Theodor W. Adorno, “The Dialectical Composer”

After Schoenberg, the history of music will no longer be fate, but will be subject to human consciousness.  Not to a mathematical, extrinsic play of numbers, as those people claim who would like to backdate the twelve-tone technique to that of the Pythagorean era, without hearing that each of the computational rules of the former owes its existence solely to the technological requirements of a wakeful ear and an exact imagination, but rather to a consciousness that changes itself along with reality, on which it knows itself to be dependent, and in which it still intervenes. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Dialectical Composer”, in Richard Leppert, ed., Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.207

This final essay in the first section of Leppert’s anthology, which is titled “Locating Music”, is placed so well by the editor it cannot be a mistake.  The previous essay, concerning the aging of what Adorno consistently called “The New Music”, was written 21 years after the essay we’re examining today, a brief, adulatory overview of Schoenberg.  The epigraph to the piece, appearing in the last paragraph of Adorno’s essay, is used on purpose, precisely because what Adorno assures readers cannot happen not only does happen, but in some sense was inevitable when composition is reduced to particular mathematical formulas that, despite the word “atonal” (which really only applies to a particular set of pieces without a tonal center; 12-tone and serial music sneaked tonality in through the back door, which Adorno thought was wrong), create the conditions for the reintroduction not only of tonality, but function – and therefore truth-value – following form.

In this particular essay, Adorno recognizes the purposeful artificiality of Schoenberg’s compositional technique.  He contrasts Schoenberg with Claude Debussy, another composer who played with dissonance, with whole-tone scales, and other previously “forbidden” musical structures in answer to his own cry: “back to nature”. For Adorno, precisely because music is both artificial and mediatory, there can be no “going back” to something that was never there in the first place.

While giving a nod to history (at least musical history, by ending his essay insisting Schoeberg is the first to move beyond that most Hegelian of composers, Beethoven), the “dialectics” involved are not historical, nor are they what Adorno would later cite as the limits of music’s truth-value and transcendental possibilities precisely because of the compromised position in which all human life and techne exist.  Rather, the dialectic to which Adorno refers is the meeting of both “subject” – the musical material – and “object” – the truth-value of the music, in a purposeful, conscious attempt on Schoenberg’s part to make each note, each phrase, and the piece as a whole overthrow what had gone before.  While claiming there is an organic flow in the growth of Schoenberg’s compositional style, he also claims that Schoenberg is also the first truly conscious composer, precisely because all that was repressed and therefore in need of examination – that is, the mediatory nature of music qua art – Schoenberg brings to the surface, leaving his music immediately knowable, even as it shocks  the listener both with its “newness” and with the unknown.

This reader can forgive Adorno quite a lot in this particular essay.  It is early, long before Adorno and Horkheimer would examine The Dialectic of Enlightenment, or Adorno would set forth Negative Dialectics.  While in other areas committed to a kind of Hegelianism and Marxism that owed as much to friends like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch as it does the originators, when it comes to saying what is unique and powerful about Schoenberg’s music, Adorno becomes little more than an adoring fan, even referring to Schoenberg as “the Master” at one point.

This blind spot, however, runs throughout many of the essays in this first section.  While later committed to the reality that music is historical through and through; that both the music produced and the listener are compromised by the commodification and fetishisation forced upon all production by late capitalism (he would call it the Culture Industry, after encountering it first-hand during his American exile during the Second World War), he would nevertheless leave what he always called “The New Music” in a world apart.  Like all people who love music, and for whom a particular style of music grabs one in youth or early adulthood, Adorno would wall off the trio of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, leaving them not so much ahistorical as the true test of whether or not what followed was truly historical.  This idea, however, ignores the reality that these composers were no less products of history.  The tastes that measured their social, cultural, and even truth value, would change with historical circumstances.  Those who followed may have, in Adorno’s view, degraded what had been so risky, violent, and revolutionary in the New Music.  But they were no less products of the same historical forces that offered that same risk.

It is nice to know that 80 years ago even influential, important thinkers could be little more than what my daughters would call “fangirls”.  That is what makes Adorno human, after all.

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