by Moya K. Mason
|Art is mind, and mind does not at all need to feel itself obligated to the community, to society, it may not, in my view, for the sake of its freedom, its nobility. An art that goes in unto the folk, which makes her own the needs of the crowd, of the little man, of small minds, arrives at wretchedness, and to make it her duty is the worst small -- mindedness, and the murder of mind and spirit. And it is my conviction that mind, in its most audacious, unrestrained advance and researches, can, however unsuited to the masses, be certain in some indirect way to serve man in the long run.|
|Excerpt from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus|
Theodor Adorno was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1903. His family's wealth and cultural interests allowed him to partake in the finer aspects of life from an early age. Both his mother and his sister were successful and accomplished musicians and it was from them that he received his initial training and encouragement in his life-long love for music.(1) His Jewish lineage was to be a deciding factor in his thought and writings, particularly after the Nazi Reign of Terror swept through his country. For ever after, the millions who were persecuted under Hitler's totalitarian regime would not be forgotten by this very serious and esoteric intellectual; his legacy to them was the quest for the reconciliation of social contradictions and his contention that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."(2)
When Adorno met composer Alban Berg in 1924, it was after the premiere of Berg's famous opera Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Festival of the Universal German Society. Adorno's musical education until then was solely traditional and he was extremely interested in discovering the innovative techniques he was hearing and begin to use them in his own compositions. When asked, Berg agreed to accept him as a student if he did move to Vienna, but completion of his education would postpone the trip until the following year.(3) For it was at this time Adorno was completing his doctoral studies in philosophy at a Frankfurt university.(4) His passion for music was matched only by his dedication to the field of philosophy. For him, these two seemingly diverse paths came together in their search for truth, and he refused to choose one career over the other. Adorno preferred to immerse himself in both, and can assuredly be called the quintessential philosopher of music.
Alban Berg, along with Anton von Webern, were the principal students of Arnold Schoenberg, the founder of the Second Viennese School, a successor to the old romantic school of Viennese composers. Berg was a steadfast disciple and friend of Schoenberg, helping him to organize the Society for Private Performances in Vienna which prohibited music critics and applause.(5) Adorno considered his teacher a figure of humanity, "who desired much, but hoped for nothing; having very little to lose and even less to fear."(6) Berg's early pieces reflected the influence of Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler, and later, Schoenberg's influence developed the composer into a revolutionary of 'new music'.(7) Adorno described his teacher's music as structurally non-traditional, with a tendency towards particularization and disintegration: "it strives toward a threshold value bordering on nothingness."(8) His music was seen as radically new because of this simultaneous double movement of continual construction and perpetual decay: its life and death composition. Berg's music expressed his personal preoccupation with death and the awareness he possessed of its imminence.(9)
Berg's opera Wozzeck used the construction of free atonality, endeavoring to give music autonomy from the words. This absence of tonality was effectively overcome by allowing the music to completely consume the words and to demand central attention. This progressive technique was coupled with multi-note chords and expressions of chaos which needed concentration and perception from the listener if understanding was to be facilitated. Berg used interweaving and overlapping to compose and to attain his desire for the music to follow the path of "nothingness to nothingness;"(10) considering quality more important than the stylistic means used to reach it. Adorno's relationship with Berg lasted eleven years and he described his creations in the following words:
His music is without force, tangible and fatal like a wine; that comprises its true modernity, modernity of a kind that finds a genuine counterpoint only in the properties of some exuberantly abstract creations of contemporary art and sculpture with a profound predisposition for the chaotic.(11)
Berg also used Schoenberg's twelve-tone system, creating some very complicated music that was difficult to penetrate, but audiences were much more receptive of him than they were of his mentor.
Adorno spent two years in Vienna under the tutelage of Alban Berg, attracted to the close-knit circle of intellectuals who were gathered there at the time. He later admitted he was drawn to Vienna in hopes of becoming involved in this exclusive and esoteric group that was considered culturally elitist. This was a short-lived dream for Adorno because Schoenberg's new marriage would cause him to become inaccessible and eventually precipitated his move outside the city altogether. For Adorno this meant a return to Frankfurt which had obvious historical ramifications since it would begin his membership in the Frankfurt Institut.(12) However, his stay in Vienna had a profound and lasting affect on him. The 'new music' which flowed out of the Second Viennese School and its founder would be the subjects of countless essays and books by Theodor Adorno. Who was this maestro Schoenberg and how did Adorno characterize the modern music that he equated with life itself?
During the 1930s Adorno considered Arnold Schoenberg the most progressive person in modern music.(13) He was a musical genius who received only a few months of training from Alexander von Zemlinsky. His early songs provoked hostile criticisms and he found solace in his painting, revealing strong expressionist tendencies. He taught at the prestigious Sterns Conservatory in Berlin, and later, conducted in important cities across Europe before entering military service in World War I. During the early 1920s he lived and taught in Vienna, leaving the city to teach a master class at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. When he was fired by the Nazis in 1933, Schoenberg went to Paris and converted back to his childhood religion of Judaism. Soon after, he relocated to the United States, where he lived out the rest of his life.(14)
Schoenberg composed for chorus, orchestra, chamber ensemble, stage, voice, and keyboard. Alongside his musical interests and passion for painting was a proficiency for writing, with many articles, books, and essays, to his credit. One of his many maxims, which seems autobiographical was: "genius learns only from itself, talent chiefly from others."(15) Schoenberg's music developed through four major transformations. The first was typified by a postromanticism and was influenced by Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner, as was Alban Berg's early music. His second period was considerably more abstract and reflected an innovative spirit. His atonal-expressionism began with Das Buch der hangenden Garten in 1908, and employed an increased absence of tonality and a tendency towards dissonance over the typical consonance. He eliminated symmetry and disregarded formal sequences in his music, destroying the traditional bonds of coherence and unity in compositions. These manifestations were considered quite revolutionary and were abhorred by the general population of the day.(16)
Adorno's own work was influenced by Schoenberg's atonality, but in much more than his musical compositions. In Origins of Negative Dialetics, Susan Buck-Morss observes that:
Schoenberg's revolution in music provided the inspiration for Adorno's own efforts in philosophy, the model for his major work on Husserl during the 1930s. For just as Schoenberg had overthrown tonality, the decaying form of bourgeois music, so Adorno's Husserl study attempted to overthrow idealism, the decaying form of bourgeois philosophy.(17)
Schoenberg composed frantically during this phase of expressionism, but even then, was radically opposed to the market. He agreed with Adorno's premise that "from the middle of the nineteenth century on, good music had renounced commercialism altogether."(18) The avoidance of tonality endeavored to give equal value to the chromatic twelve notes, thereby eliminating the traditional hierarchy of the tonal system of scales. Thus, it was not a big leap into Schoenberg's most progressive period, which had a dramatic and lasting effect on Western music:(19) the introduction of his twelve-tone system.
In Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music, he stresses the point that Schoenberg's twelve-tone system was not a compositional technique since composing could only begin when the method was established.(20) However, most music theoreticians consider it a device Schoenberg and others used to write complex pieces, shattering traditional notions of harmony and counterpoint.(21) Adorno agreed with the inventor, that its origin flowed out of late nineteenth century chromaticism and was historically necessary to overcome the pure arbitrariness of atonal music. The problem of no key at all was solved by Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. Additionally, there was an abandonment of repetition, even to the degree that all twelve tones of the chromatic scale (arranged in any order by the composer) had to be used before any one could be resounded. This meant the music was in constant flux and displayed intense harmonic dissonance.(22) It was unsettling to listen to and the music of Schoenberg and his students spread terror and anxiety since it allowed "insight into the catastrophic situation which others merely evade by regressing."(23)
The twelve-tone system did have advantages, but it became a rigid set of rules to follow and a time-consuming procedure.(24) The five years preceding his innovation were productive ones for Schoenberg and during them, he composed more music than in all twenty years of using the twelve- tone method. He continued to use it in his last transformation which can be called his American period. His most famous work of the time was A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) which employed a toned down twelve-tone methodology.(25) Strangely, Schoenberg also had a predisposition for a preoccupation with death and suffered from a paranoid fear of the number thirteen. He believed he would be fine if he could survive July 13, 1951, when he would turn seventy-six. His worry was exacerbated when a friend pointed out that the digits of his age also added up to thirteen. Sadly, he died on July 13, exactly thirteen minutes before midnight.(26) Until his death it was his contention that "art is the cry of distress uttered by those who experience at first hand, the fate of mankind."(27)
Adorno considered him to be an intense visionary, but admitted Schoenberg's system provoked difficult and restricting demands, making the process of composing an extremely intellectual undertaking.(28) He refused to use it in his own work and later attacked it with many criticisms because he believed it destroyed the very spontaneity that gave emancipated music its essence.(29) Its formalism had been too extreme and its expression too drastic. Adorno realized modern music innovators were affected by the constant barrage of hostile reactions against them, reflected both, in the decreasing numbers of compositions and the marks of fatigue, and the immense effort found in the music.(30) Webern had the dream that in time, their twelve-tone music would come to sound as natural as traditional music, but Schoenberg was more realistic.(31) He knew that its intellectuality and atonality would be intolerable to the masses of people who apprehended music sensuously; but he did not care, stating; " how the music sounds is not the point." (32) What was the point?
Many expressionist artists came from the comfortably complacent middle and upper classes, yet they felt the strongest premonitions of catastrophe as the problems of the nineteenth century came to the surface. The rapid industrialization and urbanization, severe oppression of workers, as well as numerous technological advances, made it a period which heralded capitalistic values over the needs of the human spirit and personal worth.(33) Adorno wrote: "what radical music perceives is the untransfigured suffering of man,"(34) believing that artists and musicians could help in overcoming some of the social contradictions through the development of emancipated or autonomous art. For him, autonomy meant art's freedom from any social, economic, political, or religious use, it was a precondition for him. To Adorno, "the forms of art reflect the history of man more truthfully than do documents themselves."(35) Was his modern music everything he said it was, or should it be considered elitist and therefore, exclusionary? Does music have to be chaotic and revolutionarily alarming to be true?
Music, Society, Ideals, and Vision
As with all things, change and progress in music is inevitable, however, from the turn of the century there was a period of extreme experimentation which propelled music in all directions. The nineteenth century is considered the Age of Romanticism by music historians and it produced compositions that strove to communicate the artist's inner desires and emotions. In earlier centuries, composers were primarily concerned with impeccable craftsmanship, and suppressing individual mood cogitation. For them, emotional expression was only a minor component in the act of musical writing.(36) Adorno and the other modernists preferred this pre-romantic approach over the romantic genre that was prevalent at the time. Certainly, many people could not understand why the traditional musicians like Wagner were no longer good enough and wondered how they could possibly keep up with all the new manifestations in music.(37)
In the case of Schoenberg's music, one could, without reservation state that the majority of people would considerate it inaccessible; it would be meaningless to the untrained ear. That is not to say the mass population should denounce the composer nor deny the right of anyone to bring forth what is conceived as disconnected, culturally-elite music. Just as Adorno should have understood that in the pre-radio and television days, music was beyond the financial and quite possibly, the geographical reach of most people. Surely, not every city had an opera house and for the fortunate people who could afford to go on occasion, distorted and unconventional music would not be their first choice. Schoenberg was quite correct in his perception of this reality. Adorno said Schoenberg's music "resembled popular songs in refusing to be enjoyed."(38)
The argument could be made that art must be for the people and comprehensible to them, and not solely for trained experts who seemed so far out of touch with the general population they were supposed to be writing for and who ought to have been listening to their music. Susan Buck-Morss asks:
Precisely whom were the avant-garde leading? The answer could only be those who understand the complexities of musical technique, that is, other intellectuals. In reality, access to the "truth" of Schoenberg's music was open only to the cultured elite from the bourgeois ranks whose economic security gave them the necessary means for acquiring a specialized training. The difficulty was that this group would always remain a "few"... (39)
Earlier in the book she made a point that Adorno would certainly agree with: "artistic and cultural rebellion by individuals took the place of organized political or social revolt."(40) For Adorno, that was the crux of the matter and he spent many years of his life advocating non-conformity through artistic expression.
Adorno returned to Frankfurt, becoming a member of the city's Institut which tried to address current social issues. Before long Germany's prevailing political movement prompted many of the group to seek exile, and by the end of the war, the majority had become citizens of the United States. Adorno chose to spend the 1930s in England, continuing his studies and teaching at Oxford, however, he was missed by his colleagues in the Institut and was finally convinced to join them to renew their cultural studies in America, and in particular, the rise of mass culture.(41) Adorno vehemently criticized twentieth century popular music, with its standardized, repetitive structure that "is regarded as the absolute criterion of social truth,"(42) and its insistence upon conformity. In Introduction to the Sociology of Music, he wrote: "popular music constitutes the dregs of musical history."(43) What were the reasons for his analysis, and what did he see in jazz that made it so problematic for society?
Underlying all his work in the area was his contention that "popular art becomes the mere exponent of society, rather than a catalyst for change in society."(44) He believed American authoritarianism had a different facade than the typical European forms. Instead, it was characterized by a disguised and gentle conformist enforcement rather than blatant terrorist coercion. The American totalitarianism was spread by the culture industry which Adorno saw as undemocratic, reified, and phony: "individualistic tendencies are liquidated and flawlessly arranged pieces of music are perfectly performed, sounding more like phonograph records than vital artistic displays."(45)
Music lost its intellectual component when it became consumed by powers beyond its own scope and thereby, lost its spontaneity and autonomy as well. Musical offerings are imbued with so much sameness that preference depends merely upon a person's "biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard."(46) Recognition of the music was the preoccupation of the industry which promoted interchangeable parts for use in songs to facilitate this end. In On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening, Adorno writes: "the familiarity of a piece is a surrogate for the quality ascribed to it. To like it is almost the same thing as to recognize it."(47) In addition, whatever is most familiar becomes very successful and for this reason, causes it to be played continually.
Adorno perceived a lack of authentic talent in the popular forms of music which equated singers with the ability to speak and their capacity for performing in front of audiences. The prima donnas and the castrati, with their artistic virtuosity belonged to an earlier epoch and no longer had a place in the music industry. Likewise, Adorno saw a change in the music connoisseur whose reason for attending concerts was the cultural importance of being seen at the 'right' performance rather than the pleasure of listening the musical event was transformed into a means. The fact the price of the ticket could be afforded was far more important and constituted a worshiping of status, over and above the joy and privilege of attending a musical event.(48) Does music even entertain anymore? Adorno certainly believed it no longer had the ability and instead, merely complemented the death of expressive speech and humanity's tendency towards non-communication.(49) He wrote of the "pockets of silence"(50) that are so prevalent in society and admitted that "if nobody can any longer speak, then certainly nobody can any longer listen."(51)
This 'regression of listening' was a major concern for Adorno because for him, it was synonymous with the incapability of most people to participate in concentrated listening. The musical audience resign themselves to whatever is offered, rejecting freedom of choice and the responsibility for intellectual perception of the songs. Therefore, a 'regression of listening' among consumers means needs are being manipulated by outside forces. Adorno states: "regressive listening is tied to production by the machinery of distribution, and particularly, by advertising."(52) He says that consumers of popular music...
...have key points in common with the man who must kill time because he has nothing else on which to vent his aggression, and with the casual laborer. To make oneself a jazz expert or hang over the radio all day, one must have much free time and little freedom.(53)
The radio was another area of concern for him since he saw it as a diversionary tool of mass culture, believing it to be as fascist as the Reformation's printing press. Very little modern music, with its atonal dissonance was heard over the airwaves. Instead, music which conveyed the need to conform was given priority because listening to it was not an effort and could even be done unconsciously. Ernst Krenek said the radio destroyed what Benjamin called the 'aura of artwork' by simulating the experience. Attendance was no longer required at a performance to hear the music, but he believed it took away the aesthetic experience of it, and therefore, its ability to promote praxis.(54)
Jazz presented the same problem for Adorno because it was seen by him to be basically dance or background music. It was not music that would be listened to intensely for its intellectual value, and he believed it to primarily be a corruption of traditional music. His main concern was with the heavily-commercialized Tin Pan Alley jazz with its standardized and repetitious forms; all spontaneity was rigorously excluded from the music.(55) Adorno viewed jazz as a static music whose deviations were "as standardized as the standards,"(56) but the monotony never bothered its fans who perceived the songs as new and exciting. In Perennial Fashion-Jazz, Adorno writes:
Considered as a whole, the perennial sameness of jazz consists not in a basic organization of the material within which the imagination can roam freely and without inhabitation, as within an articulate language, but rather in the utilization of certain well-defined tricks, formulas, and clichés to the exclusion of everything else.(57)
The presence of some advanced elements such as montage, shock, and technological production techniques, did not validate jazz for Adorno.(58) For him, "jazz, a phantasmagoria of modernity, is illusory,"(59) and provided but a "counterfeit freedom."(60)
Many questions arise out of Adorno's writings on music. Is not all music valid if it gives enjoyment and reduces feelings of turmoil and anxiety in a world where constant change is the hallmark? Of course, this depends on what we call enjoyment? Schoenberg's music was not a highly marketable commodity, and is it not elitist to argue that if a piece of music or art has an exchange value, it has lost its use value? Why should Adorno claim universal validity for 'new music' solely? Many would contend that jazz and all forms of popular music are not corruptions of traditional music, but in fact, are entirely new genres of music in their own right. Should music change with the times and not have to depend upon abstraction, nominalism, and dissonance for validity? It could also be said that in the prevailing fast-paced, technologically-bombarded society where striving to survive is hard enough music should not be so difficult to understand that an education in music is needed for listening. And does autonomous music actually contribute to society?
In Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger discusses the status of autonomous art as a bourgeois category, describing the detachment of art from the realities of life.(61) It is erroneous to perceive autonomy to mean independence from bourgeois society; and instead, to understand that it is actually art that is produced by members of classes who are somewhat free from financial pressures, and have the luxury to produce what is not "part of any means-end relationship."(62) Bürger saw the loss of effectiveness in Adorno's modernistic music because it offered no communication with society. It does not reflect society, and vehemently resists it.(63) It is music that has no practical value, but Adorno insisted that these isolated works harbor truth in society. Was he right?
Adorno believed autonomous artistic compositions were the pressures of society's utopian possibilities and the last hold out for humanity's desire for a better world: a world which he saw to be immersed in social contradictions. Until these contradictions were harmonized, music and the other arts must continue to reflect elements of social protest. Adorno also admitted that music itself contained contradictions in its own structure since it could never be completely autonomous nor fully reflective of culture. What distressed him more was autonomous music being severely threatened by commodification, displaying considerably more features of an exchange value philosophy. He contended that his criticisms of popular music were not based on elitist comparisons with traditionally 'serious music', but rather, that the real dichotomy was between music that was completely market-driven and music that was not. (64)
Adorno was not idealistic enough to believe music can emancipate humanity from all its problems, however, he did hope it could transmit some knowledge of truth, and be a form of enlightenment. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler wrote: "world fear is assuredly the most creative of all prime feelings."(65) It is evident that Adorno's theory of music was not based on an elitist position, but rather, on one of social conscience which strove for truth in philosophy and music. For most people music crystallizes the past, bringing good and bad memories to the forefront. For Adorno, music was much more. He was convinced that music could be so powerful it could force individuals to realize their existence is a product of social forces which can undergo change.(66) Music can bring about a realization of truth. As Martin Jay writes in The Dialectical Imagination:
For, so the Frankfurt Institute always insisted, it was only by the refusal to celebrate the present that the possibility might be preserved of a future in which writing poetry would no longer be an act of barbarism.(67)
Related PapersHerbert Marcuse: Evolution and Transformation of Individuality and Reason
Adorno: World of Art and What is at Stake
Thoughts on Adorno and the Internet
Notes1 Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), p. 22.
2 Theodor Adorno, Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), p. 34.
3 Theodor Adorno, Alban Berg, translated by Juliane Brand and Chris Hailey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 5.
4 Jay, p. 23.
5 Elliot Antokoletz, Twentieth Century Music (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992), p. 164.
6 Adorno, Alban Berg, p. 29.
7 Ibid., p. 47.
9 Ibid., p. 29
12 Jay, p. 31.
14 Antokoletz, p. 157.
15 Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: The Seabury Press, 1973), p. 40.
17 Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialetics (New York: The Free Press, 1977), p. 5.
18 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 45.
19 Antokoletz, p. 57-63.
20 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 14.
21 Antokoletz, p. 89.
22 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 15.
23 Theodor Adorno, On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1982), p. 298.
24 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 61.
25 Antokoletz, p. 127.
27 Arnold Schoenberg, program note to a performance of his works in Vienna, 14 January 1910. Cited in Willi Reich, Arnold Schoenberg: A Critical Biography, translated by Leo Black (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 49.
28 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 105.
29 Ibid., p. 22.
30 Ibid., p. 106.
31 Antokoletz, p. 59-64.
32 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 87.
33 Antokoletz, p. 63.
34 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 105.
35 Ibid., p. 22.
36 Antokoletz, p. 81.
38 Adorno, On the Fetish-Character , p. 274.
39 Buck-Morss, p. 41.
40 Ibid., p. 12.
41 Jay, p. 25.
42 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 25.
43 Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, translated by E. B. Ashton (New York: The Seabury Press, 1976), p. 29.
44 Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, p. 25.
45 Adorno, On the Fetish-Character, p. 257-284.
46 Ibid., p. 271.
50 Ibid., p. 273.
51 Ibid., p. 271.
52 Ibid., p. 287.
53 Ibid., p. 294.
54 Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, p. 49.
55 Jay, p. 185-7.
56 Adorno, Prisms, p. 122.
57 Ibid., p. 123.
58 Antokoletz, p. 67.
59 Adorno, Alban Berg, p. 176.
61 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, translated by Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 46.
63 Ibid., p. xviii.
64 Jay, p. 182.
65 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, translated by C. F. Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1962), p. 59.
66 Lambert Zuidervaart, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 142.
67 Jay, p. 298-299.
BibliographyAdorno, Theodor. 1991. Alban Berg, translated by Julianne Brand and Chris Hailey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Adorno, Theodor. 1976. Introduction to the Sociology of Music, translated by E. B. Ashton. New York: The Seabury Press.
Adorno, Theodor. 1982. On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, edited by Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.
Adorno, Theodor. 1973. Philosophy of Modern Music, translated by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster. New York : The Seabury Press.
Adorno, Theodor. 1967. Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Antokoletz, Elliot. 1992. Twentieth Century Music. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
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