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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How a master of dogma became the acme of cool

By Norman Lebrecht / October 19, 2009

The first frivolity I ever heard about the German philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was the conductor Georg Solti telling me how, in the 1950s, he and Adorno used to play Bruckner symphonies four-hand at the piano and then go out scouring the Frankfurt bars in search of the ideal blonde.

Adorno (1903-1969), a founder of the Frankfurt School of (Marxist) critical theory, expatiated on music, language and society in a German prose so dense and inverted that it almost resists comprehension, let alone translation. Yet for all his outmoded doctrines Adorno remains, nearly half a century after his death, one of the more interesting minds in modern thought, and among the most quoted aphorists. It was he who said that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." He also suggested that "normality is death."

Music is the lighter side of Adorno’s output, which is not to say that he took it lightly. Planning to be a composer, he studied in Vienna with Alban Berg, whose post-tonal music was at the forefront of modernity, his opera Wozzeck a 1920s sensation. Adorno shuttled his teacher's letters to his married mistress in Prague, each letter containing love secrets encoded in 12-tone musical themes. Berg's lover, Hanna, was a sister of the novelist Franz Werfel ("Song of Bernadette"), who was married to Gustav Mahler's widow, Alma. The connection was so exalted it rendered the young Adorno almost incoherent with excitement. He dined out on it for the rest of his life, unaware of the breakthrough that Berg’s codes signified in musical communication, allowing Shostakovich, among others, to express dangerous secrets in his scores.

Celebrity and scandal coincided again later, when, as temporary exiles in California, Adorno gave Thomas Mann lessons in 12-tone music for "Doctor Faustus" (1948), a novel whose central character is a composer who sells his soul in exchange for a modernist technique. Alma Mahler told Schoenberg that Mann had stolen his patented method and portrayed him as an evil German archetype. Schoenberg- whom Adorno considered the father of the musical revolution - accused Adorno of betrayal. Secretly, the philosopher was quite pleased by the ruction he caused among giants.

Adorno argued that musical evolution runs in a straight line, without deviation, from Wagner and Mahler to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. It became the unquestioned orthodoxy of the post-1945 avant-garde, eagerly endorsed by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The doctrine, a Marxist timeline of musical progress toward the ultimate utopia, is Adorno's chief contribution to music. His own compositions are devoid of original talent.

His music-related writings, however, are always perceptive, even at their most perverse-when, for instance, Adorno suggests in high Marxist fashion that the music of Mahler's second and eighth symphonies is intended to nullify their religious texts. Anyone who enjoys the company of a provocative intelligence will want to pick up "Night Music," a challenging new collection of scattered Adorno essays (Seagull, $29). And pick a fight with it.

The title is taken from a 1929 meditation on how music is changed by time - how the so-called night music of Schubert or Wagner (that is, music set after darkness) cannot be conceived in an age of electricity by those who have never experienced the terror of pitch blackness. Bridging that gap may be impossible: "the end of interpretability," Adorno calls it, arguing that what we call "immortality" in music is a lie. Music is embedded in its compositional moment, subject to a fixed time. "We are still accustomed to viewing all music too impartially and only from within," he writes. "We believe we are inside . . . a safe house whose windows signify our eyes, its corridors our bloodstream, and its door our sex; or that it actually grew out of us."

These are fabulous ideas, imperfectly expressed and pointing to no conclusion other than the inevitability of Schoenberg; the attraction of Adorno's theories lies in their stimulating strangeness, not necessarily their intellectual coherence. There is much fun to be had in "Night Music." One essay starts by disparaging Ravel's lack of originality and immediacy. It winds up as a passionate endorsement, claiming for Ravel's music- supposedly the many-layered work of a born loner - a subtlety that is more modern than Debussy's.

And then there is Adorno on jazz. Well, not quite jazz. He never went to Harlem or New Orleans or by the sound of it heard any music more syncopated than Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera." What Adorno in 1936 calls jazz is every form of popular music from big band to crooners and blues. Writing about a music he mistrusts, Adorno decides that "jazz is not what it is . . . it is what it is used for"- by which he means "a dialectically advanced corrective of the bourgeois isolation of autonomous art."

Could you say that again please, professor? Pop music, explains Adorno, is not the progressive force it is proclaimed to be by mass media. It is not an expression of the public will or an experiment pushing toward a better future. It is a thing owned by industrialists to stupefy the masses. Reading that the NBC network has renewed its commitment to culture by appointing the anodyne Jon Bon Jovi as 'artist in residence' is a validation of Adorno's theory that pop music is reactionary and exploitative. Where is the living Adorno who will track the degeneration of popular culture in the 21st century?

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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