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Should We Adore Adorno?

This absurd anti-Slavic prejudice did not, however, prevent Adorno from making fairly sharp observations about Stravinsky, in, for example, the following discussion of his motifs:

In Beethoven the motives are definitive and reveal a specific identity…. Stravinsky’s technique of archaic-musical images views the circumvention of such identity as one of its primary concerns…. The concept of dynamic musical form which dominates Western music from the Mannheim school down to the present Viennese school assumes [the] motif as a prerequisite in a firmly defined identity, even if it is minutely small…. Stravinsky’s regression, reaching back beyond this, for this very reason replaces progress with repetition…. This lack in Stravinsky’s music is, in the narrowest sense, a lack of thematic material, a lack which actually excludes the breath of form, the continuity of the process—indeed, it excludes “life” itself from his music.

In this clotted prose, Adorno contends that Stravinsky’s motifs are not dynamic: they generate neither sequences nor the developing variation that characterize the Austro-German tradition, which he thought the only defensible musical style.

By denying that Stravinsky’s motifs have identity, he does not mean that they are not striking or memorable: the “identity” of a motif here means the possibility of “drawing the consequences” from motifs through development and variation. Similarly, for Adorno, the identity of a person is not merely what he or she looks like but the past history and the future possibilities of his or her character. In this sense the “identity” of a theme in the classical tradition is defined by its transformations within the whole work. (“The thematic material,” Adorno claims, “is of such a nature that to attempt to secure it is tantamount to varying it. It really does not in any way exist ‘in itself’ but only in view of the possibility of the entirety.”3 )

Adorno was right about Stravinsky’s motifs: they do not have the dynamic charge of the German motif. Even the Schoenberg of the periods of atonality and the later twelve-tone system chose motifs that mimicked the generative effects of the German classical tonal tradition. (That is why Pierre Boulez was eventually to react against this conservative approach and write the manifesto emphatically entitled Schoenberg Is Dead.) The magnificent opening phrases of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps or Les Noces do not, indeed, invite development, but only repetition with new shaping of the accents; and the extraordinary dynamic energy of the music comes from shifts of rhythmic weight, irregular repetition, and contrasts of texture.

These motifs, which Adorno considered dead, were an invention of genius that revolutionized music. Adorno, who understood certain aspects of Stravinsky more clearly than most of Stravinsky’s disciples, could not see that his technique was in fact dynamic and generative largely because the elements were so neutral, and that they offered him an escape from the academic tyranny of the only tradition that Adorno judged viable.

According to Adorno, Schoenberg’s music, as a criticism of the commercialism of modern culture, deliberately but nobly sought out failure through its clearsighted, logical, and progressive exploitation of the central classical tradition; Stravinsky pathologically betrayed this tradition. Schoen-berg’s reaction to Adorno’s view, as we might expect, was not favorable:

I know that he has clearly never liked my music…. It is disgusting, by the way, how he treats Stravinsky. I am certainly no admirer of Stravinsky, although I like a piece of his here and there very much—one should not write like that.4


For a great part of his life, Adorno worked at a book on Beethoven. He did not succeed in finishing it, but left a mass of notes, now published, along with a few articles, the most important of which are two on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and on his late style. The essay on the late style—by which Adorno meant the late quartets and late sonatas as well as the Diabelli Variations and the Ninth Symphony—reveals both Adorno’s strength and his limitations. In criticizing Beethoven’s late style he starts from the remarkably cogent observation that in the late works of Beethoven,

conventional formulae and phraseology are inserted. They are full of decorative trills, cadences and fiorituras. The convention is often made visible in unconcealed, untransformed bareness.

Adorno equates the attempt to get rid of convention with subjectivity, with the achievement of personal expression. He follows in this a well-established principle of eighteenth-century aesthetics: the conventional is arbitrary, imposed from without, and does not speak for the individual. To turn the arbitrary into the natural, to make it seem as if the language was created for the moment of writing or speaking, is the task of the poet, making the reader believe that the expressions are spontaneous, invented for the purpose at hand. Here in contrast to his view of the late style of Beethoven, in which he finds that the music has become fragmentary, he remarks on the success of the “middle Beethoven,” that is, the Symphonies Three to Eight, the fourth and fifth piano concertos, Fidelio, and the “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” sonatas. About this period, Adorno writes:

For to tolerate no conventions, and to recast the unavoidable ones in keeping with the urge of expression, is the first demand of every “subjectivist” procedure. In this way the middle Beethoven absorbed the traditional trappings into his subjective dynamic by forming latent middle voices, by rhythm, tension or whatever other means, transforming them in keeping with his intention. Or—as in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony—he even developed them from convention through the uniqueness of that substance.

This accurate description of Beethoven’s technique is essentially what Guido Adler, the great Viennese musicologist and contemporary of Adorno, named in a brilliant account the defining characteristic of Viennese classicism, the obbligato accompaniment.5 With this technique, which Adler identified in Viennese works from Haydn to Mozart, the accompanying voices—what Adorno calls “the latent middle voices”—are derived from the same thematic material as the principal voice, and the accompaniment ceases to appear arbitrary or conventional, but arises organically from the basic material and conception of the work. The principal melody and the accompaniment are cut from the same cloth, and match each other.

Far from being an invention of the middle-period Beethoven, however, the thematic technique of the obbligato accompaniment is essential to Haydn from the Quartets Op. 33 (1780) on for the rest of his life. Deriving all the contrapuntal voices of a piece from the principal motifs has also been basic to Baroque style, and is exemplary in the fugues of Bach, in which all the voices are theoretically equal. What the later eighteenth century demanded, however, was a hierarchy of voices, a distinction between main voice and accompanying voices, in which one voice carries the melody and the other voices are clearly subordinate. It was largely the contemporary prestige of opera that imposed this hierarchy of solo part and accompaniment everywhere in music. The mechanical and banal accompanying figures of middle-century operatic style that resulted were given new vitality by Haydn through the new intimate relation between subordinate parts and the melody.

Blinded by his reverence for Beethoven, whose work he believed could be identified with the philosophy of Hegel, Adorno hardly noticed the existence of Haydn. In one of his rare references to Haydn, he wrote:

These moments of transcendence do not occur in Haydn, nor do we find in his work the substantiality of the human individual, the eloquence of the detail, however meagre. This gives rise to an element of constriction, even of narrow-mindedness in Haydn, despite all the grandeur. The func-tional interconnections present throughout Haydn’s music give an impression of competence, active life and suchlike categories, which ominously call to mind the rising bourgeoisie.

The last clause is an illustration of Adorno’s attempt to unite art and society with a facile metaphor.6 “Constriction” is an accurate if ungenerous way of describing Haydn’s economy, but Adorno’s lack of sympathy is evident in his disappointment that Haydn does not sound more like Beethoven.

Neglecting the tradition of Viennese classicism, Adorno misinterprets the role of convention in middle-period Beethoven. The conventions in the music that Beethoven wrote at this time of his life were often as naked as they became in the late works: they are paradoxically masked only by being magnified. The tritest possible cadence at the end of the Fifth Symphony, which would have been given two or (at most) eight bars by Mozart, takes fifty bars here. The most traditional way of returning to the main key at a recapitulation is subjected to an extraordinary inflation in the “Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53. Adorno’s perceptive observation about the conventional formulae in the late style is illuminating, but he fails to understand that Beethoven had become by then simply more laconic, more economical. Adorno, however, wishes to characterize the late style as revealing a despair at no longer being able to achieve a synthesis of objectivity and subjectivity rather than a growing impatience with the facile low-level methods of synthesis and a sustained attempt to incorporate the most disparate and opposing elements within a single structure.

As an example of Beethoven’s late use of the conventional, Adorno offers the Sonata in A-flat Major, Op. 110: “The first theme…has an ingenuously simple sixteenth-note accompaniment which the middle style would hardly have tolerated.” Unfortunately Adorno’s admirers often treasure the worst aspects of his work. Inspired by this claim, Adorno’s most eminent disciple, Edward W. Said, calls the accompaniment of this theme “a student-like, almost clumsy repetitive figure.”^7

It is untrue that Beethoven’s middle style would not have tolerated so simple an accompanying figure: there are many examples of equally simple accompaniment in the years from 1800 to 1810,8 but the problem lies not so much in the untenability of Adorno’s generalization as in his failure to read the significance of the passage. As he himself says elsewhere, the meaning of any detail of a work of this kind has to be read with respect to the whole structure, but he fails to ask how the simplicity of the accompaniment in bars 5 to 12 operates in the movement.9

What Adorno sees as discontinuity in the late style is in fact a more powerful integration on a larger scale, one that can reconcile the most brutal contrasts. What causes him to misrepresent the character of the late work is his too easy identification of convention with objectivity and original expression with subjectivity. This relegates the conventional to the inex-pressive, but the musical conventions have in fact an expressive charge of their own and the art of the composer lies in knowing how to release that charge with the greatest effect. Adorno perceives the importance of the conventions in the work of elderly artists like Beethoven and Goethe, but he does not see the power of the most banal aspects of the musical and poetic languages, and he is hamstrung by the Romantic view that genius consists chiefly in breaking the rules.

  1. 3

    Adorno’s claim that “with very few exceptions” this treatment by transformation of the theme starts with Beethoven is of course deeply mistaken; it is already obvious in the music of the late fifteenth century, and there are few of Beethoven’s transformations that cannot be traced back to Bach and Haydn.

  2. 4

    In the most detailed study of Adorno’s writings on music, Adorno, Modernism and Mass Culture (London: Kahn & Averill, 1996), a brilliant piece of work, Max Paddison quotes this from a letter to H.H. Stuckenschmidt. Paddison writes that Schoenberg “misunderstood” Adorno’s critiques. I don’t see how.

  3. 5

    In the Handbuch der Musikgeschichte (Berlin: Max Hesses Verlag, second edition, 1930), Vol. 2, pp. 788–793.

  4. 6

    Carl Dahlhaus wrote about Adorno’s attempts to unite musical analysis and sociology, “The verbal analogies perform the function of hiding a gap which the arguments could not close.” Quoted by Max Paddison, “Immanent Critique or Musical Stocktaking,” in Adorno: A Critical Reader, edited by Nigel Gibson and Andrew Ruben (Blackwell, 2002) p. 223.

  5. 8

    The tritest of all accompaniment figures, the so-called Alberti bass, is found in the first movement of the Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31 no. 3, starting at bar 46 of the first movement, sustained for seven bars, and repeated unvaried. Many other instances of simple accompaniments can be adduced, particularly the type in which one chord is just repeated over and over unchanged, a technique to which Beethoven was addicted throughout his life.

  6. 9

    It precedes a very elaborate accompanying figure which sweeps up and down the keyboard and that later combines with the opening bars. When the lyrical phrase with its simple accompaniment finally returns, it becomes the occasion for the only radical and dramatic modulation in the movement.

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