Hegel, Adorno, and the Modern Composer

by Matthew Raley

Can evangelicals be united by a common music today? Can sacred music edify, or must we wander in a consumeristic wasteland of narcissism? These are the questions I am considering here, here, and here.

One of the reasons corporate worship has decayed is that Western culture, as I sketched last week, has a troubled view of individuality and community. Modernism abstracted community into a collective consciousness — to some thinkers a mystical, universal mind, to others the industrialized economy, to others a fascist state — into which individuals were absorbed.

Individuals, in reaction, sought to recover freedom, rebelling against collective demands. Arguably, today’s postmodern self-adoration is one result.

Let’s go a step further into these themes. I believe there is a clear reason why Western culture has degenerated into alienation. The wrong god has been reigning, to the destruction of those who serve that god.

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), many argue, set the idol on its pedestal — if unintentionally. Hegel developed a view of history that influenced thinkers as divergent as Fichte and Marx.

History is sovereign over human events, working to realize its will through a dialectical process of synthesizing contradictions. What history does cannot be undone, ignored, or defied. History must be served.

In particular, history must be served by the artist, of whom Hegel required (in his Philosophy of Fine Art) “a liberal education . . . in which every kind of superstition and belief which remains restricted to certain forms of observation and presentation should receive their proper subordination as merely aspects or phasal moments of a larger process; aspects which the free human spirit has already mastered when it once and for all sees that they can furnish it with no conditions of exposition and creative effort which are, independently for their own sake, sacrosanct.”

Unpack that rationalist sentence.

The artist uses reason to master his culture. He stands back from cultural forms, seeing them merely as history’s tools, not as truths in their own right. Thus the artist is culturally free. But he must use his freedom to express history’s truth, subordinating forms to their role as “moments of a larger process.”

Hegel himself did not intend history to become the god that, for instance, dialectical materialism made of it. But a god it became.

The Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) applied Hegel’s view of the arts to music. Adorno opened his Philosophy of Modern Music (Trans. by Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster [New York: Continuum, 2003], p 3) with a quote from Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art: “For in human Art we are not merely dealing with playthings, however pleasant or useful they may be, but . . . with a revelation of truth.”

Adorno also quoted the Hegel passage cited above (p 13), and responded to it. History, he argued, had swept away the freedom Hegel envisioned, moving through the force of collectivism (p 17). “At the present level of development the artist is incomparably much less free than Hegel could ever have believed at the beginning of the liberal era.”

Adorno saw the old world of art forms held in common by all as bankrupt. The domineering force of commercialism was suffocating individual expression, relying on old artistic forms and techniques (dance, tonality, polyphony) to lull the masses with empty certitudes. For music to say something historically true, it had to undermine the familiar with maximum individual expression.

Individual compositions, he said, became laws unto themselves, self-contained and self-defined structures that made no attempt to connect with an audience, instead ignoring the audience and rejecting its claims. Adorno analyzed the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Adorno’s own teacher Alban Berg, showing how the atonal twelve-tone system of composition served history and rose to the level of truth by enabling a composition to obey its own laws. An example (Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25):

But, Adorno said, this maximized individuality still didn’t give the artist freedom (pp 17-18):

[T]he artist has become the mere executor of his own intentions, which appear before him as strangers – inexorable demands of the compositions upon which he is working. That type of freedom which Hegel ascribes to the composer . . . is, as always, necessarily related to the traditionally pre-established, within which framework there are manifold possibilities. On the other hand, what is simply of itself and for itself cannot be other than it is and excludes the conciliatory acts by which Hegel promised himself the salvation of instrumental music. The elimination of everything traditionally pre-established – the corresponding reduction of music to the absolute monad – causes it to ossify and affects its innermost content.

So Adorno further shows that, in twelve-tone music, the only option for the composer to express himself is to rebel against the internal laws of his compositions — in other words, to go insane. As an example of this rebellion, he cites the heroine of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, who finds her lover murdered (p 42): “Musical language is polarized according to its extremes: towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks.”

Can music console? Adorno said no. There is no true consolation for modern individuals, only the expression of fragmentation and anxiety. Can music edify? Again, no. Adorno argued that music must not connect people. There is no we anymore.

The agony of this story is that Adorno’s reasoning follows relentlessly from Hegel’s premise. If history is sovereign, then individuals will serve it, artists included. The cultural bankruptcy Adorno saw was real, and the empty boasts of modernism have spawned the various strains of postmodernism.

For evangelicals to worship together in any other mode than demographic conformity, we will have to rebuild a concept of how individuals live in community.

As I’ll sketch next week, that involves dethroning history and bowing to the God who is truly sovereign.

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