From revolution to irrelevance: how classical music lost its audience

Issue: 121

Simon Behrman

For the best part of 50 years it has been common to ask whether “classical” music is dead/dying.1 More than classical theatre, literature or art, classical music seems more and more to be the preserve of a tiny elite. Are we in danger of losing a living tradition of music that stretches back several hundred years? Will it take its place alongside Latin and Greek tragedy as a museum piece interesting only to scholars and a few antiquarians? Why has classical music fallen into such a parlous state? In short, how did classical music lose its audience?

The question has been approached in many different ways, by looking, for example, at its social history;2 the evolution of concert performance away from critical engagement between composer, performer and audience to one of mere spectacle;3 and the corrupting influence of the recording industry.4 To give a comprehensive account of all these elements of the crisis is beyond the scope of this piece. Instead I will concentrate on the struggle of the composer to unite form and content in relating to the audience in an age of rapid commercialisation. I will focus on the problem of how to maintain autonomy from the pressures of commercialism without sacrificing the necessary reference points that make an art form as inherently abstract as music accessible to a mass audience. And even here, it is only possible to discuss a few examples.5 The overarching aim of this article is, however, to help break down the elitism that all too often alienates modernist music from so many people.

Adorno’s insights

We must begin by looking at what is, from a Marxist perspective, the most sophisticated analysis of this crisis of musical meaning so far attempted: the work of the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno.6 His work contains many penetrating insights, but as an analytic paradigm it is elitist, pessimistic and overly formalist. For him, the test of musical “truth” (a highly ambiguous notion in itself) is measured solely by the way in which composers situate themselves, first within musical history, that is, the way in which they come to terms with the forms and materials they inherit; and second, the way in which the composer reflects the prevailing social conditions via the formal structure of the composition. He argued that for music to be truthful it must express in structural form the reality of social life, a reality that is obscured by the cliches inherent in the commodified art that dominates culture under late capitalism. Musical truth is dependent upon the extent to which it challenges the listener’s expectations—-expectations conditioned by what Adorno, and the rest of the Frankfurt School, termed the “culture industry”.7

There are two major problems with this view. First, it assumes that music, or indeed any art form, only has value insofar as it reflects or comments on the conflicts and tensions at the heart of capitalist society. No doubt this is one of the markers by which we judge art. But to ignore the way in which art can express themes such as love, spirituality or other personal emotional experiences is to offer an extremely narrow scope for artistic expression.

This narrowness flows from Adorno’s profound pessimism about the possibility of personal and political expression under capitalism. Famously, he once remarked that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. In essence, he believed that late capitalism had successfully colonised culture through commercialisation to such an extent that the audience have become stupefied by spectacle and cliche. Further, he identified this infantilising of the audience as a major factor in the rise of fascism.8 Having witnessed the way in which the Nazi regime successfully utilised the rich tradition of “classical” music to aggrandise itself, and to link its reactionary notion of the “national community” with this tradition, it is perhaps understandable that he should be suspicious of music that sought to appeal to the emotions of a mass audience. The composer therefore had, for Adorno, a social as well as an artistic duty to shock and disturb the listener from this comfortable and lazy response to music. In this he expressed a feeling shared by composers of the post-war avant-garde, many of whom also had personal experience of suffering under fascism and who felt that engaging the audience on an emotional or aesthetically pleasing level was self-indulgent, false and potentially politically dangerous. But, as we shall see, there are many examples where quite the opposite was the case.

The second major problem with Adorno’s analysis is the elitism inherent in his conception of how meaning is communicated through music. The model he sets up is one in which meaning is mediated through the relationship of the composer to musical history and the contradictions of capitalist society. This relationship is, of course, crucial to our understanding of musical meaning, but it neglects the way in which political struggles act upon the composer to produce works that reveal the reality of a society torn by contradiction and exploitation. More to the point, periods of political struggle can alter the meaning of old works for a new audience, as we shall see in the case of Gustav Mahler.

For Adorno, the audience becomes simply the passive recipient of meaning, whether it is the “false” meaning of commercialised popular music or the “truth” that lies within the modernism of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers. In addition to its elitism, Adorno’s analysis leads to a static model of musical meaning. So long as capitalism survives, he suggests, hope and tenderness are impossible in either life or art. Again this is demonstrably untrue. We will examine in more detail some of the strengths and weaknesses of Adorno’s theory of music as we proceed through a discussion of Western music’s evolution from classical to modernism in the 20th century.

It is worth stressing that the snobbery and elitism endemic not just in Adorno’s writings but in practically all discussions about modernist music completely miss what is so powerful about the story of classical music in the 20th century, and the reactions it provokes. Far from being difficult to understand, modern music, in part, evokes the sensations and experiences of a century of revolutionary potential as well as defeats. It thus relates directly to the kind of society we live in today, so we can find many references in these works that relate to our own experience. But also there are aspects of music more generally that make it, in essence, available to all. Music is the most abstract of the arts, making it potentially the most difficult to understand, but potentially also the most accessible and universal form of human expression. It is for this reason that music can exert such a uniquely powerful hold over our emotions, while at the same time remaining elusive and intangible.

What is “classical” music?

In musicological terms classical music refers to the music produced in Europe between about 1750 and 1820, whose high points are found in the works of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Yet in any classical record shop you will find music from about the year 1000 right up to today, from almost all corners of the globe.9 Sometimes it is defined as serious or contemplative music, but leaving aside the snobbery involved in this definition, how do we square this with the fact that decidedly unserious music such as the waltzes of Johann Strauss and the operettas of Franz Lehár are included under this rubric?

Alternatively, it is argued that classical music is that which is produced by “classically trained” musicians consciously operating within the tradition from Johann Sebastian Bach onwards. However, when we come to look at the post-war avant-garde, who sought to make a complete break with this tradition, this too is a definition fraught with difficulties. Instead I want to assert that what we are dealing with is a musical form located primarily in central Europe from about the middle of the 18th century until roughly 1900. This is because I believe it encapsulates what is in essence an art form specific to the rise of bourgeois society. The contradictions of a society that both liberated music from aristocratic and church control, and constrained it within the philistine demands of the market, are what ultimately led to its breakdown at the turn of the 20th century.

Henry Raynor, in his excellent materialist account of the history of Western music shows how before the rise of capitalism music was rooted in everyday life, overwhelmingly through the ritual of church services.10 There was a perpetual struggle between the religious authorities attempting to subjugate musical expression to the needs of church propaganda, while at the same time attempting to relate to the congregation through the popular idiom of the time. One of many examples is to be found among the Franciscans in the 13th century who incorporated the tune of a popular love song into the Mass.11

The development of mercantilism and the rise of towns led to a growing professionalism of musicians supported by the municipality or by wealthy local courts of the nobility. This process is epitomised in the history of the Bach family, an extraordinary dynasty of musicians who owed their position to the emergence of civic society.12 From Caspar Bach in the late 16th century through to the sons of the great Johann Sebastian at the end of the 18th they occupied positions of civic responsibility with paid wages, rather than as mere servants of the church. One of the reasons for Johann Sebastian Bach’s greatness is that by his day he had a professional salaried group of instrumentalists to write for. As a result he was able to write music of a sophistication greater than any heard before.

However, from the middle of the 18th century the emerging bourgeoisie and progressive sections of the aristocracy replaced the church and the municipality as the primary patrons of music. This mainly took place with the growth of the public concert as the main venue for musical performance.13 The bourgeoisie liberated music from the confines of the aristocratic salon and the church, but instead by degrees imposed the tyranny of the market. This allowed for the emergence of the independent musician, from Mozart and Beethoven onwards, while making their social position all the more precarious. Mozart was the most popular musician of his day, yet he died in poverty.

Austria and Germany experienced a relatively well ordered progressive evolution in this period. There was no decisive break with the old order as occurred in France in 1789. Although they were invaded several times by Napoleon’s armies, leading to the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, the old order quickly re-established itself, leaving the Austrian Empire, in particular, as a bastion of reaction for the rest of the 19th century. Where social progress was achieved, for instance during Emperor Joseph II’s rule in the 1780s or after Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871, it came from above in a relatively ordered way. This combination of slow evolutionary social progress and a conservative bourgeois-aristocratic alliance decisively shaped classical form. So I wish to classify classical music as specific to the period of the bourgeoisie’s arrival as the dominant class in society. As we shall see, when the revolutionary role of this class was played out at the end of the 19th century the degenerate period of commercialisation led to the death of classical music and its replacement by modernism.

The classical form

There are two dominant aspects of classical form that distinguish it from the preceding baroque and subsequent modernist forms: a highly regulated “tonality” and a set of compositional forms, the most important of which is sonata form. If we look first at tonality, what we see is a system of fixed harmonic relationships that revolve around the “well-tempered” scale of C, C#, B, etc.14 Each note has a series of undertones and overtones that in turn determine the various scales such as C major, F minor and so on. The counterposing of two conflicting keys or themes provides drama. However, this tension is ultimately resolved by concluding the piece in the same key as it began and by thematic synthesis. It is this overall structure that gives that sense of resolution and finality that we associate with the grand symphonic tradition.

Sonata form has the simple progression A-B-A*. The first section is “exposition” where the main themes are laid out. This is followed by a section where the themes are developed, placed in different keys, etc. Finally, we have the “recapitulation” where the opening material is repeated, though this time with added elements from the “development”. These two aspects of classical form, tonality and sonata, are the most basic, but there are a great many others that determine harmonic and thematic development, the composition of the ensemble and so on. But to crudely summarise the essence of this form, we can say that it is driven by a simple dialectical process: contrasting themes and keys are worked out in opposition to one another, but ultimately resolved achieving synthesis and thus resolution. For this reason there is an audible “narrative” that even a musically untrained ear can follow.

We can see how this style fitted perfectly the social conditions of a society experiencing the tensions and trauma associated with the transition from feudal to capitalist relations, only in slow motion. However, the growing tension of a new society struggling to break through but held back by the political structures of the old could not last forever. This precarious balance of the old and the new finally began to break down at the end of the 19th century. And when the crisis broke it did so more violently and traumatically in central Europe than anywhere else. Within a period of roughly 30 years world war, revolution and fascism rained one hammer blow after another on the old society, and the musical tradition that accompanied it.

The background to the period of social crisis at the beginning of the 20th century illuminates many of the distinctive elements of modernist form that emerged from it. When one thinks of this music, one often associates it with dissonance, fragmentary themes and an overall feeling of anxiety. The musical style of Bach and George Frideric Handel at the end of the feudal era can be summed up as one of courtly elegance. Heroic grandeur is one of the markers of the era of bourgeois revolution from 1789 to 1848, as heard in the works of Beethoven and Richard Wagner. What modernism brought to music was the overwhelming experience of anxiety that characterises so much of modern life. And no one expressed this so compellingly as Gustav Mahler.


Mahler is the key figure in the transition from classical form to modernism. Unlike most great musicians up to this time he did not come from a prosperous or musical background, and this gave him an insight into the realities of life beneath the veneer of Viennese sophistication. When he took over as head of the Vienna opera in 1897 a severe political crisis had only recently rocked the city. The catalyst for this was the election in 1895 of Karl Lueger as mayor of the city on a viciously reactionary and anti-Semitic platform. Emperor Franz Joseph, who stood in the tradition of Joseph II as a sort of enlightened despot, refused to accept the result and prevented Lueger from taking up his post. However, under growing pressure the emperor relented and allowed him to become mayor in the year of Mahler’s arrival in Vienna. Anti-Semitism as an expression of the bitterness of a society in crisis grew exponentially. Mahler, a Jew now occupying the premier position in Austrian cultural life, became a focal point for reaction. The Viennese press hounded him for his ethnic origins and modernist tendencies in both his compositions and his programmes at the opera house and concert hall.

During his lifetime his works outraged the self-satisfied bourgeois audience of fin de siècle Vienna, due to his use of popular tunes and children’s songs. The third movement of his Symphony No 1 (1893) is based on the tune of Frère Jacques, or as it is known in the German speaking countries, Bruder Martin. By slowing it down and transposing it from the major into the minor key it immediately evokes a funeral procession. So, for the listener, the juxtaposition of a well known children’s song with a funeral march immediately evokes something highly disturbing and tragic. This is a prime example of how music can, in an instant, create an image, a reference point familiar to the audience, that makes it accessible and thus brings the work closer to the listener. The marriage of shocking and disturbing music with the popular and profane allowed Mahler to achieve something that was to elude many modernists who came after him: to evoke the neurotic angst of contemporary society without sacrificing meaning to a mass audience. However, it was the use of the popular and profane that angered many music critics and others, both then and for a long time afterwards. At the symphony’s premiere the Frère Jacques movement was booed. When, many years later, the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was asked why he never conducted Mahler, his response was that he could not get beyond what he regarded as the cheapness and banality of that movement.16

From engagement to mysticism

Yet Mahler was far from original in using popular tunes in his works. Haydn, Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin constantly referenced folk music, popular song and church music in their works. These elements gave the audience points of reference from everyday life and thus linked the abstractions of classical form with concrete reality. The bourgeoisie, who were the main patrons and audience for classical music, encouraged this. But by the end of the 19th century the bourgeoisie had firmly left behind its revolutionary past and had settled into its position as a ruling class. In its revolutionary phase the bourgeoisie sought to relate to and mobilise the masses. Thus music, which occupied a particularly exalted position in revolutionary France, for example, was encouraged to be accessible and convey meaning to a mass audience. However, by Mahler’s day classical music had abandoned its earthy roots and become mystified, occupying an Olympian plane above the masses in which the smug bourgeois could see himself reflected.

This change in attitude is epitomised by the growth of the Beethoven cult.17 Where once he was celebrated for his revolutionary spirit, the cult removed him from his social context and deified him. This is the image that survives to this day, of a lonely individual trapped in the prison of his deafness from where he alone revolutionised music. Stripped of its revolutionary content and context, the spirit of Beethoven came to be seen as divinely inspired and thus of noble character. It followed that the mark of a great work was its ability to rise above the mundane and the everyday. The nobler it was, the more it bore the mark of genius. Here we can see the beginning of the deep schism between “high” and popular art. Increasingly after Beethoven’s death composers fell into two categories: popular tunesmiths such as Gioachino Rossini and Guiseppe Verdi who could appeal to the “hoi polloi”, and introverted purveyors of the romantic spirit, totally divorced from the material world, such as Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. It is no accident that Rossini and Verdi wrote, almost exclusively, operas with dramatic storylines that involved recognisable everyday characters, while Schumann and Brahms specialised in abstract non-vocal forms such as sonatas, chamber music and symphonies.

Mahler died in 1911 and thus did not live to see the catastrophe of the First World War and the resulting collapse of the society he knew, a catastrophe that is prophesised throughout his work. In his last, uncompleted Symphony No 10 Mahler did something extraordinary. At the climactic moment in the first movement he piles up one chord upon another until we hear 11 of the 12 notes of the (Western) harmonic scale all at once, producing a shriek of extreme dissonance. It was to be Schoenberg who took the next logical step, by using all 12, which produced a new kind of music that could express the horror of an age of war and fascism. But before we turn to Schoenberg, a short, but crucial, postscript regarding changing audience reactions to Mahler’s music illuminates one of the major problems in Adorno’s paradigm of how music conveys meaning.

When the decayed Austrian monarchy finally collapsed in the convulsions that followed the First World War, the rottenness and banality of the aristocratic culture of fin de siècle Vienna, so clearly revealed in Mahler’s music and which outraged his contemporaries, was apparent for all to see. In this context his music emerged to a limited extent from obscurity. With the rise of fascism, however, his music was banned across Europe. And even after the Second World War the relative calm and peace of the long post-war boom made his depiction of a society at the brink of the abyss seem an anachronism. It was only in the 1960s, when the boom came to an end and society was once again thrown into prolonged turmoil, that his music achieved the enormous popularity that it retains to this day. In particular it was young people who flocked to concerts featuring his works and bought recordings of his music. Writing in 1930, Adorno lamented the fact that Mahler’s works remained obscure and that society had passed over his revelation of the truth of modern life.18 Adorno’s pessimism led him to neglect the potential for a revival of class struggle to rescue “difficult” works from the neglect of the musical establishment. It was not the self-appointed guardians of musical truth, such as himself, who resurrected Mahler but the social movements of the 1960s that flourished from below. A mass audience, supposedly stupefied by an all-embracing consumer culture, revealed the “truth” in Mahler’s music.

Schoenberg and atonality

A century ago, in 1908, Arnold Schoenberg wrote his String Quartet No 2,
which broke with centuries of musical tradition by completely doing away with tonality. Schoenberg’s development of “free atonality”, followed by his creation of a new compositional system known as “serialism”19 16 years later, provoked reactions ranging from bewilderment to anger. There are many examples of “the shock of the new” in the history of Western music. The savage reaction by conservative critics of the day to works such as Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, Wagner’s music dramas and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring come to mind. Yet within a relatively short period, a generation or two at most, all of these pieces gained widespread acceptance and popularity. By contrast, serialism remains “difficult” for audiences and musicians alike. The atonal works of Schoenberg and his disciples, Anton von Webern and Alban Berg, commonly referred to as the Second Viennese School, in which they explored and developed this new form, are still rarely performed in comparison with others of their stature and fame.

Some advocates of “serialism”, such as the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, have argued that the reason for the continued difficulty audiences have in appreciating this music is due to the relatively few performances of serialist works. For him it is merely a question of unfamiliarity.20 Though there is some truth to this assertion, Adorno gets much closer to explaining this phenomenon. He argues that there is something fundamental in atonal style that makes it difficult.21 It is not so much that it is difficult to understand; precisely the opposite is the case. It expresses something quite immediate to our experience, but an experience that is so painful that we resist contemplating it. It is the experience of alienation. This is reflected in the music by the lack of a tonal centre, eg a “home” key that begins the piece, acts as a continuous point of reference and to which we return at the end. Instead no note occupies a hierarchical position over the others. Without this point of reference the music appears fragmentary and without direction. This sensation is disturbing precisely because it reflects some disturbing aspects of our lived experience: the strict division of labour, the anarchy of the market, the enslavement to the machine, the lack of control we have over our destinies under industrial capitalism.

Adorno offers a penetrating analysis of how the structural form of atonal music comes closest to reflecting the reality of alienated life. However, his pessimism leads him to argue that this is the only truth of lived experience. Of course, the fact that alienation is rooted in the economic base of society means its effects are felt in every other arena of life as well. What Adorno misses is the fact that constant changes in the balance of class forces under capitalism can create moments of hope as well as despair. In addition, the complexity of the human condition means we can experience feelings of tenderness, love and happiness in our personal lives that do not relate directly to the larger social forces at work. And these experiences are just as valid and worthy of artistic expression. Too often in the 20th century its advocates presented atonality as the only valid form of musical expression. A strong sense of elitism was implicit in this view. The audience was no longer to be engaged with; rather it was to be shocked by relentless dissonance into realisation of its own pathetic existence. It is no wonder that, as the century progressed and the element of shock was taken to ever further extremes after the Second World War, audiences felt ever more alienated by a sustained assault on the senses.

It is important to bear in mind that this attitude among composers was not simply a product of their wilfulness. The rapid extension in the division of labour that accompanied the rise of the industrial age led to increasing specialisation in musical production. Thus musicians came to feel ever more isolated from their audience. One of the major problems today is the way in which professional musicians find their existence hermetically sealed off from the rest of society. If a child shows musical talent they are packed off to study in conservatoires and worked phenomenally hard to attain the unattainable goal of technical perfection, with little time left to learn about or experience other areas of life. Hence the increasing phenomenon of performers experiencing “burn out” at a young age, something that one does not find in previous eras.

At the same time the strict division of labour has led to the gradual disappearance of musical education for the majority of the population. So musicians are in the position of expressing themselves in a language that is only in basic form understood by most of the audience. This has led to a gradual breakdown in communication between musician and audience, and mutual suspicion between them. The crisis of musical meaning is rooted in this phenomenon, one specific to the era of industrial capitalism. However, periods of revolutionary hope have repeatedly broken through this barrier and reconnected composer, performer and audience.

The return of the folk tradition

We should not forget that atonality was born from the specific experience of the disintegration of the Austrian Empire, and consequently the collapse of the classical tradition of strict tonality and sonata form that stretched from Haydn to Mahler. The arrogance of those cossetted within the smug bourgeois world of musical Vienna, such as Schoenberg (and indeed Adorno), led them to ignore the liberation that this collapse meant for others held under its yoke.22 The First World War and the revolutions that ended the carnage led to the emergence of a multiplicity of national cultures that had hitherto been denied full artistic expression. While Schoenberg mourned the death of the Austrian monarchy and the musical tradition that went with it, others sought to rediscover the hidden traditions of folk music. In Hungary, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály travelled to small villages recording peasants singing and playing music that had been practically ignored by the custodians of “high” art in Vienna. What they discovered was music free from the strict boundaries of classical form, which thus presented a fresh approach to making music for composers schooled in the rarefied atmospheres of the conservatoires of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. Leos Janacek was to do the same for Czech music.

They demonstrated that new avenues of music could be explored that, far from shocking or distancing themselves from the audience, could actually reconnect them based on organic modes of musical expression. Musical meaning via reference points that were familiar to the listener were allied with the new developments in atonality and modernist expressionism. This produced music that was new, dynamic but at the same time accessible. For this reason this tradition was, and remains, far more popular than the astringent works of the German speaking composers of the same period. Yet it makes no concessions to “light” music or banal commercialism.

It seems to me that this negates Adorno’s positing of a sharp distinction between “high” and popular art. Adorno’s response was to say that the music of those such as Bartók and Kodály was reactionary in that it reinforced the illusion of national identity and thus did not reveal the “truth” of class society.23 There is no space here to address the relationship between national oppression, national chauvinism and class struggle, but the idea that a piece of music with nationalist aspects cannot be used for progressive ends is a nonsense, otherwise how to explain the English socialist movement’s attachment to “Jerusalem”? But just like the romanticism of the 19th century, the revival of the folk tradition offered a critique of modern society by reference to an idealised past. This contradiction of both looking to the future and the past, of marrying a rediscovery of a hidden past with modern innovations in musical style, does not fit with Adorno’s strict formalist approach, an approach that argues for truth through formal logic only. Although Adorno declared his respect for Bartók’s artistic and political integrity,24 he took him to task during a radio debate in the early 1940s for refusing to reject tonality completely, which strikes me as a case of musicological “ultra-leftism”.25

The liberation and repression of modernism

During the 20 years following the collapse of the classical tradition we see an explosion of new forms and styles in Europe. Along with the rediscovery of folk music there is the French impressionism of Claude Debussy, the first experiments in electronica by Edgar Varèse and Oscar Sala, and the birth of jazz. Jazz, in particular, found its way into many modernist works in the 1920s by composers such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel and Stravinsky. There was a spirit of experimentation and openness on the part of classically trained musicians to popular forms.

Composers came down from the ivory tower to engage with the political hope offered by the revolutionary wave that began in Russia in 1917. The most important of these composers was one of Schoenberg’s students, Hanns Eisler.26 A member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and brother of Ruth Fischer, a leading member of the KPD, he attempted to marry the innovations of his teacher’s serialism with cabaret song style and used texts that expressed the revolutionary spirit of the age. Eisler’s political commitment and engagement with popular music led to a break with Schoenberg. In this split we see in microcosm the tension among modernists between retreat and engagement with a mass audience. Schoenberg in 1948 expressed his position clearly: “We, who live in music, have no place in politics and must regard it as foreign to our being. We are a-political, at best able to aspire to remain silently in the background”.27

But try as he might to remain aloof, Schoenberg could not completely ignore the political turmoil of his age. After the war he produced two works which expressed the tragedy of the Holocaust, Kol Nidrei and A Survivor from Warsaw. And interestingly, although they are recognisably modernist they are not written using the serialist method but instead are firmly rooted in tonality. Adorno saw this as a betrayal. His insistence that only serialism could accurately reflect political truth is negated here by its creator, exposing nothing more than the poverty of Adorno’s formalism.

The explosion in innovation, and cross-fertilisation of style and form that occurred in the 1920s was born of the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Tragically it was strangled at birth by the eventual failure of revolution and the fascist reaction to it. This was to have far-reaching negative consequences for modernist music’s relationship to a mass audience.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that while the Nazis claimed to be rescuing the classical tradition from “degenerate” modernism they in fact dealt a death blow to both. Modernist composers either capitulated to a conservative stylistic approach as in the case of Paul Hindemith, or were forced into “internal exile” like Anton Webern and the German expressionist Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Schoenberg, Eisler and others fled abroad, and many who are sadly today relatively obscure such as Hans Krása and Pavel Haas were butchered in concentration camps. At the same time, by using and abusing the grand tradition of Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms for propaganda purposes, the Nazis alienated this music from the generation of composers left to pick up the pieces of the shattered musical life of post_war Europe.

Shostakovich and the Soviet experience

If the Second Viennese School expressed the despair of reaction, the works of Shostakovich expressed the ambiguities of a society founded upon a genuine revolution from below that ended up with a murderous dictatorship. Born in 1906, he came to maturity in the heady years of post_1917 Russia, before Stalinism had had a chance to reverse all the gains of the revolution. His predecessor, Stravinsky, had had to leave Tsarist Russia for Paris in order to gain an audience for his great modernist works such as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird. Shostakovich, by contrast, was able to exploit all the new styles that flourished in the cultural atmosphere of revolution.

He developed a style of composition that was extremely eclectic, incorporating German expressionism, jazz and the rhythmic energy of the Russian tradition represented by the likes of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Much later in life he was also to experiment with serialism. I have dealt in more detail with his life and works elsewhere,28 but here I will concentrate on the controversy surrounding just one work, his Symphony No 5 (1937) which brings into sharp relief the weaknesses in Adorno’s philosophy of music.

In 1936 Shostakovich found himself at the epicentre of Stalin’s terror. This was the year of the first show trials. As the political repression grew, the cultural experimentation of the proceeding period was replaced by the dead weight of “socialist realism”. For two years his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District had played to packed houses across Russia. But within a month of Stalin attending a performance in December 1935 an anonymous article appeared in Pravda attacking Shostakovich for the crime of “formalism”. It included the warning: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly”.29 With even the “old Bolsheviks” of 1917 being “liquidated” during this period, this was no idle threat.

His response to the attack was to write his Symphony No 5. In terms of style it represents a retreat from Lady Macbeth. It is resolutely tonal and sticks very closely to classical form, unlike his earlier symphonies. It was a huge popular and critical success at its premier in 1937, and one Soviet critic’s comment, that it represented “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”, was adopted as the work’s unofficial subtitle. As if to prove Adorno’s theory in practice, the symphony demonstrated that formal conservatism equalled political capitulation—except that audience reaction to the piece suggested otherwise.

To understand this contradiction is difficult to put into words, as it has to do with ambiguities of musical aesthetics and interpretation. The symphony adopts a Mahlerian combination of sophistication and banality. The first movement opens with a rising and falling motif filled with tension and foreboding, but develops at one point into a march reminiscent of light operetta a la Gilbert and Sullivan. The third movement is acknowledged as one of the most sublime and personal expressions of unrequited longing ever attempted by Shostakovich. The controversy centres on the symphony’s climax, which combines a triumphant march by the brass section into the home key, with an anguished shrieking in the strings. Is it triumph or tragedy? For the Soviet authorities, it represented the victory of “socialist man” over adversity, but testimony from others in the audience at its premiere suggests quite the opposite response.30 Indeed, many of the audience found themselves crying in recognition of the horrors of Stalinist terror. In his posthumously published memoirs Shostakovich stated that the symphony’s conclusion represented the image of a man with someone at his back wielding a knife, shouting, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing!” However, there is some doubt as to the authenticity of these memoirs.31

Whether Shostakovich’s comment is authentic or not, the philistines of Soviet officialdom missed the subtlety, as it was one of the few works of his never to be banned. But it might also be the case that, sticking to the stylistic requirements of “socialist realism” as it does, they could not find an adequate reason to declare it counter-revolutionary. Whatever the case, the point was that Shostakovich found a way to convey something true about the Stalinist experience to his audience, while utilising what Adorno considered a “reactionary” form and style. Even more importantly, the audience was able to pick up on the ambiguities and subtleties of meaning. And quite apart from the question of its politics, the symphony is simply one of the most exciting and heartfelt of the 20th century and thus has maintained a popularity denied to most modernist works. Mahler was one of Shostakovich’s favourite composers, and along with him he showed in this symphony, and many other works, that it was possible to convey the reality behind the falsehoods of the ruling class while remaining accessible and popular. Once again this negates Adorno’s formalist strictures on musical “truth”.

The post-war avant-garde

On his release from a German prisoner of war camp in 1943 the French composer Olivier Messiaen resumed his post as teacher of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. Two of his students, young men still in their teens who had personal experiences of the horrors of fascism, were to lead a revolution in music that made the Second Viennese School’s serialism seem tame in comparison. Whereas Schoenberg saw his work as a logical extension of the classical tradition, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen argued for the complete rejection of anything remotely connected with classical tonality or form.

Stockhausen ended the war as a 17 year old orphan. His mother had been murdered in the Nazis’ euthanasia programme in 1941, while his father, an enthusiastic Nazi, had died fighting on the Eastern Front. The composer was later to describe how the endless playing of Nazi marching songs on the radio during his youth had left him with a permanent hatred of music with a regular beat, in other words most of the classical tradition.32 In the 1950s he created a whole new musical form using electronica that explored all that is contained in a single musical moment and produced the modern classics Contact and Song of the Youths, among many others. Having witnessed the way in which the Nazis had promoted the classics of German romantism as the expression of their “national community”, Stockhausen and Boulez argued for the complete rejection of anything that provoked an emotional response from the audience.33

Adorno, whose major work on music, Philosophy of New Music, was written in this period, can on one level be seen as simply the theorist of the revulsion expressed by Stockhausen and Boulez.34 He shared with them the fear born of the Nazi experience that music that connected on an emotional or visceral level was in danger of being manipulated for nefarious ends.35 The conclusion was to insist that music should only convey meaning through structural form. In an age of minimal musical education this simply acted to further alienate the audience, lacking as they were the necessary reference points with which to connect with the music.

The results of this approach often produced arid pieces interesting only on the level of academic analysis. To their credit many of the avant_garde recognised the problem and from the mid-1950s onwards dropped the rigid formalist approach.36 The result was an explosion of pieces innovative in style yet accessible to a large audience. Boulez began to incorporate the sensuality of Debussy and the rhythmic vitality of Stravinsky into his work and produced some of his most beguiling and beautiful pieces such as Le Marteau sans Maitre (the hammer without a master) and Pli Selon Pli (fold after fold).37 György Ligeti tried to answer the question of what a cloud would sound like and produced the popular masterpieces Atmospheres and Lontana, which exploited the huge potentialities of orchestral sound.

Another symptom of the crisis of modernism in this period can be found in the work of John Cage. A pupil of Schoenberg, by the mid-1950s he had turned away from serialism and embraced the notion of “chance” music. In essence he argued for the complete deconstruction of musical form and structure, replaced instead by randomness. For example, he wrote music by deciding notes on the rolling of dice. Infamously he “composed” Concerto for 12 Radios in which the score merely directs which frequencies the radios should be tuned to, and 4_$_7$33$9_$ in which the performers do not play a single note for the duration specified in the work’s title. It would be wrong to dismiss Cage, as some have done, as a charlatan. His early works for “prepared piano” are alternately spooky, jazzy and beautiful, and contributed to a whole new vista of sound. While one can have an easy laugh at the concept of _Concerto for 12 Radios and 4_$_7$33$_9_$, Cage was trying to question the parameters of what we call music. How can we distinguish it from the incessant background noise of modern industrial society? But ultimately “chance” music represents the ultimate abrogation of artistic responsibility before the challenge of maintaining the integrity of artistic meaning in a commercialised world. Having once been close to Cage in the early 1950s, Boulez later broke violently with him.38 In an interview in 1975 Boulez summed up his critism of Cage in his customary polemical style:

There are some activities one ought not to want to indulge in. The unaesthetic or anti-aesthetic work [ie “chance” music]—just what is it? It is the acceptance of a passive attitude towards what exists; it is an idea of surrender. Applied to areas other than music—to the social phenomenon, for example—an “anti-aesthetic” position might give rise…to an anti-social outcome.39

However interesting Cage’s experiments were at the time, he has not produced any followers and “chance” music represents a pessimistic dead end for the survival of modernist music.

It is telling that Cage, for all his supposed radicalism and espousal of artistic freedom, never engaged with the atmosphere of 1960s rebellion that inspired many other composers to re-engage the audience at the political level. Highlights of this engagement include Sinfonia by Luciano Berio, which incorporates the syllables of Martin Luther King’s name, and texts by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to directly address the problem of commercialisation, spectacle and the alienation of the audience from the artist. Luigi Nono, a committed member of the Italian Communist Party, produced an opera Al Gran Sole Carico d$7_$_Amore (in the bright sunshine heavy with love), which takes as its subject the revolutionary struggles of the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution of 1905 and contemporary struggles in the Third World from Cuba to Vietnam. Even Stockhausen, who in general claimed to be strictly apolitical, produced Hymnen, which deconstructs a series of national anthems and suggests a universalism that transcends national chauvinism. In a less directly political way Boulez, taking inspiration from the counter-culture of the period, launched a series of informal concerts of new music at the Roundhouse in London and Greenwich Village in New York. Works were often introduced by the composer, and questions and discussion from the audience followed. Each of these concerts attracted thousands of young people who were understandably resistant to the suffocating conservatism of endless po-faced renditions of Mozart and Beethoven in the concert hall.

Sadly, with the decline of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s this reconnection between composer, performer and audience was lost once again. Boulez abandoned his strategy of “deep entryism” into mainstream musical life and spent the next 15 years in the underground bunker of Ircam40 in Paris experimenting with new technologies. Having spent the 1960s almost permanently on tour, rethinking many aspects of performance and the role of the audience, from the late 1970s onwards Stockhausen withdrew from public life. His relentless innovation came to a halt, and the last 30 years of his life were spent working on a grandiose and incomprehensible opera cycle, Licht.


Raynor concludes his survey of Western music with the dawn of the modern era:

[Music] became increasingly the pleasure of a cultured elite rather than an immediate communication between men and women. It was not long before the ambitious composer discovered that the provision of dance music and easy-going entertainment was beneath his dignity, and a divided society was left to make do with a divided art.41

While I would dispute his romanticised notion of a pre-capitalist art (feudal Europe was hardly an undivided society), Raynor does identify the artistic crisis engendered by a world as fundamentally alienated and ruthlessly functional as modern capitalism. It is the impossibility of escape from the spiritual poverty of industrial capitalism, short of its complete destruction, that has condemned the sublime power of the Western musical tradition to its ghetto. The recent upsurge in political struggle from Seattle onwards has not been mirrored by a re-engagement between this tradition and a mass audience on the level witnessed in the 1920s and 1960s.

There are a couple of shining examples of what is possible. The first is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a project set up by the Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian academic Edward Said.42 Its aim is to bring together young Arab and Israeli musicians in order to promote at least some limited mutual cultural understanding between the two communities. The second is El Sistema in Venezuela, a project begun in the mid-1970s to distribute free musical instruments and education to poor children from the barrios, which has grown with the advent of the Bolivarian revolution and support from the Chavez government. In recent years its orchestra, aptly named the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has burst onto the international classical music scene. By common consent their performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 and a medley of Latin American music at the BBC Proms in 2007 demonstrated a vitality sorely lacking elsewhere.

The missing element is a new generation of composers who can express contemporary lived experience through reference to contemporary events or new musical forms, popular or otherwise. We also need new and innovative spaces within which music can be created and shared. The concert performance seems stuck somewhere in the late 19th century, with programming, spatial layout and a dress code that have barely changed in 100 years. Without change modernist music will indeed lose its immediate relevance and be completely relegated, along with classical music, to what many already consider it to be: a ritualistic museum piece devoid of meaning for a contemporary audience. But of course, as I have sought to show, music, like all art forms, does not exist in a vacuum. The degradation of musical education, the encroachment of commercialism into ever more areas of life and the increasing sense of alienation felt by us in late industrial capitalism are inhibiting a revival of music that is contemplative and challenging. In short, what is needed is a renewal of the relationship between artist and audience, and this can only be achieved by massive progressive social transformation on the scale of the late 18th century, the period following the First World War or the 1960s.


1: Thanks to Christine Lewis and Suzie Wylie for many discussions that helped shape the argument presented here. Also thanks to Joseph Choonara, Gareth Jenkins, Despina Karayianni, John Molyneux and Matthew Skelton for reading and making many useful comments on various drafts of this article.

2: Raynor, 1972.

3: Said, 1991.

4: Horowitz, 1987.

5: I have, for example, left out any discussion of the operatic tradition-although this has already been dealt with very well in Arblaster, 1992. In addition there are many important composers of the 20th century, such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Kurt Weill, Benjamin Britten, Witold Lutoslawski, Hans Werner Henze and many others, who have had to be excluded. This doesn’t, I think, affect the basic argument presented here, and I hope the reader forgives such glaring omissions.

6: The most thoroughgoing exposition of his ideas on music can be found in Adorno, 2006, but this suffers from a highly obscurantist style and can be very hard work. Far more accessible and wide ranging is a collection of his writings in Adorno, 2002.

7: Adorno, 2006, pp8-13.

8: See the piece “What National Socialism has Done to the Arts”, in Adorno, 2002.

9: Western musical history is usually broken down into the following periods: early music 1000-1600, baroque 1600-1750, classical 1750-1820, romanticism 1820-1900 and modernism from 1900 to the present.

10: Raynor, 1972.

11: Raynor, 1972, p47.

12: Raynor, 1972, pp55-57.

13: Raynor, 1972, pp314-316. One of the first professional orchestras to emerge was the Leipzig Gewandhaus which still exists today as one of Europe’s leading orchestras. It began life in 1743 with funds supplied by 16 local businessmen. Another orchestra set up in Halle the same year was financed through the local masonic lodge.

14: Often described as expressing a set of natural and universal musical laws, this is in fact an arbitrary ordering of pitches into wholetones and semitones (respectively the white and black keys on a piano). The multitude of quartertones, and microtones that lie in between these notes are excluded from this scale. In addition, this scale is unique to Western Europe during a specific period. Thus to describe classical tonality as “natural” and “atonality” as unnatural involves a breathtaking Eurocentrism. One of the liberatory aspects of modernist music in the 20th century was the rediscovery and use of these “hidden” pitches.

15: The story of Mahler’s life and career is a fascinating one and provides insight into a seminal moment in European culture. He was at the centre of a circle in Vienna that included among others Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Walter Gropius, Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud. By far the best work on Mahler and his age is De La Grange, 1979-95, a monumental four-volume biography. For a good brief introduction see Lebrecht, 1993.

16: Recollection of the singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the recorded interview, “Close Encounters with Great Singers” (VAIA 1217).

17: See Buch, 2004, for an excellent study of the development of this cult.

18: See the piece “Mahler Today” in Adorno, 2002, p603.

19: This system involves using all 12 notes of the harmonic series, hence “serialism”. They can be placed in any order that the composer wishes, but no note can be repeated until the rest have been heard first.

20: Boulez, 1986, pp427-428.

21: See the pieces “Why is the New Art so Hard to Understand?” and “The Dialectical Composer” in Adorno, 2002.

22: The conductor, and close friend of Alban Berg, Jascha Horenstein relates how provincial in outlook the Second Viennese School were. See the recorded interview included in his recording of Mahler’s Symphony No 8 (BBCL 4001-2).

23: Adorno, 2002, p129.

24: Bartók was a lifelong socialist and was very close to the Hungarian Communist Party throughout the 1920s. His librettist and close friend Béla Balázs was an active member of the party. Bartók was to be one of the very few leading musicians of his epoch who went into voluntary exile with the rise of fascism.

25: Adorno, 2002, p184.

26: See Betz, 1982, for an excellent account of Eisler’s music and politics.

27: Betz, 1982, p44. In the late 1960s, during another highpoint of political struggle, Karlheinz Stockhausen approvingly quoted Schoenberg’s attacks on Eisler’s political commitment in responding to demands that he engage with the political convulsions of the time-see Kurtz, 1994, pp173-174.

28: Simon Behrman, “The Sound of a Soviet Tragedy”, Socialist Review, September 2006,

29: Pravda, 28 January 1936,

30: Two members of the audience at its premiere give poignant recollections in the DVD documentary Shostakovich Against Stalin: The War Symphonies (Phillips 074 3117).

31: Volkov, 1999. The memoirs certainly contain much that is authentically Shostakovich’s. The controversy surrounds his many critical comments about the Soviet regime. Solomon Volkov, who edited the memoirs based on conversations he had with the composer, was never able to produce the original tape recordings or transcripts of these conversations. This, coupled with suspicions surrounding Volkov’s political motives, has placed the authenticity of Testimony in doubt, which has never been resolved.

32: Cott, 1974, p28.

33: See “Aesthetics and the Fetishists” in Boulez, 1986.

34: Adorno, 2006.

35: See “What National Socialism has Done to the Arts”, in Adorno, 2002.

36: See “An Interview with Dominique Jameux: Polyphonie X, Structures for two Pianos and Poesie pour pouvoir”, in Boulez, 1986.

37: These are settings of poems by, respectively, René Char and Stéphane Mallarmé.

38: The evolution of this relationship is preserved in their correspondence-see Nattiez, 1993.

39: Deliege, 1976, p85.

40: The Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique, located beneath the Pompidou Centre.

41: Raynor, 1972, p355.

42: See Barenboim and Said, 2003, for an exposition of many of the ideas that shaped this project.


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