Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Music (MM)


Music History and Literature

Committee Chairperson

Dr. Jordan Stokes, PhD

Committee Member

Dr. Julian Onderdonk, PhD

Committee Member

Dr. Heidi Lee, PhD


In her 2004 Critical Inquiry article “Music: Drastic or Gnostic?,” Carolyn Abbate argues that much writing about music avoids music’s “exceptional phenomenal presence,” its “drastic” effects (a term borrowed from philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch). Such writing, she argues is “gnostic”; that is, interested in uncovering social, cultural, or philosophical truths beneath that “exceptional phenomenal presence.” Gnostic criticism is where music can become prey to nefarious philosophies; shorn from the context of performance, it can become whatever the critic wishes it to be. This indictment trains much of its focus on the work of Theodor W. Adorno, whom she regards as one of gnostic criticism’s modern forefathers. In this thesis, I explore her argument as it pertain to Johannes Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, which has occasioned both drastic and gnostic responses. After an introduction, I summarize her argument, present an overview of the symphony, and describe Adorno’s “gnostic” reading of the piece as outlined in his 1934 essay “Brahms aktuell.” Next, I examine the method of drastic criticism Abbate outlines at the end of her essay and use these methods to study a 1973 film of the piece by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Finally, I outline some of the critiques that Abbate’s article has received, both gnostic and otherwise. My general conclusion is that drastic criticism leads to a more complete engagement with the piece, despite the gnostic criticism’s sometimes-penetrating insights and drastic criticism’s challenging paradoxes.