Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Translation of "Schönberg: Von heute auf morgen, op. 32 (I)" by Theodor W. Adorno

Schoenberg: From One Day to the Next, op. 32 (I)
World Premiere in Frankfurt
Schoenberg’s first comedic work for the stage is enjoying its tempestuous success, a success far more inflamed than inhibited by detraction, and criticism is sedulously and belatedly striving in vain yet again to prove to him that he is asocial; the audience, colorful enough and specialized only to the extent that those musical score-fortified critics were interspersed among it, has unequivocally let it be known that it was impressed by the opera.  To be sure this does not mean that Schoenberg has wound up becoming a sort of composer of social music for the sake of a society that does not exist and whose non-existence axiomatically precludes the existence of such music: rather, in his op. 32, as in all his music, there is always present the consciousness that the socially binding character of music is measurable solely in terms of its objective musical content and not at all in terms of its regard for an imaginary audience that is capable solely of disturbing the inner coherence of the composition. Instead of conning people and vacuously leaving them to their own devices, this music safeguards the mystery of what binds people together, a mystery locked away in its deepest cells.  Whether the work is “understood” here and now remains a secondary question: the power of its mystery was self-evident to the listeners and struck more deeply than the manifest attestations of a will to mystery arising from an avowedly social motivation rather than an artistic one ever could.  Whether a transformed society, a society both free and rationally structured, will receive Schoenberg’s free and rational music in preference to credulous nature-worshiping inanity remains to be seen.  Besides, what does the question of intelligibility actually mean?  Is anybody hoping to understand a work by counting its twelve-tone rows as he listens to it?  If so, he will hope in vain, for it is Schoenberg’s precise intention to strip away from the surface the twelve-tone structures that everybody is making such a fuss about, and his present work’s inspired dialectical point of advantage consists in its rendering invisible all work on the rows via the presence of what visibly manifests itself in the here and now. With profound irony he has termed twelve-tone technique his own private affair; to understand his work initially means nothing other than to take hold of the musical shapes, their organization, the melodic arcs and their simultaneity in acoustic immediacy.  This is made difficult not by any sort of fabled “abstraction,” of which there can be no serious talk in relation to the most colorful and materially just orchestral sound that has ever been produced, but rather and solely thanks to the richness of a compositional imagination that in a manner of speaking penetrates all compositional devices and wields them at the most progressive level of their historical movement; on the other hand it is made easier by the unprecedented economy that weighs out this cornucopia of devices without allowing any one of them ever to be paralyzed by the other; it is further facilitated by a plasticity of everything musically particular—of every particular theme no less than of every particular choice of instrumentation or dramatic gesture—a plasticity that separates the partial totalities from one another with the greatest acuity and yet again binds them to one another and to the total process.  Viewed in its essentially central terms, as opposed to those that would subject it to prescribed stylistic norms, the opera is as light as every great artwork that flourishes in the concretion of its own shape, and as serious as every such work that unfolds out of itself as entelechy and fashions history instead of orientating itself historically.
Anyone who found it difficult to orient himself towards this unoriented but proper opera was able to fall back on the harmless expedient of blaming the libretto by Max Blonda for this difficulty.  This libretto certainly makes this easy enough to do; if the accusation of inhuman esotericism was ready to hand, one could quite effectively adduce it in counterpoint with that of banality.  Anyone who is capable of such astonishing insights should merely be mindful that they are not unfamiliar territory for Schoenberg. The dialectical relationship between word and music, whose prominence in Schoenberg’s corpus of Lieder I have attempted to highlight, is made into a binding formula in Von heute auf morgen.  This relationship will be entirely, transparently visible only once the bourgeois world that is consigned to the antithetical music in the opera has passed into history.  Then it will become apparent that this bourgeois apartment was set up in Hell, whose laughter reverberates from the corners of its wall closets, whose servient spirits sleep with each other in its fold-out bed, whose light fluoresces on its electrically illuminated balcony, where the wife displays herself, radiant with her prospective betrayal of her husband.  In the presence of this laughter nothing remains but the love of these two human beings, a love articulated in wretched, obsolete words and mirrored by the music in the tentative sonority of reconciliation.  Between the inauthentic, inconsiderable sphere of the libretto and the violent transparency of the music lies a medium with which both spheres communicate, that of the dream; this is nowhere more evident than in the passage in which the gas meter reader is discussed; the husband has just come back from answering his doorbell-ring, the wife, now wearing her fairy tale-style cape, acts as if she genuinely doesn’t understand what he is actually talking about; her attitude is quite remote from that of her everyday life down on earth, but does she actually understand what is going on with the meter reader?  The music at least suggests otherwise; the word gas meter reader cuts into its glassy, close light, a light that is intangible for all its lucidity, as unintelligibly as an alarm clock into the dreamy gossamer of blissful sleep; here the dream has already become much more real and authentic than the leftovers of daytime that it is consuming, and nothing justifies itself better than that in the course of the happy ending the gas bill, a spook from afar that interrupted the reality of the dream, finds itself paid.

The reality of the dream is that of the music.  The music does not allow the dream to dissolve into intuition; it banishes the dream bodily into the thick enclosure of its construction; the construction of the dream finds expression in pure formal immanence; it finds it so absolutely that during the opera not a single breath remains to defile it; no piece by Schoenberg seems less likely to be disrupted by a performance than this one, his strangest composition, whose iridescent coherence never allows a single inconsistency to seep into it.  At the same time its coherence is what makes it genuinely difficult; not a single moment of affective breakthrough affords the listener access to the enclosure, which instead arches over him perforce from the very first note, an enclosure in which he is compelled to take up residence.  But at the same time like Aladdin’s Palace it possesses the freedom of the dream.  In this hermetically sealed building the light surges as wantonly and insouciantly as the current of “Erwartung” did before.  The contrapuntal forms that occur are never measurable as structures; rather, they are commensurate solely with the onstage situation: the contrasts and elective affinities that initially imbue the relationship between the husband and the wife and subsequently the one between the actual and the phantom couple spontaneously effectuate the musical idea of the canon and double canon and at the same time conceal it behind the irreversible progress of time over the course of the scene. The arcs described by the singers’ voices are expansively curved and at the same time sparing with large intervals; in their comprehensibility twelve-tone technique is paying off in practically performable terms for the first time; the recurrence of the same intervallic relations lightens the singers’ intonation and sharpens their consciousness of the melody.  No description is capable of giving the reader an idea of the score’s orchestra; only analysis will suffice.  This orchestra puts paid to the fluid, functional Wagnerian sonority, just as the harmonic-cum-polyphonic structure, which realizes the work’s own sonority, initially seems “functionless” in an exhaustive sense and eradicates the last vestiges of relations depending on the leading tone; but here, unlike in neoclassicism, the break with Wagnerian functionalism, with its infinitesimal transitions in sonority, is not actuated by the conception of a stark, transition-free and homogenous ensemble-generated sonority that archaically falsifies the state of the material; rather, in an exhaustive, complete instrumentation of all lines it garners a polychromatically refracted, transition-rich soloistic sonority whose facets give an exhaustive account of the lineation, absorb the liberty of the melodic shapes into the liberty of coloration and yet remain present in the composition’s formal immanence. All proliferating tensions have vanished from this sonority; at the same time it never remains static for more than a second; but its life is not that of the consumptive urge but rather the movement of a salvaged kaleidoscope whose figures become legible like the illuminatingly moved script of the transparencies of evening in big cities.  This talk about the transparency of the music risks detracting from an appreciation of the relation of the music to the text and also from an appreciation of the unprecedentedly perspicuous and balanced manner in which the music propounds its literal meaning.  This material of this meaning is metal.  Chords that are simultaneously of such striking precision and such striking resonance as the ones struck here have never before been heard, and the web of voices itself sounds as though it has been woven out of metal threads whose colorfulness signifies the reflection of an unknown source of light.  It is no accident that Schoenberg has fashioned a veritable system of colors out of the harp, the piano, and pizzicato strings; nor is it any accident that this system makes its entrance in cooperation with the percussion instruments.  But this system is not nakedly reflected outward; no, it is drawn into the plenitude of nuances so that it can serve them and master them.  The metal of this opera is molten.

The Frankfurt Opera has at last reestablished its right to exist.  Its presentation of the most difficult work in the repertoire is beyond all praise—not by the standards of the opera business, for example, but by the most rigorous standards of reproductive consciousness.  The conductor, Hans Wilhelm Steinberg, is the load-bearing member of the production in virtue of his extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the score, in virtue of his veritably unprecedented capacity for realizing it so perfectly that it resounds with the genuine self-evidence of the dream.  The director, Herbert Graf, masters the score in scenic terms and manages to use the singers’ gestures no less effectively than the set-design to convey the complete transparency of the relation between the stage-action and the music.  Mrs. Gentner-Fischer in the principal female role delivered both on the musical and the vocal planes—not that either is in truth separable from the other–with equal perfection; it is more than high time for the name of this great and seasoned singer to be mentioned beyond its local purview, as it has deserved to be for years.  She received more than ample support from Mr. Ziegler and the contrapuntal couple, sung by Elisabeth Friedrich and Anton Maria Topitz.


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. 376 ff.

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