Born in Frankfurt, 1903, Theodor Adorno is possibly the most important
philosopher of music, certainly he is a towering figure in the discussion of
modernism in music. He learnt music from an early age and alongside
philosophy, maintained his studies in composition and piano throughout his
years at the University of Frankfurt. Those years saw him form close
friendships with Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin. From 1924 Adorno
studied composition with Alban Berg in Vienna.
In the philosophy of science, the discussion is often polarised between
philosophers who are not scientists and scientists who are unfamiliar with
philosophy. But the philosophy of music is fortunate in having had a
personality steeped in both the technical skills of the composer and a deep
understanding of philosophical ideas particularly the dialectics of Georg Hegel.
The rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930's had a profound effect on
Adorno, not least because having a Jewish father he was driven into exile in
America. From his return to Frankfurt in 1949 to his death in 1969 Adorno was
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt.
At the core of Adorno's philosophy of music is the idea that modernism, in the
form of the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez, represents a
break in serious music that has to be championed both against the music of
the past and that of the present which was succumbing to the destructive
features of modern society. Adorno believed that the 'heroic' age of music
was the decade 1910-1920, before which limits were set on the profundity of
compositions by the contradictions of early bourgeois culture, and after which
the 'culture industry' had worked its destructive charms.
Following similar arguments about literature, such as can be found in Georg Lukacs,
Adorno believed that a period of self-confident bourgeois culture had run
aground on the fact that the society which had broken free from feudalism
was not the liberating, rational and best of all possible worlds that the
enlightenment had aspired to. Instead it was full of alienation, war, poverty
and pain. Modern art to have substance must therefore be aware of this
For Adorno that last point at which music could be unambiguously uplifting
was with Mozart, "The Magic Flute, in which the utopia of the Enlightenment
and the pleasure of light comic song precisely coincides is a moment by itself,
after The Magic Flute it was never again possible to force serious and light
To understand why Adorno championed what became known as 'new music'
it is necessary to outline his critique of music production in the age of mass
production. For him serious music faces two interrelated pressures: the role of
the market and the condition of the musical public.
Firstly, according to Adorno, the development of massive companies
controlling the distribution of music has led to the "disposal of artistic trash"
since the pattern of musical production has become shaped by an overriding
desire to achieve mass sales which therefore means a desire to conform to
the lowest common denominator in the tastes of audiences. Furthermore "in
order to survive some composers, pretending to be modern, adapt to mass
culture through calculated feeble-mindedness." Also, compared to the
previous epoch, less technically able composers nevertheless can have
glorious careers, "dilettantes everywhere, for the first time, are launched as
great composers, musical life, which is now by and large economically
centralised forces the public to recognise them."
Performances are affected by the same trends, becoming rituals to show off
pieces familiar to audiences, the concert hall is attended in order to see the
presentation of an ornament rather than to seriously engage with new music.
Lastly amongst the difficulties created by the growth of the market, the culture
industry exerts an insidious pressure on the act of composition. Adorno
believed that since artistic production was now typically invoked by
commissions, the artist had been turned into a salaried employee and their
The second set of difficulties facing serious music are those concerning the
audience. From the mid nineteenth century onwards, Adorno believed, a
schism opened up between audiences and composers. To escape
commercial depravity important music has avoided commercialism, but this
has pushed it into isolation. Audiences have not followed composers.
The bourgeois public does not want music that makes demands upon its
senses, that dwells on the darkness in the world. "The dissonances which
horrify them testify to their own conditions; for that reason alone do they find
The rest of us struggle to come to terms with new music because of our
socially constructed musical predisposition. We have been educated to enjoy
music of an early era, furthermore, our possibility of moving on is undermined
by the presence of 'junk' music all around us, "the perceptive faculty has been
so dulled by the omnipresent hit tune that the concentration necessary for
responsible listening has become permeated by traces of this music rubbish
and thereby impossible."
For Adorno there are several other aspects of modern society that interfere
with our ability to become involved with new music. Firstly, that music has
been fragmented to allow segments to become digested by society, not least
in their use in commercials in Adorno's day on the radio, for us on
television. "Only the coarsest vulgarities and easily remembered fragments
find their way into the comprehension of the public, musical continuity is lost."
He was writing before the appearance of "hooked on classics" and other such
collections, but the trend was clear from the 1930's.
Secondly, "the culture industry has educated its victims to avoid straining
themselves during the free time allotted to them for consumption." This
comment evokes Karl Marx's theory of alienation and the idea that work has
become dehumanised, leading to an unnatural schism between work and
leisure. The worker rushes from work as soon as they can, into a sphere of
their life that is apparently their own. But of course there is no escaping
consumer society, which in its desire to market goods as efficiently as
possible, prefers its audience to all have the same tastes.
Music that is difficult and challenging requires mediation in order to obtain an
audience, but here too major problems have evolved. In the era before the
mass market "works of quality were established by competent musicians and
critics but radically modern music no longer can count on this support." The
progressive composer "can no longer depend on mediators between
themselves and the public". Why? Because performing musicians and in
particular conductors "allow themselves to be guided by those
characteristics which are the most obviously effective and comprehensible". In
other words the same pressures, to please an audience already shaped to
listen to a certain type of music damages the transmission belt between
composer and listener. Adorno was particularly vehement about the role of
music critics, who invariably were drawn by the gravitational pull of the music
industry and consciously or even unconsciously orientated themselves to it.
The professionals of the music industry had helped create the absurd
situation that "the ever-popular Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, who portrays despondency with
hit tunes, should be considered an expression of emotion superior to the
seismograph of Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung."
The overall effect of the culture industry is that music has become like
football: a mass audience involves themselves with musical experiences, and
even acquires a great deal of knowledge about particular aspects of it, but
structurally the experience is a shallow one.
Hence Adorno's belief that it has been downhill since the early part of the
Given this analysis, some parts of which seem strikingly relevant in 2002, why
did Adorno champion the 'new music' of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern?
Adorno saw the technique of these composers as a fundamental revolution
against the way music is generally understood, a revolution that permitted
them to resist the pressures that undermined serious music.
Curiously, in a talk at "2nd Viennese School Weekend" in Dublin, Feb 2002, one of the
speakers attempted to invoke Adorno in defence of the proposition that there
was a basic continuity between these composers and the past. But this flies
in the face of his writing. For example, in 1960 he was asked why he
continued to speak of 'new music' some forty years after its appearance. In
his answer Adorno argued that the breakthrough of these composers was
irrevocable, and wrote "difficult though it may be to point to a particular year or
a particular work as marking the end of tonality, it is nevertheless mistaken to
insist, as well-intentioned and naïve musician frequently do, on the essential
unity and continuity of all music and even on an unending succession of
geniuses down the centuries from Johann Sebastian Bach to Arnold Schoenberg."
The feature of the new music that made it resistant to commercial pressure
was that the composers were prepared to abandon the tonality that the
majority of people are inundated with. A whole new set of uncomfortable
sounds was born with their compositions. Interestingly it is not the subsequent
development of twelve-note music that Adorno praised instead he described
that system as "moderating atonality" but rather the willingness of these
composes to defy the current state of musical consciousness and the
vegetating state of tonality. So Adorno included John Cage among his
composers to be championed, for although his work is not dodecaphonic it is
"atonal" in the sense that Adorno uses the word.
For Adorno, the daring break made by new music was incompatible with the
realm of monopolistic reproduction and distribution of music and as such
avoided sinking into the rubbish heap.
A wonderful and extraordinary opportunity to test this particular aspect of
Adorno's views occurred over the weekend of 15-17th February in Dublin. With a packed program which included nine works by Arnold Schoenberg, four by
Alban Berg and three by Anton Webern along with pre-concert talks there is nothing more
could have been done to allow a discussion of this "new music". The
organisers of the "2nd Viennese School Weekend" would deserve enthusiastic
praise from anyone interested in serious music no matter where in the world it
was held, but in the Irish context, where so little has been done to build up an
audience for modern works this event was nothing short of miraculous.
So, is it the high point of human musical culture?
Instinctively, I'm sure, every reader will assume that the answer is 'no'. After
all, it would be a deeply pessimistic situation to find ourselves in, if at the start
of the Twenty First century, we had no expectations other than retrogression.
The works that I attended over the weekend were absorbing, demanding,
and, like a close game of chess, full of pleasure of a cerebral nature. Nor was
the music purely for mathematicians, in fact one aspect that was clear from
the overall experience was how much humanity, happiness and distress it
was possible to express in a very tightly delineated compositional system. But
for all that I found the experience more of historical interest than of musical
rapture. A revolution in music? Yes. The greatest music to date? No.
Adorno's insights into the culture industry are extremely penetrating. In
general his critique is convincing and a weapon with which to challenge the
destructive trends in monopoly control of music production and distribution.
Often Adorno is considered to be a Marxist, but, as his disillusioned students
discovered when they took to the streets in the 1960's, in fact he owes much
more to Georg Hegel than Karl Marx. And just as Georg Hegel, for all his rich and witty wielding
of the dialectic, avoided concrete material detail so too Adorno's categories
are too absolute and too sweeping.
The culture industry does indeed wash over us like an invisible giant tidal
wave, imposing uniformity and (often unconsciously) causing those involved
in music to accept certain agendas and ways of thinking. But it is not all
powerful. There has never been a time when individuals, groups of musicians,
audiences, have ceased to push matters forward, often at the fringes of
cultural activity. There is a constant bubbling of musical creativity, and
although it can die away through lack of support, or else be taken up and
destroyed through becoming the fashionable music of the establishment, it
Seven years ago I was asked to write a piece for the Project Arts Journal
about the state of music in Ireland. It concluded by saying that "the main hope
for committed composers lies in revolution. A revolution which would not only
shake up the existing institutions, but which would revitalise the population,
creating a new audience, liberated from their daily burdens and thirsty for
music which belongs to them not a bygone age."
I stand by that. And at the same time it is possible to recognise a frisson of
successful musical activity when it is happening.
So far 2002 is a better year than most. The Hugh Lane Gallery is regularly
performing contemporary works. The 'Horizons' series of concerts at the
National Concert Hall are an impressive platform for contemporary Irish
composers. Crash Ensemble continue to bring to Ireland new works of their own
creation and from around the world.
Right at this moment in Ireland the audience for contemporary serious music
is undoubtedly growing. But perhaps this process stands in some relationship
to the last few years of boom? In which case the developing world recession
will eventually have its negative consequences. Should the government
initiate sharp cuts to the arts such as would result from the proposed
change to RTE's share of the license fee then the delicate process of
building an audience for new music in Ireland can collapse rapidly. Something that
Adorno, no doubt, would anticipate with bleak satisfaction.