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Adorno on Modern Music — A Coda

Dialectic and Aesthetics:
Adorno on Modern Music — A coda
to the Series.

Polyphony, like science, is peculiar to our Western civilisation.…Unlike science it does not seem to be of Greek origin but to have arisen between the ninth and fifteenth centuries…If so, it is possibly the most unprecedented, original, indeed miraculous achievement of our Western civilisation…1

AT ABOUT THE same time Adorno wrote his views on Schoenberg, Karl Popper published an article, in Mind, entitled, ‘What is Dialectic?’ Answering this question involved a critique of both Hegel and Marx. Where the dialectic approximated the scientific method — of conjectures and refutations — Popper was less critical. His chief concern was where contradictory statements are admitted, or indeed, encouraged, in a theory. He then spent some time to formally show

…if two contradictory statements are admitted (in a theory) any statements whatever must be…admitted (and)…any statement whatever can be validly inferred. (My elaboration.)2

This is ‘one of the few facts of elementary logic which are not quite trivial’.

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By following Kant, Adorno’s dialectic, as presented in the Philosophy of Modern Music, does not commit this error. Although a Marxist — and a Neo-Hegelian — the dialectic is not, again following Kant, conceived as a triad. Hegel’s synthesis, where there is a sublation of the best elements of the thesis and antithesis, is rejected. As Schoenberg expressed this, ‘the middle road is the only one which does not lead to Rome’. In Critical Theory, dialectic is also not presented in the historicist form of dialectical materialism. Following Kant, it is an attempt to uncover illusions, though these are conceived as empirical not transcendental. In short, the dialectic is immanent critique.

Unfortunately, when Adorno considers the antinomies of the antithesis — the atonality of Schoenberg — his immanent critique comes back to bite him.

Unfortunately, when Adorno considers the antinomies of the antithesis — the atonality of Schoenberg — his immanent critique comes back to bite him. Unable to escape the false consciousness, suggested by Marx, Schoenberg is ultimately unable to consistently develop his twelve-tone technique.  Progress becomes regress. It is a pessimistic conclusion, not helped by the further problem that any theory of pervasive false consciousness must, itself, be false. The technique also fails to achieve individuation. The self is alienated; emancipation is denied. On the other hand, the case against the thesis – the tonality of Stravinsky – is inconclusive. Even if it could be shown Stravinsky’s music has developmental problems, the project of tonality has not been one of restitution. Throughout the twentieth century, it could be argued, it has been one of progress. Despised by Adorno, the case of jazz, ironically, is one illustration of this point.

Whilst pursuing his philosophical education in Vienna, Karl Popper was a contemporary of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Adorno. At the beginning of the 1920’s, he became a member of Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Concerts. They performed works by Schoenberg and Berg, and also Stravinsky, Webern, Ravel and Bartok. Popper soon came to dislike modern music and left, becoming a pupil in the department of church music in the Vienna Academy of Music. In his speculations on music — the history of music had been part of his PhD — Popper considers polyphony. He agrees with Adorno. It arose in church music, sung in parallel octaves. And, he continues, by the tenth century, possibly earlier, parallel fifths followed. Plainsong was in parallel thirds and sixths. Counterpoint soon followed. This was decisive, because it led to polyphony. It is conceivable that the achievement of counterpoint was the result of ‘mistakes made by the congregation’. If a mistake was the origin, the invention was the discovery that this made a second melody, the basis of polyphony. The basic rule of counterpoint followed.

…parallel octaves and fifths are to be avoided because these would destroy the intended effect of an independent second melody.

Popper’s conjecture is that it was

…the canonisation of Church melodies, the dogmatic restrictions on them, which produced the cantus firmus against which the counterpoint could develop.3

These Gregorian melodies, as pieces of religious dogmatism, were the ‘necessary scaffolding’ for building a ‘unprecedented, original, indeed miraculous’ ‘new world’. As with science, great music

…is a cosmos imposed upon chaos — in its tension and harmonies inexhaustible even for its creator.4

Having left the Society for Private Concerts, Popper proceeded in a different direction to Adorno. For Adorno, the end of melody was a facet of progressive music. ‘It was the impulse to flee from material which was exhausted…’5 Popper’s idea of inexhaustible melody and harmony — and the notion of harmonic progress — was denied. In exactly the same sense, Adorno looked to ‘subjectivism’ in music; Popper required ‘objectivism’. Popper’s restoration is a return to the objectivism of Bach. Incidentally, he was, himself, also a composer of fugues and, perhaps bizarrely, suggested all future progress in music could be achieved within this constraint. Regress arose with the subjectivism of Beethoven, and thereafter remaining in modern music. According to Popper, the problem with the Schoenberg school was they started as Wagnerians, then, with a main concern for originality, asked “How can we supersede Wagner?”

Then simple fashion intervened. “How can we remain ahead of everyone else, and even constantly supersede ourselves? ”6

The subjectivism Popper criticizes is, for Adorno, a road to emancipation. It is the reason why he regarded the Romantic composers, such as Wagner and Mahler, had achieved progress. Here, at least, was an attempt to express the self. This was consistent with his Kantian elevation of the subject over the object. Disillusionment with the twelve-tone technique followed from limitations in this expressiveness.

In a note to the third edition of The Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno remarks that even with hindsight — twenty years later — he was not inclined to alter his essential thesis. But the prediction of the end of melos, is one of his more silly contentions. Stravinsky was an important starting point for interesting new contemporary explorations of rhythm, time and dissonance within a tonal framework. Rather than restoration, tonality has turned out, as Popper might express it, one of unimaginable progress — though, it must be said, not under the constraint of the fugue. Although Adorno is quick to dismiss ‘the pride of the tune-smith’, and Tin Pan Alley, the American Songbook has proved a remarkably rich stream of melos. The history of jazz, in the first half of the twentieth century, also illustrates this point.

In Adorno’s analysis, jazz is simply equated with ragtime. It is certainly correct that Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) and Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911) were important foundations. The edifice that was then built, however, evolved rapidly. The New Orleans Style of Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver was new. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was established in 1917. Jump another ten years, and progress moved from New Orleans to Chicago and then to New York. Here emerged the unparalleled virtuosity of Louis Armstrong, and his Hot Five and Hot Seven of 1928 and Duke Ellington opening at the Cotton Club in 1927. As a composer, Ellington was to become a legend of the Songbook. This was the Swing era. But Big Bands were expensive, and the musician’s strike — a ban by the American Federation of Jazz Musicians from 1942 to 1944 — is considered a watershed. A royalty dispute with Columbia, Decca and Victor, led to the establishment of specialised labels such as Blue Note. Very few of the Big Bands survived, although Ellington, Basie and Goodman, and a few others, were the exceptions. This movement to smaller, less expensive, groups was critical. It coincided with the decline in radio audiences, of the Big Bands, and the rise of television.  Jazz was no longer dance music — and jazz was no longer popular music. By 1955, Rock n’ Roll had taken its place. Doug Ramsey describes this evolution in jazz: You ‘…might imagine going to sleep to Brahms and awaking to hear, for the first time, Stravinsky’.7 In Adorno’s case, this was going to sleep to Bach.

In his subsequent writing, Adorno admitted his understanding of jazz, as presented in The Philosophy of Modern Music, was deficient. A new appreciation of its history, however, did not blunt his criticism.

In his subsequent writing, Adorno admitted his understanding of jazz, as presented in The Philosophy of Modern Music, was deficient. A new appreciation of its history, however, did not blunt his criticism. The expressiveness of the Blues found no favour. Jazz was derivative, first of March music, later of Debussy and Ravel. There is no acknowledgment of this history as evolution and progress. Yet Ravel and Gershwin were in mutual admiration. Bill Evans sounded nothing like Debussy. His dislike of America, found expression in his dislike of radio music. It was dismissed as propaganda, a fetish. Adorno liked concerts. How ironic, then, that the transformation of jazz to Bebop, was one from radio to concerts. It arose from jam sessions, of small combos in jazz clubs, after the performance of the Big Band. Scott DeVeaux’s description is a perfect example of the unity Adorno demanded of Stravinsky, but failed to find: a polyphony of rhythm, melody and harmony. In Bebop, the rhythm section — piano, bass, drums — was now free from a consistent, unchanging beat, to unpredictable gear changes. In these polyrhythms, more dissonant chord movements and irregularities of time. Some, with impossibly fast tempo. These were unconventional chromatic harmonies, taking ‘ a quantum leap to a new level of intensity.’8 Enter Miles Davis, and the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1959, his Kind of Blue represented a progression from Bebop’s complicated sets of chords and harmony, to Modal Jazz; a simplification, where improvisation was based on a scale or series of scales. This led to the development of new melodies, quite independent of variations on jazz standards or the Songbook. This was a movement from harmonic variation to melos.

Coda to 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. Karl Popper, The Philosophy of Karl Popper, London, 1974: 43
  2. Karl Popper. ‘What is Dialectic.’ in Conjectures and Refutations. The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. London. 1972: 317
  3. Popper. 1974: 44-45
  4. Popper. 1974: 46
  5. Adorno. 2016: 172
  6. Popper. 1974: 56
  7. Doug Ramsey, ‘Big Bands and Jazz Composing and Arranging After World War II’ in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kitchener, ed., Oxford University Press Inc. New York. 2000:405
  8. Scott DeVeaux, ‘The Advent of Bebop.’ in Kitchener. 2000: 297

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