Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Translation of "Zur Zwölftontechnik" by Theodor W. Adorno

On Twelve-Tone Technique

Schoenberg’s current method of composition seems more vulnerable to radical misunderstanding than any of his earlier ones.  However much it might have desired the destruction of all predetermined musical stores of being, the explosive imaginative power in Schoenberg’s works undertook to justify itself on the basis of the decay of the musical material itself; if he now tried to employ a self-aggrandizing calculation to re-impose systematic order on the material, he would perforce be exposed as a liar in the light of how the material is presently constituted.  For the material is decaying now as it was decaying then; no natural binding force, not even the system of equal temperament and the return of the same note in octaves, is any longer associated with it.  All attempts to derive a new canon of systematic order from the state of the material itself have failed; chromaticism in its undiscriminating stepwise motion has nothing right about it, rhythmic formulas in their repeatability could never be adequate to what is unrepeatable in melodic and harmonic terms, and the harmonic function of the cadence is decaying at this very moment and cannot be restored. The inadequacy of all objectivism nowadays is owing to the fact that it presupposes a store of objectively binding determinations of material that the disqualified material does not actually offer.  If one ultimately wished to limit oneself to the small amount of rule-boundedness that may still be contained in the material, in other words the pure twelve-note scale and its repetition in octaves, the result would be very extrinsic and schematic, as has been shown in that other attempt that like Schoenberg’s method bears the name of twelve-tone composition [1] and is often confused with it, indeed claims to have been devised before it.  To be sure, in order to understand in which respects Schoenberg’s new technique differs not only from the mysticism of the perpetuum mobile-maker but also every form of naked objectivism, one must not limit oneself to collecting hallmarks of the material that he penetrates and manipulates.

The historical genesis of the twelve-tone technique is evidently on the far side of every mathematical reflection.  The fact that this genesis presupposes the dissolution of the cadential function was recently very succinctly formulated in Westphal’s book.  Only the “functionless” sound from which the organically cadential sound has been banished, a sound in which the principle of the smallest step no longer has any legitimacy, makes the dodecophonic penetration of the material possible.  But by no means does this impinge on the concrete historical dialectic that inaugurated twelve-tone technique.  In order to understand this dialectic one must set Schoenberg apart from the general chromaticizing tendency of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth rather than regard him as its mere executor.  The harmony of the early Schoenberg is characterized less by chromaticism than by its wealth of scale degrees.  For example, the principle of the smallest step, the principle of the incessant transformation of every musical process into tensions of dominance in Reger’s sense—into mere quasi-transpositions devoid of specific qualities—is negated in Schoenberg’s music from the very beginning.  His harmonic system aims only at interrupting the undifferentiated flow of post-Tristan chromaticism, at energizing the subordinate scale degrees, at constructing out the key via the avoidance of the dominant cadence.  In theoretical terms the distinction between the weak and the strong fundamental steps bears witness to this, as does the concept of the subdominant, which of course has its place within the confines of the specific key and thereby likewise sets itself against the unqualitied modulatory flow; the “wantonness of tonality” of the young Schoenberg, which Redlich once justly noted, is nothing other than the epitome of those resistances to a musical functionalism that floats from dominant to dominant and thus from key to key without introducing any qualitative differences between the harmonic values.  It was this functionalism’s procedural intermittency and not mere chromaticism that ultimately precipitated the decay of tonality, as the invigorated subordinate scale degrees made themselves self-sufficient and fully broke with the cadential function; whereas the chromatic system indeed assailed the individual key but not tonality as such.  Schoenberg’s modus operandi is nevertheless dialectically bound up with chromaticism: he brought the resistances to subordinate scale degrees into a material that was already out-chromaticized, pre-formed by Tristan, rather than, say, wielding them within the confines of diatonic harmony.  To put it briefly: he liberated the Brahmsian wealth of scale degrees from diatonic tonality and transposed it into chromatic tonality; in Redlich’s words, he “outstepped chromaticism.” With the emancipation of the outstepped chroma of tonality—which was possible thanks only to “outstepping” and no thanks to enharmonic-modulatory chromaticism—the central basis of twelve-tone music was already discovered.  In its arrangement of uniformly vertically and horizontally self-sufficient scale degrees it signifies nothing other than the protection of the sequence of steps from contamination by residues of the chromatic-cadential essence.  It enables the full pursuit of the tendency that begins with squeamishness about the repetition of the same note as the bass of a harmonic passage, a tendency that becomes greater the less tonality continues to assign to the scale degrees a position that makes them repeatable.  Squeamishness about the repetition of notes, oriented toward the outstepped chroma, whose scale degrees have all become self-sufficient, implicitly signifies twelve-tone technique.  It is nothing but the binding formula of technical and immanent experiences, a formula that in the course of its own development induced the evolution of the material via consciousness, a consciousness that was stealing itself away from the natural compulsion of the cadence.  Hence in its ultimate import twelve-tone technique must be regarded as the antithesis of mathematics, as the liberated actualization of historical necessity.

To this assertion it will now be objected that even supposing that the formation of rows is adequately legitimated by history—as is already demonstrable in the op. 16 orchestral pieces, and indeed even in the F-sharp minor quartet—the application of the rows, their reshaping through inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion, which, in combination with the complete transformation of rhythm and the free octave-wise transposition of the individual notes, and ultimately the transposition of the interleaving of horizontal and vertical work on the rows, renders the relationship to the basic row phenomenally quite unrecognizable; that this exclusively constructive application of the material is undoubtedly but the speculative implementation of a ratio that of its own initiative wishes to dictate a systematic organization of the material that is not drawn from the material itself and that therefore constitutes a systematic imposture and a violation of the material.  But the objection is untenable.  Those intricate manipulations are nothing other than moments of the compositional technique that were modified so radically by Schoenberg that they eventually flared back around and into the material.  Schoenberg’s technique is one that after taking Brahms as its starting point orients itself more and more towards Beethoven; it is a technique of variation by means of motivic development.  The weaker the form-shaping power of tonality became in Schoenberg’s work, the more his constructive-variative method gained in strength and finally spread itself out so extensively over his music that the latter no longer included a single note that might not have been selected with regard to its motivic-variative function.  It may be the case that the compulsion to variation is conditioned by Schoenberg’s constitutive impulse to resist every instance of repetition.  After the cessation of guaranteed repetition via tonality there remained only the possibility of the renunciation of all repetition, of the incessant production of the unprecedented—the possibility of Erwartung—or the second possibility, that of making the repetition of the same unrecognizable, of shaping the variation with ever more radical thoroughness, of ultimately pushing the variation back into the material itself.  Here the dialectical strain in Schoenberg’s work is very profoundly in evidence.  The decay of every prescribed structure of construction necessitates the autonomous fully wrought motivic-cum-variative construction of the artifact—provided that its related pole, the renunciation of all thematic work, is not in effect; a thematically fully determined and a thematically fully undetermined musical organism are extraordinarily similar to each other.  But at the same time the aversion to repetition compels the motivic-cum-variative interconnections to pull away from the musical surfaces as radically as possible, to move off and go into hiding within themselves. Exhaustive thematic construction and exhaustive invisibility: in such a contradiction does the kinetic productive force of Schoenberg’s style-formation gather itself.  This force becomes fruitful as it orients itself towards the material of the rows.  The relational forms of twelve-tone technique signify that here, in exhaustive economy, as preordained by the row, the motivic-thematic penetration of the material is so exhaustively actualized that not a single note remains “free” anymore; that at the same time the motivic-thematic interconnections are so utterly subordinated to the variation that the same musical event scarcely ever occurs twice: that ultimately—and decisively—none of this plays out on the compositional surfaces as a modification of an identical material, that it never becomes at all recognizable as an essentially musical process but rather organizes the material behind the scenes, so to speak, before it has even really begun shaping it.  By this means it ultimately even incorporates the freedom that reigns supreme as an antipode to thematic work in Erwartung and Die Glückliche Hand; at the very least there ideally remains the possibility that twelve-tone music will simultaneously attain that freedom via strict observance of its own rules; via the fact that the organization of its material takes place before the act of composition begins, whereas this actual act of composition with the preformed material now proceeds without regard for recognizable motivic-thematic interconnections and joins the new to the new in utter heedlessness of predetermined characteristic forms and yet is covertly predetermined via the row and the transformations of the rows.  To be sure, Schoenberg himself did not initially develop the new technique in this direction; rather, adopting an architectonic approach, he turned to compositions that had a recognizable surface structure and unprecedentedly allowed for the artificial repetition of corresponding formal divisions. In each of his twelve-tone works, the quintet for example, there are two layers of formal construction so to speak—a latent variative-twelve tone layer, and on top of that a manifestly audible one that approximates the classical sonata form.  Once the constructing-out of the classical forms has been successfully achieved by means of the rationally illumined material, the manifestly audible layer of construction begins to slacken once again as the latent twelve-tone layer enriches itself and inspissates; in the chamber suite, op. 29, comic—albeit still-symmetrical—characters appear on the scene in lieu of the ironclad sonata, and the mighty first movement of the third quartet, which at first hearing seems to be held together solely by an ostinato rhythmic motif, is already once again abstracted from every prescribed form.  On the one hand, this development seems to be aiming to allow twelve-tone technique to be so multifariously elaborated within itself that it can yield to the musical impulse of the moment in the absence of all pre-planned compulsion; on the other hand the external forms that twelve-tone music avails itself of seem once again to be softening all the more in order to subordinate themselves all the more faithfully to that which is musically unique and concrete the more kinetically twelve-tone music itself allows itself to be wielded.  A conspectus of this tendency has been delivered by Anton Webern’s string trio, a shamefully misunderstood masterpiece of the new music that adheres strictly to twelve-tone technique and even more strictly to the architecture of sonata form and at the same time seamlessly joins together with the disintegrated style of Webern’s earlier music; there could scarcely be more striking proof of how little twelve-tone music inhibits any composer who receives it as a baton in the relay race of musical history.

The image that is thus yielded by twelve-tone technique fundamentally diverges from the conventional one.  Twelve-tone technique is by no means merely some new knack by means of which well-behaved composers might have made their lives easier through the tidy compilation of rows; in point of fact, it has made their lives more difficult than ever before in thrusting back onto the material that which appeared to be the task of composition in days of old.  One of these people might fancy that it legitimates him as a composer, that it now suffices for him to organize his material in something like the way in which it used to be organized via tonality; but let there be no mistake: twelve-tone technique does not hover over the composition as an abstract a priori; rather, each row is indissolubly interlocked with the composition.  Twelve-tone technique is the preformation of the material; with undreamt-of severity the act of composing itself has separated itself from the process of preformation and committed itself to liberty; therefore, the less one “notices” rows and retrograde inversions the better for the composition, for compositional liberty. Moreover, twelve-tone technique is, in Ernst Bloch’s words, not mathematical but rather dialectical in essence: in it, history, but only history laid low as an actuating principle, has outgrown compositional liberty.  In closing: the rationality of twelve-tone technique is not the bad and empty rationality of a practicable system.  Rather, it designates a historical stage at which consciousness is taking control of the natural material, obliterating its stifling coerciveness, methodically classifying it and illuminating it through and through.  By the clear, transparent light of the technique’s rationality, the flame of imagination that is now on the verge of dying out completely in the caves of prehistory shall be reignited.


[1] The twelve-tone method of Josef Hauer, which “essentially consisted in writing the chromatic scale over and over in a different order each time,” (so Charles Rosen in his monograph on Schoenberg), whence the reference to “the perpetuum mobile-maker” in the next sentence. [DR]


Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2020 by Douglas Robertson

Source:  Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 18, pp. 363ff.

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