Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (4): ‘Sonority’

In Adorno’s two essays ‘Sonority’ and ‘Colour’; Sonority pertains to the significance of Wagner’s chromaticism and the harmonic choices applied in his operatic works; Colour relates to the effective application of instrumentation in Wagner’s score-writing. I will focus on the subject of ‘Sonority’ and Adorno’s reading that Wagner uses Chromaticism as a form of emotional regression, which in turn is an analogue for social regresion.

 

Sonority 

 

Regress 

 

Adorno points out the regressive tendencies of Wagner, even comparing it to the pre-historic alludings of the later composer Stravinski (Adorno 2009, p.51). Within the theme of historical and cultural regression to a previous time, The social subject can find himself within Wagner’s regression (Ibid, p. 52)

 

What is the significance of Regression? The significance is that in the regressive mentality, the subject sacrifices sovereignty to the totality of the music. Regression is in a dictionary sense, the antonym of progress. However, we may establish the equivocation of that term in a similar way. Namely, Adorno’s reading of an emotional and cultural regression of the subject enjoying the Wagnerian work, surrenders a capacity for critical thought or reflection upon the possibility of any alternative to the status quo beyond the options provided in the text, namely, present day, or regress.

 

Perhaps one way of illustrating the power of regression is through the recent Del Toro film ‘Pacific Rim’. There is a scene where a character, Mako, is placed in a machine where (for complicated reasons) she is suddenly stuck immersed into re-living a childhood memory. This memory was so powerful and tragic to Mako that she was unable to pull out of it and return to the present. Mako’s present was a situation in which she was vital and required her agency to effect change. Mako’s disposition to give her past trauma so much power became a hindrance to moving forward. Perhaps this might be a way of trying to illuminate Adorno’s wariness regarding the idea of regress.

 

Regress as a musical notion 

 

Musically speaking, Wagner’s rich harmonies fill the physical space of a venue and emotionally give an otherworldly feel. Adorno describes this other-wordliness specifically as non-temporal. The choices of harmonic decisions in Wagner’s composing are compared to the Impressionists of decades later. The impressionists in Adorno’s view percieved their reality and abstracted from it, and the result was their work of art. Musically speaking, this otehr-worldiness can have very powerful effects. The dreamy nature of Debussy in his most famous piano pieces (such as Clare de Lune) gives an otherworldy nature of perhaps introspection, natural beauty. The celesta in ‘The Hut of Baba Yaga’ of Korsakov’s ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’ has an otherworldly quality of fantasy worlds that do not exist but in the world of paintings and human imagination.

 

I want it to be clear that other-worldy can mean very many things. However for Adorno, Wagner’s other-worldliness, his sonority, is specifically about a specific mental state of introspective regress. Music as a medium is distinctly non-representational, however the medium of Opera, which is also a dramatic and visual medium, gives the audience a specific leaning towards the meaning of the harmony.

 

Adorno says (p. 54) that Romanticism made Chromaticism a thing of progress, but Wagner turned it bland. Adorno puts forward a notion of Romanticism where suffering is expressed through chromaticism (p. 56), and chromaticism shows the poles of suffering and sweetness are blurred. Wagner presents pain in a pleasant way.

 

Wagner’s use of enharmonics as a way of transitioning in a way that alludes to the ‘old’ and original chord (p. 58-9):

 

But, by a strange reversal of the norm, these devices come to occupy the centre of the musical process and this endows them with an unprecedented power. They become fully comprehensible only in the light of a comparison with the most advanced material of contemporary music from which the inexorable presence of the Wagnerian transition has been eliminated (p. 59)

 

Sonority and regression – coda 

Why is this issue important? This issue reminds me of what is at the heart of a concept that I’ve been establishing in my mind that I may call Musical Conservatism. Musical conservatism is the notion that preserving aspects of past music in new music is a good. Musical conservatism is also by such a definition, resistant to innovation and emerging new idioms.

Regression is one aspect of musical conservatism, and I see conservatism everywhere in much current music. As a genre becomes established, new deities are made. Metallica, Slayer or Black Sabbath are deified in metal circles. In Black Metal, it is abit of a cliche to hear lots of underground bands referring to themselves as ‘true black metal’ or ‘raw black metal’ or ‘kvelt’, and despite the originally dire and revolutionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the bands of 20+ years ago in the early black metal scenes, what these ‘raw’ and ‘kvelt’ bands do are simply valorising the now-old Gods, and adding to their mythos by replicating their sound and aesthetic.

Regression is everywhere, even in the revolutionary mindset. The most dangerous aspect and the biggest threat to authenticity of revolutionary movement, political and aesthetic, is a fan base that valorises. Adorno’s discussion of Sonority is far more widespread than Wagner’s romanticism. Such regressive aesthetics permeate within any movement. What is particularly notable is that the forward thinking of the Romantic aesthetic eventually subverted through Wagner, into the repressive.

Michael

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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.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (1) ‘Social Character’

In Adorno’s Essay ‘Social Character’, the philosopher attempts to go into a character study of the composer himself, through a selective history and a look at the Wagnerian texts. In particular I would like to highlight what I shall call ‘the Wagnerian joke’ and internal conflicts about the ideology of Wagner. I should say as I regularly do when I write commentaries like these, that my thoughts are always subject to change, and I am hardly authoritative when thinking and writing about Adorno. I write as if this blog were my digital moleskine diary.

 

A summary of this essay would be that Adorno tries to psychologise Wagner. In doing so, Adorno gives us a reason to consider the composer as a self-aggrandising egotist who relies on the middle-upper classes to fund his composing while at the same time critiquing the order of the status quo. Wagner also portrays his ideological vision of the world using the Jews, or rather, a stereotyped characterisation that his audience would recognise as a Jewish sentiment, as problematic to society. Adorno points out how there is an internal inconsistency, or conflict in the ways that Wagner both relies on the bourgeoisie patronage, as well as the status quo of a culture which celebrates opera; against Wagner’s supposedly revolutionary sentiment. The other ‘conflict’ relates what is casually referred to as Wagner’s secret. Namely, the accusation (which is not explicitly stated in Adorno but only alluded to), that Nietzsche knew ‘the truth’ of Wagner’s parentage, that in spite of all of Wagner’s anti-semitism, he himself may have had a Jewish heritage. So that’s a summary of the essay. I could just end my blog post here! But of course, I never do end at the beginning.

 

The Wagnerian Joke 

 

The Wagnerian Joke reflects a certain personality trait that Adorno is trying to trace in looking at Wagner historically. Adorno draws from materials such responses to Wagner’s earlier works and his own descriptions of them, testimonies about the composer as well as other stories and relationships that are documented. Such as Wagner’s letters to the Romantic heavyweight composer, Franz Liszt; Wagner’s contact with Friedrich Nietzsche and Wagner’s contact with Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the latter who became infamous for her antisemitism, but that’s another story.

 

What I would call the Wagnerian joke draws a certain unitary concept from the testimonies and characterisations that Adorno seems to string together about the way Wagner believed in his own cultic status and revolutionary character. Wagner’s sense of self-celebration is depicted also in select characters of his works.

 

The Wagnerian joke, as drawn from this essay can be understood in the following ways:

 

  1. Wagner ridicules the plight of a character whose malady comes from a concrete social situation

  2. By doing this Wagner creates a sense of humour while also attempting to create a form of celebration. The joke, and response of laughter serves as a rationalisation and acceptance of the plight in question. Instead of thinking critically about it, we laugh.

  3. A consequence of this is that Wagner makes himself in a janused fashion both malicious behind a magnanimous and friendly face

 

The Wagnerian joke is deeply sinister, and it is imbued within the comedy around Mime’s character. Another example of the Wagnerian Joke is the anecdote of Hermann Levi conducting Parsifal. Levi was a Jew and one might think that this could be something to allay the concern of Wagner’s anti-semitism. Adorno refers to a story in which Wagner gives Levi a letter written anonymously to the effect of telling Levi to step down from composing Parsifal. Levi asks why Wagner gave the conductor this letter and Wagner answers in a way that appears both kind but also deeply sinister and ugly at once. Apparently after Wagner gave the letter to Levi, the latter was deathly silent at a dinner engagement to which Wagner asked Levi why he was so quiet, which was in some darkly way, a gesture of intimidation clothed behind the appearance of concern. The Wagnerian joke is something Adorno describes and I am trying to conceptualise (by calling it the Wagnerian joke), but realistically speaking, I cannot really have a grasp on it as a notion.

 

Perhaps the closest thing that came to mine was the comedy of Ricky Gervais. Particularly in the way that Gervais uses embarrassment and humiliation as a way of breaking a character down and revealing the facade and fakeness that was really underneath. I’ve had conversations about this kind of Gervais reactionhumour (another term I made up on an ad hoc basis) and this seems to be the basis of the dislike or like of Ricky Gervais as a comedic writer. I personally am a fan of the ugliness of the Gervais reaction as there’s something very awkward and untimely about it, television sitcoms and acting seem to have this polished nature to it and the Gervais reaction is an instance of how something in real life happens that is not comedic and not timely. Whether one finds this funny, seems to be the defining question of whether one is a fan of Gervais or not.

 

Wagner’s inner conflicts 

 

Another aspect of Wagner’s social character seems to be the internal conflicts present within his work and his character. One dimension of this is the relationship with the bourgeosisie that Wagner has. Wagner is dependent on the Bourgois classes as patronage and as a paying audience. Adorno notes how Wagner occupied a time before state provisions were introduced for artists, and also when the influence of opera was waning. As such Wagner occupied a position of a bohemian, the artisan without a patron. It is interesting sociologically speaking, to think about the ways in which artists and musicians of the various times in history may find financial support before they become properly established, if they ever become established at all. This is an issue that many people in bands or many artists face today. Have we really escaped the age of the Patron. In the UK we have things like the National Lottery and the Arts Council, who are in some ways not so much different to the House of Esterhazy or Ludwig II of Bavaria.

 

Wagner’s narratives reflect a feudal mentality, and one which is in some respects against the bourgeois status-quo. Adorno points out the compromise of Wagner’s integrity to take the thalers of patrons and appealing to bourgeois sensibilities, while also trying to provide a revolutionary sentiment of a different social order. How far can one be revolutionary while conforming to the modes of the status quo? In some ways this is not a unique issue. Another book I’m currently reading, by filmmaker Kevin Smith: “Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good”  speaks about the early days of Miramax and the indie films he made with them. Smith speaks about how the rise and rise of Smith’s career was due to a commitment to a specific vision of his stylised view to filmmaking. Smith later admits that the intervention of studio executives interfering with various aspects of his filmic vision led to a compromise and a loss of interest from a large part of his audience. I think the film that Smith refers to as destroying him in the book was ‘Cop out’. Back to Wagner…

 

This kind of compromise might look disingenuous. But I do wonder if Adorno meant it to be so. This kind of tension is based on the social conditions of creating music. If I were to create music today, I’d need access to quite a fair bit of equipment. I would need some fancy software and fancy recording equipment and it’s not too easy to get a hold of a lot of that stuff without a studio, or making one! I’m actually having this problem lately as it happens with another project. On the other hand, Wagner’s ideology that underpins his opera libretti are deeply imbued as social narratives and visions of society. One reading of this inconsistency is suggestive the necessity of a consideration of the means of production in the culture industry and thinking along that narrative, another reading reveals the strained relationship with the bourgoisie that Wagner had following a textual consideration.

 

The other inconsistency needs a bit of unpacking. Wagner as an anti-semite characterised these behaviours and characters that an audience of his time would associate with Jewish connotations and the negative stereotypes of their day, as well as reflecting cultural worries. Wagner’s vitriol was a point of contention when it came to his friendship with Nietzsche. Adorno points out how Niezsche alluded to ‘Wagner’s secret’ or the inconsistency of knowing the truth about Wagner in the light of these antisemitic characterisations and attitudes in the latter’s work. I am slightly perplexed at the way Adorno words this issue, because it seems not explicit. After some digging, I think what Adorno was alluding to in not enough words was the controversial claim that Richard Wagner’s father was not Carl Wagner, but his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer. Also by extension, the rumour that Geyer was Jewish would by this line of speculation entail that Wagner had a Jewish heritage. I think it is reasonable that this is what Adorno is alluding to with Nietzsche’s allegation, which I think comes from Nietzsche’s 1888 work Der Fall Wagner.

 

With this line of thought I am unsure of how seriously to take this. Adorno goes into detail of how the characters Alberich and Mime reflect Wagnerian ideosyncracies which rely on cultural prejudices and the “Race theory [which] assumes its rightful place in the no man’s land between idiosyncracy and paranoia” (Adorno 2009: 15). Adorno thinks that the racialised characterisation and the ‘ideosyncracies’ as he calls it, reflect and betray the deeply anti-semitic character of Wagner’s work.

 

Concluding thoughts 

 

Adorno reads into the ugliness of Wagner’s character in this essay. The beautiful music and lyricism of works such as Der Meistersingers von Nürnberg are met by the inexorable ugliness of the character of Wagner. Reading this book we are led to ask that open question: how do we square this circle of a great composer who is, according to Adorno, ugly to the core. Perhaps this is an ongoing question we should have when reading this book.

Another thing I might worry about when reading Adorno is that there seems to be an internal logic to reading this book. If one is reading ‘In Search of Adorno’ as a way to interpreting Wagner, we would be dealing with the simplistic reading of ‘is this how to interpret Wagner?’, and the answer to that is probably better answered by reading some more specialised Wagner literature. There does seem however, to be another alternate route to reading this text, and that is by a principle of charity, taking serious the internal logic and argumentation of where Adorno is going with his line of thought. This involves a suspension of judgment more akin to when I’m reading say Descartes or Kant. An example of this would be: when reading Descartes on the soul or on God, or Kant on his metaphysics, one simply has to assume we can validly talk about the soul, or God before engaging critically with their thoughts, failing to do so is failing to be an exegete. That said, I do wonder how far Adorno’s internal logic is seperatable from reading the text without having such a charitable hermeneutical perspective.

Michael