Unreliable Conservatism and the politics of music: Eichendorff, Thomas Mann, and Hans Pfitzner at the end of the First World War

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In a radio address of 1957, Theodor Adorno praised what he called Eichendorff’s ‘unreliable [unzuverlässig]’ conservatism: a collection of qualities that allowed him to draw dynamically on a musical flow of conventional poetic elements while simultaneously affirming the promise of a shimmering utopian future beyond bourgeois trappings. This article considers these same qualities as valued by another writer Adorno admired, Thomas Mann, and his circle in the aftermath of the First World War. It argues, first, for Mann’s identification (in the Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, 1918) of an exemplary national-conservative attitude in Eichendorff’s Taugenichts, himself a musician wandering beyond the bourgeoisie; second, it observes the political potential of this attitude in Hans Pfitzner’s setting of Eichendorff’s poem ‘Klage’. Finally, the article turns to three musical acts c.1918–1921 — a performance, a composition, and the expounding of music theory — in order to demonstrate the close relationship of Mann and Pfitzner at this time, and to position their combined thought as inspirational for a new national conservatism in music in the early post-war period.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)380-400
JournalOxford German Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2020


  • Eichendorff, Mann, Pfitzner, music, Conservatism, Betrachtungen