How music speaks to power? The doubtful legacy of Theodor Adorno
Readers of this blog will know that Ken is a great enthusiast for composers like Shostakovich, Sibelius, Elgar and Schumann – among many others. His taste is catholic, and he is even open to composers found on the fringes of musical history like Hans Gal and Havergal Brian. And why not? These are unusual talents who, in other circumstances, might have reached much greater prominence. But there is one influential personality who, if he were alive today, would consider such taste highly regressive, and that person is Theodor Adorno (1903-69) the German philosopher and occasional composer. His influence was keenly felt by a whole generation of composers through texts such as Philosophy of Modern Music and his short book on Mahler. His polemic in favour of Schoenberg and against Stravinsky set the agenda for much academic debate in musical circles after 1945. He drew the ideological battle-lines which still to some extent persist today. Composers are meant to be either avant-garde or traditional, and only the former was considered politically correct. Adorno’s endorsement of serialism as the only morally legitimate method of composition ensured that Schonberg and his music would remain centre-stage through the latter part of the 20C.
Adorno’s views grew out of the deeply pessimistic outlook of the German Naturalistic movement, which was a philosophical approach derived partly from Hegel and Schopenhauer. This Weltanschauung was best represented by Büchner’s play about the tragic everyman Woyzek, later realised to perfection in Berg’s opera, Wozzeck. Adorno had been taught composition by Alban Berg and had great respect for him, although he was uncomfortable with the lyrical side of his music. The Naturalistic School looked at Nature objectively and, while not denying its spiritual aspect, they observed that Man was essentially Nature’s victim. Vast impersonal forces, hostile and brutal, create a world devoid of any feeling and compassion, where beauty is routinely crushed and the individual inevitably misunderstood. The human predicament is thus hopeless, because our struggle for survival warps truth, warps society and warps our souls.
It is an unpromising basis for musical aesthetics, but Adorno argued that new music must reveal this repugnant social order. He believed that we live in a society corrupted by greed, lies and the abuse of power. Vulgar commercialism, manipulative sentimentality and empty fantasy thus obscure our understanding. We are all addicted to these distortions because we cannot bear to face the truth they conceal about our moral emptiness and soulless lives. In his opinion, only Schonberg really had the courage to tell us how it really is, because he was willing to accept the humiliation and aesthetic failure which would inevitably follow from speaking truth. Adorno sets the bar very high in defining what it is takes truly to affront common taste. Even music as harrowing as Shostakovich is dismissed as a “feeble mixture of compositional facility and helplessness”. Stravinsky, Britten and Sibelius are dismissed in the same way, while Elgar is beneath contempt. Adorno argued that music which achieves any kind of popularity or critical consensus must by definition be flawed, because it can only succeed by succumbing to bourgeois values. Writing symphonies in traditional forms, using tonality and making extra-musical references were ways to appease the collective. For this reason, he made no apology for preferring Schonberg’s “inhuman coldness” to Berg’s “magnanimous warmth”. Adorno was the condemning voice of the puritan; Moses berating Aaron with his tablets of stone.
Adorno of course was a Hegelian and a Marxist, who liked a good argument and believed that there could be no middle way. Blandness, he suggested, i.e. the spirit of compromise, was evidence of exactly the feeble mindedness which makes human society a mess. As a Hegelian, he believed that the artist of genius had to adopt an extreme critical stance, because progress could not otherwise be made. His motivations were idealistic, even Utopian, in aspiration. Like all demagogues, Adorno held out a vision of the perfect music which would be written in the perfected society, and condemned the rest.
Adorno was at the height of his influence just after the Second World War, when German culture was still in shock after the Nazi debacle. His case for a polemical kind of new music was very much part of the soul-searching of the day. The German people were asking – where did it all go wrong? His diagnosis was simple. Beneath the veneer of high civilisation lurked ugly barbarism which needed only a little encouragement to come to the surface. The pleasing veneer of popular Romantic music – with its worn out formulae and beauty of sound blunted the critical faculties and encouraged delusion. Hitler could listen to Parsifal and dream absurd visions of racial purity but validated by great art. Adorno, like many Germans, felt considerable guilt that the nation’s wonderful tradition of music had not saved the German soul from calamity. If music had given Hitler a picture of his damaged soul instead of filling his head with Romantic fantasies, then perhaps he would have seen the error of his ways. Yes, this all seems very convincing, playing upon collective guilt and our general distaste for many aspects of the contemporary world. There is plenty to provoke misanthropic feelings, and if you are a German, the Nazi experience would trouble your conscience indeed. Adorno felt justified in his belief that music should express anxiety and despair, because it was the natural human condition. Any hint of optimism, any harmonious resolution or positive conclusion would thus have been a falsification of reality. The composer, he argued, must be resolute in standing against consensus and be prepared to suffer accordingly.
But how should music speak to power? How should composers speak to power? It has never been an easy question with a simple answer. Only in the Romantic period did composers begin to imagine that they had the right to speak to power at all. Before that they were hired lackeys, who might only dare, like Haydn, occasionally to make a joke at their patron’s expense. But generally, whether a composer’s salary was paid by Church, State or an aristocratic patron, he did as he was told. But then came Beethoven, who rewrote the contract between composer and society, adopting a more visionary and critical stance. By the end of the 19C, the tensions between the individual artist and society had reached a point of rupture. Oddly, it was the breaking down of old power structures that finally set the artist adrift. He had once had a clear focus for his rebellion, but in more liberal societies, there was often just incoherence and aimlessness to attack. New freedoms descended into the vulgarity of consumerism; probably a worse settlement for the composer than working as a hired hand. In a society governed by market economics and the interests of the masses, holding up high aesthetic values became increasingly difficult. This was the problem foreseen by the Naturalist movement and which Adorno used as the basis of his moral arguments.
But let us lay the ghost of Adorno to rest. Some of his assumptions are just wrong. The most glaring error is the assumption that music has to be moral at all. That was something grafted on to it by Beethoven and the Romantics. Music can certainly be used in that way, but moral music is not a guarantee of good music. Debussy and Chopin were morally neutral in expression, yet their music is still wonderful. Sibelius’ music became greater, the more he moved away from expressing nationalistic aspirations, turning a distinctively national voice into a profoundly personal one. Shostakovich often expressed deep ambivalence about the society around him, yet he was a patriot in a time of war. Still there was plenty of nihilistic feeling in his music and a not-so-hidden agenda of social critique. Yet Adorno could hear in this music only evidence of pandering to popular taste and fatuous traditionalism. But is that in any way fair? Composers are not superhuman. They have to exist in the real world, and it is often a mean real world. This means making compromise, sometimes quite cruel compromise. There are limits to what any individual can do to redeem the flaws of the society around them. If they want to communicate with the public, they have to speak intelligibly, but if they end up banned, in jail or dead, then their voice will have been very effectively silenced. Music may well need a higher purpose to justify itself in our modern world, but it cannot be judged by moral absolutes. Composers and artists are not solely responsible for the moral condition of their society, nor is it necessarily their job to change it. The composer as Messiah bearing a Utopian vision has a strange echo of Hitler’s desire to redeem a nation. Arguably Shostakovich’s very human stance – full of equivocation and inner torment, or Berg’s “magnanimous warmth” are much more appealing to us than any abstract idealism, because we can share compassion for their predicament. We recognise in them our own flawed humanity, for they do not wag the finger at us, chiding us for our impotence before authority. This is closer to our experience. We struggle to know what is right – and sometimes survival has the greater priority.
Moral absolutism can become as much a tyranny as any lack of morality. That is the message of Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron. The same applies to our judgements about the relative merits of composers and the saintliness or otherwise of their lives? Hans Gal and Schoenberg were both Viennese Jews forced into exile. Gal was humiliated by internment, but went on to have a long and successful life as a musicologist and composer living in Britain. Gal did not succumb to serialism, but is he then to be accused of being a regressive bourgeois? Are we to say that Gal was feeble-minded for holding to tradition, despite his suffering, while the saintly Schoenberg risked all? Yet their day to day lives were more or less the same, for Schoenberg was also a university teacher in California, bringing up a family and playing tennis with Gershwin. So for all his angry protests against bourgeois values, his hair-shirt was worn only part of the time. He thoroughly enjoyed his notoriety, just as Gal was content with his obscurity. Schoenberg‘s music has its place. He explores a territory of psycho-pathology which is unique and very much of its time, but there is also a lot of posturing mixed up with it. In his complexity and self-contradiction, he is no different to Shostakovich. The problem with Schoenberg is his claim to martyrdom, when in truth he was just as vain and just as fond of bourgeois comforts as everyone else. Perhaps Gal was just less ambitious and more honest about what kind of life he wanted to lead.
It is perhaps inevitable as creative artists are no longer tied so closely to social authority, that they find themselves speaking for marginal voices in complex societies. Yet composers and musicians are not obliged to be social activists, great political leaders or heroic resistance fighters. Our society is nothing like the totalitarian world of Shostakovich or Germany under the Nazis, and it is wise to remember that before we criticise Richard Strauss or any number of artists who ever became badly entangled in the rotten politics around them. Our own times reveal a society made up of many backgrounds, shades of opinion, levels of experience and stages of development. From these groups we may define many possible audiences for new music. Adorno’s branding of all but the most intellectually enlightened as enslaved to false consciousness is a tad judgemental and not likely to win many converts. If Adorno were correct, then there would be no appetite for tragic works of art at all, because audiences would want only diversion, entertainment and blandness. There are a lot of people who do, but the current high level of interest in music by Mahler, Shostakovich, Britten and Sibelius shows that there are many individuals grappling with deep questions who consider music one way to explore them. Labelling all listeners as vacuous is just an angry gibe diverting from awareness of one’s own moral failings by projecting them upon others. The puritan is usually a hypocrite.
Finally, while anxiety and despair are frequent experiences for modern Man, they cannot be considered his natural condition. We instinctively seek harmony and balance, and it is not surprising therefore that art which claims to speak only of an unbearable truth finds little sympathy with the public. Mahler, who speaks to power with great eloquence, may show us despair, but also the path that leads away from it – with the single exception of the Sixth Symphony. But in that work, the tragic outcome elicits our compassion and not simply horror, because Mahler resists the onslaught so stubbornly. To sing of life’s pain with such heroic defiance requires that he does not abjure the possibility of redemption, until his last energy is spent. After all, it is the totality of human experience which feeds creative impulses, not just the positive or the negative in isolation. So we should lay the ghost of Adorno to rest, and speak to the divisive power of his polemical writings. Let music be a humane art, expressed honestly between flawed creatures. May it be filled with as much “magnanimous warmth” as we can muster!