Adorno’s ‘Classicism, Romanticism, New Music’

If new music is antithetical to Romanticism, this is only so as to make the Romantic fully conscious of itself. Above all, the goal of new music must be the complete liberation of the human subject. (Adorno, ‘Classicism, Romanticism, New Music’, in Sound Figures, 1999, p. 121)

Given that one of the key insights I had coming out of my discussions with Chaya Czernowin and Steve Tagasuki in Singapore was that my music, and my counterpoint specifically, was profoundly classical (and that this was a problem), it might be worth interrogating what might be meant by Classicism in music, and from there what Romanticism and then Modernism could mean. Continuing my current Adorno binge: his article ‘Classicism, Romanticism, New Music’ is very stimulating. Here are some notes.

Categories. Firstly, for Adorno, applications of terms such as Classical, Romantic, etc to music are problematic. There isn’t a complete translatability of these terms from one artform to another, and it has resulted in distortions and reductions. The main problem is that Romanticism in literature and other arts actually saw itself as aspiring quite fundamentally to the condition of music, and as such all music has a Romantic element.

Objectivity, architectonics and pre-classicism. One major point that Adorno makes is that the will towards objectivity, structure, etc., displayed by the neo-classical composers of the early 20th century, as well as within the post-war serialist school, is not an expression of musical classicism, but in fact a ‘pre-classical’ impulse:

The element worth salvaging from what passes for musical Classicism is not the preclassical manner, with its semblance of architectonic symmetry and embellishment. (p. 119)

I think this has much to do with the neo-Platonic idea of the ‘harmony of the spheres’ which pops up time and again in music theory from the medieval through to the baroque eras. My music has certainly been marked by this insofar the construction of my long-range polyrhythms, which have been of decisive significance for my counterpoint, have, by necessity, been balanced and symmetrical (the rhythms all align at a certain point).

Musical Classicism. This begs the question of what the Classical period of music is defined by. It too is a question of balance, but this time not an objective formal balance, but a balance between formal control (and balance) on the one hand, and expression and subjectivity on the other:

What the great composers of the Viennese school wanted, from Haydn to Schubert, was music that was perfectly structured, absolutely right, absolutely authoritative, and yet at every moment still subjective–liberated humanity. (p. 119)

This was probably the crux of my conception till now, although it was confused with the preceding idea. That is, there was a confusion over whether I was writing and theorising a counterpoint that was objectively integrated (i.e. a dialectic of independence and interdependence of voices within a multiplicity) as a symbol of a society that would be such, or whether I was writing and theorising a music that balanced the formal with the temporal and expressive element, and thus provided a dialectic of subject and object. This can in part be traced back to my influence from Carter, but also the spectralists. In part this also comes from my Badiouian heritage: his emphasis on affirmation, and rejection of the more negative and critical approaches to art, can lead you, if you’re not careful, to a pre-critical approach.

Romanticism and new music. Romanticism and new music are difficult to untangle from each other, as is indicated by the opening quote. They are also both difficult to untangle from the Classicism of the Viennese school: “The music of high Romanticism necessarily possesses a Classical dimension” (p. 111). Romanticism, carries the Classical vision in itself, but with a degree of negativity. Adorno does not actually put his finger on what constitutes Romanticism, but lays hints. Romanticism is a very difficult concept for Adorno: “Romanticism … is far too dialectical to be able to supply the thesis for [a simple] antithesis” (p. 116). We could say somewhat schematically that in Romanticism the balance of subject and object is thrown, and this intensifies along with music’s progressive liberation from convention. The vision of a liberated society becomes bound up with the recognition of the difficulty (or impossibility) of making this vision a  reality. Romanticism registers this pain, without losing the element of wanting to still create artistic visions of this liberated humanity. New music pushes this to its limits and opens up the possibility of a properly liberated musical subjectivity since it no longer has the conventions of the early eras, and must “objectivise itself from its own resources, from its own force of gravity” (p. 119). Yet the 20th century is an era where the liberation of humanity is even less seen to be the general direction of society, and thus the Romantic element of registering this pain and disappointment “is still alive as an unwavering impulse in new music” (p. 120).

Or: New music cannot declare itself fully beyond Romanticism because to do so is to “make us forget that the [19th century] promise to emancipate mankind was never redeemed.” (p. 117)

So: While “above all … the goal of new music must be the complete liberation of the human subject” (p. 121), at the same time:

On the other hand, because an actual reconciliation proves to be constantly receding into the distance, thus assuming an increasing air of utopianism, the idea of new music enters into a decisive opposition to everything affirmative of positively transfiguring, everything that implies a spiritual order already exists. (p. 120)

And here is the crux of new music: that, on the one hand, it must aim at presenting an image of a liberated humanity, just as the Viennese classicists did, but on the other hand, it must register the horror and disappointment of the inability of humanity (as yet) to achieve it. Two points have to be made here: 1. this is not a theoretical-ethical imposition on music, this accords to the actual movement of music itself, since music reproduces at the level of its autonomy, the contradiction between its autonomy and heteronomy; 2. Adorno’s profound political negativity and cynicism plays a large role in this conception of new music… yet as a political activist I have a stance that is much more in line with Lenin’s recognition of ‘the actuality of revolution’. It is an on-going question if these two are compatible and how they would interact.

Social conditions. The fact that ‘no spiritual order already exists’ today (or, as Marx and Engels would say “all that is solid melts into air”), means that it would be unjustifiable to attempt to create a new system at our juncture. In my case, a new ‘system’ of counterpoint is completely out of the question.

The critique of a new classicism in music coincides with the social insight that the underlying preconditions for everything that might rationally be called classical are as absent now as they were in the 19th century. (p. 116)

Every prescribed musical language would have something unreal about it; music is left with nothing other than the bare twelve tones. And even these have not transcended the process that brought about their emancipation; it has left its mark on them, and keeps on going. (p. 120)

So, no new harmonic system is erectable, nor a new contrapuntal logic that would be consistent in the way that the 16th century polyphony was, since the social conditions of late capitalism have liberated us from cultural constraints (but delivered us into pure oppression in the form of commodification of labour).

This doesn’t mean that it is all now a matter of solipsistic relativism, of just finding your ‘own voice’ (although this is part of it). It is not the end of history. As Adorno notes the process ‘keeps on going,’ and it is a process located in the materials of music themselves.

It is a crisis, for sure, since all the old elements that a contrapuntal logic necessarily rested upon, that allowed for both clear delineation of lines, as well as their integration – harmonic motion, phrase structures, rhythmic patterns, textural assumptions – are no longer self-evident. Any contrapuntal conception for today would register this and confront its own limits.

Adorno leaves us with us with a few interesting prescriptions:

It will be meaningful, and non-superfluous, to objectivize music only when the following conditions are satisfied, conditions that the superficial gaze would ascribe to Romanticism: all divergent individual elements must simultaneously resist the principle of form that their own nature conjures up; the complex  must stand in genuine need of constructive articulation in order to be represented in all its purity; and finally, the dynamic force must be so powerful that, to remain dynamic at all, something fixed must be opposed to it, even if that fixed thin is the dynamic force itself. (p. 121)

What is wanted is not a peacefulness above all conflicts, but the pure, uncompromising representation of absolute conflict. (p. 122)