Rows, by any other name? notes on Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music

Michael Morse

Among Theodor Adorno’s problems in Philosophy of New Music  are two. First, the uneven application of the hypersubjective methodologies of psychoanalysis (and the free use of these methods in directions that their creator, Freud, expressly and articulately anticpated and rejected–even as he practiced them himself). Second, the arhythmic conception of ‘musical material,’ based only in the broadest dictates of historical time, without correlation to the moment. (Save in a few fleeting and fascinating glimpses of insight into Schoenberg, ‘the moment’ does not appear in the book at all.)


This second error is readily comprehensible, almost too much so. Adorno’s passionate polemic defends a musical system misunderstood and despised at the time, a system whose procedural logic intrinsically depended on separating pitch from time. The creation or selection of a row seemingly has per se nothing to do with its rhythmic or even melodic or contrapuntal application; to all appearances, no twelve-tone row has any directly rhythmic properties.  In fact, a comparison of the rows of Webern’s Concerto and Orchestral Variations and their deployment in those works reveals an organicism that is very much rhythmic. The insistent triplicity of the former contrasts to the mirrored quadruplicity of the latter, and Webern’s Goethean aesthetic impels him to exploit these shape differences rather than hiding them. As understood by Webern, the two rows mandate different kinds of phrase rhythm and structure, which in turn generates formal differences at the largest formal levels.

Although the logical argument is necessarily circular, I believe the aesthetic argument is not: on the evidence of what he did write (with these two rows), Webern could not have written the pieces he did if the rows were exchanged. A twelve-tone row is remarkably similar to a harmonic progression, in the sense that, in part, an artful composer appears to compose out the possibilities virtually intrinsic to the configuration. Just as some sculptors will claim to see their completed work already complete, embedded in the rock they work, with their task only to remove what covers that piece, so composers develop the temporal implications of a series, or of a given bass line or progression.


Adorno explicitly recognizes the similarity here, and its general import . It is a key part of the notion of musical material. What Adorno misses, however, is the crucial temporal aspect of both the process and the result. For all Adorno’s own considerable musicality and passionate sympathy for Schoenberg and his circle, as the argument for the historical necessity of twelve-tone music progresses, the artistic validity of Schoenberg’s (and Berg’s and Webern’s) music recedes. More and more, a row becomes an abstract cloud of dialectically-dictated pure relation, a conception related to time only in the broad sense of history and social totality. In the interest of defending the moral necessity of this socially-dissonant temporality, Adorno comes perilously close to denying that twelve-tone music can have any immediate forward motion or tangible rhythmic/melodic logic.


In following out the logic of his own argument, Adorno misunderstands how musicians follow out the logic of theirs. The poignant irony is that the conflict is unnecessary. Had Adorno thought through the analogy between row and harmonic progression, for example, he could have reconciled the temporal outsider status (in 1948) of the serial composer with the musical artisan and artists’ insider process. However profoundly at odds with the incompletely acknowledged misery of his time that Schoenberg may have been, however much his own artistic process may have amounted to a standing moral refutation of everyone else’s, it was just that, an artistic process. As Adorno also admits, (but ultimately dismisses), Schoenberg, the author of Harmonielehre , stressed his craftsmanship, virtually at the expense of his artistry sometimes.  His own defence of his music is not merely the inverse of Adorno’s, nor should they be seems as complementary, I believe. Certainly, Schoenberg’s version of the correlation of the moment (of artistic process) and history has proven naïve. The dissonances of even the Chamber Symphony have not turned out to be higher consonances that, eventually, audiences would recognize and accept. Significantly, this conception presumes that the obstacle to acceptance, and the basis of Schoenberg’s outcast status, is based specifically in pitch. Berg’s defence of Schoenberg is a virtuosic apology for Schoenberg’s rhythmic logic; yet I think it is fair to say that this, too, treats phrase-groups in a largely non-processual way (Reich, 1985: 179ff.).


In other words, Adorno was not outside the rational world of the Schoenberg circle in some conceptual senses, much as he was radically opposed to it in others. The significance of the discrepancy is subsumed in the larger problem presented by his argument (in Philosophy of New Music), which manages to embrace the abstraction from social time of Schoenberg’s craftsmanly aesthetic (and the aesthetics of music theory generally), and the transcendent (in Kant’s sense) abstraction of historical dialectic. The combination means that Adorno’s temporal conception is uneasily reconciled with the living moment of rhythmical process.




Adorno, Theodor W. Philosophie Der Neuen Musik. 5. Aufl. ed. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft 1712, ed. Rolf Tiedemann unter Mitwirkung von Gretel Adorno Susan Buck-Morss und Klaus Schultz. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986.

Reich, Willi. Alban Berg, Leben Und Werk. München: Piper, 1985.

Schoenberg, Arnold. Harmonielehre. Jubilèaumsausg. ed. Wien: Universal Edition, 2001.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Rows, by any other name? notes on Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    Will we be tested on this material?
    Adorno and Schenker….oy.

  2. MWM says:

    Yes; but multiple choice only, and fill in the blank:
    Adorno was not a fan of:
    a. jazz
    b. sushi
    c. the jitterbug
    d. Nazis
    e. all of the above.
    The *Ursatz* is a distinctive contribution of Heinrich Sch_____ .

  3. David Cavlovic says:

    Ummm., Lesseee. No. 1, huh….too hard.
    And no. 2. The *Ursatz* is a distinctive contribution of Heinrich Sch..utz?

  4. squashed says:

    Adorno to me sounds like a composer who knows he sucks and can’t write a line worth listening and decide to philosophize about what good music suppose to be instead.
    total waste of time.

  5. cbj smith says:

    Adorno misses two important points about music that jazz has completely understood (thus his dismissal of jazz):
    1) Everything happens in time.
    2) What we hear in between the cracks (i.e., what ISN’T played) is as important as what IS played.

  6. MW Morse says:

    I think TA may be considered weak with respect to rhythm; as his comments on Stravinsky show, shrewd as they often are, he had a one-sided appreciation of musical time, although a very rich one. I think he’s less vulnerable on the second point. His comments on Webern, Mahler, and Wagner, of all people, show a great sensitivity to nuances of understatement and unstatement, too.

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