Latest news

The Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna decided to give Avior Byron the Avenir Foundation Research Grant for a one month research trip in Vienna in order to work on two books that he is writing.  

Subscribe to

Enter your email and press the 'Subscribe' button to receive blog posts via email:


Subscribe via RSS

What is RSS?

Follow @avior on Twitter

People reading Bymusic now

We have 2 guests online

Translate this page now

Who is Behind

Avior Byron

My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

What next?

 Subscribe to the Blog

Click here to add site to your favorites

What I'm doing just now


What is THE best way to find scholarships?

Conference paper: Schoenberg’s or Adorno’s Performance Aesthetics?

Schoenberg’s or Adorno’s Performance Aesthetics?

On 3 August I wrote a post with a selection of quotations from Adorno’s book Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction (Cambridge UK and Malden MA USA: Polity, 2006). During the past few weeks I have read this book and wrote down my own thoughts on it. This is the paper that I plan to read next week in the conference on Adorno’s performance aesthetics in Manchester. The paper might pass slight changes before the conference. I plan to expand it into an article after I receive reactions. I hope you will find it interesting. Since it is a conference paper, I removed the footnotes. If anyone is interested in the exact source of any quotation please contact me.


For many years, Schoenberg and Adorno wanted to write (separately) a book on musical performance.Both authors never completed the projects and left in their Nachlaß articles, fragmentary sketches and other relevant writings on the subject. This paper will examine the relation between what we know about their performance aesthetics. My main thesis is that a clear and objective definition of its ‘essence’ is difficult, if not impossible to achieve.

The Second Viennese School performance aesthetics narrative           

Several scholars speak about the existence of a Second Viennese School with relation to performance aesthetics. In 1986 Hermann Danuser argued that the most important motivation for Schoenberg’s theory of performance is to protect performance from the will of the performer. He insisted that this is true also ‘for the total theories that came out of the performance of the Viennese School: above all those of Rudolf Kolisch, Erwin Stein, René Leibowitz, Theodor W. Adorno and Hans Swarowsky’. Although Danuser acknowledges that Schoenberg’s performance theory is fragmentary, at the end of his article he refers the reader to the theory of performance of Kolisch in order to answer questions that were not answered by Schoenberg. David Satz, a student of Kolisch, mentioned that in Darmstadt in the 1950s Kolisch and Adorno discussed performance. Satz wrote that this ‘leaves open the question of how the joint project’s scope might have related to the notes which Adorno left, or the work which Kolisch actually brought about. I believe that it is a serious mistake to assume an absolute identity between the two’. Helmut Haack referred mainly to the performance aesthetics of Kolisch in order to examine what he called, the ‘aesthetics of the school’, and argued that it was influenced by Mahler. John Butt made a comment in passing claiming that Stravinsky had a ‘very similar aesthetics of performance … [compared to the one] promoted by Schoenberg and his students.’ In this context, Butt mentioned Rudolph Kolisch, Erwin Stein, René Leibowitz, Theodore Adorno and Hans Swarowsky. Finally, in 1997 Alfred Cramer suggested that ‘Adorno’s vision of silent reading echoed Schoenberg’s own mind’.

In light of this Second Viennese School performance aesthetics narrative, I would like to raise two questions. What are the criteria to decide whether a certain thinker belongs to a certain school? What are the ideological implications of declaring that a specific individual belongs to a certain group and not to others? I suggest that it is possible to construct a different narrative that would highlight not only the similarities but also the differences between people such as Adorno and Schoenberg.

When discussing the so-called Second Viennese School with relation to performance, one finds significant differences between the aesthetics of its members. Schoenberg disagreed with some of Kolisch’s ideas in the latter’s article ‘Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music’. In a letter dated 1949 from Schoenberg to Steuermann regarding the latter’s recording of Schoenberg’s piano music, he wrote: ‘I do not at all share your anxiety lest anyone should hear a wrong note. I am convinced that it had happened only a few times in the history of musical reproduction that some wrong note did not come in.’ He stressed: ‘there is no absolute purity in this world… But I am convinced that you can play music so convincingly that it evokes the impression of purity, artistic purity, and, after all, that’s what matters. Let’s leave this quasi-perfection to those who can’t perceive anything else’. Steuermann’s refusal to release his recording for publication resulted in rupture between the two old friends. On 13 January 1950 Schoenberg wrote to Ross Russell from Dial Records concerning a plan to record his music with Steuermann and Kolisch. He warned Russel ‘not to be too indulgent’ to Steuermann’s and Kolisch’s wishes to play the music ‘over and over again, until there is nothing which … [they do] not like’. Schoenberg stresses that ‘it has no sense to aim for a perfection which is not human’. I do not wish to argue that there are no similarities between the performance aesthetics of members of Schoenberg’s circle, yet one should be very cautious about making casual assumptions about links between one aesthetic and the others. In order to point to some of the problems with this concept I will start by examining Schoenberg and Adorno’s relationship.

Schoenberg and Adorno’s relationship

Berg wrote about Adorno’s Two Pieces for String Quartet Op. 2 to Schoenberg, claiming that ‘in its seriousness and concision and above all in the uncompromising purity of its whole structure, it may be described as belonging to Schoenberg’s school (and to no other!)’. Yet including Adorno into the Second Viennese School was not part of Schoenberg’s wish. Schoenberg mentioned Adorno in his will as the person to whom he clearly does not want to entrust his Nachlaß after his death. On 5 December 1949 Schoenberg wrote to Stuckenschmidt after reading Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music: ‘I have never been able to bear the fellow… now I know that he clearly never liked my music.’ On the same day he wrote to Rufer: ‘The book is very difficult to read, for it uses this quasi-philosophical jargon in which modern professors of philosophy hide the absence of an idea. They think it is profound when they produce lack of clarity by undefined new expressions.’ On 10 December 1949 he wrote to Kurth List: ‘Wiesengrund’s attack is an act of vengeance. Once when he was getting on my nerves, I made him look ridiculous, and although I thoroughly excused myself on account of nervousness, sickness, etc., he has apparently not forgiven me for this.’ In December 1950, several months before Schoenberg died, he wrote a manuscript titled ‘Wiesengrund’. There he wrote: ‘I could never really stand him… Not without Rudi’s [Rudolf Kolisch] fault, he was regarded in our circle as a great scholar.’

Similarities between the aesthetics

Having said this, one should keep in mind that Schoenberg did appreciate Adorno. At the ‘Wiesengrund’ manuscript he wrote: ‘It cannot be disputed that he possesses certain estimable abilities. He is very musical, plays piano well, and possesses a great knowledge of the musical literature, from which he can play many pieces by heart due to his good memory. He has looked into musical-theoretical problems with a great deal and with success, and he knows the history of our art most thoroughly.’ Having studied with Berg for several months since January 1925 and being the editor-in-chief of journal ‘Anbruch’ between 1928 and 1931, it is not surprising that Adorno was influenced and possibly also has influenced the thoughts of people in Schoenberg’s circle.     

            It is interesting that both authors attacked the performance aesthetics of enemies of Schoenberg’s circle: for example, famous conductors such as Toscanini and Bruno Walter.

Both call for the help of the concept of ‘organicism’ in order to protect the work from irresponsible performers. Adorno is more ambivalent than Schoenberg towards this concept. He claimed that ‘the “living” totality of a performance, especially in larger forms, is probably a mere ideology, as in many other areas.’ Yet in the same breath he attacked the ‘”fascinating” conductor [that] is a fetish like the master violinist… [that] belong to the culture industry’. Schoenberg too attacked ‘the goat-like bleating [vibrato] used by many instrumentalists to curry favour with the public’, or singers for ‘ignoring dramatic requirements in favour of their own vocal effects’. Both authors wrote against the so called ‘beautiful tone’ for its own sake. The organic musical work is the thing that should be expressed in performance.

Yet pure objectivism was not part of their performance aesthetics. Schoenberg called for a ‘well-balanced’ performance style, one that does not veer towards either of the two extremes: the subjective over-expressive ‘romantic’ performance style and the objective performance practice of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which demanded full faithfulness to the score. This demand is echoed by Adorno who wrote that his performance study is ‘directed against 2 fronts. On the one hand official musical life, which … became part of the culture industry long ago: galvanized, spirited and culinary. On the other hand the front of abstract negation, the escape to the mensural realm. In the former case a false subjectivism, in the latter a residual theory of truth, the extermination of the subject (all forms of objectivism, from Stockhausen to Walcha, really amount to the same thing…)’. Adorno mentioned there that the ‘so-called young people protested against the “exaggerated expressivity” in Eduard’s [Steuermann] Schoenberg interpretation.’ Elsewhere he wrote: ‘Against intuitionism and positivism.’, and in another place he claimed that the ‘Secret of interpretation … [is] controlling oneself, yet not making music against oneself. One’s impulse must live on even in its negation.’          

Both Schoenberg and Adorno wrote volumes on the primacy of the imagined on the so-called ‘mere’ playing. Schoenberg complimented conductors for insisting on many rehearsals. In his essay on Mahler he claimed that Mahler the conductor demanded many rehearsals since he has a clear image in his mind of the music, and that during each rehearsal he corrected the orchestra in order to come as close as possible to this ideal.  Adorno argued that ‘Making music correctly demands an incessant verification of all real sounds in relation to the imagined… Whoever places doing before imagining in music today is guilty of regressive music-making.’

Differences between the aesthetics

Both authors suggested that it is not enough to simply play the music. There is an idea that is hidden that needs to be revealed in performance. Yet Adorno claimed that the idea ‘cannot even be recognized in its pure state, let alone realized.’ This leads to an extremely idealistic view of composition and a negative view of performance: ‘The measure of interpretation is the height of its failure’. Elsewhere he used the word ‘evil’ in order to describe what the performer does. Although Schoenberg too saw composition and the musical idea as something that is higher than performance, his writings usually do not give the impression that whatever the performer does, performance cannot communicate the musical idea. On the contrary, whether it is structure or feelings, Schoenberg strived to explain how performance can and should communicate the musical idea. Moreover, as I argue in my book on Schoenberg’s aesthetic writings on performance and interpretation (which will be published in Oxford University Press), in Schoenberg’s writings from the 1930s and 1940s he granted the performer an integral part in the role that in his earlier writings belonged solely to the composer: now both composer and performer have a mutual part in the presentation of the abstract musical idea. Although both authors’ views on this subject are not without contradictions, it seems to me that by large, Schoenberg tended to give more credit to performers and their creative role than Adorno.

On analysis and performance

Did Schoenberg, who was a world-famous theorist during his lifetime, expect performers to analyze the music they performed? Schoenberg did not write in any of his performance manuscripts explicitly about a type of analysis that the performer must undertake. On 27 July 1932 Schoenberg wrote to Kolisch that the latter had correctly worked out the series of Schoenberg’s Third String Quartet. He continued:


You must have gone to a great deal of trouble … But do you think one’s any better off for knowing it? I can’t see it that way … this [the series] isn’t where the aesthetic qualities reveal themselves … I can’t utter too many warnings against overrating these analyses, since after all they only lead to what I have always been dead against: seeing how it is done; whereas I have always helped people to see: what it is! I have repeatedly tried to make Wiesengrund understand this, and also Berg and Webern. But they won’t believe me… The only sort of analysis there can be any question of for me is one that throws the idea into relief and shows how it is presented and worked out. It goes without saying that in doing this one mustn’t overlook artistic subtleties.      


The fact that he did not insist that performers should conduct analyses before performing has great importance. It means that, unlike Adorno, Schoenberg did not consider analysis as the single path to music making.

            In ‘Notes towards a theory of musical reproduction’ Adorno mentions ‘Precise Analysis as a self-evident precondition of interpretation. Its cannon is the most advanced state of compositional-technical insight.’ In the notes taken after the Darmstadt lecture he wrote: ‘For the concept of reconstructing the neumic from the mensural, a genuine interpretation in the sense of decoding, the most important category of mediation is that of analysis as a necessary condition for interpretation.’ Adorno mentioned two meanings of the concept of ‘clarity’. The first is that ‘one can hear everything that is written’, or as Schoenberg famously wrote around 1923 ‘The highest principle for all reproduction of music would have to be that what the composer has written is made to sound in such a way that every note is really heard … that they all stand out clearly from one another.’ The second meaning of ‘clarity’, according to Adorno, which is ‘higher’, is based upon analysis: ‘Nothing should be played arbitrarily, simply because it is written’. Adorno adds that ‘this failing is one of the reasons for the incomprehensibility of many performances of new music’. In other words, Adorno seems to expect from the performer much rational and intellectual work in order to perform ‘correctly’.

Schoenberg often complains against insufficient number of rehearsal. Actually, the demand for many rehearsals is a major theme in his writings and letters. Performers who insists on many rehearsals (for example Mahler), have a clear image of the music in their minds. They seek to communicate the image by refining their performance. Adorno too complains against insufficient rehearsal, yet he connects it to the socio-economic conditions of interpretation. It can be generalized that Adorno, as an experienced philosopher and educated musician, went to great pains in order to contextualize his ideas with relation to the history of music. He related to the writings of Wagner, Dorian, Riemann and others, in a manner that Schoenberg usually did not bother to do so in such an extensive manner.

Developing theories

When one compares the fragments each author wrote during the years one finds that their theories are not internally consistent. Before 1963 Adorno believed in the ‘x-ray’ concept that reveals hidden structure that lies beneath the heard surface. During the 1960s he changed his mind: ‘My hypothesis that the performance is the x-ray photograph of the work requires correction in so far as it provides not the skeleton, but rather the entire wealth of subcutanea.’  

            Schoenberg’s performance aesthetics too developed and changed. From pronouncing anti-performance ideas in some (yet not all) of his performance writings in the 1920s, after 1933 he grants the performer more importance in the creative process. Unfortunately, this is something that is not acknowledged by scholars up to now. Leon Botstein, said: ‘we were taught by a generation of teachers in the composer and analysis world who were extremely hostile to performers. This generation was trained in its attitude to players by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who were extremely negative about performers’. Authors such as Botstein, Nicholas Cook, Alfred Cramer and Danuser, who emphasize Schoenberg’s negative writings on performers, contribute to a meta-narrative that puts him in the position of a composer, which insists on complete cultural hegemony of composers over performers, manifested in the passivity of performers in a process of communication between composer to listener. My study of Schoenberg’s performance writings and the Adorno’s recently published fragments of performance challenge this meta-narrative by demonstrating that they held various changing views on performers and performance. The alternative narrative that I suggest calls for being sensitive to both the differences and the similarities between the performance aesthetics of the two musicians, as well as being aware of their fragmentary, multifaceted, developmental and at certain points contradictory character. The definition of the core or message of these writings depends not only on the fragmentary texts, but also on us: their readers, and on our aims and values.

What next?


 Subscribe to the Blog

Click here to add site to your favorites

No Comments

Add your own comment...

Copyright Avior Byron 2023 .