Presenting the Irreconcilable: Protest and Abstraction in Mathias Spahlinger’s ‘Ocean’

Neil Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This article explores a large-scale political choral work by German composer Mathias Spahlinger, in dem ganzen ocean von empfindungen eine welle absondern, sie anhalten (1985). It maintains that this piece is a concentrated presentation of a fundamental opposition between abstract musical narrative and protest piece. This opposition is contextualized through a discussion of exchanges between Helmut Lachenmann and Luigi Nono, which articulate a divide between vulgar-Adornian abstraction and ‘committed’ agitprop—two viewpoints that have characterized much discourse on music and politics in the twentieth century. Spahlinger’s own extensive writings on the political are also illuminated to furnish an understanding of his aesthetic position. ocean, it is argued in an analysis of the piece, constitutes a startling example of Adorno’s conception of dialectical composition by presenting the irreconcilable nature of this central divide without attempting to synthesize its conflicting materials. It is argued, therefore, that the piece is a vital example of the diversity of modernist responses to music’s relationship with politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to) 427–447
Number of pages21
JournalMusic and Letters
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2018



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