“Theodor W. Adorno the Music Critic: Adorno, Berg, and the Beginning of Dialectical Music Criticism”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
2.03 (Binnengasthuis)
Morgan M Rich , Music, University of Florida
In 1924 the young philosopher Theodor W. Adorno met Alban Berg, for the first time, at a Frankfurt performance of Drei Bruchstücke aus der Oper ‘Wozzeck.’ Soon after the encounter Adorno decided he should further his compositional studies with the composer in Vienna, to move beyond the “academic” instruction he had received in Frankfurt and subsequently expand his interest in atonality and modern compositional styles. Adorno officially studied with Berg in Vienna for only one year, 1925, but this study turned into a lasting relationship between the two men, as recorded in a consistent exchange of letters between 1925 and Berg’s death in 1935. Berg, at the time the lessons begin, was a well-established, modern composer in Vienna. In Berg’s music Adorno found a direct correlation to one of his key philosophical concepts, dialectical representation. Although he had been a music critic in Frankfurt since 1921 it is in Vienna, during the period of compositional study, when he begins to pen essays that actively engage his philosophical concepts with modernist musical thought and critical analysis; I argue that this development in Adorno’s musical writings was highly influenced by the dialectal engagement he found in Berg’s music.

In this paper I demonstrate that the teacher/student relationship between Adorno and Berg plays more than a passing role on the philosopher’s musical thinking. Rather, it informed Adorno’s music analyses and criticisms, including his justifications of aspects of Berg’s music that he would condemn in any other composer. It is precisely this relationship that has been left largely unexamined in the scholarship on Adorno, this period of study is often regarded with no more than a passing paragraph, and even less writing on the philosopher’s compositional output. In this paper I seek to reassess the early relationship between Adorno and Berg by first examining how Adorno assimilated atonal techniques, those which he so longed to learn from Berg, into his own compositions by examining the “Variationen” from Zwei Stücke für Streichquartette op.2 (1925). Second I will discuss the early development of Adorno’s musico-philosophical writings as they relate to the guidance he constantly sought and received from Berg on matters of modernist musical style and composition. This study relies heavily upon the published letters between the two, Adorno’s collected works, and the large body of Adorno’s early musical essays. Reassessing the progression of Adorno’s musical writings, from journalistic concert reviews to the earliest formulations of dialectical logic in his musical writings will allow scholars to view Adorno in a new light. Thus, Berg was instrumental in Adorno’s use of his own philosophical methods in analysis and criticism of music.