Adorno's Bach-Schoenberg Connection: Frivolity and Expectation

By Tristan Gans
2011, Vol. 3 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

Theodor Adorno’s 1967 essay on Arnold Schoenberg1 makes an excellent case for the great composer as a spiritual successor to J.S. Bach, the 18th century composer generally acclaimed as the father of modern tonality.

Adorno’s case is built on the composers’ treatment of melodic subjects, which he views as ‘pure’ in an intellectual and philosophical sense. He contrasts this to the work of the classical and romantic composers, specifically Beethoven, whose work he views as overcommitted to the formal façade unintentionally constructed by Bach: essentially he claims that Beethoven et al rejected Bach’s challenging, philosophically constructive methodology in favor of “a category existing prior to the subject-matter and oriented on external consensus” (153), a category Adorno broadly defines as style.

However, while Adorno’s analysis of the treatment of the subject through this 200 year period is fairly accurate, he makes numerous problematic assumptions that denigrate the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, etc., and also Bach himself: (1) Adorno accuses composers of bowing to an audience’s expectation for ‘pleasurable sensations’ at the expense of meaning. This view is contingent upon an anachronistic view of music’s public acceptance, as well as an unjustifiable set of aesthetic standards; moreover, it ignores social and economic factors of artistic production. (2) In Adorno’s examination of forms he refers generally to Bach’s fugues and specifically to Beethoven’s use of sonata form in the Eroica, and declares that Beethoven’s use of form and treatment of the subject constitute a mistake corrected in the composer’s later career. Adorno claims that Schoenberg avoided pre-conceived forms, but his analysis of the two predecessors is misleading and provides inadequate context for a comparison of the three. And (3) while Adorno acknowledges the aesthetic preferences that bias his claims, and provides adequate explanation for them through analysis of Schoenberg’s music, he fails to acknowledge his implicit claim that the treatment of the subject in Bach as well as his successors is less intellectually, philosophically, or aesthetically valid than its foundation in teleology. Adorno therefore willfully ignores Schoenberg’s massive ideological departure from the western tradition. Through his misleading arguments that privilege a specific method of treatment of the subject (a certain style, although Adorno would argue the semantics of the word) over the philosophical foundations of a particular piece or period, Adorno validates his own philosophical methodology at the expense of many composers’ works.

In essence, Adorno makes certain assumptions in this essay as to what we should expect from art concerning methodology and philosophical implications. I hope to show that that these expectations should be carefully examined because they privilege not only Adorno’s aesthetic preferences, but his own philosophical methodology.

Expectations of the Everyday

Adorno’s essay is marked by indignation at Schoenberg’s reputation for inaccessibility. According to Adorno, this is a result of philistine anti-intellectualism: “if one does not understand something, it is customary to…project one’s own inadequacy on to the object, declaring it to be incomprehensible” (149). Adorno then criticizes the compositional mainstream of betraying its artistic standards, noting that “schools such as Debussy’s, despite the aesthetic atmosphere of art for art’s sake, have met this expectation” (150) of providing pleasure to the listener.

These statements reflect little more than Adorno’s personal bitterness. On aesthetic grounds, he can no more justify the value of Schoenberg’s dissonant modernism than Debussy’s ‘affability,’ other than to say that Schoenberg challenges certain consumer assumptions that Adorno views as problematic.2 He can, however, make the case that Schoenberg tackles more intellectually relevant subjects, and he will do so, but his arguments on this point will not apply to Debussy’s school.

The idea that pleasurable music preserves societal infantility, as Adorno notes, is contingent for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that modern aesthetic standards cannot be retroactively applied: Debussy’s compositions, while successful, were wildly experimental and devious as far as technical and philosophical methodology was concerned: when criticized for avoiding the very same governmental facades that Adorno decries in his essay, Debussy is said to have responded that his music was governed only by his pleasure—a remark that, while possibly hedonistic, reflects the same logic that led Schoenberg to abandon classical tonality.3 To bring Adorno back to his main example, Beethoven was one of the most controversial, avant-garde composers of his day. Reviews of his work constantly criticize the loudness, random chord and key changes, and absurd instrumentation—criticisms matched in character, vehemence, and opposition by only a few composers in history, Schoenberg probably foremost.

More damaging to Adorno than historic inaccuracy is the fact that aesthetic standards have been shown, quite easily, to be historically and culturally contingent. Innovations in instrument building and tuning, changes in the funding and distribution systems of music, and architectural advances have all had tremendous impact on how and why people compose music. Schoenberg’s music would have been simply impossible until the introduction of average temperament due to the necessity of microtonal equality and precision;4 moreover, proper appreciation of his music was made possible only by advances in architecture and sound recording that allowed small intervals to be played at the required volume.5 The same changes that continually allow more complex and difficult music to be composed—especially in the 20th century—also allow older music to be performed and appreciated more easily, and reset the modern ear’s standards of consonance and dissonance. Thus Adorno’s claim of aesthetic frivolity in the classical romantic periods is highly contingent, regardless of anyone’s aesthetic preference.

Most startling in absence from Adorno’s work is the fact that each of the three composers he holds as examples of philosophically paradigmatic artistry worked in very different economic paradigms that, according to Adorno’s own work, should have biased their artistry. Bach composed under the patronage of various noblemen and church authority figures, Beethoven was the first great composer to sustain himself on public concerts (though he also received commissions from nobility and, like the other two, taught lessons), and Schoenberg was sustained by academic posts for most of his career. In each case, the relationship between the composer’s funding, his audience, his critics, and governmental/moral authorities was entirely different. Adorno praises Schoenberg foremost on the grounds of his pure intellectuality and his harshest criticisms of Beethoven focus on his weaknesses in that regard; by his own standards Adorno should acknowledge the institutional influences that led to their distinctions and re-consider his analysis of the integrity and intentions of each composer.

Expectations of Style and Form

Adorno’s more convincing argument is that Bach’s and Schoenberg’s treatment of the subject (both the melodic motif and the entity of the lifeworld for which it speaks) is of a higher order. This requires an impossibly broad understanding of their work and that to which it must be contrasted: for the latter he chooses Beethoven’s use of sonata form in his third symphony, Eroica, thought (by Adorno and many others) to be a great example of both Classical and Romantic musical philosophy and the sonata form in particular. He does not provide a stereotypical example of Bach and Schoenberg, arguing that their mastery of the contrapuntal examination of subjects transcends their use of form.6 I believe that while Adorno is correct in establishing the connection between the work of the two, he unfairly denigrates the middle-period work of Beethoven, which treats the subject in a slightly different but intellectually valid manner.7 In this section I will examine Bach and Beethoven’s treatment of the subject through form, and deconstruct Adorno’s arguments on the latter.

Though he doesn’t mention it in the Schoenberg essay (he does elsewhere), Adorno’s thoughts on Bach revolve around Bach’s mastery of the fugue. The basic fugue as developed by Bach has essentially three elements: subject, countersubject, and episode. The subject—a motive of highly defined rhythmic and melodic contours—is stated by each voice and followed by the countersubject, and when each voice has entered, they blend together into a new, less derivative segment (the episode) that takes them to a new key, whereupon the process is restarted with more variation. Ultimately the three are developed in myriad ways (inversion, lengthening, retrograde, etc.) before being finally unified in the home key and exposed to be fundamentally the same due to previously hidden motific attributes. This is a highly philosophical statement on unity and, usually, the Trinity.

In contrast, Adorno holds the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica as an example of post-Bach treatment of the subject. In this typical sonata form, after a brief introduction, Beethoven gives us two themes. Each theme is in the form of melody with accompaniment (as opposed to the contrapuntal melody-harmony relationship of the subject in a fugue), and the two are in two different keys, with the second in the dominant of the first.8 After this exposition of the themes, we move to a section. Adorno would like to say that this classical-romantic development pays frivolous lip service to Bach’s contrapuntal technique, toying with the themes while evading its philosophical associations. Eventually the development takes us back to the recapitulation, with both themes played in the home key.

Adorno’s case against Beethoven rests on his assumption that the unity of melody and harmony seen in Bach’s contrapuntal developments (which would be adopted and elaborated by Schoenberg) is more intellectually challenging and therefore more meaningful and artistically valid. In essence, the fact that Beethoven’s themes are separated from their harmonic material, that the themes are separated from themselves, and that the exposition, development, and recapitulation function as separate and more distinct sectional elements constitutes style, and therefore a lesser form of composition.9 I dispute this: the examination of relationships between themes, the relationship between elements of form, and between melodic material and its accompaniment is the central philosophical impetus of much of Beethoven’s work. For instance, the central theme of the work is simply an ascending Eb major arpeggio followed by a quarter note diatonic descent and a more lengthy diatonic ascent. The theme’s accompaniment is formed by various contrapuntal lines that combine arpeggiation and movement by step in similar proportions to the theme—they seem to provide support for the theme while manifesting themselves from the same material. Likewise, the second theme, coming after a modulation to the dominant, is more fragmentary, but basically composed of descending arpeggiations—it’s a variation on the first, but through modulation and inversion it seems to owe itself to the previous theme. In the development, the relationship between the two and their accompaniment are examined, until Beethoven feels comfortable bringing the two back in their actualized form. In the recapitulation we hear the two themes first separately, but with the second transposed to Eb, we understand that the two complete each other: finally we hear the two literally together, with contrapuntal accompaniment, in the grand finale. Consider, in opposition to Bach’s career-long orientation towards (three themes in one, the Trinity, etc.), the well-documented fact that Eroica was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte during a time when Beethoven was enthusiastically following the French and rejoicing in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and its seeming implications on Western political life. It follows that Eroica is in fact a complete, fully composed work that examines the relationship between a great man (the first, central theme) and the people and that create him, support him, and gain enlightenment by him.10

Expectations of Artistry

Schoenberg’s philosophical statements are more varied and modernist than those of Bach or Beethoven. It’s fairly safe to say, however, that Schoenberg’s greatest innovation as a composer, and as leader of the Second Viennese School of composers (Berg et al), was the general departure from diatonic scales and key centers. He is considered the father of serialism and polytonality. This is a gigantic leap from the philosophical foundations of his predecessors, one which Adorno acknowledges and explains through Hegel’s notion of hidden formation. This may be the case: the movement from Bach’s firmly grounded spirituality to Romantic political and ethical engagement may have culminated in Schoenberg’s equal tonality.

However, Schoenberg believed that music should function as a pure examination of the intellect, as opposed to the works of his predecessors, which used themes and motifs to examine everyday life and political and religious ideologies. His works, as described by Adorno, follow a system Schoenberg called ‘developing variation,’ in which a motific subject is continually critiqued and ultimately deconstructed using its own rhythmic and melodic components. According to Adorno and other sources, Schoenberg’s systematic analysis of his subject constitutes neither a style nor a form. Regardless, it follows that his work, unlike that of his predecessors, does not espouse any grand truth or founded essence such as a home key or a fully developed, harmonized melody.

Adorno’s analysis ignores the fact that such firm musical convictions are constructed not just through the treatment of a motific subject, but through the musical itself. For instance, Schoenberg in his most serial mode attempted to re-build the language of music, emphasizing the equality of temperament (and tonality itself) by re-naming notes either with numbers (e.g. C=0, C#/Db=1, etc., with microtonal distinctions as decimals) or with letters defined by motific function as opposed to tension-release function (e.g. E# would be a variant of a melody previously employing an E, as opposed to an E# necessitated as the leading tone in the key of F#). Bach, writing the Well-Tempered Clavier in the 18th century, saw the fugue as a way to create a musical truth in a certain key: well-temperament, and the musical and philosophical conventions of the day, saw a home key as a creation of a distinct musical world. Modulations that pushed the motific subject farther from the home key created subtle dissonances, tensions of the harmony itself (as opposed to tensions between harmonies) that could be resolved only by major chords in the home key. Furthermore, the language of his compositions constructs this system teleologically: with each modulation, new accidentals reflect our distance from the home key. Each note is constructed and described according to its purpose in relation to the fundamental truth of the piece.

Schoenberg’s music attempted to destroy the teleological musical language. Although his polyphonic technique is similar to that of Bach, its attempt at pure rationality through “responsibility of respecting the music’s intrinsic tendencies” (153) reflects a musical system mechanically and philosophically incompatible with that of Bach and Beethoven.12 It is, however, compatible with Adorno’s methodology of negative dialectics, in which unjustifiable philosophical motives can be examined through their own logic and found to be inconsistent. Schoenberg would probably have argued that this methodology is the central premise of his work, and it seems obvious that the relationship of the two hinged on their respect of each other’s methods. In connecting Schoenberg to Bach and the music of true enlightenment, he is subtly arguing for his own methodology and for his own musical and philosophical legitimacy. Unfortunately, Adorno’s attempt to lionize Schoenberg as a musical philosopher relies on intentional and anachronistic misreadings of Bach, Beethoven and others. His analysis of the music itself fails to accommodate historical context or in-depth musical analysis, and therefore does not support his conclusions. His desire to re-interpret musical history is a play in the field of music criticism intending to privilege a certain treatment of musical subjects for certain philosophical ends, without regard to the foundations of either one.


Adorno, Theodor. Prisms. London: Garden City Press Ltd., 1967. In addition to the Schoenberg essay, I consulted Bach Defended against his Devotees. The dates of each specific essay are unknown, but it is important to note that they were probably written around the same time as Negative Dialectics, one of Adorno’s defining philosophical works, published in 1966.

Adorno, Theodor. Beethoven. Translated by Polity Press, 1998. USA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Lasser, Philip. Lectures. European American Musical Alliance: Paris, , 7/2007.


Bach, J.S. Well-Tempered Clavier.

Schoenberg, Arnold.
Chamber Symphony I in E major, op. 9
Chamber Symphony II, op. 38

String Quartet No. 2, op. 10
Pierot Lunaire

Van Beethoven, Ludwig. Symphony 3 in Eb Major (Eroica)

1.) Arnold Schoenberg, 1874-1951 is the referenced essay, published in the collection Prisms (see Works Consulted for bibliographical information).

2.) However, by Adorno’s own argument, his own aesthetic preferences and beliefs as to what art should be and accomplish are highly contingent. See Adorno’s other works, including Negative Dialectics and The Concept of Enlightenment.

3.) This quote from Debussy seems to be a piece of composers’ lore; I can’t immediately find it referenced anywhere. However, numerous contemporary critiques of his methods are easily found, and his own views on his music are not particularly controversial.

4.) Average temperament is the current method of tuning, which grants equality to pitches at the expense of microtonal harmony within any particular key. This is in contrast to well-temperament, the innovation explored by Bach in his Well-Tempered Clavier and improved upon for centuries afterward. These are in opposition to just intonation, a system by which notes within a key may be played in perfect consonance to each other, but movements outside the key become increasingly dissonant.

5.) As sound waves travel, they collide with each other. These collisions cause distortions of the waves, eventually causing them to combine. This is what causes ‘bad acoustics,’ i.e. when certain architectural materials cause waves to bounce too much and combine into a sludgy mess before reaching the ear. The phenomenon has compositional implications: music that cannot rely as well on precise tone production and proper acoustics tends to use larger intervals (think the blues scale and slaves singing to each other across the fields), while music meant for finely tuned headphones or concert halls can include microtonal intervals without risking sonic depreciation.

6.) This is disingenuous, because his comments regarding bach mostly concern and are best illustrated by his mastery of the fugue. I am less familiar with Schoenberg’s work, but I do know that Schoenberg’s work can be reduced to a form in many cases, although his forms are similarly contrapuntal and less, in Adorno’s words, ‘stylistic’ than his predecessors.

7.) Adorno seems perfectly willing to admit that Beethoven’s late period work actually falls into the Bachian category of subject treatment. This makes sense, considering that Beethoven studied, taught, and promoted Bach in his later years, and also considering that much of his later work (the Grosse Fugue, Hammerclavier, etc.) is extremely complex, subject-oriented, and to this day avant-garde.

8.) In tonal harmony, the dominant (the chord based on the perfect fifth of the scale, its third is always major and is called the ‘leading tone’ of the key) always leads back to the tonic.

9.) Adorno writes that Eroica contains the greatest development section ever composed, but due to the stylistic elements of the form, it still constitutes a failure of the composer that was corrected in his later works, and also finally corrected by Schoenberg’s polyphonic techniques (154-157). It’s important to note that Beethoven was one of Adorno’s favorite composers. He wrote a biography of Beethoven that is widely respected, although more as a philosophical-aesthetic narrative than a work of criticism.

10.) In fact, after Bonaparte’s coronation in 1804 Beethoven nearly destroyed the work in disgust; he ended up dedicating it to a German nobleman (gaining a nice commission in the process) who, as with Kant and Frederick II, he held as an example of ‘enlightened’ autocracy.

12.) This line is from a comparison of Brahmsian and Wagnerian influences that I don’t find terribly relevant. I’ve focused on Beethoven because Adorno’s criticisms of Eroica are the most specific and applicable.

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