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Antithesis: Schoenberg.

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music 5



Hollywood. September 12. 1954.

Dear Mrs Schoenberg, this day of September 13
must be kept high in every musician’s mind,
and I am deeply regretful not to be able to
attend your noble musical gathering to
commemorate the great Arnold Schoenberg.

Most sincerely, Igor Stravinsky.1

IT SHOULD COME as no surprise that a mathematical puzzle became a basis for musical composition in Austria. After all, Adorno continues, this culture was also the philosophical home of the Vienna Circle and logical positivism. Strictly speaking, the twelve-tone technique is not even a method of composition.

It can be more correctly compared to the arrangement of colours on a palette than to the actual painting of a picture.2

Twelve-tone Technique.

Adorno unpacks Schoenberg’s technique…but this is only the start, because a myriad of other derivations present themselves.

Adorno unpacks Schoenberg’s technique in the following way. In the chromatic scale, there are twelve notes. First, these are all arranged by the composer in a particular order. This is called a row. No tone can be repeated before all the tones in the row are played. Variations are then introduced by developing further rows based on the initial set. A second variation might simply reverse the direction, starting with the last tone and ending with the first. Or, by starting anew with each of the twelve tones, in turn, then continuing up and down the set. Twenty-four rows are thereby generated. Adorno becomes less clear at this point, but when this movement is repeated in a ‘crab’, a further twenty-four variations of the initial row can be introduced. In any case, this is only the start, because a myriad of other derivations present themselves. The row can be subdivided or partitioned – into triads, for example. The geometry of the rows can be explored by symmetrical arrangements. These can proceed vertically, as well as horizontally through the rows. In all cases, the result are ‘…new, independent rows, which at the same time retain their relationship to the basic row.’3

One implication of the twelve-tone technique is a complete indifference to both melody and harmony. The probation of repeating any of the twelve tones means tonal relationships are avoided.

In simple cases the row is distributed among vertical and horizontal structures and, as soon as the twelve tones have appeared, the row is repeated or replaced by one of its derivations…4

The dispatching of melody and harmony introduces dissonance and new forms of polyphony and counterpoint. The texture of a traditional tonal piece of music is often described as how the voices or pitches are connected. The simplest, and oldest, is monophony, where, commonly through octaves, the parts are in unison. In homophony, there is a dominant part, with other voices in harmony. Polyphony, by contrast, has a multiple of equal voices — with no dominant voice — and all parts coalescing to form a tapestry of sound. Adorno defines the dissonance of atonal music in terms of polyphony. In an earlier era, composition was perfected by chordal conventions.

However, once these conventions have disappeared — and, along with them, tonality —then every sound which merely serves to form a chord becomes subject to coincidence, so long as it is not validated by the course of voice leading – that is to say, by polyphonic means.5

For Schoenberg, the principle of polyphony is not ‘…emancipated harmony, which for the moment awaits reconciliation with harmony.’6 It is the total emancipation from harmony itself. He continues.

The more dissonant a chord, the more sounds contained…the more ‘polyphonic’ is this chord…

Each sound within this discordance, assumes the character of a voice. Indeed, dissonance is more ‘rational’ than consonance because

…it articulates with greater clarity the relationship of the sounds occurring within it — no matter how complex — instead of achieving a dubious unity through the destruction of those partial moments present in dissonance…7

and replacing them with a harmonic resolution.

Where coincidence reigns, the difference between the essential and the coincidental disappears.

Where coincidence reigns, the difference between the essential and the coincidental disappears. Importantly, there can no longer be themes, hence the development of themes. Contrapuntal phrasing then changes. Rather than the combination of two melodies, counterpoint in the twelve-tone technique is the combination of multiple rows. As Adorno puts it:

Counterpoint is unquestionably the actual beneficiary…It has attained primacy in composition. Contrapuntal logic is superior to harmonic-homophonic logic because it has always liberated the vertical from the blind force of harmonic convention.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is contrapuntal by nature, because

…all simultaneous sounds are equally independent, because all are integral components of the row.…Twelve-tone technique has taught the composer to design several independent voices simultaneously and to organise them into a unity without reliance upon harmonic logic. 8

Added to counterpoint, variations in rhythm also remain. There is a recognition of crescendo and decrescendo, and both are liberated from the individual motif to the total structure. These can assume the role of ‘themes’. As Adorno points out, ‘In the final analysis, melos is the victim of thematic rhythm.’9

Evolution to Atonal.

THOUGH THE ARCHITECTURE of the twelve-tone technique is, following Adorno, relatively straight forward, his essay begins with an account of the evolution of music; how this development led to the atonal, and the place of the dialectic and illusion in this process. Controversy enters here.

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After the First World War, social conditions in Germany and Austria were in ‘chaotic fermentation’. Expressionist movements in art and music reflected this crisis. As a response, the Schoenberg School was part of  the ‘pathfinders, trailblazers, and – above all – tragic figures.’ In this, they were certainly in the vanguard of progress, even if regress finally became evident. Much of their music was for opera, and Adorno’s discussion freely delves into the accompanying text for his analysis. Perhaps, it might be pointed out, the music was commissioned for the story, such that neither text nor score can be separated. Even so, Adorno’s brief psychoanalysis of Berg’s Lulu, for example, cannot be extended to the music. What would a ‘false sublimation of the sexual’ actually sound like? Simple notions such as happiness, grief or anger might be expressed in music, but ‘sublimation’? As Hegel had argued, beyond the portrait of the sacred, there are obvious limitations of art, which religion, and ultimately philosophy, can only address.

To answer the question, why was the twelve-tone technique progressive? Adorno points to a ‘historical tendency’ in the evolution of music. Schoenberg contradicts the notion that music can simply be understood as tonal progression, such as the exploration of fifths or sevenths. These traditional forms are ‘reactionary compositional tendencies’. ‘Even the more insensitive ear detects the shabbiness and exhaustion of the diminished seventh chord’.10 Adorno continues:

It is not simply that these sounds are antiquated and untimely, but they are false. They…reveal themselves as impotent clichés.

The ‘trained ear’, on the other hand, feels no particular urgency for a ‘resolution’ of the alleged dissonances, but rather spontaneously resists resolution as a retrogression into less sophisticated modes of listening.

According to Adorno, this is an irreversible historical process. Traditional chords are ‘an obsolete form’. This is because of ‘…the dialectical nature revealed in the unfolding of the musical material.’ It remains for Adorno to spell out these antinomies. All he has established, at this point, is an opposition between tonal and atonal, then asserted that the ‘trained ear’ finds one ‘obsolete’.

After specifying the defining characteristics of the twelve-tone technique, Adorno continues by addressing the consistency of its formal structure, and the avoidance of the superfluous. There is also a change in its expressive nature compared to the Romantics. In the ‘…spirit of compression, modern music destroys all decorative elements….’

The revolution in Schoenberg’s approach is the uncovering of the Unconscious, and

…the change in function of musical expression. Passions are no longer simulated, but rather genuine emotions of the unconscious shock, of trauma…are registered without disguise through the medium of music. 

Following Vassily Kandinsky’s review of Schoenberg’s paintings (not his music), Adorno enigmatically contends Schoenberg’s music also has ‘blotches’.

Romantic music is full of decorative elements that disguise illusions. Adorno suggests the early examples of the twelve-tone technique are just like psychoanalytic ‘case studies’ of a dream. They unmask illusions. Unfortunately, Adorno does not elaborate on what these illusions are, or the mechanism by which modern music might function as a ‘case study’. Following Vassily Kandinsky’s review of Schoenberg’s paintings (not his music), Adorno enigmatically contends Schoenberg’s music also has ‘blotches’. These proclaim, as in a Rorschach, ‘…the id against the compositional will. They destroy the surface and are as little to be removed by subsequent correction as are the traces of blood in a fairy tale.’

What he calls the ‘Dialectics of Loneliness’ is of little help in clarifying, or providing evidence, for his claims. It is also unclear what ‘dialectical’ means in this context. There are further assertions on ‘case studies’ and the ‘sexual genesis’ of Schoenberg’s music, but these, once again, are simply illustrated from the text of the drama not the music itself. (Notably, Erwartung and Die gluckliche Hand.)

Unity in Tonality and Atonality.

UNDERLYING ADORNO’S ACCOUNT of the evolution of music is that tonality has run it course.

The decline of harmony is not to be attributed to the lack of harmonic consciousness, but to the gravitational force of twelve-tone technique. (59)

Traditional music is confronted with two difficulties. First, the ‘highly limited number of tonal combinations’. Second, the integration of its various dimensions — melody, harmony, counterpoint, form. Each tradition has concentrated on one but not the others. Bach counterpoint; Beethoven form. Before Beethoven,

…the procedure of variation was considered to be among the more superficial technical procedures, a mere masking of thematic material which otherwise retained its essential identity. (35)

The twelve-tone technique, by contrast, suspends

…that fundamental contrast…between polyphonic fugal structure and homophonic sonata-form…(and)unite…in alchemy…the most fundamental impulses of Bach and Beethoven. (36)

In the Romantic era, Wagner attempts a unity. Counterpoint was used as decoration for homophonic themes. His attempt at a ‘composite work of art’, however, failed and only reached ‘full realisation’ in Schoenberg.

In his music it is not only that all dimensions are developed to an equal degree, but further that all of them evolve out of one another to such an extent that they all converge. (35)

It remains debatable, however, what sort of unity the twelve-tone technique achieves. The development of theme disappears. Symmetries, found in traditional music, based on harmonic relationships, are replaced by the geometric symmetries of the row. And Schoenberg’s latest works devalues melos, theme, motivic development and transition. Traditional forms, such as sonata, are no longer invoked.

The concept of the theme itself has been absorbed by the concept of the row…Twelve-tone technique does not permit a choice. Either it retains its formal immanence or new elements are meaninglessly superimposed upon it. (71)

More contemporary twelve-tone techniques also tends, according to Adorno, to abolish the principle of counterpoint. In Webern’s most recent work there is “…the liquidation of counterpoint. The contrasting tones are grouped into monody.” (66)

So the unity Adorno demands of traditional forms of music is, itself, dissolved into one identity within the twelve-tone technique.

A more pressing dialectical problem for Schoenberg’s radical program is a return to tonality in his later works. From this, it can only be concluded music can freely, and consistently, incorporate dissonance, but the twelve-tone technique can only adopt consonance through self-refutation of the row. This is where Adorno becomes very busy pulling rabbits out of the hat. And this is where the ‘logic of the illusion’ fails. We are told, ‘in one of his most magnificent twelve-tone compositions’ — the String Quartet No 3. (1927) — that Schoenberg employs ostinato — a reoccurring motif — ‘which he had carefully excluded up to that time…as a tonal residue’.(57) Adding further gloss, Adorno writes:

The restorative moment of twelve-tone technique is perhaps nowhere more strongly manifested than in the tentative re-admission of the consonance. (58)

There is perhaps no single factor which distinguishes Schoenberg so basically from “all other composers as his ability to discard and reject what he has previously possessed.’ (86)

With this nonchalant, and ‘conciliatory attitude towards the public’, he ‘…has succeeded in preserving this force of forgetfulness in his most recent works.’ There is also a baffling, aphoristic conclusion. As an artist, Schoenberg

…wins back for mankind freedom from art, a dialectical composer, he brings dialectics to a halt. (87)

Fifth in a series.

Dr Tronn Overend is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and the author of numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences. His essay “An Objective Theory of Modernist Aesthetics” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 2018; his essay “The Beginning and the End of Art…in Tasmania” followed in 2019.

  1. Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents. London, 1979:588-589
  2. For this and following quotes, see Adorno, 2016:39-42
  3. Adorno. 2016: 42
  4. ibid.
  5. Adorno. 39.
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. Adorno. 2016: 61-62
  9. Adorno. 2016:50.
  10. For this and following quotes, see Adorno. 2016:22-87.
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