“The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth. The usual view explains this with the argument that they are products of an uninhibited subjectivity, or, better yet, “personality,” which breaks through the envelope of form to better express itself, transforming harmony into the dissonance of its suffering, and disdaining sensual charms with the sovereign self-assurance of the spirit liberated … It is as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favor of reality.

Death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory. The psychological interpretation misses this. By declaring mortal subjectivity to be the substance of the late work, it hopes to be able to perceive death in unbroken form in the work of art. This is the deceptive crown of its metaphysics. True, it recognizes the explosive force of subjectivity in the late work. But it looks for it in the opposite direction from that in which the work itself is striving; in the expression of subjectivity itself. But this subjectivity, as mortal, and in the name of death, disappears from the work of art into truth. The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art. Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself. Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.

[Beethoven’s] late work still remains process, but not as development; rather as a catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity. Between extremes in the most precise technical sense: on the one hand the monophony, the unisono of the significant mere phrase; on the other the polyphony, which rises above it without mediation. It is subjectivity that forcibly brings the extremes together in the moment, fills the dense polyphony with its tension, breaks it apart with the unisono, and disengages itself, leaving the naked tone behind; that sets the mere phrase as a monument to what has been, marking a subjectivity turned to stone. The caesuras, the sudden discontinuities that more than anything else characterize the very late Beethoven, are those moments of breaking away; the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward … Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective the light in which–alone–it glows into life. He does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As the power of dissociation, he tears them apart in time, in order, perhaps, to preserve them for the eternal.”

–Adorno, Late Style in Beethoven, tr. Susan H. Gillespie

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Anonymous
    Posted May 16, 2006 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    O Yeah: emptiness outwards: cool, really cool.
    Late works , cool.
    Beethoven must be a cool cat.
    How do you do.
    You wright so cool.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted May 17, 2006 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    Some of you may be interested in.

    Read the reviews.

    I ordered this CD last week … am waiting for it.

  3. sheri
    Posted May 17, 2006 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Also makes me think of Paul Celan – the “narrowing down” of his late work.

  4. Qais Al-Awqati
    Posted May 17, 2006 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Edward Said’s last book “On late Style” takes off from where Adorno ended; I think you would enjoy reading it, an example of Said’s late style itself. In it he speculates that late style might also encompass the difficulty and anger that often accompany old age when the creative process while still or even especially fruitful faces the prospect of annihilation. He discusses Beethoven’s late sontats as well.

  5. Andrew
    Posted May 17, 2006 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Adorno is making differences without a distinction. More banally, if fundamentally, I would question the premise on which his thesis is based. Its applicability to Beethoven is manifest, and also to Goethe, who is mentioned in the essay. And one can think of other artists whose late work can be said to be bitter and spiny: Goya springs to mind. But what of Bartok, Stravinsky and Brahms? And of those who died young and whose last works could be said to have been written in contemplation of death, can the same be said? I would submit that Mozart’s and Schubert’s works are ambivalent in this respect.

    By the way, do you know the source in Adorno (if one exists) of the wonderful exposition on op.111 in Mann’s Dr Faustus? It is in keeping with this essay, but does not come from it.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted May 17, 2006 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    As for the amazon link above, this is it.

    Beethoven: Die Späten Klaviersonaten
    performer: Maurizio Pollini

    Read the Spotlight and Customer reviews.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>