Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Adorno's destructive influence

In 1947 the German philosopher Th.Wiesengrund Adorno published his 'Philosophy of New Music', in which he tried to show that Schönberg's unpalatable ugliness (the later music) represented the truth of the 20th century, while Stravinsky stood for the barbarism of capitalist, bourgeois exploitative culture. After the holocaust, beauty could only be a lie, thus music audiences should be exposed to the negative 'truth' of Schönberg to be morally educated. The book's thesis is nonsensical, and even Schönberg himself condemned Adorno's attempt to present him as the saint of truthful ugliness. But it provided the ammunition for postwar modernism to attack musical culture, in the sense that atonal modernism in the wake of Schönberg and especially, Webern, was 'historically inevitable' and a necessary expression of the times.

Since postwar modernism did not blend at all with the usual programs of the central performance culture where the modernist intrusions, squeezed between classics before and after, mostly caused irritation and disbelief (also called 'shit sandwich'), it was in a strong need of justification. So, the book came as a gift from heaven for all those avantgardists banging on the doors of performance practice, where their progressiveness was not welcome and felt as a threat to musical culture as a whole. Also, Adorno's nonsense had the practical advantage that composers, who still believed that - even after the holocaust and world war - it should be possible to write tonal music, and even to strive after beauty, could be called 'outdated', 'irrelevant' and suffering from a 'false consciousness': this latter nice projection was meant to disqualify opponents and the competition even as a party in a rational discussion. We remember the vitriolic attacks on the competition by Boulez, claiming that composers who had not felt the necessity of dodecaphony were 'irrelevant'. Adorno's book came at a time where it could do the most damage: after a devastating war, and the revelation of the death camps. One is reminded of another book with timely nonsense: Otto Weiniger's 'Geschlecht und Charakter' (1903) which offered completely nonsensical stuff about sexuality, Jews, and Aryans, but had an immense influence upon the cultural elites of the day till far into the twenties and thirties. (Being a Jew, Weininger drew the consequences of his own idiocy and committed suicide shortly after his book's publication.)

Drenched in Hegelian historicism - which claims that in history, events are the result of inherent, inevitable autonomous forces - Adorno's book supported the idea that the most important meanings and values of 'the time' were expressed in its arts, and that only the art which did a good job at it, i.e. reflected the times most 'truthfully', was relevant. For artists who sternly believed in the concept of progress, this idea seemed a perfect justification of their own progressive work: it may look or sound awful but at least, it was the most relevant art since it expressed 'the times'. Where new music sounded meaningless and ugly, it could always be claimed that such were the times, and thus still be the most relevant music of its time. Also it was possible to pretend that meaninglessness had its relevant meaning in a meaningless time. Musical modernism, which thrived on the idea of progressiveness, wholeheartedly embraced all this nonsense and when modernism became established as the dominating aesthetics of contemporary music, doors were closed to any alternative vision. This meant that music which was still written on the basis of tonality and traditional aesthetics, went underground, and disappeared from the usual books about music history of the 20th century where the progressive line was drawn from Wagner's Tristan, over Mahler and Schönberg to Webern and hop! over the Second World War to Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis et al. This distorting reduction of music history to a progressive line can easily be compared with 'history writing' in totalitarian states where the past is rewritten according to the interests of the current régime.

To which this sorry misconception can lead, still in our own times - when modernism has already crumbled to dust, is shown by this recent example of programme information of the Opéra de Dijon, which also offers orchestral concerts. In the advance information on the website a description of Strauss' 'Four Last Songs' can be read: '.. this erstwhile lyrical and romantic civilisation, as if nothing had happened, as if such music were still possible'. Now, let it sink-in for a while: a respectable  orchestra presents one of the greatest works of the repertoire which is also very popular with audiences and one of the greatest challenges for sopranos (and for orchestras and conductors), and describes it as a lie: Strauss wrote it as if there had not been a devastating world war and no holocaust, because if he had acknowledged these catastrophes, he would never had written an echo of this outdated, lyrical and romantic civilisation. Of course Strauss was well aware of what had happened since he had suffered considerably, and had realised, too late it is true, by which diabolical régime he had let himself be compromised. The songs are full of the melancholy of departure from life, of mourning, and in the same time, full of resignation and hope on a better world. They are a proof that also after catastrophe, such music can be written and still be entirely authentic and truthful, because being based upon universal dynamics and aesthetic values (Léon Krier: 'Classical art is atemporal, like mathematics'). Also composers like Britten wrote truthful postwar works (the well-known War Requiem), as did Shostakovich who did not allow any doubt about his awareness of horror. What happened in Dijon? They followed Adornian prescription of progress and the supposed direct link between political reality and art, and found that they could present these songs only with the caveat that actually, such music could not, no: should not have been possible to write at that time, and could only be composed in willful ignorance of the reality of the world - as if the world consists exclusively of horror.

In the thirties, in a Parisian discussion among musicians and composers, someone claimed that art, and thus music, should express 'the times' even if they were ugly, upon which Maurice Ravel who was present, broke his usual silence with the decisive question: 'Why should an ugly time need expression?'

As long as such ideas like Adorno's are allowed to be taken seriously in music life, a liberation from postwar ideology with its erosion of musical value is not possible. Where orchestras or opera houses are under the impression that such historicist ideas are reflecting cultural reality and value, they unintentially help the erosion of their own existence.


  1. Thanks for this.

    Theodor Adorno was a pretentious windbag with a censorious attitude to the human heart.

    Let's forget about him.

    1. Yes, but he is still much around in the heads of people running orchestras, opera companies, concert halls, chamber music series, and sharing advisory boards of funding bodies. For people in music life, looking for an easy way to the moral highground, Adorno is a gift from heaven.