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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Arnold Schoenberg

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My first exposure to Schoenberg’s music was Glenn Gould’s performance of the gigue from opus 25 “Suite for Piano” – you can hear it for yourself in the YouTube link to the right. I hope that you will – I’ll wait until you have a chance.

A lot of complete nonsense has been written about Schoenberg’s music, often implying that it embodies an anarchic spirit of modernist rebellion. Some even accuse Schoenberg and his followers of rejecting the very foundations of western music in favor of novel patterns of sound that are not even properly called “musical.”

In truth, Schoenberg was concerned with the history of European composition and theory to a degree seldom found in composers. The care that he took to organize musical ideas is easily discernible in the Gould performances, thanks to the pianist’s miraculous capacity to differentiate and clarify independent voices within compositions.

Certainly, Schoenberg formal interests have little to do with the dramatic principles of tension and release that dominated the western idiom since Haydn. Instead, he is concerned with the melodic and harmonic development of motifs, and in this sense, his work constitutes not a rejection of traditional forms, but a return to the strategies that preoccupied composers from the birth of polyphony in the High Middle Ages all the way down to the classical period. Indeed, Schoenberg reminds me of no composer so much as Bach, with his keen architectonic attention and melodic inventiveness.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is based on constructing a fixed melodic sequence called a “row” out of all twelve notes of the chromatic series. He then uses the row as the basis for a piece of music, perhaps deploying it as the principle theme, or varying it in countless ways.

This approach resembles the strategies used by all Renaissance polyphonic composers to construct melodic lines based on variations of principle themes, with their inversions, crab or puzzle canons, and fugues. One is particularly reminded of “parody masses,” a common form of composition based on melodies lifted from popular songs. The secular song “L’homme armé” alone was used as the basis for hundreds of masses.

The groundwork for Schoenberg’s compositional theory was laid decades before he began his work. Wagner’s Ring was far too long to be persuasively organized by alternations of dissonance and resolution, so it was stitched together by melodic motives, or recurring melodic figures that he associated with ideas from the libretto. Brahms relied on motives as a framework for instrumental writing in some of his symphonies, and Mahler experimented with progressive tonality, by which his symphonies might conclude in a key unrelated to the tonic.

Schoenberg was precisely the opposite of an anarchist – he was an architect of a very high order, and knew exactly what he was doing, and how he stood in relationship to musical history. He once wrote:

I used to say, ‘Bach is the first composer with twelve tones.’ This was a joke, of course. I did not even know whether somebody before him might have deserved this title. But the truth on which this statement is based is that the Fugue No. 24 of the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, in B minor, begins with a Dux in which all twelve tones appear. (1)

Have a listen to that fugue (again played by Glenn Gould) in the YouTube player to the right, and see if you can note the deep similarities to the gigue we heard before. Both of them are principally organized by parallel melodic progressions that are organized in harmonic relationships such that their simultaneous occurrence with other melodic lines contributes to the overall effect. Both of them are highly chromatic. What, then, is the difference between them?

Schoenberg’s work abound with more dissonant intervals, perhaps, but then, he argued that our perception of dissonance is largely a matter of familiarity.

Now, there will always be those who respond to this argument by maintaining that there is a natural basis for our perception of consonant musical intervals based on simple integer ratios between string length. You can expect to hear the names of Pythagoras, Boethius, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This argument is persuasive at a glance, but the diabolus in musica is in the details. It turns out that constructing a musical scale requires substantial modifications of the great Platonic order simply to produce an instrument capable of playing in multiple keys.

And can anyone really argue that dissonant relationships are intrinsically disturbing at this late date? The most dissonant interval playable on a piano is the augmented fourth, and this interval occurs in dominant seventh chords. A malignant dominant seventh might have sent a medieval chorister fleeing from the room in terror, but the Beatles use it in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for heaven’s sake, which is not exactly the stuff of modernism.

Charles Rosen argued in his study of Schoenberg that people are not really disturbed by the nominally dissonant intervals in serialist music, but by the lack of cadence (2). Listeners lack familiar cues that help them predict the flow of a musical passage, and they find it disturbing.

For my own tastes, I find serialism to be most disturbing when orchestral works leap repeatedly from whisper-quiet string segments to sudden explosions of honking brass. I don’t go in for these shenanigans, myself – I regard it as a cheap tactic. Yes, it produces an effect, much as shouting at someone all of a sudden gets their attention.

But anyone who believes that serialist music must be unlovely should really spend some time with Berg’s violin concerto, which may well be the finest concerto written in the entire twentieth century.

I hope to return to this topic at a later date to explore some interesting related issues, including the biography of Arnold Schoenberg, which, if it were presented as a work of fiction, would be rejected as too fantastic to be believed. It’s also worth exploring other techniques for composing outside of classical tonality, such as those employed by Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen, two of the greatest composers of the last century.

Thanks to DJ for pointing out that the augmented fourth is found in the dominant seven, not the major seven chord.

1) Schoenberg A. “Bach (1950).” from Style and Idea; Selected Writings. University of California Press. 1975. pg. 393.
2) Rosen C. Arnold Schoenberg. Princeton University Press. 1975.


Written by Mesocosm

March 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

Posted in Articles, Music

Tagged with , ,

One Response

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  1. By major seventh, do you mean the dominant seventh? When I think major seventh, I think, for example, C maj7 (C,E, G, B). But since you were talking about tritones, I assume you mean C7 (C,E,G,Bflat).

    Great essay; you really sparked a desire to listen to Schoenberg again.


    April 2, 2013 at 5:53 am

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