Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (2) ‘Gesture’


In this piece I shall address Theodor Adorno’s essay on ‘Gestures’. In this essay, Adorno wears more of a musician’s hat than his many other hats, like say, the Freudian psychoanalysis hat; the sociologist hat; or the philosophers’ hat.


Give them what they wantThe Allegory of the Running Man 


Perhaps the most informal way of trying to understand this essay, and that is by no means to say that I do in fact understand it; is to try and make a couple of cultural touchstones. There’s an expression among my friends which comes from the film ‘The Running Man’, which is about a totalitarian imagined future (from a 1980s perspective) where in order to ignore the reality of martial law, entertainment is used to pacify the audience, to use crass consumerism and aspiration as a ploy to accept the dominion of the status quo. One of the tools to do so is by the entertainment show ‘The Running Man’, where convicted persons go on a sadistic game show to fight for their lives. The character Killian says at the start of the show: ‘We give ’em what they want’. What an interesting parable to allude to when discussing a Marxian theorist of culture. The film itself is almost like some Frankfurt School parable. Later on in the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character makes a step towards overturning  the false class consciousness of the audience and then before he kills Killian, Arnold’s character (Ben Richards) recapitulates the phrase but giving it a new context: ‘and right now, I’m going to give the audience what I think they want’.


While I could say more about how this film is a parable for the Culture Industry thesis of Adorno, I might instead talk about Adorno’s damning essay on ‘Gesture’ that accuses Wagner not merely of bad character as he did in the essay ‘Social Character’, but of poor composing ability. I think the most salient and boiled down version of what Adorno says of Wagner in this essay is that the Saxony composer wrote unstylistically, and perhaps even unmusically. Wagner is putatively understood for being the composer of long phrases and lucious chromatics, building tensions and creating erotically charged dissonances, but to Adorno, there is compositional merit to this, and the reputation he has built on his composing is effectively a shallow populism: it is akin to Killian’s ‘give them what they want’. 


The Wagnerian Gesture 


One of the things I hate about academic writing is when a term is used, and can even be an everyday term, but it is not defined. I’m probably guilty of this myself on occaision. As this essay concerns the gesture. We might ask what is a gesture. Instead of giving a definition as such, Adorno points towards how Wagner’s work is gesture-like. Perhaps that is the closest we can get to for understanding a gesture.


One point Adorno makes is that as a person, Wagner’s traits show in his music, and both in terms of his music, and personality; Meister Wilhelm is a dilettante. Perhaps another crude way of putting this is to say that Wagner is a Jack of All Trades, and master of none. Wagner in his later operas put much effort into elements outside of the music itself: the libretti, mythology of the texts. It is even said that Wagner put much effort into the costumes and even the physical considerations of a concert venue in his Bayreuth opera house. Wagner was an ambitious person, and his music met such ambitions. However, to be dilettante is to be amateur. Adorno’s acusation is something as follows: Wagner’s ambitions were shallow, and this is reflected in the lack of depth in his music. This is what seems to me the meaning of a gesture.


Wagner as a bad composer 


Adorno does not say this without reasons. There are specific things that, within the musical work of Wagner’s work (in contrast to say the mythology of the libretti). Adorno has very specific things to say to accus Wagner of being a bad composer. They are the following:


Wagner emphasises the role of the conductor as a ‘master’ of the music. In historical context one may accept this and see this as leading to a future where conductors are on a level of musical artists as say, the composer. A generation after Wagner, notable composers had reputations as conductors, in particular Mahler must be mentioned. Mahler was almost as much a superstar conductor of his day as he was a notable composer!


Adorno also makes the point that the music Wagner makes is compatible with or conducive with the emphasised nature and centrality of the conductor with specific respect to tempo. Wagner also makes a claim that I’m still trying to work out in my own head, that there is a distinct atemporality to his music. I may take this to mean the way that the harmonies and textures of the compositions are atemporal both in terms of being otherworldly and not obviously alluding to the work of past composers. Compare this to say Brahms, where in much of his work the Beethovenian and Baroque elements are quite evident (and much pleasantly so). Not being an expert on Wagner, I will take this on face value about atemporality.


The other point about atemporality may be construed in terms of being immaterial to the historical based conditions of the music and the settings of the grand stories of Wagner’s operas. Atemporality also refers to the respect that the melodies don’t go anywhere interesting. Instead they simply and frustratingly stay in the same places without a good amount of development. Atemporality is something Adorno is using in a variety of senses, some ideological, some psychoanalytic, but all musically justifiable. To provide and example of the atemporality as a lack of melodic development, Adorno appeals to the infamousTristan concert prelude.


Wagnerian gestures try to speak of a grand view through big instrumental sounds of the symphony orchestra, but they are gestures because of the poor score-writing. Adorno specifically refers to poor modulations and disapproves of the secondary modulations present in much of Wagner’s score-writing to be sloppy.


Adorno references another Wagner commentator, Alfred Lorenz. Lorenz put forward a notable study of Wagner’s work and points out specifically the use of ‘bar form’ in Wagner’s work. Adorno picks up on this as a lack of form, and this is a big part of what Adorno seems to find disapproving in Wagner. I think something that wikipedia noted to me is that Lorenz is considered as a discredited authority on Wagner, due to the former’s associations with Nazi ideology. Adorno in the purposes of this essay, however, takes the bar form (AAB melodic phrasing) as horribly generic and unstylistic.


If I were to pretend to be Zizek and be facetious, I might give a crass analogy. Adorno here is employing something of an Oedipal fascination and protection of his mother against what he percieves as a threat to his mother, the father. In this crass parody of a Freudian analogy (which I urge you not to take seriously), the unwelcome father is Wagner who is courting the mother’s affections.


So who is the mother? In this essay I might take it to mean the ideals of Viennese Classicism. But to me this is not a good enough answer. If Adorno valorises the greatness of Mozart and Beethoven, I contend it is only mediated through the other masters of Viennese form: Adorno’s own divinities: Schoenberg and Webern. But let’s take a step back and talk about Viennese Classicism.


Viennese Clasccisism


What Adorno refers to as Viennese classicism refers to a golden age around the middle of the 18th Century (ah, the 18th century, my favourite time in philosophy), where the greats such as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn developed stylistic innovations which emphasised a particular brand of balance, and form over feeling. I am led to feel that this historical ideal of the 18th Century is clouded by Adorno through the Schoenberg perspective. Late Beethoven cannot be said to exhibit balance in its emotional temperament. Perhaps Adorno’s understanding is anachronstic. It is often said that talk of a ‘First and Second Reich’ only came about when the Third Reich was conceptualised as a notion. Likewise, there seems to be no Viennese Classicism in Adorno without what had come to be known as the Second Viennese school. There are reasons to support this interpretation in other essays where Adorno compares and contrasts Wagner’s composing and scoring to Schoenberg. The essay ‘Colour’ comes to mind when thinking of Adorno comparing to another ‘Viennese great’, which I shall write about hopefully soon enough.


Why is Viennese Classicism so important? This to me is the real issue of this essay. If Wagner is a composer of gestural motions, it is because he does not pay attention to the innovative aspects of his forebears such as Beethoven. Beethoven and Mozart were masters of form when it came to composition, they were masters of developing melodic lines and harmonies and of transitioning keys. I take this to be more than a musical opinion but a strong personal conviction. However I am sceptical of Adorno’s disapproval. I understand the ideological and cultural grounds for saying that Wagner fails as a composer compared to Beethoven. Then again, almost every other composer fails to compare to Beethoven, and those that dare to surpass him number on a four-fingered hand. Of course Adorno would think Schoenberg numbers among that four (as do I!).


The Tristan passage which Adorno is highly distainful of, I find hard to be convinced that this is terrible part writing. Adorno talks more about the Tristan passage in his essay ‘Motiv’. Which particularly goes into what I consider as a very contraversial view about Leitmotif. If Wagner was a composer of gestures, then he has fooled even me that his harmonies are luxurious. Indeed Meister Wilhelm even convinced Nietzsche for a time. Adorno stated in his own musicological way of the shallowness of Wagner’s writing which has a simultaneous appeal to it, because it is gestural. Adorno says this where Nietzsche says in much pithier words: Only sick music makes money today.


Some conclusions

Part of me wonders as I read this book, and as we had also written an essay on Glenn Gould on this blog some weeks ago: what would have Gould thought of Adorno? Adorno very much resembles one of the personalities that Gould adopted in his broadcasting work, of the avant-garde radical composer. Both are fans of Schoenberg, I keep emphasising this because there are very few of us in the world, living and dead! However, for very similar reasons, Gould enjoys Bach where Adorno valorises the Vienna 18th Century. Gould however, was no big fan of Beethoven or Mozart (Gould once made the infamous comment that ‘Mozart died too late’). Part of me wonders whether Adorno’s vision of music prefigured a character like Glenn Gould, or whether Gould’s later piano career could be seen as reflecting some of the musical ideology that could be said to be ‘Adornian’. This is a thought that I will try to develop more hopefully as I am going further along in assessing these essays.

A serious point is to be made here. I could take Adorno’s views here seriously, and I would respond to say I am not convinced that a lack of form is such a bad thing in something like the Tristan concert prelude. However, I find Adorno’s reasons very apt, if they were applied to other music. Something that I have also been suspecting about Adorno is finding textual evidence. Namely, that Adorno could have been a formalist aesthetically speaking. Formalism is the view that what makes something beautiful is the form of it, and the underlying rules and principles that govern that art form. Those are the things that made Beethoven great, those are also the things that made Schoenberg a great composer too. But if Wagner were a great composer, it would only be for him as a dilettante. But that said, that to me is not necessarily a bad thing. This is an essay where Adorno is uncharitable, but his points force me to take them seriously because of the strength of the psychoanalytic association between Wagner’s character and the shallowness of his writing. Perhaps if we are to take formalism seriously as an aesthetic view, we may draw from an essay like this to evaluate its merits, by looking at the demerits of its alternative.



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