“The True Manuscript in a Bottle” — or, How I Found Theodor Adorno’s “Lost” Translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik

In the introduction to his 2006 translation of Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik, Robert Hullot-Kentor notes that the book (or, more accurately, the first part of it) had been translated into English twice before: in 1973 by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster and in 1941 by Adorno himself, who prepared an English version of the Schoenberg portion of the manuscript (which, at that point, was the only part of the text that had been completed). Hullot-Kentor explains that the translation was prepared at the instigation of Dagobert Runes, for publication in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. But, in the end, Runes opted not to publish the text and the manuscript itself seems to have been lost.

Hullot-Kentor finds its disappearance

exceptional since from early on Adorno saved drafts of almost every page he wrote. But if that draft is somewhere, it is not be found in Frankfurt (xxi).

Based on Adorno’s description of the manuscript in a letter to Lowenthal — “I’ve translated the music essay into pidgin English and so fundamentally castrated it that Schoenberg will not be able to be mad about it …” — Hullot-Kentor concludes,

The unrevised draft, then, was a substantially compromised manuscript and it may be just as well that it disappeared, accidentally or not, for its vanishing plausibly spared unavailing arguments over authenticity and precedence of translated statement. But still one would like to know at least how Adorno translated the title. For its translation is, in fact, not obvious ….

But, for better or worse, it turns out that the manuscript was not lost: it has been hiding in New Haven. And Adorno translated the title as Philosophy of Advanced Music.

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

This post will discuss the path that led me to my encounter with this supposedly lost manuscript and say a few things about it. A subsequent post will say more about why it wound up in New Haven.

Of Finding Aids and Photographs

In October 2012 I spent some time looking at the Norbert Guterman’s papers at Columbia, in hopes of shedding some light on what had become of another allegedly lost manuscript: the article that Max Horkheimer wrote in response to the “New Failure of Nerve” exchanges in Partisan Review.1 I’d been interested in Guterman for quite some time. Along with Henri Lefebvre, he had been active in various Parisian circles that brought surrealists and Marxists together during the 1920s and had been friends with Max Jacob, André Breton, André Malraux, and Francis Steegmuller. He came to the United States around 1930 and began a career as a translator (which is how I first became aware of him: when I was in graduate school, it seemed that he’d translated a fair number of the books that interested me the most). By the 1940s he was working for the Institute for Social Research where, among other things, he was responsible for putting the Horkheimer lectures that eventually became The Eclipse of Reason into passable English.

I found nothing about Horkheimer’s response to the Partisan Review exchanges in Guterman’s papers, but I did find a handwritten letter from Adorno, dated September 14, 1946 (to the causal reader, it might appear that the year is 1940, but it is written on stationary that gives Adorno’s address as 316 So. Kenter Avenue and Adorno did not leave New York for California until November of 1941.) Since Adorno’s handwriting was sometimes difficult to decipher — and, in any case, I was looking for something else — I was content to skim the letter and jot down a few notes. Fortunately, I also photographed it.

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Here’s the note I took at the time (it consists of extracts from the text along with a few comments in square brackets):

From Adorno (in LA), September 14, 1946

I add the German original of the “Philosophy of the Modern Music” (1940-1941), together with my rough [rough is underlined] (and possibly [word unclear]) draft of a translation. The English, of course, is abominable … If the publication of my essay were being [word unclear], I should like to make some modifications, especially on Stravinsky.

I didn’t get around to looking at the letter again until a few weeks ago, when I was reviewing the notes I took on the Guterman papers.  I began to wonder whether the allegedly lost manuscript might have wound up in Box 7 of Guterman’s papers, which carry the laconic designation “Manuscripts — Translations by Guterman.”

It was only at this point that I took another look at my photograph of the letter and realized that it contained a postscript, which I’d skimmed, but not fully understood (there is a lesson here: the past is a foreign country and when you visit it you should take lots of snapshots; you’re likely to miss things):

P.S. I just find that the most recent copy of the English translation of the “Philosophy of Advanced Music” is left [sic]. The only one which I corrected is in the possession of Mr. Virgil Thomson, music editor of the Herald Tribune. In case a positive decision has been reached with regard to publication, you could certainly obtain this copy from him, by explaining to him the situation. Please forgive the mess.  The copy of the manuscript which I enclose is entirely uncorrected and I do not know whether you can use it at all.

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

Norbert Guterman Papers, Columbia University, Box 2

The letter suggests that there might be at least two surviving copies of Adorno’s translation, though it was conceivable that neither of them would have been in Adorno’s possession when he packed up his papers and returned to Frankfurt. He sent an unrevised version of the text to Guterman in September 1946, which might still be residing in Box 7 of Guterman’s papers at Columbia (if anyone wants to wander over there and take a look, let me know what you find). But since this was an unrevised version of the manuscript, Adorno might not have had a great deal of interest in getting it back. The more significant version would be the revised draft that he sent to the composer and critic Virgil Thomson. So, might the “lost” copy of Adorno’s translation have remained with Thomson?

A quick search revealed that not only had Virgil Thomson’s papers been archived in the Yale Music Library, but that there was an exhaustive online finding aid available. It indicated that a manuscript by Theodor Adorno carrying the title “Philosophy of Advanced Music” resided in Box 191, Folder 1.2

The Text Itself

What, in honor of the institution that has sheltered it for these many years, might be designated as the “Yale Manuscript” is a 108 page typescript, with extensive annotations. Most pages contain corrections, alternate formulations of passages, queries, and requests to (or, perhaps, from?) unknown parties — e.g., “please check against the German” (100) and “please check with English translation of Faust I” (103). There are also a few deletions (some of which involve entire paragraphs) and some additions.

The German text from which Adorno worked appears to have been the version of Philosophie der neuen Musik that he circulated among friends and colleagues in the early 1940s, including Rudolf Kolisch (a typescript of a German version can be found among Kolisch’s papers at Harvard) and Max Horkheimer (who responded enthusiastically to the manuscript when he read it in the summer of 1941).3 This was also the text that Thomas Mann read while working on Doctor Faustus.4 With minor alterations, the German original became the first part (i.e., the section “Schoenberg and Progress”) of the book that — with the addition of a second section on “Stravinsky and the Restoration” — was published as Philosophie der neuen Musik in 1949.

Adorno’s English translation also includes a two-page preface, dated “New York City, September 1941,” which provides a brief account of the genesis of the work, along with an acknowledgement of Adorno’s ongoing collaboration with Horkheimer and of the role that Dagobert Runes played in providing the impetus for publication of a work that had, as Adorno explained, “been written without any thought of publication.” The expression of thanks to Runes, however muted, suggests that, at this point, the text had yet to be rejected. Adorno went on to note, that it was all “the more seemly” for him to acknowledge Runes’ “initiative” in soliciting the manuscript since the author,

is only too well conscious of the provocative features of his attempt. Not only does he enter circumstantially into the most esoteric questions of the technique of composing in a situation in which it must appear almost cynical to devote any time to matters of that kind, he also treats these questions thus as if they were identical with reality in spite of their isolation and exclusiveness.5 Yet perhaps this very absurdity may justify the undertaking. This is only music. What must a world be like in which even questions of contrapunct [sic] give evidence of unbearable contradictions. How thoroughly disturbed must the existence of man be, if impasse and deadlock are still reflected by a realm so far aloof from the sphere of immediate experience, a realm the function of which is supposed just to take away men from the sphere of immediate experience.

Perhaps because Adorno was unable, in English, to do what he was capable of doing in German, his explanation of the aim of this peculiar text is uncharacteristically candid: looking at matters that involve “only music”, he sought to grasp the “unbearable contradictions” that defined an entire social order.

One Passage, Three Translations

In the introduction to his translation Robert Hullot-Kentor observes that Adorno was likely “well aware that his recently acquired English was still inadequate to the task” of translating the German text. I suspect that a close examination of the Yale manuscript (which, I hasten to add, I have neither attempted nor am likely to carry out) will confirm this judgment. Even a limited reading makes it clear that the manuscript that Adorno sent to Virgil Thomson was very much still a work in progress.

For the moment, it may suffice to compare the closing sentences of the German original with the translations by Adorno, Mitchell and Blomster, and Hullot-Kentor.

First, Adorno’s German:

Die Schocks des Unverständlichen, welche die künstlerische Technik im Zeitalter ihrer Sinnlosigkeit austeilt, schlagen um. Sie erhellen die sinnlose Welt. Dem opfert sich die neue Musik. Alle Dunkelheit und Schuld der Welt hat sie auf sich genommen. All ihr Glück hat sie daran, das Unglück zu erkennen; all ihre Schönheit, dem Schein des Schönen sich zu versagen. Keiner will mit ihr etwas zu tun haben, die Individuellen so wenig wie die Kollektiven. Sie verhallt ungehört, ohne Echo. Schießt um die gehörte Musik die Zeit zum strahlenden Kristall zusammen, so fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel. Auf diese letzte Erfahrung hin, die mechanische Musik stündlich durchmacht, ist die neue Musik spontan angelegt, auf das absolute Vergessensein. Sie ist die wahre Flaschenpost.6

Adorno’s translation:

The shocks of being ununderstandable dealt by artistic technique during the age of their senselessness tilt over. They enlighten the senseless world. Advanced music sacrifices itself for this purpose. It has all its happiness in gaining the cognition of unhappiness. It has all its beauty in renouncing the illusion of beauty. It is liked by nobody, by individualists as little as by collectivists. It resounds [dies away, lingers] (verhallt) unheard, without an echo. If time gleamingly (strahlend) crystallizes around music that has been heard, unheard music falls into the empty time like a pernicious ball (globe) (Kugel). Advanced music aims spontaneously though unconsciously at this last experience which is made hour by hour by mechanical music, the experience of being totally forgotten. Its hope lies with the doom of the world. It is the true manuscript in the bottle.7

 *Philosophy of Advanced Music* (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

*Philosophy of Advanced Music* (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Mitchell and Blomster:

The shocks of incomprehension, emitted by artistic technique in the age of its meaninglessness, undergo a sudden change. They illuminate the meaningless world. Modern music sacrifices itself to this effort. It has taken upon itself all the darkness and guilt of the world. Its fortune lies in the perception of misfortune; all of its beauty is in denying itself the illusion of beauty. No one wishes to become involved with art — individuals as little as collectives. It dies away unheard, without even an echo. If time crystallizes around that music which has been heard, revealing its radiant quintessence, music which has not been heard falls into empty time like an impotent bullet. Modern music spontaneously aims towards this last experience, experienced hourly in mechanical music. Modern music sees absolute oblivion as its goal. It is the surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked.8

Finally, Hullot-Kentor:

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. All its happiness is in the knowledge of unhappiness; all its beauty is in the denial of the semblance of the beautiful. No one, neither individuals nor groups, wants to have anything to do with it. It dies away unheard, without an echo. Around music as it is heard, time springs together in a radiant crystal, while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time. Towards this latter experience, which mechanical music undergoes hour by hour, new music is spontaneously aimed: towards absolute oblivion. It is the true message in the bottle.9

What is perhaps most immediately obvious is how little help Adorno can provide in the text’s most difficult passages: his solutions are generally no more successful than those who followed him.

His rendering of the verb at the close of the first sentence does manage to capture something that the other translations don’t quite get — the sense that an entire order is being overthrown. Yet “tilt over” misses the violence implicit in umschlagen — but then, so does Mitchell and Blomster’s “undergo a sudden change” and Hullot-Kentor’s concise “reverse.”

There is almost complete unanimity on what to do with second sentence — “Sie erhellen die sinnlose Welt”. The only difference is that where his Anglophone translators — perhaps sensing that “enlighten” has to be reserved for “aufklären” or “erleuchten” — do not follow Adorno in having the shock of the incomprehensible serve the cause of enlightenment (for reasons that should be obvious to readers of this blog, I rather like Adorno’s use of “enlighten” here).

Hullot-Kentor doesn’t clutter “Dem opfert sich die neue Musik” with unnecessary words and translates it as “New music sacrifices itself to this” (one of the many strengths of his translation is that it conveys something of the concision of Adorno’s German). Mitchell and Blomster’s translation echoes Adorno’s in wanting to find a noun to put in place of “this”. And here we also see the diverging ideas about what to do with “neuen Musik”: “advanced music” (Adorno), “modern music” (Mitchell and Blomster, or “new music” (Hullot-Kentor).

The remarkable sentence “Schießt um die gehörte Musik die Zeit zum strahlenden Kristall zusammen, so fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel” appears (understandably) to have stumped everyone. Hullot-Kentor succeeds in coming up with a sentence that resembles English while preserving something of the otherworldly character of the German: “Around music as it is heard, time springs together in a radiant crystal, while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time.” But “as it is heard” plays down the contrast between “heard music” and “unheard music” by framing the distinction as temporal — and, perhaps, temporary (i.e., music as it is being heard vs. music that is not now being heard). Might this be a place to steal a trick from Keats and use “heard music”?

The rest of the sentence — “fällt die ungehörte in die leere Zeit gleich einer verderblichen Kugel” — is the sort of thing that drives translators to despair. To begin at the end: every Anglophone reader must struggle (in vain, I suspect) to banish the image of a baked pudding falling through empty time and try to figure out which of the many other things that Kugel designates Adorno might have had in mind [Update: shortly after this post was published, Lesley Chamberlain came up with a convincing account of what Adorno was doing in the sentence — see her comment below]. They can take some solace in the fact that Adorno wasn’t quite sure either: he initially went with “ball”, then added “globe” in parentheses and — apparently to remind himself that there was still work to be done — put the German in as well. Mitchell and Blomster’s “bullet” is an intriguing choice, though it might have been better to use “spent” in place of “impotent.” Like Adorno, Hullot-Kentor concludes that verderblichen can only be “pernicious”, but — having (sensibly) banished Kugel from the text — he is forced to attach the word to the action of tumbling, rather than to whatever it is (ball, globe, bullet, or pudding) that falls through empty time. The problem with “while unheard tumbles perniciously through empty time” is that it sounds uncomfortably close to Chomsky’s “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: grammatically correct but (depending on one’s taste) either semantically nonsensical, poetic, or metaphysical. Faced with a phrase like this, all translators can do is resist the urge to put a bullet through their own heads.

Unless I’ve missed it, there is nothing in the published German text that corresponds to Adorno’s penultimate sentence, which suggests that either there was a sentence in the text of the original German manuscript that was subsequently cut or that this was one of the additions to the English text.

And finally we come to the last sentence, which contains the now familiar word Flaschenpost. As heirs to a tradition of reading Horkheimer and Adorno, Mitchell and Blomster and Hullot-Kentor know that Adorno is, of course, conjuring up the famous “message in bottle.” But Adorno, at sea in a language that was not yet (and probably could never fully be) his own, translates Post as “manuscript”, leaving the reader with the peculiar image of a “manuscript” stuffed into a bottle and set adrift. But, while strange, the image is strangely appropriate — at least for the peculiar manuscript that closes with it: for here is a manuscript cast off in the closing years of Adorno’s exile in Los Angeles that, somehow or other, washed up among the papers of an American composer and music critic.

I’ll have more to say in a subsequent post about why Adorno sent the manuscript to Virgil Thomson. But readers are on their own in dealing with that tumbling Kugel.


  1. The editors of Horkheimer’s collected works note that parts of the manuscript were later inserted into Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, but have been unable to locate the manuscript itself. At this point, I’m inclined to think that the reason why the manuscript is missing is that it became the second chapter of the Eclipse of Reason. (In other words, the second chapter is the “Hook Paper.” But I won’t try to defend this conclusion here.
  2. For the full citation, see below. The same folder also contains a copy of the Analytical Study of the NBC Musical Appreciation Hour.
  3. See Horkheimer’s letter to Adorno of August 28, 1941 in Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften XVII:146-152.
  4. I’ve discussed this in some detail in “Mephistopheles in Hollywood: Adorno, Mann, and Schoenberg,” in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, ed. Thomas Huhn (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 148–80.
  5. In the typescript, in place of the word “reality” Adorno had written “in a world which takes as little notice of them as they do of it” — which is enough to suggest that not all of his modifications were for the better.
  6. Theodor Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, in Rolf Tiedemann, ed., Theodor W. Adorno Gesammelte Schriften 12:126.
  7. T. W. Adorno, Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.
  8. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Seabury, 1973) 133.
  9. Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 102.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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7 Responses to “The True Manuscript in a Bottle” — or, How I Found Theodor Adorno’s “Lost” Translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik

  1. Pingback: Theodor Adorno, Dagobert Runes, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: The Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Part III) | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: James Schmidt on Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik manuscript | The Association for Adorno Studies

  3. Pingback: Unbottled Manuscripts: On the Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson | Persistent Enlightenment

  4. Could well be from Benjamin, I don’t know him well enough. Still it does make me think of Hegel, himself echoing Schiller’s leere Unendlichkeit/unendliche Leere opposition in the 19th letter of the Aesthetic Education of Man, where ‘the infinity of space and time is at the disposal of the imagination to do as it likes with.’ (tr Wilkinson and Willoughby, who point out a place in Faust (6239ff) where Goethe imagines his hero traipsing through endless wastes on his way to the ‘Mothers’.)
    Finity/infinity and the full and the empty are deeply implicated in Hegelian dialectical thinking. Hegel responds to the infinite freedom Kant opened up for the human spirit (Geist), using all its faculties in conjunction, to determine its own (quality of) reality. It’s this choice, to make something of the infinity of space and time, and not leave it empty, that Schiller sees as the ultimate cultural challenge – an Enlightenment stance, no? And as I read your post it’s just where Adorno thinks the 20thC has failed to rise to the task.
    What an interesting afternoon (here) getting some old texts off the shelf! Many thanks for it.

  5. Thanks for this, Jim. I was riveted. Just looking at the 1946 letter, where you had a couple of unreadable words, I wondered shouldn’t those passages read
    ….rough (and horribly literal) draft of a translation
    If the publication of my essay were being secured…
    I also wondered about ‘modifications’ on Schoenberg. I couldn’t find enough syllables for that and given that Adorno seems to write his small a without closing the letter at the bottom, maybe what he’s proposing are ‘additions’?
    Just a nuance.
    I like very much The Philosophy of Advanced Music.
    As for the poetic passage about the fate of ‘music that’s never heard….’? could it allude to the perfectly meaningful and ultimately rational ‘music of the spheres’, and corresponding musica instrumentalis and musica humana, as compared with the present cosmic and human emptiness reflected in advanced music? (That would also chime with your liking Adorno’s choice of some compensatory ‘enlightening’ that is now needed). A quick look at the German Wikipedia entry for Musik der Sphaeren says that the spheres were ‘durchsichtige Kugeln’ and presumably they were eternal and in that sense incorruptable, not verderblich (disintegrating, perishable, blighted). Unheard music falls into empty time like a (Pythagorean) sphere that has fallen out of eternity.
    Incidentally ’empty’ time sounds very Hegelian to me, but that’s another story,

    • Thanks so much for the corrections and for the brilliant (in the American as opposed to the British sense of the term) solution to the Kugel question! That Adorno added “globe” as a possible translation would seem to support your case.

    • P.S. Regarding “empty time”: I’m inclined to think that the allusion is to Benjamin, rather than Hegel.

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