s output can be found in Jean-François Labie’s Le Visage du Christ dans la musique des XIXe et Xxe siècles .
- 19It is perhaps significant that the orchestral prelude to the section of St François d’Assise entitled Les Stigmates is a very rare instance in Messiaen’s later works of the employment of total serialism to depict an atmosphere of anguish and foreboding.
- 20Exemplified by the movement entitled Les Ténèbres from Messiaen’s monumental cycle for organ Livre du Saint-Sacrément, in which the composer unusually uses cluster techniques to convey the physical and spiritual darkness of the crucifixion.
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Bannister, P. The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music. Religions 2013, 4, 687-700. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel4040687
Bannister P. The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music. Religions. 2013; 4(4):687-700. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel4040687Chicago/Turabian Style
Bannister, Peter. 2013. "The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music" Religions 4, no. 4: 687-700. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel4040687