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Theodor Adorno

German philosopher, writer, and composer, born 11 September 1903 in Frankfurt-am-Main, died 6 August 1969 in Viège (Visp), Switzerland.

Theodor Adorno studied music in Frankfurt with Bernhard Sekles and with Alban Berg in Vienna while also preparing his habilitation from the University of Frankfurt, where he later taught. In the mid-1920s he was a prolific music critic and ultimately served on the editorial committee of Musikblätter des Anbruch (1928-1931). He collaborated with Thomas Mann as his music advisor for the novel Doktor Faustus, whose hero was based on the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

In 1934, after Hitler seized power, Adorno fled Germany for Oxford, and from there emigrated to the United States, where he took a position with the Princeton Radio Project (1938-1941), after which he settled for a time in California. In 1949, he returned to Germany, where he became a professor at the University of Frankfurt, and served as the director of the Institut für Sozialforschung de Francfort (the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research). He taught at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, where he was a key figure in the philosophical and aesthetic debate over the renaissance of serialism. There, he met and mentored serialist composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luigi Nono. He published numerous essays on new music, its aesthetics, and its sociology, notably, Philosophy of New Music, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, and a series of remarkable pieces on Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Wagner, as well as other, more literary pieces.

Adorno’s influence on aesthetics and the philosophy of music is tremendous, particularly through his application of Marxist and Freudian theory to the study of music. While he is widely read as a philosopher, his reputation in that field has in some ways eclipsed his contributions to the field of music. While it does not have the originality of his philosophical thinking or the verve of his prose, Theodor Adorno’s music merits attention. His compositions include lieder, orchestral and choral works, an excellent String Quartet, and an orchestral transcription of Schumann, but are largely unpublished and rarely performed. For example, two magnificent String Trios, in which the influence of Hindemith and Berg are clear, although written in 1922 and sometime around 1930, respectively, were found in his archives years afterward and premiered at Darmstadt in 1994 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 1997