The Transgressive Modernism of Berg’s String Quartet—as Told by Adorno

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Music Theory Midwest 2019

Cincinnati, Ohio | 10 May 2019 | 9:30am

Session title: “Historical Readings” | Session Chair: Jonathan Guez

Many of Theodor Adorno’s essays on music constitute a blend of criticism and analysis; in truth, the author links them as forms immanent to the artwork itself. In this paper, Adorno’s analytical vignette for the first movement of Alban Berg’s String Quartet, op. 3, will serve as an optimal case study for exploring his mode of critical interpretation. Adorno considers it Berg’s first mature work, composed in a free atonal language that was, to Adorno, the “high-point of 20th-century radicalism.” The analysis is, however, rather short on detailed exposition, a rhetorical technique that Neidhöfer deems typically Adornian: “he has clearly analyzed [the pieces] for himself in their entirety, even though time did not permit him to deal with them fully.”

Adorno leaves one intriguing detail largely unexplained: the internal conflicts at the heart of the quartet are said to generate “nothing less than the liquidation of the sonata.” Part 1 of this paper examines the philological implications of this remark. While Julian Johnson (1995, 302) has referred to liquidation as involving “the negation of traditional forms within its own material,” Adorno seems to go further, claiming that the very “essence” of sonata form “disintegrates… permitting the creation of a new symphonic form in free atonality.” Subsequently, in Part 2, I tease apart Adorno’s formal reading of op. 3, i, drawing upon Sonata Theory. Berg’s iconoclasm is on display in the minute motivic conflicts of the opening gesture as well as the generic contradictions of the movement as a whole.