Theodor W Adorno, “Toward An Understanding Of Schoenberg”

[T] musical situation we are in forces us to reflect on what has been repressed – something whose meaning, compared to the rest of musical production, even its antagonists are aware of, in principle.  One must only be able and willing to regard music as a living and internally meaningful sequence of event and have a relatively good command of the categories of traditional, pre-Schoenenbergian music.  However different his melodies, with their large intervals, may be from the ones to which we are accustomed; however different the many toned chords sound; however refracted the colors and irregular forms are  – Schoenberg’s music resembles every other great music of the past in this respect, that it wants to be apprehended spontaneously as an organic structural complex of sounds.- Theodor W. Adorno, “Toward an Understanding of Schoenberg”, in Richard Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays on Music, p.629

As a lover of music, it should be easy enough to get it.  For Adorno, Schoenberg represents more than just a radical shift in compositional technique or musical structure.  Arnold Schoenberg, whose work was first dismissed as “not music” then “passe” even as he trudged on through the decades, composing everything from chamber music to lieder to operas, represented the radical break within modernism that had been hinted at in Strauss and Stravinsky, yet only fully realized here.  Schoneberg was the musical representation of what art, particularly music, should do: it should confront the society within which it lives with the contradictions of that society.  It shouldn’t provide a synthesis to reconcile those contradictions.  It shouldn’t pretend to a whole that is, for high capitalist society, impossible apart either from barbarism or totalitarianism (which are different faces of the same coin, after all).  For Adorno, Schoenberg and the Vienna School that followed in his wake showed early 20th century Europe all its ugliness, how it had become unmoored from what kept it steady.  For that reason, Adorno insists, Schoenberg was both shunned and ignored throughout much of his career, only to return to prominence as the one who developed a compositional techinique – the 12-tone style – that came to dominate after the Second World War.  Yet even here, Adorno insists, what Schoenberg understood to be a style that liberates us from method was reduced to mathematical formula, putting a new set of chains on the music just as he set it free.

All of this should be clear enough from what Adorno has all ready written.  This particular essay, written just after the composer’s death, attempts once again an apologia for Schoenberg, his music, and his legacy that stresses the humanity of the composer; how his music is a somewhat natural historical progression from what had gone before; and the significant difference between Adorno’s music and that of what came before and the neo-classicists who were his main rivals in the years after the First World War.  Adorno’s simplest and clearest formulation of the matter appears on page 630:

The decisive thing is the density of composition, which no one ever conceived of before – its concreteness, not its abstraction.  Schoenberg leaves nothing unformed, every tone is developed from with the law of motion of the thing itself.

Schoenberg goes all the way back to Bach, demonstrating how the great composers struggled against the strictures not only of tonality but of musical forms, from the fugue through the sonata/symphony, but could never make the break that Schoenberg did.  This rewriting of musical history stretched the credulity of most of those who know western art music, although as always with Adorno, it is precisely within the extremity that the deepest truth is looked for.  Rather than use the structure of tonality and the sonata/symphony, Schoenberg used the structure of melody to guide his compositions.  What grew, like Topsy, often looked like it didn’t have much of a plan; the atonal pieces (such as the 2nd String Quartet, above), in particular, seemed to strike out in odd directions.  They were always, driven, Adorno continues to insist, by the inner logic of the music itself, rather than any externally imposed order.  “Atonality” was a way of dismissing what was strange and new, rather than coming to terms with an internal mechanism that prized melody over harmony, and freedom over the limitations previously imposed upon music.

Living and composing at a time when the orderly world of 19th century European progress collapsed under its own weight, bringing on decades of war, tyranny, mass death, and the rise of the United States as a world power, and with it the Cold War between the US and USSR, serious, honest musicians faced choices.  Far too many, for Adorno, chose to return to the status quo ante and pretend that nothing untoward had happened.  Others, succumbing to the pressures of the Culture Industry, produced nothing that could not be clearly heard without any actual listening occurring (“the music listens for the listener” was Adorno’s dismissive phrase for such music).  There were some, however, who had both the courage and the vision to show Europe in the first half of the 20th century what it was.  One of those was Picasso, in whose painting Guernica, we see the reality of modern war in all its brutality.  No one would call Guernica beautiful in the traditional sense; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have honest, substantive aesthetic value.  Indeed, the 20th century called for an aesthetics of horror, a theory of the ugly in art, to account for those works that best reflected that most barbaric of times.  Schoenberg provided the soundtrack to a century of mass death.

That Schoenberg, at a time in which the possibility of art itself, in its very essence, became questionable, still composed music that does not seem impotent and vain in light of the reality , forms, in the end, what he once began. (p.640)

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