The Music of Theodor W. Adorno

smiling Adorno

ADORNO: 6 Orchestral Pieces, Op. 4: I. Bewig, heftig; II. Sehr ruhig; III. Gigue: Sehr lebhaft; IV. Ausserst langsam; V. Walzer: Leicht; VI. Sehr langsam / Moscow Symphony Orch.; Alexei Kornienko, cond / 6 Studies for String Quartet (1920). String Quartet (1921). 2 Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 2 / Leipzig String Quartet / Piano Piece (1921). 3 Short Piano Pieces (1934/1945) / Steffen Schleiermacher, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking hyperlinks above

Here’s one of those strange anomalies that I’m sure happens once in a while to almost anyone in their chosen field of work. All through my college years when I studied music most seriously, and for 17 years afterward while reviewing and writing about music, I never even heard of Theodor W. Adorno. In fact, I might still never have heard of him had a reader of my short-lived music ‘zine not written in to me asking what I thought of his philosophy of music.

I looked up Adorno and began to learn about him, but the more I learned about him the less I liked him. Yes, he was a true intellectual, something I do not claim to be although I have a decent I.Q. Yes, he wore several hats including those of psychologist, musicologist, composer, philosopher and sociologist, of which I can only claim full rights in one (musicology) and dabbling rights in two others (philosophy and sociology), but he was also extremely narrow-minded, hateful and condescending towards anyone who liked music and literature that he didn’t, and an armchair Communist who had the wrong-headed idea that Communism would educate the masses to the glories of intellectual music and literature. Ironically the Communists branded him a “cultural Marxist” because they felt he and his ilk were too artsy and not “sufficiently doctrinaire.”

Adorno was also a person who simply didn’t believe in having fun—period, The End. All he ever wanted to do was sit around all day arguing philosophy and sociology, the role of music in those disciplines, bash all forms of capitalism and never really reach a conclusion in anything. When he finally came to America in 1938 and worked in New York, Princeton and Los Angeles, he frustrated his colleagues by never reaching a conclusion in anything he discussed. Adorno wasn’t interested in reaching conclusions except for his two pet hates, capitalism and jazz music. All he wanted to do all day was sit around and bullshit. Smart as he was, he never really accomplished anything except to piss off everyone he considered his intellectual inferior. It took me nearly 12 minutes to find a photo of Adorno smiling, which is the one posted above. 99% of his photographs show a grim countenance, decidedly dour like his personality.

Except, as it turns out, in music. An early proponent of atonal music, he wrote most of the pieces listed above between the ages of 17 (1920) and 31 (1934), and they are astonishingly excellent.

In the 6 Studies for String Quartet, written when he was only 17, Adorno is at this point trying to reconcile an early Romantic bent with more modern harmonies, but this is clearly not serial music despite the use of what we now call “rootless” chords and abrasive seconds in the harmony. More interestingly, despite the brevity of these pieces—the fifth, at 3:23, is the longest—Adorno shows no hesitancy in using silence (rests) as part of the musical progression, and in each piece he finds a way to make the music interesting. In the second piece, “Nicht zu langsam,” he opens with the cello playing a rocking rhythm with the upper strings playing against it,; then, after one of his pauses, the tempo increases and all four instruments are involved in an energetic motif which is tossed around between them. In the third piece, “Schwer und dumpf,” he again uses a rocking motion in the cello but, more importantly, intermixes modal and chromatic harmonies when the cello moves downward against the other strings. And he did this all without making it sound forced or artificial; everything he did here somehow seems organic. The fourth piece, “Sehr heftig” (“Very violently”) uses strong rhythms beneath an top line that vacillates between tonality and atonality. Nor does any of this sound like a young student who is groping for ideas, hoping to create something good and possibly just missing. This music has the sure hand of a composer who may not be in his prime but already knows how to put music together and make it coherent as well as fresh and interesting. Many a composer today would be proud to call these youthful exercises by Adorno their own.

By the time he reached his full-fledged String Quartet a year later, Adorno was already moving towards longer forms, using the experiment of the year before to make significant progress. More interestingly, despite all the harmonic audacity, the first movement of this quartet (“Maβig”) uses what I believe is a popular tune rhythm, a steady 4, something he would avoid in his future works. Heaven forbid that Adorno should be caught trying to write something lively and popular! Happily for him, his Piano Piece of the same year, though also using a rhythmic motif, is far removed from any taint of popularism, yet is again quite original in his use of space, changing tempi and an almost organic-sounding flow of ideas through the course of the music’s length.

The 6 Orchestral Pieces, Op. 4 sound so much like Alban Berg that one is almost astonished. Like Adorno, Berg didn’t always embrace the dodecaphonic style, and he, too, sometimes wrote more lyrical lines than Schoenberg, who in turn was more lyrical than Webern, the most abstract 12-tone composer of all. It is entirely typical of Adorno that the “Gigue” uses a jig rhythm but some of the most abrasive harmonies within thus suite. He certainly didn’t want anyone to misconstrue his intentions and enjoy his music!

As it turned out, Adorno flipped on his own earlier enthusiasm for the 12-tone school and, as a result, stopped composing. In a 1934 letter to Ernst Krenek, Adorno complained about Schoenberg and his colleagues that

Twelve-tone technique alone is nothing but the principle of motivic elaboration and variation, as developed in the sonata, but elevated now to a comprehensive principle of construction, namely transformed into an a priori form and, by that token, detached from the surface of the composition.

I know you probably won’t believe me, but I just discovered that quote on the Wikipedia page dedicated to Adorno. The reason I say that is I’ve been saying the same thing for the past 30+ years, only in a different way, telling all who would listen that the 12-tone technique is an interesting head game but an artistic dead end, because one the process of the composition (arranging your tones so that you use each of the 12 before repeating one) takes precedence over inspiration, you reach an artistic dead end. In short, there’s only so much music you can write in the 12-tone style before you hit a wall and can’t go any further…something Schoenberg himself learned, which is part of the reason he could never finish Moses und Aron and in fact wrote very little new music after 1932.

So there you have a rough description of some of these pieces. All I ask when you listen to them is that you forget the person Adorno was and just absorb the excellent music he left us.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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