Adorno's Bach-Schoenberg Connection: Frivolity and Expectation

By Tristan Gans
2011, Vol. 3 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |

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 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.

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