Adorno as Critic: Celebrating the Socially Destructive Force of Music

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.

Adorno 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.)

Theodor Adorno

Adorno’s views were shaped by his times. In the 1920s and 1930s the intellectual elite embraced their ability to re-engineer society. Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) wrote his famous defense of public manipulation, Propaganda, in 1928. Two years before, Charles Diserens applied the same philosophy to music:

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.)

Adorno 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.

Adorno’s 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.

The 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.

Adorno’s strategy took a page out of Plato’s Republic: 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?“)

Which composers did Adorno find revolutionary enough? The later Beethoven, Mahler and Schoenberg. On the other hand, Wagner was both loved and hated.

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Adorno liked 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.

According to 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.

In 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.”

Tolstoy 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).

Adorno pairs 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 venerablytraditional 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.

This, of 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.

Adorno’s 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.

Richard Wagner

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).

Adorno 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 than 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 collective narcissism.

Adorno could 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.

Arnold Schoenberg, whose “intellectualism is legend,” was Adorno’s ideal revolutionary composer (“Toward and Understanding of Schoenberg“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 (Klara Moricz, Jewish Identities: Nationalism, Racism and Utopianism in Twentieth Century Music).

Schoenberg 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.

The common 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 calledSweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Huron offers an explanation of why discord falling into harmony is beautiful and gives us a pleasurable feeling.

But when 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.

Adorno 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,” Adornorelates 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.

Adorno 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.

Adorno didn’t 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.

Repugnant or 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 her) 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.

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