Autumn. Meditations about life. About my life. The purpose of my life. Missed opportunities. Valuable experiences made. Hidden facets of my character. Mindset evolutions. The passing of time. Future projects. Strong convictions, far-reaching resolutions. A sense of responsibility. Those were my thoughts when I first listened to Theodor W. Adorno’s 6 Studies for String Quartet. Thought-provoking pieces of music, of a singular beauty and with a remarkable expressivity.
I met Adorno decades ago when I started to study political sciences in Munich, the year the Berlin Wall came down. Adorno is better known as a philosopher and sociologist, and I recently stumbled over a reprint of a speech he gave in 1967 at the University of Vienna. He talked about the roots of right-extremism and how the basic sources that fueled Hitler’s popularity had not been addressed in Germany after World War II. The fear of the middle-class to lose out on an ever-growing division of labour. The feeling of being overwhelmed by political and economical evolutions that a single person does not understand easily, evolutions shaping the future of entire nations and continents. Fear is at the root of extremism, and the answer of extremism is to provide simple “truths” and a strong leader.
What Adorno said in 1967 can be applied to Germany today without any restrictions. Adorno was a remarkable thinker. He also was an eager composer, even though his output is not exactly huge and his name is only known to experts. Adorno studied music with Alban Berg, a pupil of Arnold Schönberg and was exposed to Schönberg’s music. He composed and at the same time he wrote about the evolution of music beyond tonality. Schönberg did not appreciate Adorno’s theoretical models and Adorno didn’t appreciate Schönberg’s music, but Adorno became a close friend of Schönberg’s pupil, Anton Webern.
The 6 Studies for String Quartet were written in 1920 and are considered to belong to Schönberg’s Second Viennese School. Adorno was sceptical about Schönberg’s strict application of the 12-tone-serialism*, but this work includes stylistic elements as they had been defined by Schönberg as well as elements from the late Romanticist period. He did not want to write extreme music as Schönberg postulated as he feared a loss of meaning.
Adorno considered the Neue Musik as music building on earlier musical languages, peppered with occasional wrong notes. “One is heading towards absurdity. These pieces are without meaning in a strictly musical sense”, he once wrote. The philosopher-composer traced the loss of expressivity back to the fear of the individual, which has become unbearable for Man and which Man thus has excluded from the music. Adorno believed that art had succumbed to the seriousness of the situation.
Strong convictions from one of the most eminent German philosophers of the 20th century. You may find some of them reflected in his work. 6 Studies for String Quartet has been recorded by the Leipziger Streichquartett.
© Charles Thibo