Adorno and Musical Material [Dr. Marcus Zagorski]

Adorno’s influence increased significantly after he published Philosophie der neuen Musik in 1949, and his presence in the contemporary music scene of postwar West Germany was further established by his frequent participation in the summer courses for new music held in Darmstadt. The book’s impact can hardly be exaggerated: it informed critical sensibilities and even guided approaches to composition. [1] The historical character of musical material is central to the argument of Philosophie der neuen Musik, and this theme triggered the widespread theoretical engagement with material in the 1950s and beyond. [2] Adorno himself considered this book as, he later wrote, ‘definitive for everything that I wrote about music thereafter’ [3] , and he was very much conscious of, and unapologetic about, a philosophy of history that he used to support his arguments. Responding in 1950 to a critical review of the book, he acknowledged,
I have applied a concept of ‘objective spirit’ [einen Begriff des objektiven Geistes] to music, although without making it explicit: an ‘objective spirit’ which prevails over the heads of the individual artists and also beyond the merits of the individual works. This concept is as foreign to public awareness today as it is taken for granted in my own experience. [4]

Philosophie der neuen Musik is a text that Adorno expressly claimed should be understood as a ‘detailed excursus to Dialektik der Aufklärung’ [5] , the book he co-authored with Max Horkheimer, which argues that the enlightenment process, in which humans endeavour to liberate themselves from the forces of nature, has given rise to a new force that impedes the realization of liberation. The dialectic that characterized this philosophy of history is said, in Philosophie der neuen Musik, to be objectified in the very material of music: specifically, a material example of this social history can be seen in Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, which was portrayed not as a mere compositional technique, but as a historical obligation [6] . Adorno’s designation of this method of pitch organization specifically as ‘material’ followed from his longstanding desire, nurtured initially while working as a music critic in the late 1920s, to attack Stravinsky’s neoclassicism as illegitimate and promote the music of Schoenberg. In an unpublished essay from 1928, which gives insight into this underlying motivation, Adorno outlined what he hoped to achieve through the work he was about to begin for the journal Anbruch:

Whereas Anbruch vests its polemical façade, so to speak, with the fight against the declared reaction (that is to say, against the remnants of the New German and the post-Brahmsian school) […], the journal has much more difficult and serious polemical tasks at its core. Its real enemy, which it has to pursue with the most severe attentiveness, is the predominant and seemingly current reaction that was initiated by Stravinsky in the guise of neoclassicism, and which is represented in Germany today by Hindemith. [7]

In order to carry out his task, Adorno first had to overcome a problem: both Stravinsky and Schoenberg were employing traditional forms in their works at that time. The solution he found, perhaps inspired by a philosophical pairing at least as old as Aristotle, was to turn from form to material [8]. This decisive turn led to what would later become some of Adorno’s most famous, or infamous, formulations about the ‘Tendenz des Materials’ [tendency of the material] and ‘Stand des Materials’ [state of the material] [9]—ideas that encapsulate the historical essence of his concept of material.

First appearing in Adorno’s writings as early as 1927 [10], the term ‘material’ acquired an explicit historical profile in his brief report on Kurt Weill’s Dreigroschenoper from 1928, in which the critic noted the regressive aspects of a music that does not ‘draw any consequences from the current state of musical material’ [11]. But it is with the 1929 essay ‘Zur Zwölftontechnik’, published in the journal Anbruch, that Adorno presented a thorough critical argument that rested upon the association of musical material with a philosophy of history. [12] Following this ‘turn’ in ‘Zur Zwölftontechnik’, Adorno argued that the twelve-tone method should be understood as a material embodiment of the variation principle, the signs of which could be traced through the music of Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms. [13] Material was seen to reflect an objective historical process (similar to the Hegelian objektiver Geist), and a composer’s decision to work only with material corresponding to the present state of history determined the rank of the composer. As such, material became for Adorno the ‘arena [Schauplatz] of progress in art’. [14] Compositional techniques were said to be ‘contained in the nature of music itself and […] extrapolated from it, rather than imposed on it from the outside’. [15]

The use of criticism motivated by the (highly questionable) authority of a philosophy of history, and the specific linkage of history and material, remained characteristic of Adorno’s writings for the remaining four decades of his life. [16] Unrestrained judgments, laced with appeals to truth and moral duty, gave his writings their unique and complex tone—a tone that was avowedly radical but singularly conservative, that was aggrieved and self-righteous, and that mixed extraordinary intellectual breadth with breathtaking narrow-mindedness. [17] His prejudice was often blatant: Stravinsky’s music, for example, was said to be of only minor significance because it avoided a dialectical engagement with musical time, which was said to be ‘the essence of all great music since Bach’. [18] But his prejudice could also be more subtle, perhaps slipped into a subordinate clause:

The idea, widespread among unreflective artists, of the open eligibility of any and all material is problematic in that it ignores the constraint inherent in technical procedures and the progress of material, which is imposed by various materials as well as by the necessity to employ specific materials. [19]

The phrase, ‘widespread among unreflective artists’, essentially means: whoever holds this idea, and thereby disagrees with me, is unreflective.
Adorno’s conception of musical material, however exclusive it may have been, followed from his philosophical engagement with Western culture and his effort to understand the contemporary world. His twentieth century was fully enlightened but radiant with the triumph of historical catastrophe. [20]He believed the human subject was faced with the threat of being either liquidated by totalitarianism or manipulated by capitalism. His desire to preserve subjectivity against these threats informed a philosophical programme that extended to theorizing the difference between the ‘open eligibility of any and all [musical] material’ and the much smaller subset of what could be considered usable material. This difference, captured in a sentence from Ästhetische Theorie, a book he was completing at the time of his death in 1969, again reveals the Hegelian thrust behind the linkage of history and material in Adorno’s thought: ‘Of all the material that is abstractly employable, only the tiniest part does not collide with the condition of the spirit and is as such concretely usable [Von dem abstrakt verfügbaren Material ist nur äußerst wenig konkret, also ohne mit dem Stand des Geistes zu kollidieren, verwendbar].’ [21]

The full implications of this sentence are best appreciated with a look to the German original, in which the phrase ‘Stand des Geistes’ is an unmistakable nod to Hegel. Simply put, ‘Stand des Geistes’ is a reference to the present moment, or condition, of the unfolding history of intersubjective consciousness in Hegelian philosophy. Adorno’s admonition to avoid ‘collision’ with the ‘Stand des Geistes’ meant that a composer should know to use only that material, among all possible materials, which is recognized as corresponding to the present moment in the unfolding history of Geist. But the appeal to Geist can also be read, and has been read, as an attempt by Adorno to promote particular compositional techniques as superior to others when measured by the dictates of what he deemed to be objective truth. [22] Accordingly, the choice of technique had ethical ramifications for Adorno, and his theory of new music in particular is inseparable from the sphere of ethics. Although it remained only a utopian possibility, something he pointed to but never saw, new music was identified as that which aimed to preserve the promise of subjective freedom and offer a way out of the limitations of dodecaphonic (and serial) composition. The point was made unequivocally in an essay titled ‘Klassik, Romantik, Neue Musik’, where Adorno stated that ‘above all […] the goal of new music must be the complete liberation of the human subject’. [23] In the wake of such ideas, many composers of New Music (for them a proper noun) have considered their technical preferences as somehow more ethically responsible than those they shun. And that invites some questions with which I can close this short essay. Are certain compositional styles or techniques somehow more ethically responsible than others? Are there moral implications behind the compositional choices of, for example, Helmut Lachenmann and, say, Philip Glass? Do aesthetic choices also have an ethical dimension? If you, like Adorno, believe they do, then it is worth asking yourself ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. Adorno’s theory of new music, and his concept of musical material, could be thought of as philosophically sophisticated attempts to answer these very questions.

* This essay is excerpted from a much longer study: Marcus Zagorski, ‘Material and History in the Aesthetics of “serielle Musik”’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 134/2 (2009), 271-317.
* Research for this article was made possible, in part, through a VEGA-Slovakia grant (VEGA 1/0086/15).

[1] See Stephen Hinton, ‘Adorno’s Philosophy of Music’, Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 4 vols (Oxford, 1998), i, 25-29, at 26. This influence extended also to literature, for Adorno shared the Schoenberg essay of Philosophie der neuen Musik with Thomas Mann while the two were living in California during the Second World War. Mann, who was writing Doktor Faustus at the time, appropriated (one might say plagiarized, as Mann was well aware and subsequently downplayed) significant portions of Adorno’s essay for the novel, and he solicited the music philosopher’s expertise for the characterization of Adrian Leverkühn. In a careful study of this collaboration, Mann scholar Michael Maar notes, ‘Adorno more or less invented Leverkühn’s creations, note for note, leaving the author with nothing to do but transpose them into supple prose. In addition, Adorno lent Doctor Faustus an intellectual cachet—through his philosophy of music, which was inseparable from the scores themselves—that Mann alone would never have been able to achieve.’ See Michael Maar, ‘Teddy and Tommy: The Masks of Doctor Faustus’, New Left Review, 20 (March/April 2003), 113-130, at 124.

[2] For more on this point see Zagorski, ‘Material and History’; also, Gianmario Borio, ‘Die Positionen Adornos zur musikalischen Avantgarde zwischen 1954 und 1966’, Adorno in seinen musikalischen Schriften, Musik im Diskurs, ed. Brunhilde Sonntag (Regensburg, 1987), ii, 163-179. The appeal of such ideas extended well beyond the borders of Germany and, as Giselher Schubert has noted, was great enough for many non-German composers to express a desire to learn the author’s mother tongue; see Giselher Schubert, ‘Adornos Auseinandersetzung mit der Zwölftontechnik Schönbergs’, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, 46 (1989), 235-254, at 254. Detailed accounts of Adorno’s reception can be found in Borio, ‘Die Positionen Adornos’ and in Marcus Zagorski, ‘“Nach dem Weltuntergang”: Adorno’s Engagement with Postwar Music’, The Journal of Musicology 22/4 (2005), 680-701.

[3] ‘Die Philosophie der neuen Musik […] war verbindlich für alles, was ich danach irgend über Musik schrieb.’ Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Wissenschaftliche Erfahrungen in Amerika’, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, 20 vols (Frankfurt am Main, 1997), x, 702-738, at 719. All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

[4] Adorno’s original article appeared under the title ‘Mißverständnisse’, Melos, 17 (1950), 75-77, and is reprinted in Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xii, 203-206; this translation is taken from Max Paddison, Adorno’s Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge, 1993), 270-271.

[5] ‘Das Buch möchte als ein ausgeführter Exkurs zur Dialektik der Aufklärung genommen werden.’ Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, 11.

[6] For more on Adorno’s changing assessment of twelve-tone technique see Martin Hufner, Adorno und die Zwölftontechnik (Regensburg, 1996). The circumstances that may have motivated Adorno’s initial engagement with the technique are considered in Giselher Schubert, ‘Adornos Auseinandersetzung’.

[7] ‘Während der Anbruch mit dem Kampf gegen die deklarierte Reaktion, d. h. gegen die Reste der neudeutschen und der nach-Brahmsischen Schule, gewissermaßen seine polemische Fassade ausstattet, hat er im Inneren weit schwierigere und ernstere polemische Aufgaben. Sein eigentlicher Feind, den er mit aller ernsten Aufmerksamkeit zu verfolgen hat, ist die gehobene und scheinbar aktuelle Reaktion, wie sie als neuer Klassizismus von Strawinsky inauguriert wurde und heute in Deutschland von Hindemith repräsentativ vertreten wird.’ Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Zum Anbruch’, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xix, 595-604, at 598.

[8] The Greek expression υλη [hyle, or, ‘matter’], from which our modern word ‘material’ descended, acquired philosophical significance with Aristotle’s characteristically thorough treatment of the concept, but the term had been in use colloquially at least since the time of Homer. In Aristotle’s writings, υλη is transformed from a colloquial expression to a key philosophical term with elaborate theoretical import. The earliest fully developed examples of υλη appear in the Physics and refer to ‘that from which something comes to be’. Understood in this sense, υλη functions ontologically because it refers to the essence of a thing. But more importantly, υλη has epistemological significance in Aristotle’s philosophy because of its relation to form [ειδοσ]. If υλη is the underlying substance of a thing, it is only the form of this substance that allows us to know it as a thing. Therefore υλη, though it can be said to exist independently, can only be known by the form it takes. Matter and form have been coupled ever since. For more on these points see ‘Materie’, Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, 13 vols, ed. Joachim Ritter and Karlfried Gründer (Basel, 1980), v, 870-924; also see Aristotle’s Physics I, 9, 192a 31, and Metaphysics I, 2, 983b 6-18, both in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York, 1941).

[9] Schubert, ‘Adornos Auseinandersetzung’, 240.

[10] See, for example, Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Schönberg: Serenade, op. 24’, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xviii, 331-334; and Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Schönberg: Fünf Orchesterstücke, op.16’, ibid., xviii, 335-344.

[11] ‘die nicht aus dem aktuellen Stande des musikalischen Materials die Konsequenzen zieht.’ The original review is reprinted in ibid., xix, 136-138. This translation is taken from Hinton, ‘Adorno’s Philosophy of Music’, 26. Paddison notes the influence of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre and Ernst Bloch’s Geist der Utopie, both of which (although Bloch was surely parroting Schoenberg) conceive of the usability of compositional material as something historically determined. He also compares, convincingly, examples from Schoenberg, Bloch, and Adorno, in which the historical description of the diminished-seventh chord appears, as it were, untransposed in the writings of all three authors; see Paddison, Adorno’s Aesthetics, 75-76.

[12] Schubert, ‘Adornos Auseinandersetzung’, 240. ‘Zur Zwölftontechnik’ is reprinted in Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xviii, 363-369. This development was spurred by an exchange of ideas with Ernst Krenek, which appeared in articles and radio addresses in the late 1920s and early 1930s; see Theodor W. Adorno and Ernst Krenek, Briefwechsel, ed. Wolfgang Rogge (Frankfurt am Main, 1974). Paddison gives a detailed overview of the exchange in Adorno’s Aesthetics, 81-97.

[13] Schubert, ‘Adornos Auseinandersetzung’, 238-240.

[14] ‘Den Schauplatz eines Fortschrittes in Kunst liefern nicht ihre einzelnen Werke sondern ihr Material.’ Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Reaktion und Fortschritt’, Moments musicaux, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xvii, 133-139, at 133.

[15] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Prehistory of Serial Music’, in Sound Figures, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, 1999), 54-68, at 54. For the original see Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Zur Vorgeschichte der Reihenkomposition’, Klangfiguren, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xvi, 68-84, at 68.

[16] Carl Dahlhaus examined and criticized Adorno’s use of geschichtsphilosophische-motivated criticism in the article ‘Das Problem der “höheren Kritik”: Adornos Polemik gegen Strawinsky’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 148 (1987), 9-15.

[17] Giselher Schubert presents a brilliant analysis of Adorno’s style in his article, ‘Musik gleich Wahrheit? Theodor W. Adornos Einfluß auf die Musikentwicklung in unserem Jahrhundert’, Oper aktuell: Die Bayerische Staatsoper 1999/2000, ed. Hanspeter Krellmann (Munich, 2000), 105-112.

[18] That is to say, Stravinsky’s music avoids the technique of developing variation: ‘Strawinskys Musik bleibt Randphänomen […] weil sie die dialektische Auseinandersetzung mit dem musikalischen Zeitverlauf vermeidet, die das Wesen aller großen Musik seit Bach ausmacht.’ Adorno, Philosophie der neuen Musik, 171. It must be noted however, that Adorno’s judgment of Stravinsky—like his judgment of twelve-tone technique—was different at different times in his life. A comparison of the different periods is made in Paddison, Adorno’s Aesthetics, 267-270.

[19] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis, 1997), 147-148; for the German original see Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, vii, 222.

[20] Or, as stated in the opening paragraph of Dialektik der Aufklärung, ‘the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant [die vollends aufgeklärte Erde strahlt im Zeichen triumphalen Unheils].’ Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York, 1972), 3; for the German original see Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, Theodor W. Adorno Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, iii, 19.

[21] Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 148; Ästhetische Theorie, 223. Emphasis added.

[22] See especially Dahlhaus, ‘Das Problem’.

[23] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Classicism, Romanticism, New Music’, Sound Figures, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, 1999), 106-122, at 121; for the German original see Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Klassik, Romantik, Neue Musik’, Klangfiguren, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Tiedemann, xvi, 126-144, at 143.


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