Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Inside 20th-century music

An enigma still with us

In the huge list which we could call ''Most Misunderstood, Misrepresented Composers of the 20th Century,'' pride of place would very likely go to Arnold Schonberg. Certainly no other major figure in modern music has been so adored and so villified, so legendary and so notorious as the man we credit with bringing the ''method of 12-tone composition'' into being. Twelve-tone serialism , that arithmetic-laden system in which all twelve tones are treated equally, none being of greater importance than others, was basically Schonberg's brainchild. But so often, the man is unthinkingly branded as an iconoclast and as nothing else.

About these ads

This is the problem when we try to judge a man's career on the basis of just one particular aspect of it. As a 20th-century citizen, Schonberg had many rich facets, including his mastery of Expressionist oil painting and his extensive political interests and influences.

But, in sizing up Arnold Schonberg for our time, it seems relevant to point out some elements in his makeup that probably forcedm him to take the step of formulating the 12-tone method, which virtually ruled composing style until just a couple of years ago.

Schonberg grew up in the era of Brahms, and had an extremely orthodox musical grounding in all that the 19th-century German tradition stood for. His eminence within the Mahler idiom is well known to lovers of his Transfigured Nightm (1899) or the mammoth cantata, Songs of Gurrem (1901). But it was his classical streak that eventually demanded from him a ''system.''

Being a young man very much with his times, Schonberg was drawn into the Modernism and Expressionism of the early 1900s. The heady goal of newness was All to this era, and Schonberg proved more than equal to that. By 1909 he had produced Erwartungm (a chamber opera), and by 1912, Pierrot Lunairem , a setting of 21 poems for voice and five players, both of which stretch the sense of experiment and search, seemingly to the brink.

In truth, it was and is the brink, because in them, and even in his first and second string quartets as well, Schonberg's process of choosing notes and their relationships is seen, on close observation, to be one of virtually free association. This was strikingly new in those days, although it bears an interesting resemblance to the kind of free association found in neophyte composers whose minds are not fettered by a knowledge of disciplined training.

This unbelievable freedom was certainly backed by mastery, but the implications of where this was leading both him and music could not have escaped Schonberg for long. Such freedom was next door to anarchy, and he knew it.

(Debussy was in the camp of the ''searching'' Moderns too, but quite different. Compare piano pieces of Debussy like ''What the West Wind Saw'' or ''Steps in the Snow'' with Schonberg's piano pieces, Op. 11 or Op. 19.)

About these ads

Schonberg's music, perhaps more than that of most Expressionist composers, was straining, after World War I, under the weight and pressure of the ''anything goes'' ethic and its demands for constant change and expanding novelty. After Pierrot Lunairem , a work of staggering originality - and free association - his lake of musical taste and inventiveness was starting to be fished out.

Classicist that he was, he paid scrupulous attention to traditional musical features, such as bar lines, metre, coherent rhythms, and so forth. Even dissonance itself was not a goal, as it was in, say, the more annihilating passages of Stravinsky's The Rite of Springm . But the cloudiness and ambiguity of the way he associated his pitches was a feature that continued to grow and to exhort greater and greater imagination, each work seemingly impossible to surpass in complexity.

Thus it was that Schonberg's orderly brain needed and sought out some controlling agent, a cap fitting over the free association which had gone a bit mad. And for producing that freedom's effects, under control, he came up with its reverse: the 12-tone system, whereby there was no longer the struggle to ''get around'' tonalities (key centres), as had been the rule of thumb before. Now, key centres were not just evaded, their very existence was denied in an technique which used combinations (rows) of the twelve chromatic tones. They were all used as equals, and none might be repeated until all the others had been sounded. Whether they were stacked in chords or spun out in lines, -- the rule was supposed to banish any hints of tonality.

Despite Schonberg's undeniable musical sensitivity, his 12-tone music does present problems. It has shape and contour in time, all the rhythmic vigor and playfulness one could wish for, and uses every known means of expressiveness: nuances of softness, loudness, acceleration, slowness, instrumental color. But what is very plainly missing, amid all these traditional musical elements giving roundness and coherence, is an equally compelling set of tonal reasons for what is going on. It has often been said of Schonberg's music, justifiably I think, that he was trying unsuccessfully to adapt his new tonal system to old methods of expressivity; and that it was up to later figures like Anton Webern, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez to ''improve'' upon that oversight, streamlining and mathematically predetermining every phase of music composition. As for ''deciding'' about the best of these Schonberg works, the Violin Concerto (1936), the Piano Concerto (1942), and the uncompleted opera, Moses and Aaronm , history needs more time - which simply means each individual listener must today ''decide'' for himself.

It was Schonberg's prediction, when he first propounded his method, that it would guarantee the supremacy of Germanic music for at least another 300 years. That it has succeeded in doing no such thing need not and should not be held against him. Schonberg's musical talent holds him above any cavil about a system , even one in which he happened to wrap himself with such ardor.

But the whole origin of that system says much about one time-honoured notion of ''progress.'' Whether or not it is a trait peculiar to European traditions, I call it ''musical Darwinism.'' Its belief is that art must always progress and develop, organically, out of (but also away from) its past and its present. The result of that kind of linear progression is a constant newness which isn't difficult to begin treating as an end in itself. It is useful to take into account this school of thought, and its possible shortcomings, when we move towards an assessment of Arnold Schonberg's musical legacy. For, judge him or not, like him or not, the 20th century will have to reckon with him, and, to the extent that serialism symbolises the belief in musical evolution, to reckon also with his contributions to the life of an idea.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.