We are now approaching the 50th anniversary of Aesthetic Theory (first published posthumously in 1970), the final masterpiece of the philosopher and social theorist Theodor W. Adorno. This lecture contributes to the semester-long series of scholarly presentations that reflect on the legacy and actuality of this major work.
In late summer 1925, after some months’ composition study in Vienna with Alban Berg, Teddie Wiesengrund went on vacation to Italy. Leaving the Dolomites he headed south to Genoa, then Capri, Pompeii, and Naples, where he met with Walter Benjamin. From within a holiday correspondence conveying the combined stimulation of new scenery and intense philosophical discussion emerges an evocation of striking volcanic imagery. It echoes, first, in the preoccupation with landscape evident in the 1928 essay Adorno penned for the anniversary of Franz Schubert’s death; a similar landscape re-emerges in the enigmatic 70th-birthday tribute he wrote for Pietro Mascagni in 1933. Such musical landscapes are the early precursors to the later investment in landscape, and specifically the concept of the Kulturlandschaft, that features in the Aesthetic Theory’s late meditations on natural beauty in particular. This talk considers the postcard, the photograph, a philosophical debate on nature and history, and a touristic sense of foreignness as the ingredients of an aesthetic, developing out of experiences of music and travel, that contemplates sublimity and kitsch side-by side: a philosophy imbued with a sense of materiality and shaped by a landscape of alienation.
Sherry Lee is Associate Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, where she’s also a fellow at Trinity College and Victoria College. A specialist in 19th- and early 20th-century opera, and music and modernist cultures of the Viennese fin-de-siècle and Weimar eras especially, her recent interests include forays into sound studies and musical discourses of nature and landscape. She has written on Wagner, Mahler, Schreker, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and the 2nd Viennese School, and has spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over Adorno's musical thought.