Adorno’s ‘The Function of Counterpoint in New Music’ PART 1

Adorno’s Article ‘The function of counterpoint in new music’ is a dense and bold one. Perhaps this explains its neglect. While rooted in an historical moment (the post-war serialist period), the article, by clarifying the stakes of the Second Viennese school and the immediate successors, shows that a lot has gone unresolved since then in modern art music, and raises questions for our practice today.

Some general points

Drawing nudes. Adorno begins the article by noting that Schoenberg saw his theoretical work on harmony and counterpoint as ‘craft theory’ rather than aesthetics.

He assumed such knowledge as a precondition of composition just as the painter presupposes an ability to draw nudes. But it could not claim to supply the norms for current composition, any more than a faithful reproduction of human anatomy can set the standard for contemporary painting. (p. 123)

He notes that this approach, by the 60s, had become untenable. This was in part because the new generation of composers had come about who saw immediate technical questions, questions of language and construction, as normative aesthetic questions. In part it was also because aesthetics had, as far as Adorno was concerned, lagged desperately behind musical practice (pp. 123-124).

So, for Adorno, there was “a need to rethink the relationship between the aesthetics and the craft of music” (p. 124).

In a brilliant passage Adorno criticises two common errors:

Only the philistine keeps questions of musical technique and aesthetic meaning in separate compartments; only the unrepentant technofreak or resolute idealist confuses the two. (p. 124)


The work of art is not best served by a compromise between the extremes of internal and external, of spirit and technicality. True mediation can result only from preserving the extremes as such. The theoretical idea has to penetrate into the blindest center of the monads. (p. 124)

That is to say, reflection must be within the works.

Counterpoint as paradigm for aesthetics. Adorno then makes a seemingly simple but massively bold point. He says:

A valid musical aesthetics would have to show how the spiritual substance of a work of art–what traditional philosophy called the artistic idea–is constituted in the life of its components, in the way in which they continually modify each other, forming ever new constellations. It may seem astonishing to offer up counterpoint as a paradigm for this, with its simultaneous spinning out and fitting together of relatively autonomous voices. (p. 124)

What can we take from this? It would seem to me to suggest that counterpoint is precisely the name of the idea of music, which inheres in the relations between the parts of a work, but does not have the capacity to stabilise these relations entirely and thus neutralise them.

Counterpoint as the contradiction between part and whole, and thus itself neither part nor whole.

Primacy of melody or harmony – neither/nor. A really very wonderful aspect of this article, is the articulation of the relation between melody and harmony. I have already noted a number of different approaches to this question in both theoretical and practical texts, where some texts will suggest developing a contrapuntal craft from progressively complexifying voice-leading within harmonic sequences, and others will begin with crafting single lines adequate for polyphonic treatment. Adorno says:

To imagine that it was enough to fold melodies into harmonies, or unfold harmonies back into melodies, would be mechanistic and would reduce the twelve-tone method to an abstract preartistic procedure. (p. 125)

Perhaps it is because of Adorno’s emphasis on the primacy of the gestalt rather than the note that allows him to avoid reductionism in conceiving counterpoint.

However, importantly, he does note the relative weight of the linear dimension in new music, since the binding nature of harmony under the tonal system has been eroded. But, the harmonic dimension is not entirely negated, it is preserved in a negative sense:

It [harmony] is no longer constitutive, it no longer steers composition, but presides only as a negative factor. Of course, anything that makes harmonic nonsense must not be allowed to stand; the harmonic flow must not come to a halt or cease to glide forward automatically, it must not make unmotivated leaps, and nothing must sound “wrong” in a sense immediately familiar to the composer’s ear. (p. 135)

Counterpoint vs. polyphony. It is questionable whether making a distinction between counterpoint and polyphony is a worthwhile exercise. Nonetheless, Adorno mentions that, while not fully compelling, there is some instructive value in making the following distinction initially made by Heinrich Jalowetz:

Polyphony is to be the name for the relationship between several more or less independent parts that are all of more or less equal importance in terms of their relative weight and melodic definition. Counterpoint is the procedure that adds to one or more principal voices one or more independent voices that are secondary in comparison, and on a graduated scale. The second type, like the first, is of medieval origin, but it is more important for contemporary practice because it preserves monody as it has dominated music ever since the beginning of the age of harmony, that is, for the last four centuries. It preserves, in other words, the principle of an accompanied main melody, instead of sacrificing it to an older practice. To put it crudely, we might say that counterpoint holds fast to the idea of the songlike melody in the midst of genuinely worked through polyphony, and thereby to the idea of the sovereign subject, rather than suppressing it in the spirit of a prebourgeois collectivity. (p. 126)

I’ll have to return to this, since it is massively bold.

He also adds that it is really counterpoint that defines modern music – which is something that I have intuitively felt for a while now, and believe that any music written today that doesn’t deal seriously with the question of counterpoint is regressing to a falsely pre-modern spirit.

It is beyond dispute that alongside, and as a corollary to, the emancipation of harmony, the use of counterpoint is what distinguishes new music from that which went before, much as modern painting dates from the priority given to the constructivist principle. (p. 126)

Historical development of the new counterpoint

Now that broaches the question of the genesis of modern counterpoint. Adorno outlines four main lines of intra-musical development throughout the 19th century that led to the situation where counterpoint was a definitive component of the new music of the 20th century:

1. Harmonies become polyphonic in themselves.

The more harmony freed itself from the triad, or more generally from the scheme of superimposed thirds; the more chords were created by simultaneously sounded notes; and above all, the more each not in the chord was able to maintain its separate identity, instead of melting into the homogeneous sonorities that operate with the simplest harmonic combinations–the more the chords became polyphonic in themselves. With the increasingly dissonant character of harmony, the tension in individual sonorities was also increased. No sonority was self-contained, like the old consonance, the “resolution” [Auflösung]. Every sonority seemed to be laden with energy, to point beyond itself, and every one of the distinct individual notes contained within it required an independent “melodic” continuation of its own, instead of there being a succession of one synthesized overall sonority after another. (p. 127)

Amazing quote. It leads us to wonder about today’s harmony with regard to counterpoint, since I would say that either our harmony today is so polyvalent to make continuation very problematic, or even non-valent, so continuation is purely arbitrary.

2. Timbre and orchestration as articulation of cpt. Adorno references Richard Strauss’s comment in his revision of Berlioz’s Traité de l’instrumentation, that

his own primary interest, the emancipation of orchestral color, was possible only in the presence of meaningful polyphony of the kind he found–with some justification, when compared to Viennese Classicism–in Richard Wagner. Every instrument, every group of instruments, must have something musically vibrant of its own, a genuine “voice,” and not, apart from the melody, be just a matter of basso continuo or fill-in parts to round out the work as a whole. Even the most recent achievement of traditional music, the emancipation of timbre, can only be realised where simultaneous voices are able to unfold freely in tonal space. (p. 129)

3. Bass lines, particularly in Brahms, become more complex and force more complexity in general in order for the work to maintain equilibrium between parts. (p. 128)

4. Motivic elaboration. The drive towards total integration, and unity in division, that the Schoenberg school represents (and was prefigured by the Brahms) is dual: contrapuntal and motivic. The growing emphasis on economy of motivic material and its dissemination throughout all the parts leads to a kind of “full plasticity” (p. 130) that requires a rigorous cpt. Linking the needs of cpt to those of thematic elaboration, Adorno says:

However much this modern counterpoint is historically determined, it has to make sense in its own right, in terms of its own needs. This means taking a closer look at the concept of thematic work, whose subcutaneous dissemination and expansion took place in Brahms. (p. 131)

That is to say that the internal needs and sense of modern cpt, for Adorno, is quite organically bound up with a logic of full thematicism – motivic dissemination. One exists to further the expression of the other. As Adorno says: “All this points to the irresistible conclusion that counterpoint arose from the needs of so-called late Romanticism.” (p. 130)

Analytical function of counterpoint

This last point about counterpoint and thematicism is related to Adorno’s discussion of the relationship between counterpoint and the analytical. That is, for Adorno, counterpoint in modern music plays an immanently analytical role in terms of dividing a work up into its constituent parts.

All counterpoint also has an analytic function, the dissection of the complex into distinct parts, the articulation of simultaneous events in accordance with the relative weight of its components and according to similarity and contrast. (p. 130)

the technique of thematic separation [durchbrochene Arbeit], modelled on the string quartet, aims to clarify as much as to condense. (p. 130)

This is the critical or demystifying role of counterpoint, designed to shatter the illusion of the unity of the sonority and open it up to its necessary development. This is almost definitely one of the main reasons why I was intuitively drawn to counterpoint in the first place – I perceived that modern music without this demystifying function of counterpoint was caught in an inadmissible illusion (and, dare it be said, perpetuating false consciousness on the level of art).

Unity of whole as result of struggle between parts. According to Adorno, Schoenberg never wanted an “obvious unity” that shirked on the differentiation that had been developed.

“in works of art above all, unity can be made substantial only as the result of a struggle” (p. 129)

So it has to be a unity achieved through multiplicity and preserving multiplicity. That is, a determinate unity, a determinate counterpoint, a dialectical counterpoint, not an abstract unity, an abstract counterpoint.

While all the elements interpenetrate, they also remain distinct, and the unity comes into being only though the function each of them has and by virtue of which it influences the others. It is not an immediate unity, but a unity of opposites. (p. 129)

This funnily enough almost directly resembles a note I wrote in my composition workbook the other day concerning how to conceive of the independence and interdependence of lines in a contrapuntal texture. It seems to me that one needs a threefold determination:

  1. What is the function of the particular line on the whole?
  2. What is the function of the particular line on each other particular line?
  3. What is the function of the line on itself?

Now obviously in the process of composing you needn’t determine this all rigorously, but this is an essential set of relations taking place whether you treat it or not.

More to come!