‘...O Master of secret configurations...’

Reflections on the Adorno/Berg Correspondences.

The years following the First World War saw the emergence of two distinct approaches to composition – the neo-classical method (headed by Stravinsky), and the twelve-tone technique (or dodecaphony) theorised by Schoenberg and leading to the formation of the Second Viennese School – of which Berg and Webern were prominent members. Theodor W. Adorno, a leading propagandist for the Schoenberg circle, was also an extreme critic of Stravinsky and the neo-classicists. Using the correspondences between Adorno and Berg, which have recently been made available in English, guitarist and composer Benjamin Dwyer teases out the complex relationship between the Second Viennese School and Adorno, and re-evaluates the German philosopher’s acclaimed contribution to music criticism.

‘…by what chord would one diagnose the Marxist confession in a piece of music, and by what colour the Fascist one in a picture?’[1]
Arnold Schoenberg

‘Dear master and teacher…’
The German philosopher and aesthetic theorist Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) is still regarded by many as one of the most influential interpreters of culture and art of the twentieth century. The Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) developed a highly personal adaptation of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique to become the most broadly accepted representative of the Second Viennese School. They are brought together in a recently published English edition of their correspondences which covers the period from 1925 until Berg’s death in late 1935.[2] Opinions about Berg’s music will unlikely be altered on reading these letters. However, they do provide us with quite a unique overview of the music environment between the wars and sometimes even mundane aspects of daily life can be interesting and enlightening.

There is no doubt that correspondences can bring us closer to the characters in question, allow us a special insight into their peculiar foibles and eccentricities. The very nature of the genre, furthermore, introduces us tantalisingly to other personages and events without necessarily providing biographical or contextual information (many aspects and details being already known to the writers). The result is a labyrinth of half-sketched secondary characters and scenes that may prove either frustrating, or, may offer the reader delicious crumbs of information enticing him or her on to pursue further searches elsewhere in a desire to fill in the missing fragments of the story. This is why the Adorno/Berg correspondences should be read only with an understanding of the various contexts within which they were written – the relative youth of Adorno, Berg’s own unstinting loyalty to Schoenberg and his ambivalence to radical politics, the rapid rise of Nazism in Central Europe, the influence of Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School on Adorno’s shifting interpretations of Marxism, not to mention the petty back-biting and jealousies which infiltrate any close-knit group.

Immediately, the Adorno/Berg letters reveal the last vestiges of the traditional teacher-student relationship which were common in fin de siècle Europe. They display a formality from the start; the writers were clearly participating, in a self-conscious manner, in the act of correspondence. Little of the their personal lives seeps through; the tone throughout is rather solemn and serious.[3] Adorno had started taking private classes in composition with Berg in 1925 as soon as he had arrived in Vienna. The student’s early letters are somewhat sycophantic in their manner and although as the philosopher matured over the years and the relationship between teacher and student transformed into one of equals (at least in their respective fields), Adorno continued throughout the ten years of correspondence to address his letters to his ‘Dear master and teacher’, despite the fact that he had studied with Berg for only six months! Although the correspondences show that Berg was quite willing to accept this precept in the relationship, he (we know) willingly played the part of the obsequious disciple in his relationship with Schoenberg – a curious fact demonstrating a hierarchical tendency within the close circle that comprised the Second Viennese School; Adorno’s subservience to Berg paralleled Berg’s subservience to Schoenberg. In fact, Schoenberg is the unseen spectre behind many of these letters, the invisible hub of many discussions, commentaries, devotions and criticisms.

The correspondences cover a period in which Berg had established his reputation as a leading figure in new music (gaining almost equal stature to that of Schoenberg) and when Adorno was in his twenties and just embarking on his career as a philosopher and composer. So we gain access to the latter’s early, developing insights into Berg’s compositions of the period from Wozzeck to the Violin Concerto (the small number of works he wrote in these years can all be considered hugely significant). In the majority of cases, Berg’s letters are responsorial. The younger Adorno is the one searching, commenting, beseeching; his critical announcements are often shaded by his desire to please his teacher (this again parallels Berg’s letters to Schoenberg). Here, Berg is the instructor, the one who offers the advice and council.

But it is the essential intimacy of the exchange that allows us access to thoughts and ideas that we would not otherwise be privy to. It is precisely because these private correspondences offered each his cover and protection that we can now (in a rather voyeuristic way) avail of a new understanding of them. This is what makes the letters so interesting and valuable. They allow us to contemplate Adorno’s growing politicisation. They provide an opportunity to observe the rise of Nazism and its effects on the European cultural environment, and to review portraits of Berg, Webern, Schoenberg and Stravinsky (in a way, incidentally, that does not always enhance Adorno’s standing). They also expose that entourage mentality and pretentiousness that belong to the less appealing side of the Schoenberg circle to which Adorno strove (but ultimately failed) to be accepted into.

The ‘Frankfurt School’
Adorno’s stalwart defence of the Schoenberg circle and his unfaltering attacks on neo-classicism are well documented. In order to understand this position, it would be useful to remember that a characteristic weakness of Adorno was his almost inexhaustible trust in established theories such as Marxism and psychoanalysis (as well as the teachings of the Second Viennese School). But the seeds of Adorno’s repudiation of the objectivism of neo-classical structures may well have been sown even before his involvement with Berg – and what he called his ‘extensive confrontation’ with the ideas of Walter Benjamin.[4] His doctoral thesis was written under the tutelage of the philosopher Hans Cornelius[5] whose central doctrine was the rejection of a philosophy determined by outside influences in favour of subjective interpretation, one emanating from the consciousness of the interpreter. Adorno’s thesis (‘The Transcendence of the Material and Noematic in Husserl’s Phenomenology’) was written very much in the spirit of Cornelius and rejected every attempt at a philosophy that was geared towards objective concepts. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that in his writings on music we see Adorno using terms like ‘personality’, ‘soul’, ‘inwardness’ and ‘experience’ – language that offers credibility to subjectivity. We can conclude, therefore, that it was indeed Cornelius who inculcated early in Adorno his rejection of an assumed objectivity.

Furthermore, Adorno had become associated with a movement headed mostly by Jewish intellectuals, sociologists and philosophers which came to be known as the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) best known as the institutional home of the ‘Frankfurt School’. These intellectuals included Erich Fromm, Leo Löwenthal, Carl Grünberg, Friedrich Pollock, Max Horkheimer and Henryk Grossman[6] among others. Horkheimer edited the group’s journal, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung (Journal for Social Research), and all those connected wrote essays for the journal, defining a critical theory of society which introduced its readers to the spirit of the Institute and which hoped to advance a comprehensive claim to revolutionising bourgeois society on a social, political, psychological and cultural level. The Institute also represented a claim to power on the part of the left-wing intelligentsia who felt that they had found a key to understanding the basic problems of human existence in a Marxist and psychoanalytical theory.

The Institute for Social Research provided the young Adorno with the radical environment with which to construe all the unfolding compositional developments of the period via a Marxist rendering. This influence was to exercise greater power as time went on and, in the coming years, provided Adorno with a moral certitude that was to further undermine what was left of his objectivity of perception and evaluation; readings would become more extreme, interpretations would become more simplistically polemic.

It was through his involvement with the Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School that Adorno extolled a music free from tonality (therefore liberated from the bourgeois market forces) and free from pre-established forms (that is, neo-classical structures). A music internally driven was the crucial criterion for the quality of a work, while borrowed objectivity was discredited as one of the fundamental untruths of the times; Adorno pitted a music created out of objective order against a subjective, personalised music. He even went so far as to state (quite bizarrely!) that the link between the ‘Russian émigré Stravinsky’ and ‘Fascism’ was beyond question.[7] This polemical reading can only be viewed as over-simplistic. Adorno’s exclusive endorsement of the Second Viennese School was overtly Germanic-centred and did not allow for consideration of other highly significant phenomena such as events in Russia with Shostakovich and Prokofiev; the late Romantic Italian opera genre which was kept vitally alive by Puccini; the longevity of the late Nationalists Nielson and Sibelius, not to mention the American and French equations. Though certain aspects of his theory might even be more relevant today (particularly those highlighting the relationship between accessibility and market forces), clearly, his terms of reference were far too narrow and his assessments of Stravinsky’s achievements opprobriously extreme.

‘…transparent as glass without secrets…’
‘What I would like most is to limit what I write about music…[to that] which I feel it is necessary in art-political terms to propagate: that is, you and Schoenberg.’ Understanding Adorno’s politics in the context of the emerging Frankfurt School and his obvious loyalty to the Second Viennese School makes his subsequent criticisms of the ‘strict one’, as he called Schoenberg, quite surprising. There seems, on the other hand, to have been very little substantial correspondence between Adorno and Schoenberg and there is a sense, reading the Adorno/Berg letters, that the former never really felt accepted by Schoenberg into the inner circle.

Rather surprisingly, in some letters written in 1927, Adorno endeavoured to highlight intrinsic flaws (as he saw them) in Schoenberg’s music. In one letter he complains: ‘…his [works] have themselves become historical… What seems tragic to me is that his last works have all been absolutely right in their conception – but neither has he overcome their challenges at the aural level, nor do they overcome the listener! If nothing were to remain but this music, one would have to despair!’ But perhaps the most extraordinary admission is made on hearing (for the fifth time) Berg’s Lyric Suite: ‘I cannot hide from you that the 3rd Quartet by Schoenberg… is in all seriousness no match for it [the Lyric Suite]… for all its technical comfort and all the greatness of its distanced objectivity. Its humanity has become mute… I can no longer ignore the realisation that, for Schoenberg, the twelve-tone technique did become a recipe after all, and functions mechanically… Essentially we all know it, only no one yet dares to say so… I cannot imagine how the last of Schoenberg’s pieces are to have a history: already now they are as transparent as glass, without secrets – there it is.’ This is a remarkable admission for Adorno to make – that the twelve-tone technique, as espoused by Schoenberg, might very well offer nothing more than a compositional cul-de-sac! ‘Being myself deeply involved in composition once more… I am faced with the antimony at every second: that non-dodecaphony lacks constructive rigour and constraint; but that dodecaphony severely restricts all construction coming from the imagination, and constantly invokes the danger of rigidity. While I would never give voice to my doubts in public, I cannot keep them from you…’

‘…I would never give voice to my doubts in public…’

What are we to make of this? In more recent times, Adorno’s Marxist and psychoanalytical glosses on Stravinsky have been taken somewhat with a pinch of salt (not to mention his absurd theory of a ‘castration complex’ in relation to jazz).[8] However, these, at times, fierce and constant public attacks on neo-classicism which were made specifically at a time when he was privately expressing doubts about the twelve-tone technique show a moral ineptitude of startling proportions. Schoenberg, for his part, many years later (in a letter to his publisher commenting on Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music published in 1949) admitted ‘I have never been able to bear the fellow… now I know that he has clearly never liked my music.’[9] Elsewhere he says ‘He knows everything about my music but he has no idea of the creative process involved.’[10] Adorno had taken it upon himself to politicise and polemicise dodecaphony in a way that its composers did not readily intend, being, as they were, more concerned with the development of a new way of composing rather than espousing a new or right ‘Marxist’ form of composition.

In fact, Schoenberg rejected outside attempts to radicalise his compositional developments as he saw them not as revolutions in musical thought but rather as continuations of an ongoing history of tonality (hence his rejection of the negative term ‘atonality’). He understood the ‘truth’ in music (and we will return to Adorno’s notion of ‘truth’ later) as merely that which was coherent and consistent, that which had a beauty of form. For Schoenberg, these ideals paralleled attributes he located in the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven: a total command of compositional procedures necessary to create an appropriate form at the service of a compelling realisation of musical ideas. This was an understanding of music which excluded any political manipulation.[11]

Despite this, Adorno insisted on fitting square pegs into round holes, and any position he had as a cool and authoritative observer would be undermined by his analytical prognoses which were interpreted through the prism of Marxism and psychoanalysis. Obviously, Berg (and perhaps even the reluctant Schoenberg) saw in Adorno a useful propagandist, but there are no detailed responses from Berg to Adorno’s more psychoanalytical interpretations of dodecaphony.[12] When Adorno claimed that Schoenberg had involved himself in the ‘undisguised and uninhibited expression of the psyche’[13] he was attempting to bring his work into close correlation with psychoanalysis. However, the letters fail to demonstrate any two-way discussion of psychoanalysis in relation to either Berg’s or Schoenberg’s music (years later Stockhausen would accuse Adorno of looking for a chicken in an abstract painting).

Furthermore, whenever Adorno attempted to influence the nomenclature applied to some of Berg’s works claiming that it should, in no way, hint at neo-classicism, he was usually met with direct responses which swept his reasoning to one side. On the Lyric Suite, for example, he insisted that Berg should call it a String Quartet ‘…for the massively expansive spread of its disposition already exceeds its suite character. A dance piece simply has nothing in common with the absolute gravity of your music. What is more, one should keep one’s distance, externally too, from the new – fascist – classicism.’ Berg responded simply that ‘the quartet most certainly is a suite, even a lyric suite.’ It is worth keeping in mind, at this point, that Berg was a product of a Viennese bourgeoisie and was hardly one to charge into the trenches of cultural warfare. Despite Adorno’s insistence that the use of Hauptmann’s Und Pippa tanzt as a libretto for an opera would be a cultural and political mistake, Berg did in fact, decide on the fairy tale, presumably, because he was neither convinced by Adorno’s political arguments nor felt any personal moral obligation to explore a more politically or socially valid theme.[14]

Although it is obvious that Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were inextricably linked and dedicated to their cause and that they opposed the principle of neo-classicism, Adorno seemed all too willing to pit Stravinsky against the Second Viennese School in a very public cultural battle in order, it would seem, to advance his own idiosyncratic theories of Marxism. Indeed, his language often reflected a warlike stance. ‘Tomorrow I am to have a discussion with Strobel, the enemy, on the radio, about neo-classicism; then I have also written a big article to settle the score with Hindemith and his ilk…’. However, this polemical dispute between the two movements does not seem to have been fuelled publicly by the composers themselves to anything like the extreme degree instigated by Adorno. On the contrary, Schoenberg rejected Adorno’s psychopathological critique of Stravinsky. Hence, he states: ‘It is disgusting how he treats Stravinsky. I am certainly no admirer of Stravinsky, although I like a piece of his here and there very much – but one should not write like that.’[15] While in his Poetics of Music, Stravinsky offers ‘Whatever opinion one may hold about the music of Arnold Schoenberg (to take as an example a composer evolving along lines essentially different than mine, both aesthetically and technically)… it is impossible for a self-respecting mind equipped with genuine musical culture not to feel that the composer of Pierrot Lunaire is fully aware of what he is doing and is not trying to deceive anyone. He adapted the musical system that suited his needs, he is perfectly consistent with himself, perfectly coherent.’[16]

…while Rome burned…
Adorno’s rejection of the neo-classicists can be more clearly understood in his idea of ‘authenticity’, that is, what he considered (to use one of his favoured words) ‘truth’ in music. The relativism of these words – ‘truth’, ‘authenticity’ – was not always given clarification by Adorno, but a central tenet of his argument was dichotomous: authentic musical works should have two specific and opposing characteristics, that is, that as well as being autonomous constructs capable of withstanding objective scrutiny, they must also shiver in the ‘aftershock of the most extreme terror’[17] This is clearly a post-Holocaust stance which insists that the perfection of the art work cannot remain unscarred in the wake of the dehumanisation of the death-camps, hence Adorno’s ‘scars of damage and disruption are the modern’s seal of authenticity.’[18]

Those works, on the other hand, which prevented the social and the historical to trespass on their autonomy, which were happy to rely on received forms and structures, which showed no signs of scarring or the internalisation of suffering, Adorno called ‘resigned art’. Apart from rejecting almost everything which did not emanate from the Second Viennese School, this argument provided the context for malicious and sarcastic attacks on Stravinsky: ‘he visits today’s bomb craters tomorrow with sightseers in the state carriage of the ancien régime, and the blue bird soon builds its peaceful nest in them.’ But the question we must ask today is whether Adorno’s rejection of the neo-classical is itself ‘authentic’. Can we assume that he alone had the monopoly on how the ‘Final Solution’, or any other betrayal of humanity, should be responded to artistically? Is it not equally valid to argue that any attempt to produce art in such a time would constitute a betrayal of suffering?

Nero, who infamously fiddled while Rome burned, is castigated, not for the type of music he played, but for the very act of creating music while suffering was an historical reality. His actions represent for us an unacceptable private indulgence in the face of collective horror. Even accepting Adorno’s reading, could the neo-classicist approach not be interpreted as the most honest reply to the barbarity of the ‘Thirty Years’ War’ (as George Steiner calls the period from 1914 to 1944)? Could it not equally be considered ‘authentic’ that to create art devoid of human involvement and emotion, to write music that, in the most existential way, sings mute, is the most adequate response to the bestiality of the twentieth century?
Adorno remained entwined within an orthodoxy associated with the doctrines that had determined his politics, and this coloured many of his pronouncements on music in a way which, today, appear simply outmoded and inapplicable. The results are often disappointing because his, at times, sharply discerning insights were frequently deformed through a combination of a highly idiosyncratic Marxism and a post-Freudian psycho-jargon. He attempted to promote the Second Viennese School as the sole moral choice available (without the full endorsement of its progenitors) and denounce all other music styles as impotent and irrelevant.

Significantly, Adorno’s claim (as late as 1962) that neo-classicism ‘has all but vanished’,[19] undoubtedly failed to foresee that neo-classicism was the kernel of, and precursor to, developments that static structures in music would make in the post-modernism of the latter half of the twentieth century at the hands of Reich, Feldman, Andriessen, Ligeti, Pärt and Zorn among others, and that these elaborations would be inspired by a myriad of sources including mechanical and computer engineering, Buddhism, ethnic African and east-Asian music, mathematical theories, Renaissance church music, algorithms – influences which would emanate from a much broader spectrum than what was ever encapsulated in, or envisaged by, Adorno’s narrower political perspectives. Even beyond the scope of music there are many other examples of Adorno’s work which are dubiously tainted by extreme readings. His politically-orchestrated sociological paper of 1943, ‘The Authoritarian Personality’,[20] for example, naïvely attempted to measure a Fascist potential in people – based on a series of simple questions, interviewees were graded on an F-scale!

In the end, Adorno’s inflexible understanding of ‘truth’ in music even led to the eventual rejection of his ‘Dear master and teacher’. The relative comprehensibility and popularity of Berg’s Violin Concerto displayed an affirmation, a positivism, an aesthetic perfection embodying a sensuality and spirituality[21] that could not be tolerated within Adorno’s held view of a scarred and damaged ‘authenticity’. The more theories are guided by a certainty that they fulfil a moral mission, the greater the risk that they will, in time, fall foul of a new emerging paradigm. It would seem that Adorno’s observations on music, as witnessed in these correspondences, although often acutely penetrating, remained trapped in a Marxist-psychoanalytical paradigm of his own invention which has long since been superseded.

1. Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Does the World Lack a Peace-Hymn?’, Style and Idea, p. 500
2. Theodor W. Adorno & Alban Berg Correspondences 1925–1935, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2005 (All quotes will be from this source unless otherwise stated).
3. There are some wonderful exceptions. Berg often referred to the I.S.C.M. (the International Society for Contemporary Music) as the I.G.f.l.m.i.A., standing for ‘Internationale Gesellschaft für leck mich im Arsch’ – International Society for kiss my arse!
4. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German Jewish Marxist literary critic and philosopher. He was at times associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and was also greatly inspired by the Marxism of Bertolt Brecht and the Jewish mysticism of Gershom Scholem. Adorno’s involvement with Benjamin was bringing him ever-closer towards a Communist view of the world.
5. Johannes Wilhelm Cornelius (1863-1947) was a German neo-Kantian philosopher.
6. Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was an internationally renowned German-American psychologist and humanistic philosopher. Leo Löwenthal (1900-1993) was a German sociologist usually associated with the Institute of Social Research (or ‘Frankfurt School’). Karl Grünberg (1891-1972) was a German writer and journalist. Friedrich Pollock (1894-1970) was a German social scientist and philosopher. Together with Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) was the foremost representative of the ‘Critical Theory’ associated with the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer became director of the Institute in 1930, organised its move into exile from Nazi Germany and supervised the return of the Institute to Frankfurt in 1949. Henryk Grossman (1881-1950) studied law and economics in Kraków and Vienna. In 1925 he joined the Institute for Social Research.
7. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On the Social Situation of Music’ in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002
8. Adorno’s absurd psychoanalytical reading of jazz reached its apogee in Briefwechsel Band 1: 1927-1937, Adorno/Horkeimer, ed. Godde/Lonitz, Frankfurt am Main, 2003. Here, he claimed that jazz’s tendency for the beat to come too early or too late was a musical representation of impotence, failed orgasm, coitus interruptus and the fear of castration!
9. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World, and Work, trans. Humphrey Searle, New York, 1978, p. 508
10. Heinz Ludwig Arnold (ed.), Text und Kritik: Theodor W. Adorno, Munich, 1977, p. 77
11. In time, Schoenberg did become more politically active and indeed shifted towards Zionism as evidenced in some of his writings and compositions like Kol nidre für Sprecher (Rabbi), gemischten Chor und Orchester (1938), A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) and the late Psalm settings. However, it should be noted that although his growing politicisation influenced his subject matter, it did not alter the way he composed. That is, that there was no correlation between the subject matter and the materials, structures and forms employed to couch it. Hence, the opening quote ‘…by what chord would one diagnose the Marxist confession in a piece of music, and by what colour the Fascist one in a picture?’
12. Indeed, in the four hundred or so published correspondences between Berg and Schoenberg, which span a period of twenty-six years, there is hardly any mention of either Adorno or Stravinsky and no debate or discussion regarding the merits or ills of neo-classicism. These obsessions of Adorno simply did not feature in the daily preoccupations of the composers. See The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondences, ed. Brand, Haily & Harris, Macmillan Press, 1987
13. ibid. 9 above
14. Berg only shifted to Lulu when intractable problems of copywright with Und Pippa tanzt could not be overcome
15. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World, and Work, trans. Humphrey Searle, New York, 1978, p. 508
16. Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, Harvard University Press, 1942, p. 12-13
17. T.W.Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Pickford, New York, Columbia University Press, 1998, p. 48
18. T.W.Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, London, Athlone Press, 1997, p. 23
19. T.A. Adorno, Quasi una fantasia: Stravinsky: A Dialectical Portrait, Verso, 1992 trans. Livingstone, p. 145
20. T.W.Adorno (with Frenkel-Brunswick; Levinson; Nevitt Sandford et al), The Authoritarian Personality, New York, 1950
21. This combination of the sacred and the sensual is epitomised in Berg’s simultaneous use of the markings amoroso and religioso at the end of the Violin Concerto, bar 222

This essay is an abridged version of the full version which can be read and downloaded from Benjamin Dwyer’s web site: www.benjamindwyer.com (see ‘downloads’ page)


Published on 1 July 2006

Benjamin Dwyer is a guitarist and composer and the author of 'Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland'. He is Professor of Music at Middlesex University's Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries.

comments powered by Disqus