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Adorno as Critic: Celebrating the Socially Destructive Force of Music
August 28, 2009
The Frankfurt School
was a group of predominantly Jewish intellectuals associated with the Institute
for Social Research. It originated during the Weimar period in Germany, and
became a bastion of the cultural left. With the rise of National Socialism, the
Frankfurt School was closed by the German government, and many of its members
emigrated to America.
Theodor Adorno was the Frankfurt School's music critic (as well as the first author of The Authoritarian Personality, probably the best known of the Frankfurt School works). He looked at music like a recording engineer looks at music. But the most important thing is that Adorno used music psychology as a revolutionary tool.
understood what qualities make music intellectually challenging and what
qualities make music “popular” or non-intellectual. He asserted that
intellectual music was best suited for bringing about revolution. Why? Because
he thought that the revolution would begin in the elite strata of society and
work its way down to the masses —
that it would
be a top-down event. As a result, he thought it was important that the elite
world of classical music turn its back on the traditional high culture of the
West. (He was wrong: As discussed below, time would show that popular music
actually had greater revolutionary potential. )
views were shaped by his times. In the 1920s and 1930s the intellectual elite
embraced their ability to re-engineer society.
(nephew of Sigmund Freud) wrote his famous defense of public manipulation,
in 1928. Two years before, Charles Diserens applied the same philosophy to
Our purpose then is to study the influence of music on the organism. We approach music from the practical rather than the aesthetic standpoint, regarding it as a necessity, a possible means of re-education and human reconstruction for all, rather than a mere subject of unproductive pleasure, or an object for criticism from the learned few. (The Influence of Music on Behavior, Diserens 1926.)
certainly shared the insights of Diserens and Bernays. He felt that society
needed to be remade and music was an excellent way to do that.
standard for judging music was its revolutionary potential. During the 1920s,
the Frankfurt School aspired to be the intellectual vanguard for Marxism in
Germany. According to their theory, the First World War should have precipitated
a European socialist revolution, but this didn't happen. The German middle class
collectively rejected international socialism after WWI. This was an
intellectual slap in the face for Adorno and his colleagues.
Frankfurters blamed Western Culture for brainwashing people against their brand
of socialism. Western culture would need to go. Critical Theory was the
Frankfurters' contribution in the war against the Western middle class, and
Adorno was its drummer boy.
strategy took a page out of Plato's
Innovations in music presage innovations in culture. He wanted to find a type of
music that would disrupt the bourgeois way of life and reshape the West in his
own image. (See his "Why
is the New Art so Difficult to Understand?")
composers did Adorno find revolutionary enough? The later Beethoven, Mahler and
Schoenberg. On the other hand, Wagner was both loved and hated.
Beethoven because his later work broke musical norms — it avoided “harmonious
synthesis” and had a destructive violence that previous works lacked ("Late Style in Beethoven,"
1937). However, works like Missa Solemnis — a choral piece
celebrating Christ — were “neutralized” by social acceptability ("Alienated Masterpiece: The Missa Solemnis,"
1959). This negative stance toward a Christian religious work is doubtless a
reflection of the hostility of the Frankfurt School intellectuals toward
Christianity which they saw as a as a conservative unifying force in society.
Adorno, Beethoven's later works, which were composed after he was deaf, offered
tantalizing glimpses of revolutionary changes to come. To get a better idea of
what was different about this music, let's turn to another critic.
What is Art?,
Leo Tolstoy gives a damning account of Beethoven's later work. According to
Tolstoy, Beethoven's later innovations are alienating and no longer speak to the
common man. They are “totally contrived, unfinished and therefore often
meaningless, musically incomprehensible works.”
claims that Beethoven's later music typifies the disconnect between the upper
classes and the people who worked the land. (Bear in mind that Tolstoy was a
Russian.) In Tolstoy's view, Beethoven's later work is immoral art, because the
people who ultimately paid for it (the laboring classes) couldn't enjoy it. By
cultivating a taste for the later Beethoven, the aristocracy was disconnecting
itself from the little people. Such art tears at the fabric of society. Good
art, to Tolstoy, upholds Christian values and can also speak to the people
that sacrificed for it. It brings society together in an ennobling way.
For the Frankfurt School, the view of society as an organic, harmonious whole with cooperation among the social classes would smack of National Socialism and consequently be the epitome of evil. It is not surprising therefore, that Adorno admired the late Beethoven.
Gustav Mahler was the next link in Adorno's revolutionary chain. A coreligionist of Adorno, he was famous for using the sounds of whips and hammers in his work. Adorno says that in Mahler's compositions “The underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind” ("Mahler Today," 1930). The “starry heavens” represents the ossified Viennese music establishment, which Adorno believed should to be brought back to earth in the service of revolutionary activism.
"Mahler's ecclesia militans is a salvation
army, better than the real thing
not moderated in a petit-bourgeois way, not
retrospectively proselytizing, but ready and willing to summon the oppressed
into proper battle for the things of which they have been robbed and which they,
alone, are still capable of achieving.” ("Mahler Today,"
1930) To Adorno, the “hero is the deserter” in Mahler's symphonies ("Marginalia on Mahler," 1936) .
Adorno claimed that the bourgeois musical world was repressing Mahler's work because Mahler shunned “moderate peacefulness.” In Adorno's words: “The genuine significance of Mahler that can be discovered for today lies in the very violence with which he broke out of the same musical space that today wants to forget him” (:Mahler Today," 1930).
the work of Mahler and Schoenberg —
both rejected by the conservative forces of the status quo: “Whole
groups of formulae are common to the fight against Schoenberg and against Mahler
— the Jewish intellectual whose deracinated intellect ruins oh-so-beneficent
Nature; the despoiler of venerably
traditional musical goods.”
Ultimately, Adorno interprets Mahler as striving toward “the end of the order
that bore the sonata” — the end of traditional European high culture.
course, is an anti-Jewish stereotype that was common in Europe beginning in the
19th century: Whether or not they converted to Christianity, Jewish
intellectuals were seen as subverting European culture, shattering the social
cohesiveness of the society, and mocking and defying social conventions (See
Chapter 2 of
Kevin MacDonald's Separation and Its Discontents, p.
51ff). Adorno, himself a Jewish intellectual (although far from
deracinated), naturally sympathizes with this stance. Indeed, the Frankfurt
School generally is considered part of this anti-Western tradition — precisely
the reason that the Frankfurt School was exiled from National Socialist Germany.
views on Richard Wagner are strongly colored by the fact that Wagner was
idealized in Germany during the National Socialist period. To Adorno, Wagner is
the would-be revolutionary composer who tries and fails. In attempting to break
out of the thematic melody form, he simply ends up repeating fragments.
But what really bothered Adorno about Wagner is the connection to National Socialism. Although Wagner was dead before Hitler was conceived, Adorno thought that one couldn't have Wagner without National Socialism. In every crowd applauding a Wagnerian work there lurks “the old virulent evil” which Adorno calls “demagogy” ("Wagner's Relevance for Today," 1963).
believed that Wagner's work is “proselytizing” and “collective-narcissistic” —
clearly pejorative terms. Adorno’s
complaint about the “collective-narcissistic” quality of Wagner’s music is
really a complaint that Wagner’s music appeals to deep emotions of group
cohesion. Like the Germanic myths that his music was often based on, Wagner’s
music evokes the deepest passions of ethnic collectivism and ethnic pride. In
Adorno’s view, such emotions are nothing more that collective narcissism, at
least partly because a strong sense of German ethnic pride tends to view Jews as
outsiders — as “the other.”
It is not
surprising that Wagner was by far the most popular composer during the National
Socialist period. It is also not surprising that Adorno, as a self-consciously
Jewish intellectual, would find such music abhorrent. One wonders if he would
have similarly considered the Israeli national anthem as an expression of
never quite shake off Wagner's greatness. He found Wagner's music to be
erotically free, so he figured there must be something “right-wing, petit
bourgeois” about opposing the composer. In the age of psychoanalysis, no Jewish
intellectual would want to appear to be anti-erotic. Adorno’s solution was to
claim that Wagner's greatest works are the ones that the public doesn't like ("Wagner's
Relevance for Today,"
1963). This was clearly an attempt to have his cake and eat it too: If the
public was deeply moved by Wagner, it was a sign that Wagner was appealing to
emotions of ethnic cohesion. The only safe works of Wagner are those that don’t
result in such emotions.
In the end,
Adorno falls on the side of disliking Wagner because his music reinforces the
status quo. And of course, where Wagner’s music promotes ethno-nationalism,
the powers that be must intervene.
Schoenberg, whose “intellectualism is legend,” was Adorno's ideal revolutionary
composer ("Toward and Understanding of
1955/1967). Adorno ranks Schoenberg with Shakespeare and Michelangelo: He is a
god in the art world. Schoenberg had a strong Jewish identity and was a Zionist
Nationalism, Racism and Utopianism in Twentieth Century Music).
wrote atonal music, meaning that it was designed to defy traditional musical
forms and heuristic expectations. It takes a musically trained person to
appreciate just how well designed the discord is; but even for musicians
listening to Schoenberg is hard work. Schoenberg's music is a curiosity
to composers; much like how an unusually diseased organ in formaldehyde is a
curiosity to medical professors. As a result, Schoenberg's music was never
popular and Adorno was bitter about this.
Music that meets our ears' expectations tends to be pleasurable. Adorno recognized that beautiful music has a pacifying effect and pacification was at odds with his political goals — at least the goals he held in pre-WWII Germany. This is why Adorno had such good things to say about Schoenberg.
characteristic these four composers shared was that they wrote music which
challenged the listener's expectations to varying degrees. Varying degrees
is the important distinction here.
Some of the
most beautiful music is that which teases our expectations. Prof. David Huron of
Ohio State University wrote a phenomenal book in 2006 called
Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of
Huron offers an explanation of why
discord falling into harmony is beautiful and gives us a pleasurable feeling.
unpredictability is taken too far, music becomes discordant and ugly. It leaves
the listener feeling dissatisfied and dislocated. Adorno believed that these
feelings were necessary to jolt people into thinking and (naturally!)
joining his revolutionary cause.
applied his revolutionary dislike of predictability to technology also. He
disliked radio and some recording technology because he thought it made music
sound flatter —
more like pop and jazz ("The Radio Symphony,"
1941). Adorno hated big-band jazz because
he felt it was not destructive enough to Western culture: It satisfied erotic
urges in a socially tolerated way. Truly revolutionary music shouldn't waste
energy like jazz did.
Schoenberg — with his awkward and unappealing music — was supposed to light our way to the future. He didn't. Adorno had conflated intellectualism with Frankfurt School politics — the two do not go hand in hand. To really reach the masses, what the Frankfurt movement needed wasn't intellectualism, but advertising power. Adorno's initial misidentification of effective revolutionary music would be a useful lesson to other propagandists.
Apart from a few aesthetes (such as small coteries of Schoenberg devotees), effective revolutionary music works with our expectations of beauty, not against them. Effective revolutionary melodies should be easy to follow and have strong beats — like most popular music. In his essay "On Popular Music," Adorno relates the open secret of what makes “hit” music: standardization. What he describes are tunes that play to our most basic musical expectations and heuristics, while erring on the side of simplicity.
The music is
super-predictable and encourages mindless listening: “The forms of hit songs are
so strictly standardized, down to the number of measures and exact duration,
that no specific form appears in any particular piece” ("On the
Fetish-Character in Music,"
1938). Adorno used this phrase to
describe big-band jazz, but he might as well be describing pop music today: The
Beatles, The Spice Girls, The Jackson Five — the list goes on.
understood how to make effective advertising music or “popular music.” He
understood that better than anyone else in his day, probably. But Adorno's
tastes were elitist. He would be embarrassed and ashamed to create music that he
felt was as mindless as big-band jazz. Adorno wanted to hobnob in the rarified
air of über-educated musical creators.
like the commonness of pop music; he wanted to believe that his
revolution was somehow more intellectual than that. The notion that Frankfurt
ideas would be pushed by pop songs —
the musical equivalent of a girl in a bikini advertizing beer
or a sports car —
would be repugnant to him.
not, advertizing works. Composers like Beethoven and Wagner understood how to
play with our listening expectations and create something meaningful at the same
time. They were true master composers. The shock value of Mahler or the
contrived intellectualism of Schoenberg do not rate in comparison
and this is
reflected in their relative popularity today.
Adorno never got over his dislike of popular music. He always wanted to believe that somehow revolutionary people would overcome their evolutionarily-determined listening preferences. But Nature always wins in the end.
And if Adorno wanted a successful Frankfurt-style revolution, he would have to work with the tools Nature provided. Enter Atlantic Records
To be continued.
Elizabeth Whitcombe (email
is a graduate of MIT in Economics with a concentration in
International Economics. She is a financial analyst and free-lance writer living
in New York City.