Born in the lower middle-class Jewish suburb of Leopoldstadt just outside the city of Vienna. From a very early age he was driven to become a creative artist. Unable to attend Vienna’s prestigious schools, he taught himself the fundamentals of music theory, composition, and orchestration, developing a highly systematic and idiosyncratic method for himself.
In his early twenties, he had established himself as the composer of popular operettas, which earned him a decent living. In 1898 he converted to Christianity (as a Lutheran), presumably for the sake of receiving steady work in this highly anti-Semitic city. (Much later, after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, he would renounce Christianity and proudly embrace his Judaism.)
Meanwhile, throughout the 1890s, Schoenberg devoted most of his time preparing more daring, original compositions. His first major work was the string sextet VerklärteNacht (Op. 4), which premiered in 1902 and soon attracted the attention of Vienna’s great musical geniuses, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.
VerklärteNacht, which is modeled on a poem by Richard Dehmel, immediately placed Schoenberg at the forefront of new Viennese composers. Its lush expressionism, which clearly derived from Late Romanticism, resonated deeply with fin-de-siècle Viennese culture. The musical language, which boldly explores the limits of chromaticism, exhibits a profound relation to Wagner’s innovations.
Over the next decade, Schoenberg would become ever more radical in his compositional methods, moving decidedly toward an idea of atonality, which abandoned all traditional harmonic structures based on tonal centers – a complete leveling out of harmonic hierarchy.
His Opus 17, Erwartung, is perhaps the boldest experiment in atonality. In addition to abandoning all tonal structures, the piece is also “athematic,” dismissing all thematic repetition. Early analyses of the piece confirmed that the work contains 426 bars without any returning material. It continues to strike listeners as an experience of complete formlessness.
[Later analyses have not been as radical, discerning certain musical ideas that appear to anticipate later development (for example, the theme from Schoenberg’s earlier Am Wegrand, noted by Hoeckner—an important instance of auto-citation)].
Erwartung (Op. 17)/DieJakobsleiter (without opus number)
Erwartung was composed in 1909 over 17 days (Schoenberg may have been practicing some number mysticism: 17 days to write opus 17). The piece premiered on June 6, 1924 in Prague under the direction of Alexander Zemlinsky.
Schoenberg identifies the piece as a “monodrama” for solo soprano, with text by Marie Pappenheim, a trained dermatologist, who was also deeply interested in Freudian psychoanalysis. She wrote the libretto at Schoenberg’s personal request.
An anxious woman is looking for her lover; she stumbles upon something in the darkness and thinks it’s a body, but it is merely a tree trunk; however, soon she does discover the corpse of her lover; no one is there to help her. She tries to revive him, but then begins to rebuke him for being unfaithful. She finishes in despair, and wanders back alone into the darkness. The woman’s final words are “Ich suchte…”
According to Adorno, the expressive discontinuity of Erwartung subsequently passes over into the return to oppressive form, illustrated by his later oratorio, Die Jakobsleiter. Schoenberg began composing Die Jakobsleiter during the darkest years of the First World War (1916–1917). Schoenberg wrote his own poetic libretto for the piece. It was premiered long after the war in 1926.
As Schoenberg explains in many of his letters and essays, the moment of this piece strives toward the infinite—toward a spiritual redemption. In terms of harmonic language, it harnesses the free atonality of his earlier pieces into clusters organized by hexachords, which engage in developing variation. For this reason, Die Jakobsleiter is generally regarded as the bridge to the twelve-tone technique that came to define the Second Viennese School (headed by Schoenberg, together with his two most brilliant students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern).
For Adorno, who in fact had studied with Alban Berg in 1924, DieJakobsleiter and the subsequent development of twelve-tone technique would mark the beginning of the end. Following his decisive turn to philosophy (after his failed attempts to establish himself as a composer), Adorno would grow ever more suspicious of the Die Jakobsleiter, which he charged with indulging in a “fantasy of transcendence.”
After Adorno, many musicologists would posit Schoenberg’s two works—Erwartung and Die Jakobsleiter—to illustrate a discernible tension in Schoenberg’s method between revolutionary progressiveness and reactionary regression, between the radical renunciation of tonality and a regressive constructivism. These two poles collide in Schoenberg and fail to yield a synthesis. Expressionism conflicts with the expressionless. It is a dialectic at a standstill.
For Adorno, Erwartung is heroic: it “unfolds the eternity of the second in four hundred measures”—a statement based on Schoenberg’s own comment that Erwartung aimed “to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement” – an art of intense contraction, condensation, and brevity—a thousand sensations felt simultaneously.
For the listener, and according to Schoenberg, Erwartung compels what the composer describes as “a single act of thinking” – an act that breaks apart all forms. This idea of “breakthrough” is crucial for Adorno, who valued artworks that break through subjective form.
Adorno derived the notion of “breakthrough” from Paul Bekker, who used the term to describe how Mahler’s First Symphony breaks through stagnant (“slow, dragging”) nature to instigate fresh movement and vitality. For Bekker, in the Mahler symphony, it is nature itself that overcomes its own self-imposed constraints (At the head of the First Symphony, Mahler marks the first movement as: “Langsam, Schleppend, wie ein Naturlaut”—“Slow, dragging, like a sound in Nature.”
When Bekker turns to offer an analysis of Erwartung, he hears the same breakthrough (nature’s self-overcoming). In contrast, for Adorno, the “breakthrough” in Erwartung entails something different, a moment that ruptures form, above all the form linked to rational subjectivity.
As Adorno spells out in Dialectic of Enlightenment, subjectivity entails the subjectification of nature—a strategy of domination that eventually includes self-subjection: the subject constructs its own prison house.
For Adorno, Erwartung represents the “breakthrough from tonality to free atonality”—a “breakthrough to the new music”: breaking through the domination implicit in form. Here, Adorno elaborates one of the key ideas in Bloch’s GeistderUtopie – how the “Not-Yet” breaks through the given reality.
Twelve-Tone Composition (1923)
Twelve-Tone or serial composition aims to eradicate the conventional musical tensions between consonances and dissonances. The technique is based on the desire to explore new musical resources – “to wrest from them possibilities of constructing forms, to produce with them alone all the effects of a clear style, of a compact, lucid and comprehensive presentation of the musical idea” (207)
Schoenberg does not dismiss the possibility that, in the future, the old musical resources will one day be used together with the new, creating a mixed style, like the combination of homophony and polyphony in 19th-century music.
The new technique, which Schoenberg claims to have codified in 1921, controls the musical material both on the axis of simultaneity (harmonies, chords) and on the axis of sequence (motive, melodic shape, phrase, etc.)—the entire piece is governed by “the law of comprehensibility” (207).
Schoenberg has occasion to clarify his compositional methods in responding to various critics: “The method of composing with twelve tones grew out of necessity” (216). The development of Western music is a story of increased chromaticism—an ongoing “emancipation of dissonance” (216). Note the teleological force of this account.
When the ear grows accustomed to certain dissonances, these harmonies can no longer serve their conventional compositional purpose—they are no longer capable of having a “sense-interrupting” effect. (216)
For Schoenberg, the distinction between consonance and dissonance does not rest on the distinction between the beautiful and the non-beautiful, but rather on the distinction between the comprehensible and the non-comprehensible (216). [In fact, Kant defined “the beautiful” in terms of comprehensibility, as opposed to the “sublime”.]
The “emancipation of dissonance” refers to the fact that a greater number of dissonances are allowed to enter into the realm of comprehensibility. Dissonances are treated like consonances.
The “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones” begins with a “basic set” of twelve tones (see example on p. 219). This order of intervallic relations serves as the source for various operations. No note in the set can be repeated (either horizontally or vertically) until the row is completed. No single tone receives special preference.
The basic set can appear in its initial order (“prime”) or in reversed order (“retrograde”). It may also appear in “inversion” (where the interval is inverted: a rising major third becomes a falling major third, etc.); finally, the basic set can appear in “retrograde-inversion.”
Schoenberg has discovered the beginnings of this method in Beethoven’s F major Quartet (Op. 135).
[Andreas Lehmann has constructed a site that will produce the tone-row square with all possible combinations:
Adorno, Philosophy of New Music Theodor Adorno Wiesengrund, born Sept. 11, 1903 in Frankfurt. Father: assimilated Jew, prospered in Wilhemine Germany as a wine merchant; Mother (Maria Calvelli-Adorno): half Corsican, worked as a professional singer.
From an early age, Adorno studied piano very seriously. In 1921 (age 18), he enrolled in the University of Frankfurt as a student of Philosophy and Musicology. He was deeply inspired by the work of Ernst Bloch, who seemed capable of combining critical philosophy with music aesthetics. Bloch represented a new way to philosophize—unofficial, non-institutional, expressionist, and above all musical, marking “an alternate position to the object,” which would undercut the sovereign, subjugating position of the cognitive subject.
In 1924, at the age of 21, he received his PhD with a dissertation on Husserl. The same year he begins to study composition with Alban Berg in Vienna. He writes “Six Short Orchestral Pieces” using twelve-tone technique; and has further plans to write an opera based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In 1927, Adorno spends most of his time in Berlin, joining the circle around Benjamin, Bloch, Kracauer, Otto Klemperer, Brecht, Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya. Four years later, in 1931, he receives a teaching post with the Philosophy faculty at Frankfurt. Here, together with Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and Leo Löwenthal, he participates in the new Institut für Sozialforschung (i.e., “The Frankfurt School”).
Like his colleagues of Jewish parentage, Adorno looses his university post after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Within two years, he reluctantly leaves Germany behind, moving to Oxford. Uncomfortable in England, he emigrates to the United States in 1938 in order to join Horkheimer in New York.
In 1941, Adorno moves to Los Angeles, not very far from Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg. Adorno gives Mann a manuscript copy of his Philosophy of New Music and eventually becomes Mann’s primary musical advisor for Doktor Faustus. Aesthetics of music: general comments
For Adorno, the aesthetics of music should illuminate the web of meaning, which relates autonomous works of art to the social-political totality that is immanent in the material of music itself.
Art is the non-conceptual, the non-identical; but the only access to the non-conceptual is via the concept. Adorno therefore must use the concept to undermine the concept.
Privilege is given to the autonomous music of the bourgeois period, which offers “cognition without concepts” (begriffslose Erkenntnis).
Truth is only possible in the particular, which evades concepts and universals. The “truth-content” of musical works (their Wahrheitsgehalt) is always historical: each piece struggles, through the particularity of its form, to deal with the problems of the traditional material, which the artist inherits from his or her social context.
With particular musical form, the individual enters a dialectical relationship with the universal (i.e., the totality of cultural and social forces); and Adorno’s writings on music tend to follow the various lines of this struggle, in all its microscopic details.
This praxis, which often attends to the tiniest of characteristics, enforces a re-evaluation of cognition (Erkenntnis) as radically dialectical thinking: For Adorno, this knowledge lies neither in the abstract universal nor in the concrete particular, but rather in the energetic interaction of the two. The universal emerges immanently (not transcendentally) only in its tensional relationship with the particular; and the particular is thereby saved from being violently subjugated—aufgehoben—into a transcendent sphere that would eradicate its individuality.
Modernism teaches that all concepts are inadequate to the reality they try to encompass. It exposes a disintegration: a slippage between concept and referent, the “rupture between self and forms” (der Bruch zwischen Ich und Formen)—“the expressive needs of the composer as expressive Subject are no longer served by the handed-down genres and formal types representing the objectivity of the social totality” (Paddison 1993: 16). The individual finds the universal wanting.
The universal is manifest in the traditional forms that each composer inherits; and these traditional forms have become disintegrated or exhausted, they have lost meaning. However, while disintegration is a source of alienation, it is also a mark of historicity. “The breakdown of a ‘referential system’ like tonality serves to reveal its apparently ‘natural’ foundations as, in fact, historical” (i.e. a ‘second nature,’ Paddison 1993: 31). In other words, the universal requires a fresh engagement with the particular in order to return to meaning.
This explains Adorno’s fragmentary, aphoristic style: a transcendent “whole” (that which has subsumed the particular) cannot represent a “truth” in a fragmented world. Only a universal in dialectical relationship with the individual can produce a truth, that remains immanent and consequently non-totalizing.
Adorno’s “universal” is, to use a term from William James, more like a “multiversal.” A non-subjugating universal—eine begrifflose Erkenntnis.
Hence, instead of “arguments,” Adorno resorts to “constellations.” His work is anti-systematic because it resists systematization.
Philosophie der neuen Musik (1948)
This book represents one of Adorno’s major accomplishments of his exile years in California.
The introduction opens with an epigraph from Hegel’s lectures on Aesthetics: art has nothing to do with the enjoyable or the useful, but rather with “an unfolding of the truth” (mit einer Entfaltung der Wahrheit).
Like Hegel, Adorno insists on the historicity of this unfolding of truth; yet, in contrast to Hegelian teleology, truth emerges only with the particular—that is, not with the subsumption of the particular into the universal concept.
How, precisely, does this unfolding occur? And how can philosophy account for it? It unfolds through the confrontation of extreme tendencies. Adorno cites Schoenberg: “Der Mittelweg ist der einzige, der nicht nach Rom führt” — “The middle road is the only one that does not lead to Rome.”
For this present project, Adorno posits the progressive Schoenberg and the regressive Stravinsky as the two extremes, whose collision will produce the particular truth content of the “new music.”
Philosophy and Music
Philosophy may relate to music in any number of ways:
Philosophie über die Musik: The most common relation—philosophy employs music to illustrate or explain extra-musical phenomena or ideas: for example, Hegel (music as one art-form among others in the gradual unfolding of objective spirit); Schopenhauer (music as an illustration of the universal Will that courses beneath or behind the world of representation); and even Nietzsche (music as the Dionysian life force that is curbed by Apollonian form and institutions).
Philosophie mit der Musik: Rather than employ music to illustrate or explain non-musical experience (ideas, the Will, or life itself), a philosophy that thinks together with music allows music to indicate the path of thought—music as intellectual inspiration or stimulation. A good example is the philosophy of Ernst Bloch, who discovers in music the event of the “not-yet,” the anticipatory consciousness that opens onto the future, the principle of hope.
Philosophie der Musik: Adorno offers neither a philosophy “about” or “above” (über) music nor a philosophy that thinks “with” music. Instead, he seeks to provide a “philosophy of music itself.” In his view, the history of musical composition grapples with the same problems that face philosophical speculation; it works through the same conflicts and difficulties that oppress mankind in general.
During his years of exile in the United States, Adorno persistently reflected on the current state of human society and the current fate of the human subject. Perhaps the greatest work on these issues is Dialectic of Enlightenment, which he wrote together with his colleague Max Horkheimer. The other major study of this period is Adorno’s Philosophie of New Music, which he explicitly considered as a continuation of the themes and problems presented in Dialectic of Enlightenment.
A brief review of the major issues in Dialectic of Enlightenment would help us specify the ideas developed in Philosophy of New Music. As European exiles in America, Adorno and Horkheimer reflected on the parallel development of culture on either side of the Atlantic. The account of this development is fundamentally informed by a modified Marxist theory.
Adono’s writings are without question difficult to read and his arguments and analyses are almost impossible to summarize. In large measure, his difficult style corresponds to a persistent theme of his philosophical work: the so-called “principle of non-identity” which places truth on the side of the singular, the particular, and difference as opposed to the general, the universal, and similarity.
Whereas conventional philosophy produces knowledge by coordinating the particular in relation to the general, Adorno persistently defies what he calls the “tyranny of generalization”—every gesture that subsumes the particular into generality is a falsification, neglecting what is different or particular about each individual case. As long as knowledge depends on conceptual categories, it remains a false knowledge, oblivious to the particularity that resists reduction to any concept.
Adorno’s writing discourages all generalizations: he sets up “constellations” of opposing instances that resist reconciliation or totalization. For Adorno, reconciliation and totalization turn thinking and art into objects to be consumed. We are comforted by explanations that make everything clear and logical. This comfort is a temptation to remain complacent: To reject particular difference and become “indifferent”: to give in to ideological forces and thus give up asking serious questions.
Thinking and art—and, among the arts, music in particular—should shock us out of complacency, it should wake us up to contradictions that are obfuscated by dominant ideological forces. Until we wake up, we can never be autonomous: we remain mere functions of a system.
For Adorno, his age—both in Europe and America—has reached a terrifying low-point for the autonomous subject. Marx’s great hope for the rise of the proletariat has failed miserably. This loss of autonomy, however, has its roots in the achievement of subjective autonomy. How is this possible?
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer remind us that both European and American culture developed in accordance with the rise of the bourgeois subject out of feudalism: the emergence of the subject was based on a tireless striving for autonomy. The chief strategy for accomplishing subjective autonomy was “instrumental reason,” which emerged out of the 17th century “new science” and developed over the course of the 18th century—the so-called “Age of Enlightenment or Age of Reason.”
Feudalism is understood as a massive system governed by transcendent (timeless, non-contingent, absolute) powers: the transcendent God of the Catholic Church and the earthly sovereign who is legitimized by the divine source of all power.
The Lutheran Reformation began to dismantle this transcendent governance by emphasizing the individualized gift of grace and the individual subject’s unique relation to the Godhead. This relation circumvented the system of authoritative mediation represented by the Universal Church.
Ultimately, the subject’s own reason was championed over trans-individual dogma. The human subject was liberated from feudal structures by employing reason—a rationality that was able of its own accord to address the problems and difficulties that the human subject encountered. Reason allowed the human subject to gain greater and greater autonomy: freedom from dogma and freedom from the contingencies of nature.
Reason accomplished this liberation from nature by dominating nature. The domination of nature was how the subject could preserve itself against external, objective forces. Yet, in dominating nature the rational subject was also further removed from nature. Greater autonomy led to greater isolation. The problem is that the subject, as Kant demonstrated, has no substantive meaning in itself and must derive its meaning from the objective realm. In cutting itself off from the outside, the bourgeois subject lost contact with the very source of meaning.
Removed further and further from its natural and worldly environment, the individual subject grew weak—a period of decadence, wherein the subject indulged in its isolation and its impotence.
The cure for the sickness of decadence was to be found in the massive totalitarian, rational systems of the twentieth-century: In Europe, we find the rise of fascism; and in America, the rise of the market and the culture industry (where everything becomes a commodity to be consumed by the perpetually hungry subject).
These systems—like all rational, calculable systems—ideologically promised to preserve individual autonomy, to cure its weakness by inscribing it into a systematized collective. In fact, these systems obliterated the individual subject altogether. The cult of domination fails to preserve the individual and instead preserves domination itself. Culture—both in Europe and America—has become an autoimmune problem: that which was designed to protect life ends up destroying life.
In the Philosophie of New Music, Adorno traces an analogous “dialectic” in the history of musical composition. For Adorno, the heroic emergence of the bourgeois subject is discernible in the trajectory of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—the development of music as radically free of conceptualization: a “cognition without concepts”—einebegriffsloseErkenntnis.
This liberation is achieved through the refinement of greater compositional techniques: techniques that dominate musical material. The problem then is that these techniques operate like rational, calculable methods: individual expression is converted into formulaic solutions. Hence, as Ernst Bloch suggested, every formal solution is broken through by a new expressive impulse.
What Adorno learns from Bloch is the notion of the “not-yet”—that event that cannot be calculated, that falls outside the rational system. But Bloch’s philosophy is ultimately a “philosophy with music” and not a “philosophy of music.” Bloch is a crucial moment of inspiration for Adorno, but his philosophy only runs parallel to music, rather than thinks in music itself.
Adorno placed great hope in the power of “new” or “modern” music to stir us out of our collective complacency. When music exposes the contradictions latent in totality, it is “progressive.” Yet, when music serves the status quo, when it reinforces the ideological hold on the individual, it is detrimentally “regressive.”
A paradigmatic case of Schoenberg’s progressiveness is found in the early “expressionist” works—above all, Erwartung—which blatantly expose modern man’s utter alienation. Schoenberg’s music expresses that “all is not well.” It thereby also announces the emancipation of dissonance, freedom from the system of tonality. After Schoenberg, tonality can no longer be regarded as “natural” but rather as entirely “historical”—a “second nature,” that has forgotten its subjective, human origins.
The expressive impulse is a shock to the system: it breaks through the forms that composers have used to dominate musical material—forms that, by dominating the material, allow the subject to wither in complacency. Schoenberg’s relentless dissonance prevents easy consumption. It alerts the listener to radical difference, which fails to be subsumed by the culture industry.
New music is a brash statement against the commercial debasement of music. Precisely because of music’s “lack of concept” (its Begriffslosigkeit) it has always been liable to ideological manipulation (9). The avant-garde resists commodification.
Yet, the expressionism itself, precisely because it attempts to dominate domination, leads to a greater isolation and a greater impotence. For Adorno, expressionist style is “loneliness as style.” In expressionist music we hear the pain of the subject’s anxious dissolution.
This dissolution necessarily called for a new imposition of calculability, a new formal solution, which was discovered in serialism. For Adorno, the move toward dodecaphonic technique is motivated by the subject’s painful loss of autonomy. But this technique, which promises to preserve the subject, also ends up by obliterating the subject.
Adorno regards Alban Berg—his own teacher—as having converted Schoenbergian expression into a new rationalism. Wozzeck introduces the “sureness or security of form”—die Sicherheit der Form—that absorbs the Schoenbergian “shock” (30). With Berg, anxiety is worked into a system: with Berg, we arrive at an insidious, ideological reconciliation.
Adorno traces how the Schoenberg School moved toward didacticism and pattern, which culminated in twelve-tone technique: in essence, this technique is a system of rules, a technique for total domination. It betrays a rigid, systematic character, whereby “process” is annulled into static being (50).
The tone row introduces “determination”—the note is no longer free (51): “A system of the domination of nature in music results….” (52f.)
“Boundlessness” – “infinity” – “pure identity” (“in-difference”) – “legality” (53) Paradoxically, twelve-tone technique “subjugates music by setting it free” (54).
It was developed by the subject “in search of protection and security”; and in this regard, serialism comes to be understood as akin to mass music” (55). Serialism constitutes the “exorcism of spontaneity” (57).
“By virtue of setting music free to undertake limitless domination over the natural material, the enslavement of music has become universal” (57).
The abolition of the tonal system, which was accomplished in the name of subjective expression, comes to menace expression itself. Difference must have something to differentiate itself from (62).
Thus, twelve-tone technique is hardly anarchy—it is, rather, the epitome of harmonic rigor (64). The expression of pain has become determined sedimentation (68).
In addition to controlling melody and harmony, twelve-tone technique extends its “total construction of music” to matters of instrumental timbre: complete equilibrium and complete plasticity of all the voices (69). This accomplishment moves well beyond Schoenberg’s earlier use of “tone-color melody” (Klangfarbenmelodie). Twelve-tone technique marks a radical asceticism—“the ascetic will to stifle everything that penetrates the space defined by twelve-tone composition” (69).
Yet, Adorno stresses the necessity of this move—it was unavoidable. The musical material demanded this solution. Moreover, the systematization of dodecaphonic technique sets the stage for a subsequent breakthrough. The didactic training—all the rules and regulations that govern the compositional process—gives the subject the chance for a new freedom, precisely by setting up a system of prohibitions that can be transgressed. (See list of “prohibitions,” 55). Schoenberg is great when he transgresses the rules he has himself established (56).
For Adorno, the greatest accomplishment of twelve-tone technique concerns counterpoint. Twelve-tone technique “is contrapuntal in its origins” (71) – a “triumph over the inertia of harmony” (72). Yet, this achievement becomes meaningless when the “obstacle of harmony” has been removed altogether.
Schoenberg’s entire career can be understood as the dialectic between expression and construction. His most recent works return to a dynamic quality that is lacking in the twelve-tone compositions (77). “The struggle between alienated objectivity and limited subjectivity is unresolved, and its irreconcilability is its truth” (81).