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Return to tonality.

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music 6




THE RETURN TO tonality in Schoenberg’s later work poses a problem for Adorno. He describes Schoenberg as a ‘dialectical composer’, whatever that might mean, then suggests (he is writing in 1941) that Schoenberg has brought the dialectic to a ‘halt’.

Making sense of Adorno has clearly exercised the thoughts of his translators. There is the problem of jargon, of multiple ideas, all mixed together with aphorisms and arguments ad hominem.

Making sense of Adorno has clearly exercised the thoughts of his translators. There is the problem of jargon, of multiple ideas, all mixed together with aphorisms and arguments ad hominem. Some might have replied, tongue in cheek, ‘I do not read; I translate.’1 However, there is a residual problem, also expressed by E B Ashton, that ‘I found myself translating entire pages without seeing how they led from the start of an argument to the conclusion.’ His suggested explanation is that key notions, such as ‘negative’ and ‘dialectic’, slide between different meanings, whilst allusions and paraphrases assume you ‘know Kant near-perfectly, Hegel perfectly.’ An even more sympathetic explanation, this time by Hullot-Kentor, is that the writing is not a systematic set of deductions.2

It is not argumentative; it does not seek to convince; but it does present a logic of insight that has a distinct foreword direction that develops concentrically…3

Emotions and Emancipation.

TYING TOGETHER CONCLUSIONS from his outline of traditional and radical music — the thesis and antithesis — Adorno is at best discursive, sometimes, writing closer to a stream of consciousness. At the end of the essay there are musings on the origin of music. It arose out of patterns of speech. Today, the emancipation that is evident in radical music

…is tantamount to its emancipation from verbal language…the most recent twelve-tone compositions indicate the liberation of expression from the consistency of language.

Possibly alluding to Hegel, and the end of art, he goes on:

The beginning of music, in the same manner of its end, extends beyond the realm of intentions — the realm of meaning and subjectivity. The origin is gesticulative in nature and closely related to the origin of tears.

As with tears, music is release. ‘Music and tears open the lips and set the arrested human being free.’4

Adorno’s narrative on the evolution of modern music pauses with his claim of triumph in the twelve-tone technique. The process leading to this point is a Kantian dialectic. There is no Hegelian synthesis, or sublation, drawn between the radical and traditional methods of composition. The antinomies and illusions are less convincing. And they are certainly not drawn out with the clarity of Kant, in his Critique. There is also a departure from Hegel’s aesthetics, which rejects emotions as a defining characteristic of art. According to Adorno, it was one of the merits of the Romantics to rediscover the expressive element of music found in the tears of its origin. This raises important themes in the Critical Theory of art — those of subjectivity and emancipation. He writes,

The problem of emancipation, and the subject’s plight, is described in this way. No artist is able to overcome, though his own individual resources, the contradiction of enchained art within an enchained society. The most which he can hope to accomplish is the contradiction of such a society through emancipated art, and even in this attempt he might well be the victim of despair.

This is the social context of the twelve-tone technique. It also points to the importance of agency and efficacy of the subject, when one is analysing the subject object relation of music. Take the object of the row. Because of the methodology, it is also ‘enchained’ with antinomies.

One aspect…is that twelve-tone music, by force of its mere correctness, resists subjective expression. The other important aspect is that the right of the subject itself to expression declines…

And again, riffing on the theme of enchainment as the impediment to emancipation:

Horror has cast its spell upon the subject and it is no longer able to say anything which might be worth saying…Its melancholy disappearance is the purest expression of its terrified and distrustful withdrawal before the traces of consumer goods which threaten it.

Adorno continues with around a dozen propositions. Alienation of the subject is the common theme. At this point, the narrative becomes truncated and disjointed.

  • The twelve-tone technique has become a metaphor of the world it is protesting against.

  • Success in this fight is denied because of its innocence.

  • Music is doomed, as it accelerates to catastrophe.

And, a more enigmatic aphorism:

  • The decline of art in a false order is itself false.’


  • In a society of mass production, art becomes a technique of repression.

  • Mass production arises in the ‘offices of the hit-tune industry’. It incorporates the most modern methods of propaganda.

  • From this string of ideas about radical music, some startling conclusions:

  • The survival of music itself is only possible ‘…if it is able to emancipate itself from twelve-tone technique as well.’

  • This is not ‘retrogression’ to the ‘irrationality’ that ‘proceeded’ twelve-tone.

  • This is ‘amalgamation’ and ‘absorption’ of twelve-tone technique by ’free composition’.

  • This freedom, from ‘the prescriptions of rows and rules’, is achieved by mediating the rules ‘through the spontaneity of the critical ear.’

Then, with this new-found freedom from rules, and by returning, once again, to ‘forgetfulness’:

  • This will avoid music becoming a victim of the technique. The rules ‘must be forgotten, if they are to bears fruit.’

It is an unconvincing and dismal end to his speculations. It would seem traditional tonality can be thorough-going, but, because of these antinomies, radical atonality cannot.


THE SUBJECT-OBJECT relation brings together many critical problems in philosophy. Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ was a reimagining of the Greek’s concentration on the object – the ontology – and prioritising the subject, or epistemology. Following Kant, the subject is also central in Critical Theory. Objectification of the subject is one of the errors of positivism. As music has evolved, contradictions have also arisen in radical music following its objectification. These contradictions require ‘renunciation’. In Adorno’s words:

…contradiction once again reproduces itself in the static condition of the music which has been achieved. The subject cannot be content with its subjugation to its abstract identity in the material.

The subject has been objectified, with the technique asserting…itself blindly over the will of the subject, triumphing thereby as irrationality.

In exploring the nature of subjectivity, Adorno starts by drawing a Kantian distinction between cognition and perception. As an object, the work of art is not merely the sense data of appearances. This must be discarded as an illusion. The work of art must be seen as thought. ‘Schoenberg’s music has hovered in the vicinity of cognition.’ This is why it has been rejected, not because of its dissonance. By contrast, traditional music avoids thought, and aims for a ‘clarity in perception. A superficial clarity, however, is deceptive; an illusion of appearance.

It is only when a work of art has been thrown into confusion that it throws off the clarity of its hermetic character, discarding the illusion of its appearances at the same time.5

The work of art then

…becomes the vehicle of the subject, whose intentions it communicates and defines…

The notion of ‘contradiction’ is introduced here. Following Marx, the relationship between art and its social context is one of hostility and conflict. It offers ‘…evidence of the contradictions in the world in which it dwells.’ An analysis of these contradictions, or conflicts, is a touchstone of truth. There are contradictions within artistic material – such as traditional music – and there are ‘contradictions in the world’. It is only by ‘measuring this contradiction’ that it ‘is actually perceived’, then ultimately reconciled and overcome. Adorno’s leaps at this point are not clear, but returning to the distinction between cognition and perception, arts ‘cognitive character becomes radical in that moment’. It ‘is no longer content with the role of perception.’ When it reaches this threshold, even modern art ‘grasps its own contradictions’ and forces it to ‘confess its insolvency’. Inconsistency within the twelve-tone technique, and the logic of the row, is now seen as inevitable. This is a convoluted journey. Although it is used to defend radical music, and Schoenberg’s more recent work, Adorno’s immanent critique points to its downfall.

Sixth 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. E. B. Ashton, in Theodore Adorno: Negative Dialectics. Translated by  E.B. Ashton. London. 1973:ix
  2. Ashton, ix-xii
  3. Robert Hullot-Kentor in Theodore Adorno: Aesthetic Theory, Translated by Robert Hullot – Kentor. Bloomsbury Academic. London. 2016: xviii
  4. Adorno. 2016: 90
  5. All quotes, Adorno. 2016: 73-90

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