Not Being Arnold Schoenberg

by stephen hastings-king

Then I worked for a database “publisher.” At my 1st meeting on my 1st day my supervisor expressed concern that my having a PhD meant I would get bored with assigned tasks. So, he didn't assign me any tasks. I sat in a cube with nothing to do, thinking “I guess that's the job” but also “Surely, I'm going to get fired” and “I'd better pretend to be busy” so I pretended to be busy as week followed week and month followed month and no-one found me out and I was not fired. I gradually figured out that the only thing that mattered that I was visible, sitting in my cube, that I had been hired to sit in a cube.


And that is why I read a biography of Karlheinz Stockhausen. I think it was new. I haven't read it since. Anyway, I remember that it had features frequently found in biographies: uncontrolled identification of the writer with the subject; vastly too much research, compulsively carried out, every tidbit made fascinating via the same identification that made the writer unwilling to leave out any of it with a resulting over-stuffing that inflates the biography's subject to world-historical status. Whence the inclusion of a chapter about the summer music program at Darmstadt that in no way involved Stockhausen amidst other chapters on Darmstadt did involve him. In that chapter, the one that in no way involved Stockhausen, it seemed that, sometime after the war, there was a composition course scheduled that was to be taught by Arnold Schoenberg but Schoenberg did not end up teaching it, I can't remember why—and the school brought in Theodor Adorno to teach it instead. By the end, it seems all the students hated him and he hated all the students. I think it followed from the way in which Adorno's belief in himself as a person of many qualities encountered the students' belief that he possessed only one quality, that of not being Arnold Schoenberg. I suppose it an inevitable problem, at the outset anyway. As a matter of continuity, Adorno was many things and not being Arnold Schoenberg was among those things--but rare was the situation in which his not being Arnold Schoenberg figured so prominently. The same problem attends any substitute teacher. I can imagine Adorno saying, along with an invisible host of other substitutes:

“OK. This is inevitable. I came in at the last minute. They were expecting Schoenberg and I am not him. But with time I'll win them over and will become something more than not-Schoenberg.”

The problems began with the fact that Adorno was not Arnold Schoenberg while also, in the context of the class, being more Arnold Schoenberg than Arnold Schoenberg would have felt the need to be: more orthodox, more rigid, less expansive in either his teaching or understanding, less curious in short. This was reflected in Adorno's narrow understanding of what constituted legitimate “avant-garde” music, a narrow-mindedness that was more Arnold Schoenberg that Arnold Schoenberg would have felt the need to be that also drew continuous attention to Adorno's ongoing not-Arnold-Schoenbergness. This seems to me, looking back at what I remember of that chapter, a likely explanation for why Adorno, a substitute teacher, was never able to win over Arnold Schoenberg's students that summer in Darmstadt no matter how winning a personality he imagined himself to be--and also why Adorno was unable to see why he failed to do so. The more Arnold Schoenberg he was, the more not-Arnold-Schoenberg he remained: the longer that went on, the angrier he got. The course was thereby an environment characterized by mutual hostility in a steadily upward-ratcheting mode of being, more and more of it with each session. Adorno's part in this climate of mutual hostility came into the open when the students presented their final projects, the compositions they had been working on. Avant-garde compositional approaches of the time extended beyond serial techniques—but Adorno's thinking did not. Given the dynamic outlined above it seems in retrospect inevitable, if memory serves, that the students, given the choice, one which Adorno seems to have believed they should not have had, or, if they had to have it, for whatever stupid reason, then they should have known to exercise their freedom to choose the direction Adorno thought appropriate, between the broader range of available avant-garde approaches to composition and those of Arnold Schoenberg as presented by someone who was more Arnold Schoenberg that Arnold Schoenberg would have felt the need to be and so was, because of that, always and only not-Arnold-Schoenberg, that the students would opt for the former. But, given his narrowness of viewpoint and lack of curiosity, for Adorno these approaches were not immediately transparent, either technically or conceptually, which, of course, given the situation, he viewed, rightly or wrongly, who's to say, but probably wrongly (I'll just say it) as attempts to humiliate him, as gestures of defiance presented by the students who were, as a body, so he might have thought, looking to rub his face in the extent to which his efforts to be winning and win them over and, in the process, become someone more than not-Arnold-Schoenberg, had failed, advancing neither jot or tittle beyond the situation in which he started, no, worse then that, the situation had somehow grown worse, regressed, as if time had been moving backward, and so, the biography I read in my cube may or may not have said, he exploded at the students, calling their pieces all manner of wrong and themselves all manner of insulting names. I remember being surprised at that as I liked Adorno's Kierkegaard book, but then I remembered hearing a story, in a seminar long ago, in which Adorno was reputed to have said to his wife: “Every word I write is more important than your life.” So maybe he deserved it.