Theodor W. Adorno, “The Aging Of The New Music”

Though today all art has and must have a bad conscience to the extent that it does not make itself stupid, nevertheless its abolishment would be false in a world in which what dominates needs art as its corrective: the contradiction between what is and the true, between the management of life and humanity. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Aging Of The New Music”, in Theodore Lepper, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.200

History rarely gives us exact dates when cultural movements begin.  Art historians are loathe to point to a particular piece as being indicative of a significant enough break with the past to constitute in and of itself the beginning of something new.  In his marvelous history of 20th century orchestral music, The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth CenturyAlex Ross gives us just such a piece, just such a moment, just such a date. May 16, 1906, in the city of Graz in Austria, Richard Strauss’s opera Salome made its debut.  Scandalous on many levels, Strauss had not used a librettist but rather taken the dialogue from a famous stage play of the same name and set it to music.  Furthermore, Strauss opened the opera, and the 20th century revolt against tonality and technique, with a C#-major scale that suddenly switched to F-major, which the listener would hear as the dissonant tritone because the G-major, rather than G#, was sounded.  Dissonance sounded throughout the opera, used for effect as much as for the scandal it brought.  Of the piece as a whole, one critic wrote, “Nothing more satanic and artistic has been seen on the German opera stage.” (p.9).

In much the same way, the modernist period in the visual arts is dated to the New York Armory Show, February 17-March 15, 1913.  While many of the pieces had been displayed in Europe for a while, this singular collection not only of Impressionist and Pointillist works, but the beginnings of movements from cubism to abstract art was both a shock and a revelation.  Nothing would remain the same; particularly after the disaster of the First World War, the world was ready for the radical break from reality this art represented, a break that, nevertheless, gave to a world still in shock, a view of the world that resonated all too well with the horrors and surrealism of the time.

What Adorno consistently labeled “The New Music” had been around since before the turn of the 20th century.  Claude Debussy had played with dissonance in some of his pieces. Even the grand man of movement, Arnold Schoenberg, had written pieces without a tonal center in the 1890’s.  After Salome, Schoenberg and other young composers like Alban Berg and Anton von Webern felt freed to experiment with compositional styles that eschewed traditional notions of tonality, of structure (especially the sonata form), and create wild pieces that challenged the listener even as it also challenged the complacency of those pre-World War I bourgeois audiences with a musical vision of struggle and, quite literally, dischord that would soon explode across the European continent.

By the time Adorno wrote about how well the “New Music” had aged, it was 1955.  The heyday of atonal and 12-tone music as something new, rather than something standardized, particularly in its serial form in conservatories across Europe, was a generation in the past.  While some of the pieces had been written prior to the First World War, it was only in its aftermath that it, like extreme modernist art movements such as cubism, Dada, and – in the United States – jazz, would find an audience willing to hear the truth both behind and flowing from this strange conglomeration of sounds.

Yet, after World War II, Europe was not the same as it had been in the 1920’s.  The board upon which state totalitarianism met capitalist totalitarianism had created a line down the middle of the continent.  Choosing sides was demanded, even as, in the Soviet Union, the Zhdanovites condemned works as counter-revolutionary while in the west, both the firm grip of the conservatories and the demands of various taste-publics had stripped all that was challenging and even countercultural from serial and 12-tone compositions.  What had been explosive had been reduced to mathematical formulas that rearranged sounds in what were becoming less and less interesting, more tame, and therefore irrelevant, combinations.

Reading through this essay, I am reminded of a very different lover of a very different style of music.  In 2007, I wrote of what I called my love-hate relationship with the writings of rock critic Lester Bangs.  While the intervening seven years have mellowed my feelings to Bangs, there is a sense in which Bangs’s demands that rock music is only really rock music when it is primal, threatening, and perhaps just noise for the sake of noise (thus his love for Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music).  Consider the following from Adorno, from page 191 of Leppert’s anthology:

What is needed is for expression to win back the density of experience, as was already tried during the expressionist period, though without being satisfied with parading the cult of inhumanity under the guise of the cult of humanity.  This touches on one of the decisive anthropological grounds for the aging of New Music: you people no longer trust in their youth.  Anxiety and pain have grown to an extreme degree, and can no longer be controlled by the individual psyche.   Repression becomes a necessity, and this repression, not the positiveness of some higher state of modesty and self-discipline, stand behind he idiosyncratic rejection of of expression, which is itself one with suffering.

A second-generation “New Music” composer that Adorno discusses in some detail is Pierre Boulez (thus his Sonata No. 2 at the top).

[Boulez] and his disciples aspire to dispose of every “compositional freedom” as pure caprice, along with every vestige of traditional musical idiom: in fact every subjective impulse is in music at the same time an impulse of musical language.  These composers have above all attempted to bring rhythm under the strict domination of twelve-tone procedure, and ultimately to replace composition altogether with an objective-calculatory ordering of intervals, pitches, long and short durations, degrees of loudness; an integral rationalization such as has never before been envisaged in music.   The capriciousness of this  legalism, however, the mere semblance of objectivity is a system that has simply been decreed, becomes apparent in the inappropriateness if its rules to the structural interrelations of the music as it develops, relations that rules cannot do away with.(p.187)

At heart, Adorno is disappointed with the direction the New Music has taken in its second generation for precisely the same reasons Bangs was disappointed with so much of the rock of the 1970’s: it could not live up to the ideological demands he placed upon it.  While always insisting that music is historical, thus a product both of its age as well as (at its best) a critic of that age, Adorno could not, or would not, see that what he calls “the aging of the New Music” is little more than the changes in culture brought about by two world wars and the rise of a Cold War between two absolutist ideologies, with his continent and home country caught at the heart of it all.  It may well be the case that a composer such as Boulez, in aiming for extreme objectivity, stripping everything human from the compositional process, leaving everything at the mercy of the 12-tone system, was doing nothing more than reflecting the dual-totalitarianisms that vied for Europe’s soil and heart.

There is a sadness at the heart of this essay.  Adorno is heartbroken that the music he loves, the music he insists epitomizes the struggles and overcoming at the heart of the 20th century is now sidelined.  He notes that the great composers, particularly Webern and Berg, lived in straitened circumstances during their lifetimes; he insists they would probably be even worse off in the 1950’s.  Their music had become not only older, it no longer spoke to the needs of listeners.  While the techniques they developed had become standardized, it was precisely this standardization that had robbed New Music of its newness, and therefore its danger as both recorder and defier of the age.

Even more sad, however, is the same lament I offered the late Lester Bangs.  As much as they loved, passionately, the music that swirled around their lives, it seems no art can sustain the weight of ideology such love pours upon it.  When love becomes obsessive, it too often destroys its object; thus Adorno mourns the aging of the New Music without recognizing his own role in placing too-strong demands upon it.