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Adorno and the ‘Philosophy of Modern Music’.

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music 3
Series.

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By TRONN OVEREND.

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THE PHILOSOPHY OF Modern Music begins with a quotation from G.W.F. Hegel, which conflates art with truth. Art, says Hegel, is a ‘revelation of truth’. In the case of music, Adorno elaborates:

Truth or untruth – whether Schoenberg’s or Stravinsky’s – cannot be determined by a mere discussion of categories, such as atonality, twelve-tone technique, neo-classicism; but only in the concrete crystallisation of such categories in the structure of music itself.1

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In other words, the social context determines the musical form, and the analysis of these forms will reveal whether they are true. Adorno’s book draws together two essays. The first, on Arnold Schoenberg, written in 1941; the second, on Igor Stravinsky, written in 1948. These were the two most important composers of the twentieth century. Common themes were tied together in a preface and introduction, and published as a book in Frankfurt in 1949.

Despite accepting the connection between art and truth, Immanuel Kant, not Hegel, is the more important inspiration. Adorno dismisses Hegel’s notion of the end of art, where ‘revelations’, or sacred depictions, are replaced by religion. And he has reservations on Hegel’s illustrations and discussion on music, and his general ‘inartistic naïveté’. ‘Only in a society which had achieved satisfaction would the death of art be possible.’ Adorno’s reading of Kant, on the other hand, began in secondary school, and guided by the cultural critic, Siegfried Kracauer. Martin Jay continues:

For over a year he regularly spent Saturday afternoons with Kracauer studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, lessons he would recall as far more valuable than those he received in his formal University education.2

Not surprisingly, then, Adorno’s work on modern music follows Kant’s method in the Critique.

In his preface, Adorno alludes to some key notions: conflict and negation, antinomies, dialectic and illusion.

It is not as systematic, or as clear, as Kant, but in his preface, Adorno alludes to some key notions: conflict and negation, antinomies, dialectic and illusion. Because Stravinsky and Schoenberg’s approach’s are ‘diametrically opposed’, and ‘…if the consequent program of music leads to antinomies’, ‘here again a dialectical motive asserts itself.’ Following Kant, art is embedded in the autonomy of values, ‘caught…in the midst of heteronomous reality’. From ‘unresolved conflict’ and the ‘horrifying norms’ of a wider world — Adorno is writing in the shadow of the Second World War — art in general, and music in particular, are far from a ‘sanctuary’.

As discussed earlier, the antinomies of modern music are presented dialectically. Following Zeno and Parmenides, the opponents’ position is shown, by implication, to involve absurdities. This was the foundation of Kant’s dialectic, where the opposing positions of Transcendentalism and Empiricism are presented as a thesis and antithesis. And, unlike Hegel’s later formulation in terms of a triad, no synthesis, or reconciliation is drawn. The two positions remain in opposition. Adorno follows this dialectical approach when considering the two schools of modern music. Traditional and radical music are in opposition, but not contradictory opposites. Because they are heterogenous, no reconciliation, or synthesis, can be drawn.

To resolve these antinomies, Kant employs a transcendental dialectic. Adorno’s method is an empirical dialectic. This is called ‘immanent critique’. For Kant, the difference between immanent and transcendent corresponds to the difference between reason and understanding. Pure reason is transcendent. In Kant’s words,

…there can never be any adequate empirical employment of the principle. It will therefore be entirely different from all principles of understanding, the employment of which is wholly immanent3

Whether the dialectic is conceived as transcendent or immanent, it can still, as Kant put it, be seen as a ‘logic of illusion’. In Kant’s case, these illusions are uncovered by pure reason, through infinite regress arguments. In Adorno’s case, illusion are uncovered by an empirical understanding from a Marxian or Freudian point of view.  Alluding to Marx’s famous remark, of standing Hegel on his head, Adorno stresses his dialectic ‘…is precisely the one which is placed squarely upon its feet.’

In Adorno’s critique, the internal consistency of each school of music is first worked out. This is how the antinomies are explored.

The process is immanent: the internal consistency of the phenomena – in the sense that this is to be developed within the phenomenon itself — becomes proof of its truth and the ferment of its untruth.

This is a departure from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, where the ‘promise of truth emerges in  ‘identity’ or ‘reconciliation of the subject and object’. With his pessimistic understanding of modernity, as one of ‘hopeless’ ‘self-alienation’, Adorno ‘despises’ Hegel’s identity theory as an illusion. Hegel’s

…reconciliation of subject and object has been perverted to a satanic parody — to the liquidation of the subject in objective presentation…

Adorno selects the thesis and the antithesis of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as his case studies…

…Since the First World War, there can be no longer be a ‘meaningful juxtaposition of antithesis’ against a thesis.

Adorno selects the thesis and the antithesis of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as his case studies. In Kantian terms, they are in permanent opposition, never reconciliation. In other words, there can be no synthesis, because, as Schoenberg had remarked, ‘the middle road is the only one which does not lead to Rome.’ Indeed, Adorno is critical of this middle road as simply a ‘new conformism’ in music. Since the First World War, there can be no longer be a ‘meaningful juxtaposition of antithesis’ against a thesis. With this blurring of the distinction, music has regressed ‘to the commercial depravity of the traditional idiom.’ This has forced radical music into ‘complete isolation.’ When it first arose, the liberation of atonality was analogous to the liberation in modern painting, from the objective to the abstract. Both were‘…defensive against the mechanised art commodity – above all photography.’

IN THE COLORFUL language of Adorno, the chamber music of Germany, for example, ‘has left behind a total rubbish heap’. Dilettantes are presented as great composers. The ‘trumpeted-up glory’ of Elgar, the ‘exceptional ignorance of Sibelius’. An ‘abyss’ has opened between the public taste of a ‘radio-trained listener’ and that of quality. The progressive composer is confronted with critics who simply do not understand.

Adorno’s philosophy of music is really an anthropology and psychoanalysis of music, grafted with some tenets of Marxism.

Adorno’s philosophy of music is really an anthropology and psychoanalysis of music, grafted with some tenets of Marxism. There is the enlistment of the notion of false consciousness. Musical consciousness arises from its social condition. The dissonances of radical music, which so ‘horrify’ public taste, simply ‘…testify to their own conditions; for that reason alone… they find them unbearable.’ He goes on:

Actually, it is only the coarsest vulgarities and easily remembered fragments…which find their way into the comprehension of the  public.

Radical music is a means to uncover false consciousness. It pin-points an illusion. It

…reflects without concessions everything that society prefers to forget, bringing it clearly thereby into conscious focus.

Radical music confronts ‘domination’ and ‘false clarity’ and, writes Adorno, awakens the world ‘to its own darkness’.

However, in this struggle, there are also antinomies for the Schoenberg School. These centre on the obscurity of its project.

In the process of pursuing its own inner logic, music is transformed more and more from something significant into something obscure — even to itself.

In this way, Adorno then suggests that Serialism becomes rigid, its development regressive. This is despite the efficacy of uncovering the illusions of humanism in an inhuman society.

Advanced music has no recourse but to insist upon its own ossification without concession to that would-be humanitarianism which it sees through, in all it’s attractions and alluring guises, as the mask of inhumanity.

Critical Theory finds verification of its immanent dialectical method by uncovering this emptiness. But Adorno goes further. As part of that society, radical music cannot avoid becoming, itself, empty of meaning. These conjectures are not altogether clear, but some notion of negation remains.

Its truth appears guaranteed more by its denial of any meaning in organised society, of which it will have no part — accomplished by its own…vacuity — than by any capability of positive meaning within itself. Under the present circumstances it is restricted to definitive negation.

Attempting to spell out what this actually means, Adorno goes on to assert the following. Because of the indifference of wider society, the non-conformity of radical music

…preserves its social truth through the isolation resulting from its antithesis to society. The indifference of society, however, allows this truth to wither. It is as though music were deprived of its creative stimulus…Among the symptoms of such crippling, perhaps the strangest is that progressive music…now recalls the institution of composition by commission.

Of course, commissions were common before the bourgeois era. Even so, this has amounted to a loss of autonomy, of deadlines that kill spontaneity, and a decline in the emancipative capacity of music.


Third 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. For this section: Theodore Adorno, Philosophy of Modern MusicBloomsbury Academic, Bloomsbury Revelations edition. 2016.
  2. Jay. 1973: 21-22.
  3. Kant. 1933: 307.
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