Adorno's Philosophy of Music

Theodor W. Adorno

Adorno's Philosophy of Music

In the light of a recent weekend of music from the 2nd Viennese School, Conor Kostick looks at the ideas on music of philosopher Theodor Adorno.

Born in Frankfurt, 1903, Theodor Adorno is possibly the most important philosopher of music, certainly he is a towering figure in the discussion of modernism in music. He learnt music from an early age and alongside philosophy, maintained his studies in composition and piano throughout his years at the University of Frankfurt. Those years saw him form close friendships with Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin. From 1924 Adorno studied composition with Berg in Vienna.

In the philosophy of science, the discussion is often polarised between philosophers who are not scientists and scientists who are unfamiliar with philosophy. But the philosophy of music is fortunate in having had a personality steeped in both the technical skills of the composer and a deep understanding of philosophical ideas – particularly the dialectics of Hegel. The rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s had a profound effect on Adorno, not least because having a Jewish father he was driven into exile in America. From his return to Frankfurt in 1949 to his death in 1969 Adorno was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt.

At the core of Adorno’s philosophy of music is the idea that modernism, in the form of the compositions of Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez, represents a break in serious music that has to be championed both against the music of the past and that of the present which was succumbing to the destructive features of modern society. Adorno believed that the ‘heroic’ age of music was the decade 1910-1920, before which limits were set on the profundity of compositions by the contradictions of early bourgeois culture, and after which the ‘culture industry’ had worked its destructive charms.

Following similar arguments about literature, such as can be found in Lukas, Adorno believed that a period of self-confident bourgeois culture had run aground on the fact that the society which had broken free from feudalism was not the liberating, rational and best of all possible worlds that the enlightenment had aspired to. Instead it was full of alienation, war, poverty and pain. Modern art to have substance must therefore be aware of this darkness. For Adorno that last point at which music could be unambiguously uplifting was with Mozart, The Magic Flute, in which the utopia of the Enlightenment and the pleasure of light comic song precisely coincides is a moment by itself, after The Magic Flute ‘it was never again possible to force serious and light music together.’

To understand why Adorno championed what became known as ‘new music’ it is necessary to outline his critique of music production in the age of mass production. For him serious music faces two interrelated pressures: the role of the market and the condition of the musical public. Firstly, according to Adorno, the development of massive companies controlling the distribution of music has led to the ‘disposal of artistic trash’ since the pattern of musical production has become shaped by an overriding desire to achieve mass sales – which therefore means a desire to conform to the lowest common denominator in the tastes of audiences. Furthermore ‘in order to survive some composers, pretending to be modern, adapt to mass culture through calculated feeble-mindedness.’ Also, compared to the previous epoch, less technically able composers nevertheless can have glorious careers, ‘dilettantes everywhere, for the first time, are launched as great composers, musical life, which is now by and large economically centralised forces the public to recognise them.’

Performances are affected by the same trends, becoming rituals to show off pieces familiar to audiences, the concert hall is attended in order to see the presentation of an ornament rather than to seriously engage with new music.

Lastly amongst the difficulties created by the growth of the market, the culture industry exerts an insidious pressure on the act of composition. Adorno believed that since artistic production was now typically invoked by commissions, the artist had been turned into a salaried employee and their creativity curtailed.

The second set of difficulties facing serious music are those concerning the audience. From the mid nineteenth century onwards, Adorno believed, a schism opened up between audiences and composers. To escape commercial depravity important music has avoided commercialism, but this has pushed it into isolation. Audiences have not followed composers.

The bourgeois public does not want music that makes demands upon its senses, that dwells on the darkness in the world. ‘The dissonances which horrify them testify to their own conditions; for that reason alone do they find them unbearable.’

The rest of us struggle to come to terms with new music because of our socially constructed musical predisposition. We have been educated to enjoy music of an early era, furthermore, our possibility of moving on is undermined by the presence of ‘junk’ music all around us, ‘the perceptive faculty has been so dulled by the omnipresent hit tune that the concentration necessary for responsible listening has become permeated by traces of this music rubbish and thereby impossible.’

For Adorno there are several other aspects of modern society that interfere with our ability to become involved with new music. Firstly, that music has been fragmented to allow segments to become digested by society, not least in their use in commercials – in Adorno’s day on the radio, for us on television. ‘Only the coarsest vulgarities and easily remembered fragments find their way into the comprehension of the public, musical continuity is lost.’ He was writing before the appearance of ‘hooked on classics’ and other such collections, but the trend was clear from the 1930s.

Secondly, ‘the culture industry has educated its victims to avoid straining themselves during the free time allotted to them for consumption.’ This comment evokes Marx’s theory of alienation and the idea that work has become dehumanised, leading to an unnatural schism between work and leisure. The worker rushes from work as soon as they can, into a sphere of their life that is apparently their own. But of course there is no escaping consumer society, which in its desire to market goods as efficiently as possible, prefers its audience to all have the same tastes.

Music that is difficult and challenging requires mediation in order to obtain an audience, but here too major problems have evolved. In the era before the mass market ‘works of quality were established by competent musicians and critics but radically modern music no longer can count on this support.’ The progressive composer ‘can no longer depend on mediators between themselves and the public’. Why? Because performing musicians and in particular conductors – ‘allow themselves to be guided by those characteristics which are the most obviously effective and comprehensible’. In other words the same pressures, to please an audience already shaped to listen to a certain type of music damages the transmission belt between composer and listener. Adorno was particularly vehement about the role of music critics, who invariably were drawn by the gravitational pull of the music industry and consciously or even unconsciously orientated themselves to it. The professionals of the music industry had helped create the absurd situation that ‘the ever-popular Tchaikovsky, who portrays despondency with hit tunes, should be considered an expression of emotion superior to the seismograph of Schoenberg’s Erwartung.’

The overall effect of the culture industry is that music has become like football: a mass audience involves themselves with musical experiences, and even acquires a great deal of knowledge about particular aspects of it, but structurally the experience is a shallow one. Hence Adorno’s belief that it has been downhill since the early part of the twentieth century.

Given this analysis, some parts of which seem strikingly relevant in 2002, why did Adorno champion the ‘new music’ of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern? Adorno saw the technique of these composers as a fundamental revolution against the way music is generally understood, a revolution that permitted them to resist the pressures that undermined serious music. Curiously, in a talk at the recent ‘2nd Viennese School Weekend’, one of the speakers attempted to invoke Adorno in defence of the proposition that there was a basic continuity between these composers and the past. But this flies in the face of his writing. For example, in 1960 he was asked why he continued to speak of ‘new music’ some forty years after its appearance. In his answer Adorno argued that the breakthrough of these composers was irrevocable, and wrote ‘difficult though it may be to point to a particular year or a particular work as marking the end of tonality, it is nevertheless mistaken to insist, as well-intentioned and naïve musicians frequently do, on the essential unity and continuity of all music and even on an unending succession of geniuses down the centuries from Bach to Schoenberg.’

The feature of the new music that made it resistant to commercial pressure was that the composers were prepared to abandon the tonality that the majority of people are inundated with. A whole new set of uncomfortable sounds was born with their compositions. Interestingly it is not the subsequent development of twelve-note music that Adorno praised – instead he described that system as ‘moderating atonality’ – but rather the willingness of these composes to defy the current state of musical consciousness and the vegetating state of tonality. So Adorno included John Cage among his composers to be championed, for although his work is not dodecaphonic it is ‘atonal’ in the sense that Adorno uses the word.

For Adorno, the daring break made by new music was incompatible with the realm of monopolistic reproduction and distribution of music and as such avoided sinking into the rubbish heap.

A wonderful and extraordinary opportunity to test this particular aspect of Adorno’s views occurred over the weekend of 15-17th February in Dublin. With a packed program which included nine works by Schoenberg, four by Berg and three by Webern along with pre-concert talks there is nothing more could have been done to allow a discussion of this ‘new music’. The organisers of the ‘2nd Viennese School Weekend’ would deserve enthusiastic praise from anyone interested in serious music no matter where in the world it was held, but in the Irish context, where so little has been done to build up an audience for modern works this event was nothing short of miraculous.

So, is it the high point of human musical culture? Instinctively, I’m sure, every reader will assume that the answer is ‘no’. After all, it would be a deeply pessimistic situation to find ourselves in, if at the start of the twenty-first century, we had no expectations other than retrogression. The works that I attended over the weekend were absorbing, demanding, and, like a close game of chess, full of pleasure of a cerebral nature. Nor was the music purely for mathematicians, in fact one aspect that was clear from the overall experience was how much humanity, happiness and distress it was possible to express in a very tightly delineated compositional system. But for all that I found the experience more of historical interest than of musical rapture. A revolution in music? Yes. The greatest music to date? No.

Adorno’s insights into the culture industry are extremely penetrating. In general his critique is convincing and a weapon with which to challenge the destructive trends in monopoly control of music production and distribution. Often Adorno is considered to be a Marxist, but, as his disillusioned students discovered when they took to the streets in the 1960s, in fact he owes much more to Hegel than Marx. And just as Hegel, for all his rich and witty wielding of the dialectic, avoided concrete material detail so too Adorno’s categories are too absolute and too sweeping.

The culture industry does indeed wash over us like an invisible giant tidal wave, imposing uniformity and (often unconsciously) causing those involved in music to accept certain agendas and ways of thinking. But it is not all powerful. There has never been a time when individuals, groups of musicians, audiences, have ceased to push matters forward, often at the fringes of cultural activity. There is a constant bubbling of musical creativity, and although it can die away through lack of support, or else be taken up and destroyed through becoming the fashionable music of the establishment, it continues.

Seven years ago I was asked to write a piece for the Project Arts Journal about the state of music in Ireland. It concluded by saying that ‘the main hope for committed composers lies in revolution. A revolution which would not only shake up the existing institutions, but which would revitalise the population, creating a new audience, liberated from their daily burdens and thirsty for music which belongs to them – not a bygone age.’ I stand by that. And at the same time it is possible to recognise a frisson of successful musical activity when it is happening.

So far this year is better than most. The Hugh Lane Gallery is regularly performing contemporary works. The ‘Horizons’ series of concerts at the National Concert Hall are an impressive platform for contemporary Irish composers. Crash Ensemble continue to bring us new works of their own creation and from around the world.

Right at this moment in Ireland the audience for contemporary serious music is undoubtedly growing. But perhaps this process stands in some relationship to the last few years of boom? In which case the developing world recession will eventually have its negative consequences. Should the government initiate sharp cuts to the arts – such as would result from the proposed change to RTÉ’s share of the license fee – then the delicate process of building an audience for new music can collapse rapidly. Something that Adorno, no doubt, would anticipate with bleak satisfaction.

Published on 1 March 2002

Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).

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