This essay considers the attitudes of Wilhelm Furtwängler and Theodor W. Adorno toward the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and its contemporary performance. The contexts for this comparison include the relationship between Romanticism and modernism, the experience and aftermath of National Socialism and World War II, and the rise of musical “authenticism” as part of a general movement toward postwar reconstruction of an allegedly unsullied past. While there remain undeniable differences between Furtwängler's late Romanticism and Adorno's Marxist modernism, their conceptions of a developmental, “vitalist” Bach have much more in common with each other than they do with positivist-historicist attempts to return to the eighteenth century. Furtwängler's often-unremarked interest in new music, including that of Arnold Schoenberg, comes to seem less paradoxical, given a shared background of aesthetic imperatives. Richard Taruskin's critique of “historically-informed performances” has allied them with modernist aesthetics, but there are many problems with such an approach, not least the denunciation of such performances from many modernists, for instance, Adorno and Pierre Boulez. Music permits the subject to express itself, perhaps not free from the “objective” constraints of society but with considerable relative autonomy. Romantic-modernist re-creative resistance to an illusory “solution” of the problems Bach's music continues to present offers greater scope for historical transformation of the subject than postmodernist reconstructionism.

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