When is great music possible? [Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf]

The concept of great music presupposes that of musical quality. Musical quality requires one or more criteria by which it can be recognized. Such criteria seem to be lacking in a (post-)postmodern music culture. The question of musical quality could easily, therefore, be relativistically rejected with the argument that there are no standards for the assessment of musical quality, and it thus no longer exists. Passing over the question would not only testify to intellectual poverty, however, but would also show a remoteness from reality. All parties are constantly presupposing levels of musical quality: the consumer, who seeks orientation; pedagogy, which is based on canons; research, which has to posit topics; music criticism, with its intimately native realm of judgment; music management, which decides what becomes public; and the producers, who observe themselves. In short: the question of musical quality, especially with the absence of a universally valid catalogue of criteria, is more urgent than ever. That it is largely repressed, despite always being implicit, says something about the crisis of musical life today, but does not solve any problems. In addition, the absence of a discourse on musical quality produces or encourages the deficiency of which it is simultaneously a symptom: the prevalence of the inferior and the marginalization of the superior.

In a discussion in Darmstadt in 1957, Adorno defined an “important personality” by their “force of resistance.” [1] While this may seem nonsensical in a climate of political correctness, that does not make it any less true. For the deeper evolution-theoretical meaning lies in the fact that only those who do not do what seems self-evidently in keeping with their time can be ahead of it; they have a better chance of succeeding in the long term than the fashionable achiever. The crux of the matter, admittedly, is that the creative, prospective and innovative individual must fend off the opposing forces of their time.


Great music is the epitome of great musical works or musics. These share substantial qualities with great art or works of art: they create a world of own, positing monads, as it were; they represent the time of their creation in artistic autonomy but transcend it, such that their worth emancipates itself from their genesis. They concentrate on specific problems in exemplary fashion. They establish or perfect forms, as Walter Benjamin puts it – or at least continue them at the same level. They open up new horizons for their genre. They show an affinity for serious matters, for humanity’s great questions: peace, love, life and death, individuality, collective, loneliness, struggle and defeat, and nature. But not only those: the best comedies are famously those that almost seem to answer the serious questions light-heartedly at the same time, as in Shakespeare or Woody Allen. Admittedly, it is the serious approach that predominates among the musically great works.

Great works demand a profound aesthetic; they must take up the discourse of modernity as it stands at the time of their creation, situate themselves in the history of their own style and choose a material corresponding to their intentions. Their aesthetic, “spirit,” style and material must be internally conveyed with no disposition imposed from outside.

Transferred to music, these reflections lead to a strong idea of unity. Everything that is made use of – material, form, conception, technique and semantics – must be envisaged as a unity in which the necessary differences and differentiations, but also aporias and contradictions, draw their meaning from this unity. Hence this unity is one of differences, but not a differentionality sui generis. One can compose a fragment, for example, but it must be just as through-composed as a non-fragment, as Kurtág’s music shows.

This brings us to the category of the masterpiece. A masterpiece is one that not only sets its own standards, but also exemplarily realizes them and thus becomes an entity with a high degree of individuation. A quirky idea is not enough; it must become perfect. Thus the masterpiece joins the line of historical masterpieces, enters communication with them, and is conversely judged by them.

What does this mean in compositional terms? To begin with, one should distinguish between an individual work and a total output – or periods of an œuvre, as with Stravinsky. If a composer’s work can be recognized as a whole, it is the overall assessment that counts. The level of the output, but also the status of the individual work, is determined by this assessment. (Which Beethoven symphony would we consider the most important if the composer had died after the Eighth?)

One must therefore distinguish between multi-perspectival and “monothematic” composers. The former are all-rounders who work in all genres and set new standards in them, like Mozart, Beethoven or Schönberg. The monothematic ones are those who, simplistically put, keep writing the same work in a slow metamorphosis. The former are concerned with diversity, the second with constancy. There is also an intermediate phenomenon, namely those who are multi-faceted, but keep to a few genres only: Chopin with piano music, Wagner with music theater, or Mahler with symphonies and Lieder.
Criteria for musical quality in modernity follow from the criteria of compositional modernity, as these are indispensable for the works. [2] The first is reflectiveness: a composer today must know the discourses and position themselves within them, formulate artistic truth claims with awareness, not like self-evident truths, have a historical consciousness, and must – at least for their own work – develop a form of aesthetic theory and set standards of quality for themselves. None of this can be taken for granted. For the time of unity has passed, the time of beauty, truth and good, and hence the confluence of aesthetic validity, ethical value and world-content. A binding theory of composition also no longer exists, not even a binding concept of music. As music history, by becoming reflexive, went through the zero point of its self-definition, composers henceforth have no choice but to take everything that music requires and posit it once again from a position of their own autonomy. That is the legacy of the historical avant-garde.
This does not contradict the fundamental historicity of music, technology, material and semantics. To be sure, there is no longer a pre-given and thus learnable historicity (of the kind still used by Shostakovich); rather, it must be sought, found and individuated by each individual composer within the horizon of their time and in the light of their artistic intentions.

A second criterion for quality is the capacity for critique that is present in the act of composition, and thus becomes an aspect of the work. Essentially a sub-criterion for reflectiveness, it emphasizes the special circumstance that when making decisions on how to individuate a work, artists do not choose the simple path that would be psychologically understandable, but artistically useless. Those difficult moments of the work process already reveal who is ambitious and who is not.

Two further criteria are utopia and messianicity. Utopia is the pursuit of the unrealistic, of what seems practically impossible or semantically meaningless in music, and is only asserted historically through the avant-gardist act of moving forwards, until this utopian quality comes to be taken for granted. That is how all subversives and innovators act. Cage was initially laughed at, but today he is God; Lachenmann was denounced as nonsense, but today he is a hero of German culture; Ferneyhough was long notorious as mere paper music, while today his musical quality is beyond dispute.

Messianicity would be an attempt to change music entirely, not only styles or forms, and to do so in the horizon of a liberated, likewise messianized society. Such a radical change, which Adorno envisaged in “Vers une musique informelle” and which played an important part in Luidi Nono’s thought, though he was not able to realize it in music, would amount to finding a language as a collective – just as tonality grew as a process of developing evolutionary structures over the heads of individual actors. A modern composer can be expected to be aware of this messianic dimension, or more precisely, the aporia of its necessity and simultaneous unattainability. Such awareness would act as a negative, inhibiting factor.

I have developed a concept of truth elsewhere [3], especially for music, that pointed to music philosophy’s tendency to reduce the truth of works to their accomplishedness, the technical perfection of their form, even though works that are technically accomplished yet wrong in their substance can no longer be envisaged, and there can no longer be an ultimate criterion for formal conception itself.

Every work asserts a validity claim according to the aesthetic it presupposes, and according to what it wants or precisely does not want to say. If it wants to say something, it can be judged by it. If it – supposedly – does not want to say anything and follows an emphatic formal aesthetic, the choice of an individual form must nonetheless, precisely because there is no universally valid catalogue of forms, be viewed as a second-order statement by which it can equally be judged.
To make the question of truth in art more accessible, I have brought into play a concept of truth claims that is known from speech act theory. We do not so much examine the question of truth as an inherent quality of a work, but more as a truth claim that can be identified in modernity from the cultural context, including that of the artist’s life, without being entirely limited to it. I am thus interpreting works of music as artifacts of intentional action.

Now, just as there is a truth claim, there is also a quality claim. In the case of contemporary music, it would be immensely helpful to ask the authors of works not only about their intended truth, but also about the level of quality to which they aspire. Not every work is equally ambitious. Die Meistersinger is not Tristan and Isolde, and while Alban Berg may have labored away more at Lulu, Wozzeck aims higher.

A quality claim is no guarantee of great music, but certainly an indispensable prerequisite. For great music also needs a substance, otherwise music can be technically masterful, perhaps even perfect, but at the same time empty. Such highly refined music that conveys nothing is design. It has become a trademark of the neoliberal age.


In the historical avant-garde, accomplishedness and truth were separated in art. Henceforth, works could be technically unfinished, failed or deliberately badly made, but still mean something. Technical mastery was not a criterion for art, or accomplished art, in the sense of enabling or even guaranteeing the realization of its conception and intended content. Transferring this structural option to music is problematic, however, to the extent that music only enters the world through the realization of technical aspects. This is why the composers of the historical avant-garde were technically excellent – especially Mauricio Kagel, who was doing advanced work on a performative turn. If one applies the bracketing or negation of the technical dimension to music, it is barely possible for great works to come about; at most the intention and attitude, if sufficiently evident, will be received instead of the work. Music, the belated art, can certainly catch up on what conceptual art presented decades earlier, but in so doing it repeats the latter’s mistake: believing that art can be dematerialized. This already proved impossible in other art forms, and in music it becomes deadly, for music manifests itself first and foremost via material that sounds. Denying this results in an external concept, but not substance [4] , which is always a work-immanent mediation between aesthetic idea and material. Precisely this internal mediation, according to Harry Lehmann’s theoretical model of the avant-garde, is the task of what he calls “reflexive modernity” (and I call “Second Modernity”). [5] The composer who works monothematically is legitimate, because they are systematically possible. This is different from the composer with constant commissions, who will realize a single work idea several times with few deviations, its claim to truth and quality spread between several works. This would be similar to Beethoven composing the Pastoral Symphony three or four times. It is artistically uneconomic, a waste of creative potential, for each of these Pastorals is worth less than one that fully encapsulates its idea, rather than leaving it to the listener to absorb several pieces and distil their spiritual center. Less is simply more; an œuvre with exemplary works counts for more than one comprising a muddle of attempts, starts and half-measures. The two Schönberg students remained models of concentration: the multi-perspectival Alban Berg and the monothematic Anton Webern.

After the progressive differentiation of our Western society down to the level of subsystems, current compositional creativity – and thus the creation of new works – takes place mostly in a specially-cultivated segment of art music, the New Music system. This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that an avant-garde spirit is expected, and one does not have to convince the sponsors first. The disadvantage lies in the system’s closure, which means that the system is more preoccupied with itself than with the culture and spirit of its age. But this endangers the very thing that is needed in order to accomplish great music: participation in the life and culture of a time.

Just as the idea of great art was banished from aesthetics (to be replaced by the star cult), the idea of great music was deconstructed in the New Music system. (Here deconstruction refers to the entire spectrum from productive critique to aggressive destruction.) By the political left, with the charge that great music is elitist; by feminism, which argues that the idea is a male one; by postmodernity, which invalidated art’s truth claim (and its claim to change the world); by the critique of Eurocentrism, according to which the idea of great music was meant to secure the supremacy of European music; and by the careerist spirit of a society in the age of unfettered capitalism, where music is adapted to fun society and event culture. By a destruction of the work concept, with the idea that musical works already had something violent, and antiquated, indeed fundamentally wrong because of their principle of unity. And finally, through a generational underhandedness with which prominent promoters of the avant-garde declared certain heroes of New Music, especially Cage, Feldman, Nono and then Lachenmann greats, but discredited younger composers as fundamentally insignificant and epigonal, that is: incapable of achieving greatness.
Although nearly all of these positions had a degree of historical validity, we can see today, after the completion of this deconstruction, how weak the arguments actually were. The idea of great music is gender-neutral and equally open to female composers. Great music does not belong to any elite, but to the whole of humanity – as shown by the worldwide appreciation for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Great music is not tied to Europe; what good would it do world culture for individual cultures to castrate themselves? The work concept, especially in music, has never been discussed at an adequate art-theoretical level, and has usually served as a disguise for ideological interests. The idea that great things are limited to certain generations is nonsense, of course. But arguments only played, and still play, a small part: enlightenment has long ceased to achieve anything in art.

It is powerless in the face of the facticity of the change in musical culture. Postmodernity used the denial of truth claims performatively (that is, not argumentatively); the effects of turbocapitalism extend to the furthest corners of the hearts and minds of artistic actors. The consequences are a comfortable mediocrity and, ironically enough, an especially unpleasant genius cult, namely that of the few remaining great composers. The mediocrity shows itself not only in the artistic products, but also among the actors themselves, for whom tolerance towards sloppiness counts more than an insistence on solving problems.
My explanation for the disturbed relationship between the work of art and the idea of great music is fear. Fear of great music. Where does it come from? Does this idea really arouse fear and terror because great works, as Rilke put it, have a stronger existence beside which we are small and should feel humbled? Is it an inability to love, a fear of high libidinous-erotic bonds that comes about when music seduces us for the first time, then for life? Are we no longer able to associate great art – which we virtually fetishize, after all, in its museum forms – with the idea of a meaningful, fulfilled and substantial life, even a culture of love? Does our accelerated society not prevent substance, appreciation of lasting things, and quiet and reflection – prerequisites for listening to a work in the first place, for understanding it and making it one’s own? What are we to do with the longing for value, quality and greatness in a climate of non-stop consumption, with its vicious circle of hyperproduction and waste?

Current works of art and music could perhaps be compared to sexual intercourse. One can “make love” to a person in order to know them, biblically speaking – or simply to have fun. In the former case, one encounters the other in a deep, comprehensively existential experience; in the latter, the other is essentially interchangeable, a well-functioning body at best. In the former, one submits to encounter the other fully; in the latter, one masturbates via an object. Much art and music today makes no truth claims, and there is no true encounter between them and people; instead, the aim is to induce brief, shallow entertainment. Anyone who consumes art or music in this way is practicing self-gratification, the gratification of the hedonistic ego.

But the fear of great music is not only a misunderstanding or a displacement in the zeitgeist; there are real reasons for it. Deconstruction did not produce the desired result, namely a follow-up model to the work and the great work, a performative turn on an equal footing. We must face the sobering fact that the great questions of the past return because they were never solved. What was meant to be overcome was only abstractly negated; but whatever is abstractly negated always returns one day, like an unprocessed trauma. Not on the surface, but from behind, as it were, through the cracks in production. The fear of great music is therefore the fear of the great problems, which now come back to announce their overpowering presence. This shocks the artist who is wary of the task or not up to it, the systems manager who would have to justify such a change of direction to a medialized public. Instead of cultivating the virtue of honesty with audacity and moral courage, the Foucauldian dispositive of media, social and financial, and thus art-political effects remains firmly in the status quo. The revolution fails to materialize – in a time when news outlets report at least one revolution per week.

Just as we must acknowledge that Israel and Palestine will not want peace until they have reached total war exhaustion, we must admit that the mode of the scene after the performative turn, namely the primacy of doing, does not provide for any corrections – even though they are more urgently needed than ever. The disappearance of autonomous, professional music criticism [6] and an intellectual discourse at the level of science and philosophy facilitates that mode, in which system-relevant decisions such as commissions for works, repertoire building and recognition are not based primarily on quality. In this mode, quality is a secondary “virtue.”

There are three losers here. Through concentrated listening, meaning quiet in the hall and the appropriate applause, the audience shows a very clear sense of quality. But it does not decide; it has no power. And the performers, chased from one premiere to the next, barely have a chance to learn and understand a piece properly, and must dispense with building a repertoire of their own.

The composer is also a loser. Outside of the system of performances, hence the music scene, musical creativity does not get far. Even if one created one’s own instruments and sonic devices, the publicity so indispensable for the reception of music would still be missing. Professional composition is always a part of the scene. It is therefore necessary to opposite it with self-will, resistance and autonomy – the same things Adorno had in mind in 1957. Have we returned to the category of the important personality, which had supposedly been overcome? It seems we have come full circle: great things through great figures. This is evidently how things are destined to be until the messianic days of humanity arrive.

This resistance means non-participation in whatever is en vogue – perhaps the most difficult thing, especially for young artists who thirst for recognition and understandably want to test themselves. Who has the strength to spend years writing for the drawer and waiting? The answer: the greats. That is how it was for Lachenmann after returning from Venice, and for Ferneyhough, who almost gave up composing in the early 1970s. Anyone who expects to receive top-tier commissions along with a publisher and portrait CDs directly after graduating, before preparing their collected writings, is acting as if they expected to die at the same age as Schubert and Purcell.


Though a program against mediocrity can be sure of its arguments, it must – horribile dictu – itself become performative. Now is the moment to act, to fight. 2014 was the year of the irruption of geopolitical regression, a second Cold War between East and West, and a religious war waged by an exterminatory Islamic fascism. Here too, it is not arguments that count. The Russian president acts out of power, not in dialogue, and lecturing fundamentalist holy warriors on female dignity would only result in becoming a target of their genocide. Now is the moment to take a stand. The American president must answer war with war, despite his Peace Prize, and the West must oppose power with counter-power. One would hope for a better, a more reasonable time.

That is to say, a time of awakening. Postmodernity, with its promises of peace, tolerance, egalitarian coexistence and a post-materialistic tempering of capitalism has proved a resounding failure – as we have known at least since 2001. It is only the art scene that refuses to wake up; it is sluggish and self-infatuated. It prolongs fun society and event culture, and cozies up to media capitalism; demands for truth and quality are bothersome here. Yet art can only challenge the society of the capitalist culture industry by setting its own standards. The time for action means the time for public declaration, for faith, for conviction, for counter-action. One must name what has been repressed and make it productive – which, to paraphrase Derrida, means demanding art without condition. [7] It is against this background that I ask: how is great music possible?

It is almost a truism: the composer must set themselves a standard, which demands courage and the power to resist, and the necessary regenerative resources for the latter. They need clarity in their own position, a level of reflection rarely paralleled in history, and they need theory and philosophy. These must be processed so thoroughly that they can be “forgotten” in the act of production. Anyone who converts theories or philosophies, theorems or philosophemes directly into music is thinking about it in a fundamentally wrong way; they have not understood the path of creativity. Reflection must become intuition; one could also call it lived life.

Such living does not take place in the New Music system, of course, but in real life, assuming one has one. Perhaps that is why the most interesting composers are those with a second life – migration, homosexuality, illness, literary or philosophical interests, heretical religiosity, classical music. After the systematic exposition of its potential, new Music in the stricter sense no longer offers any reference points, any primary orientation. Sustenance is only found in the lifeworld and general culture.

What do these reflections mean for composition? Everything is known, at least since Schönberg and his school. Works must be individuated [8] – each with a unique substance, unique material, unique technique, a unique form and a unique “statement.” An ideal type that rarely becomes reality. But every compositional aspect would have to be pushed in the direction of this ideal, as far as the composer’s abilities allowed.
If this is given, the working conditions must also be right – which is usually not the case. There is not enough time. The fact that there is barely enough time to learn a piece responsibly in the rehearsals for the premiere already infects the production, the work of composing at home, where there should theoretically be enough time. One composes for the bad performance conditions, writing the inevitable compromises into the piece. Nothing great can come from this. No one knows and feels this more than the performers, but they rarely hold power over the decision-makers. It is precisely this preemptive adaptation to the scene that the composer should oppose.

Once, when everything still seemed right with the world, one would simply have answered the question about great music by referring to compositional genius. Our time has some trouble with genius, which continues to exist. Yes, our music culture veritably celebrates geniuses, even those who are not. It is almost too obvious to point out: one cannot expect great music from mediocre people. Aiming for breadth only leads so far; in the end, only a few will count. Essentially, everyone knows this. A mature democracy must be able to deal with it. [9]

But has the masterpiece, the epitome of great music, not been sufficiently deconstructed? After the aging of the historical avant-garde idea, was that of deconstruction not the last remaining authority on which progressives could agree? How should we approach it now that it too has aged?
The idea of deconstruction stands in stark contrast to the figure of its inventor. Jacques Derrida never left any doubt about the fact that he was the great philosopher of his time, in fact the greatest. His narcissistic manner is legendary, and it is not simply a personal weakness, but rather part of the enactment of his philosophy. For this philosophy not only includes the material content of the texts, but also the habitus of one claiming to probe deep regions of thought and existence in those areas where argumentative verifiability or comprehension reach their limits. Derrida may have deconstructed many things, but his own productivity was not one of them. He was the Gesamtkunstwerk [10].

This realization could be used for the discredited, but now returning idea of great music. Deconstructivity, for its part, must be sublated into a higher concept. Even Derrida, in a rare moment, once used the word “postdeconstructive.” [11] My suggestion is therefore less pragmatic than it seems: one would need to have worked through the deconstructivity of music in order to have absorbed its legitimate concern, and this would in turn have to yield a great work whose unity would set a convincing standard. Like the more extreme buildings of Daniel Libeskind – the Jewish Museum in Berlin or the 9/11 memorial in NYC. Then we could finally move on to what has been tackled far too rarely: a deconstructivity in the work. The models would be Ravel’s La Valse or Alban Berg’s March from the Three Orchestral Pieces. But those works were written long ago. Hence this very specific thought: anyone standing at the waterfalls cascading into empty cubes at the 9/11 memorial – hearing, seeing, even smelling and tasting – feels a shudder that connects one to the great: the shudder of disaster, and of the attempt to take it up into the collective culture of memory. I know of no composer today, myself included, who might be capable of creating a musical counterpart that would not be trivial or tacky. It is not the time for great music.

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Nachgelassene Schriften, vol. IV.17: Kranichsteiner Vorlesungen, ed. Klaus Reichert & Michael Schwarz), p. 306.

[2] Cf. Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, “Reflexion, Kritik, Utopie, Messianizität. Kriterien moderner Musik – oder: Wie weit trägt die Idee musikalischer Dekonstruktion?” in MusikTexte 99 (2003).

[3] Cf. Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, “Wahrheit in Kunst und Musik,” in Musik & Ästhetik 57 (2011).

[4] Concerning substance in contradistinction to concept, cf. Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, “What Is the Meaning of Musical Substance?” in Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox & Wolfram Schurig, Substance and Content in Music Todayin (Hofheim: Wolke, 2014), pp. 9-22.

[5] Cf. Harry Lehmann, “Avant-garde Today: A Theoretical Model of Aesthetic Modernity,” in Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf (ed.), Critical Composition Today (Hofheim: Wolke, 2006), pp. 9-42. Though the author has meanwhile abandoned this view, I still find it compelling.

[6] Julia Spinola, “Schafft sich die Musikkritik ab? Zur Krise des Musikjournalismus in den Printmedien,” in: Musik & Ästhetik 66 (2013).

[7] Cf. Jacques Derrida,“The University Without Condition,” in Without Alibi, ed. & trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 202-237.

[8] This applies equally to works by others than Schönberg – Le Sacre is the best example.

[9] Cf. George Steiner’s statement that “there is no democracy in genius,” in “Ten (Possible) Reasons for the Sadness of Thought,” in Salmagundi 146/7 (2005), pp. 3-32.

[10] Cf. Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography, trans. Andrew Brown (Cambridge: Polity, 2013).

[11] Jacques Derrida & Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow – A Dialogue, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 51.


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