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

There is so much in this Adorno article it is hard to know what to leave out or where to stop. I’ll try to keep this post short, but the last one was pretty mammoth and only dealt with the first half of the article…

Dialectical unity of opposites. To return to a theme of the last post just quickly, I want to just point to this quote which takes up the subject-object dialectic in the Schoenberg school, as Adorno sees it:

their works possess not only a total constructed unity, but also all the nuances and contrasts of the soul divided against itself, as it is against the world; and that this legacy of a subjectivism, which is all too cheaply derided today, is not abstractly negated, but is preserved and raised to a higher level, as the double meaning of the Hegelian Aufhebung would have it. (p. 129)

I think it is just as true today that one-sided dismissals of subjectivity in music are aesthetically cheap, and it is just as true that cpt has a connection to the complexity of the subject – the question, and this is a practical question, is whether this relapses into a one-sided subjectivism or is ‘preserved and raised to a higher level’ through the confrontation with objectivity.

Sonic space. For Adorno, the link between counterpoint and thematism is not a direct one – it is not inevitable that if you have thematic music you have genuine counterpoint. For him, the period of Viennese classicism (including late Beethoven!), was the marriage of thematicism and homophony (or monody in fact) (pp. 132-133). This marriage was possible, or perhaps inevitable, because of the guaranteed harmonic space of what is called the ‘common practice period’.

All true counterpoint resists harmonic listening insofar as it resists the reduction of sonorities to simple unities, and the reduction of the general line of march of a piece to a simply unitary one. So, whereas for Adorno the Viennese school and the early Romantic era were not, by and large, genuinely contrapuntal, Bach, on the other hand, was. This is because of the contradiction between the primacy of the fugal technique and the figured bass system of harmony:

a figured bass with a succession of chords as a basis is irreconcilable with a procedure in which the concept of the chord basis itself is devalued, along with the complementary concept of the top voice carrying the melody because [in fugue] one element can turn into another. (p. 135)

The fact that in fugue “one element can turn into another” within the texture, and the lines unfold with a certain logic, means that the symmetry implied by the harmonic space of the common practice period is undermined:

He [Bach] resists the idea of harmonic listening, the notion that the listener who has heard the question posed by the antecedent phrase should automatically anticipate the reply in the consequent. (p. 136)


“[t]he critique [of a secure harmonic space and its rhythmic equivalents] is an intrinsic aspect of the principle of counterpoint.” (p. 136)

The breakdown of harmonic space. So Bach resists the harmonic space, but what about Schoenberg (or us for that matter) for whom the harmonic space had emphatically broken down? (As I said in the previous post, this doesn’t mean that the harmonic question is entirely irrelevant: it is preserved as a negative determining factor, i.e. one must compose music that doesn’t sound harmonically wrong to the composer’s ears.)

For Adorno, the matter at stake in new music (or in the Schoenberg school at least) is that with the breakdown of the once authoritative harmonic space, something else must take its place in providing ‘authority’ for a work of art, lest it become completely ‘free’ and completely frivolous.

But in Adorno’s view this new authority will not come from ‘outside’ as did the old harmonic and rhythmic forms. Instead the new music will generate a new authority out of itself:

New music has to create its own space from within itself. It is no longer a reference system for thematic work, but its product. That propels it in the direction of simultaneity, of polyphony. (p. 132)

Its [new music’s] ideal is autonomy. It adheres to nothing that is alien to its own impulse, its own coherence, and that has been merely imposed on it. It desires to become objective out of its own subjectivity, through the unreserved immersion in its unique self, without external supports and borrowings. (p. 134)

Whereas in the Classical period, the harmonic space would guarantee the logicality of musical motion, in new music, it falls, in fact, to counterpoint itself. This is the case for Schoenberg who had an

inability to accept anything but a pure relationship between different voices. What is authentic about him is the authoritative counterpoint, ultimately in the supreme sense that the form results from the relations of the voices to one another, the behaviour of the contrapuntal elements, the interaction of forces. Form itself becomes a function of counterpoint, as it had not been since Bach, whose fugues once proclaimed the all-embracing nature of contrapuntal method. (p. 138)

How does this work though? In fact, for Adorno, counterpoint and the highest form of thematicism coincide, and the authority of of counterpoint is bound up with its complete thematicisation:

If the counterpoint really wishes to create that authority out of itself, out of its thematic content, since it can have no other source, then the counterpoint must itself be authoritative: it must be wholly thematic. (p. 138)


Counterpoint and thematic work are welded together without leaving any residue: a procedure that strives to imbue every event with thematic significance must also thematize the relations of the voices to one another, and will not put up with anything extraneous, anything not related to the identical thematic core. (p. 137)

That is what is meant by ‘authoritative counterpoint’. Schoenberg himself perhaps sums this up the best, when he says that what Bach taught him was “contrapuntal thought, i.e. the art of finding figures [Tongestalten] that can accompany themselves” (p. 137). It is the infinite dissemination of the motivic within the work, and the absolute contrapuntalisation of the theme – the two are inseparable.

This goes back to the logic not just of the Bachian fugue, but also to the Brahmsian principle of developing variation, where the genetic principle formally speaking is not really the harmonic space, nor dance-derived structures, but instead motivic work itself. But Brahms left it at a certain point, and did not go any further – Schoenberg took it the next step.

Twin dangers of authoritative counterpoint. There were however, limitations and dangers to this so-called ‘authoritative counterpoint’. Firstly was the inevitable tendency to compromise the ‘free’ and autonomous motivic counterpoint with procedures that were much more rigid and antiquated: the kind of rigidity of the strict contrapuntal and imitative procedures themselves.

The principle of developing variation in twelve-tone technique seems to imply a sort of free imitation; but here [in Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet] this imitation mocks that freedom by claiming rigor for itself: the authoritative ends up sounding unauthoritative. (p. 141)

That is a gap reopens between the freedom implied by the developing variation and the breakdown of harmonic space, and the means by which this freedom is made ‘objective’, authoritative.

The other danger is something of the opposite: rather than a compromise with the old in an attempt to forge a real ‘authority’, new music had a tendency to go over to what Adorno calls “total counterpoint” (p. 139). This totalisation of the contrapuntal spirit comes about through the logic of trying to absolutely distinguish each voice.

The length of the not values in the different voices; the, for the most part, audible entry of the individual notes; and finally the accents–none of these should coincide. (p. 139)

(One thinks of Elliott Carter, who uses complex subdivisions, perhaps unimaginable to Adorno, to achieve this). What happens though in doing this is that, by creating an absolute distinction between the voices, a collapse into absolute unity is brought about.

The voices are joined together by a process of mutual exclusion, and as a result the contrapuntal principle finally feels its way toward welding the different voices together in a single melody. (p. 139)

This, by the way, is the problem with overemphasising the hocket today.


The completely determined nature of the independently opposed and wholly complementary voices negates their very autonomy. (p. 139)

With the arrival of total counterpoint, the nonidentical element begins to evaporate. (p. 139)

If the intrinsic logic of authoritative contrapuntal thinking terminates in total constructivity, the total constructivity ends up by liquidating the living substance of counterpoint. (p. 140)

This is something I have to directly grapple with in my own music, since at the outset my desire for counterpoint has been the desire for the non-coincidence of voices. It is a logical result of the breakdown of harmonic space, but does it not flip over into its opposite, as Adorno suggests, into monophony, however fragmented?

A precarious project. Adorno argues that these dangers and failures did not emerge from the particular psychological quirks of the composers, but from a broader set of conditions under which they laboured. This is best summed up by this quote:

A valid order of art does not appear possible in the absence of a constitutive social order that the artistic one would resemble. Subject and object cannot be reconciled in art as long as they are not reconciled in the real world. (p. 142)

Late capitalism is much to chaotic, community destroying and alienating for a common artistic project to be formed. Collective artistic projects would be formed, in this context from a resistance to capital and its effects on art, but this would always remain problematic and unresolved. This is much the same for counterpoint:

what is expected of counterpoint, the creation of a specific coherence as authentic as the old universal system of tonality remains a precarious project. (p. 141)

This important in guiding the attempts of the composer today. Any attempt to create any absolutely authentic or authoritative coherence will be doomed to failure and falsehood. Of course, that does not mean we abandon music to whim and chance, but we have to listen closely to what the materials themselves desire.

Now, all this raises huge questions for today, since our connection to the common practice period is not one of immediate negation or sublation, we are that much more distant than Schoenberg. More is thrown into question or has already been negated and would need to be resuscitated for composition today as much as problematised, including all the basic principles that Schoenberg forged into an organic unity, and upon which his contrapuntal vision rested:

  • the twelve-tone method (and equal temperament as such),
  • the motive and the developing variation
  • the negatively preserved harmonic dimension
  • the strict contrapuntal procedures, such as imitation

Perhaps this simply marks the departure point for an investigation into counterpoint today. Without abandoning the essence of Adorno’s analysis of the function of counterpoint in new music, we have to find the new conditions under which the concept of counterpoint is at work, and try to find a new synthesis of elements that would bring its essential functions to life again for 21st century music.

An after-thought on affirmation. Badiou in his Five Lessons on Wagner brutally attacks Adorno for what he perceives to be an unreflected negativity. I think that is much too simple. In fact, there is a sense that what Adorno is on about is precisely the ‘totality free greatness’ that Badiou is calling for in his book on Wagner. The preservation of an affirmative dimension despite and through negation is what Adorno is calling for and he links it directly to counterpoint:

Music in the medium of positive negation–that is precisely how we should think of counterpoint: simultaneously as the negation and affirmation of the voice to which it is added. (p. 143)