- “Even Money Decays”: Transience and Hope in Adorno, Benjamin, and Wozzeck
Nature is indestructible.—Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
Music . . . resembles these angels. Their very transience, their ephemerality, is glorification. That is, the incessant destruction of nature.—Theodor Adorno, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music
Why is the world so sad? Even money decays.—Alban Berg, Wozzeck
Introduction: Adorno, Berg, Benjamin, Wozzeck
On December 14, 1925, Theodor Adorno and Alban Berg attended the premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in Berlin.1 By then, the brief period in which Adorno lived in Vienna and studied with Berg had come to a close. Adorno had returned to Frankfurt, in part to pursue his Habilitation under his old dissertation advisor, Hans Cornelius. And with this return from Vienna and Berg to Frankfurt and Cornelius, Adorno also began his lasting turn from composition to philosophy.2 Nonetheless, he and Berg remained close. They exchanged letters, sometimes regularly, sometimes sporadically, until the early end of Berg’s life. Adorno continued to address Berg as “master and teacher,” and the biographical reflections he wrote later in life are careful to portray him as Berg’s intimate. He recalls sitting with Berg after the premiere of Wozzeck. The composer was “embarrassed like a young boy,” Adorno writes: “I was with him until late into the night, literally consoling him over [the opera’s] success.”3
On December 22, 1925, Adorno attended Wozzeck again, this time with Walter Benjamin.4 They had first met two years earlier, through their mutual friend Siegfried Kracauer; a few years later, Adorno’s writings would be permeated by Benjamin’s ideas and philosophical vocabulary.5 Adorno had not yet fully made this turn by the time he and Benjamin attended Wozzeck together, but his later writings nonetheless make clear that he was deeply impressed with Benjamin from the moment of their first meeting. “It is scarcely an illusion of memory,” he wrote in [End Page 212] 1964, “when I say that from the first moment on, I had the impression of Benjamin as one of the most significant human beings that ever confronted me.”6 After the performance of Wozzeck, the two shared a conversation that both would refer to for decades to come. Ten years later, upon Berg’s death, Benjamin wrote to Adorno:
Let me express the profound sympathy I felt for you on learning yesterday of the death of Alban Berg.
You know that whenever we talked about music, a field otherwise fairly remote from my own, it was only really when his work was under discussion that we reached the same level of intensity as we usually do on our discussions on other subjects. You will certainly still remember the conversation we had following a performance of Wozzeck.7
For Adorno, the first two performances of Wozzeck were thus marked by the presence of Berg and Benjamin, two older men (at the time, Adorno was twenty-two, Berg forty, and Benjamin thirty-three) who would have an enormous influence on his musical and philosophical thought. In a letter to Berg written in March 1926, just a few months after the Wozzeck premiere, Adorno describes this period as a time of new beginnings in his intellectual and artistic life: “Since the autumn of last year—the extensive confrontation with Benjamin—my philosophy has been undergoing great developments. . . . After reflecting more emphatically. . . the incompleteness, the inadequacy of my previous categories transpired ever more powerfully. Also the musico-aesthetic ones . . .”8 Adorno tells Berg that, just as meeting Benjamin catalyzed the new “great developments” in his philosophy, so Wozzeck had provided him with “material construction” for the new developments in his musical thought. These new ideas, he writes, had “crystallized around Wozzeck” and “shall also be said about Wozzeck.”9
In this essay, I will be concerned with a notion of temporality that emerges from this thought that “crystallized around Wozzeck.” I will proceed in two parts. First, beginning with Adorno’s later writings on temporality in Berg’s music, and passing through his engagements with Wagner, Stravinsky, Henri Bergson, Max Horkheimer, and Benjamin, I will offer an account of what Adorno means when...