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Posts Tagged ‘Schoenberg’

RT’s juicy analyses of works from Schoenberg’s earliest period of “emancipated dissonance” are focused and compelling in their own right, but best of all – as Mark mentioned in a recent point – they challenge a certain oversimplified historiographical narrative that most of us, at one point or another, were inculcated with, namely that Schoenberg represents a clean and historically (or should I say “historicistically”) necessary break with tonality. Schoenberg’s music is “difficult to understand,” but not because his syntax is from Mars; rather, it’s the same thing we’ve been dealing with for a while now (motivic saturation) only pushed into overdrive. Because RT doesn’t concern himself with proving Schoenberg’s place as the tradition-destroyer (rather the contrary), we are left to focus on other often neglected elements of Schoenberg’s music, such as the fact that functional equality between the notes represented for the composer a musical portrayal of an explicitly spiritual notion of Oneness.

How does one really assess the perceived “difficulty” of Schoenberg’s music? Most writers – RT among them – focus on the way the composer manipulated pitch. This is understandable considering the notoriously meticulous and mathematical processes Schoenberg developed to structure pitch relationships. However, it seems that there are other factors that play just as prominent a role in the general perception of him as a “difficult” composer, factors that aren’t frequently mentioned in discussions of this “atonal” music. I’m thinking particularly of Schoenberg’s rhythmic sensibilities.

At least to my ears, it doesn’t take long for dissonance to establish a new norm while listening to the pieces RT analyzes here. At a certain point, abstruse harmonic configurations and jagged motifs lose their bite, especially when the texture is homogeneously “atonal” (indeed, in these contexts a major chord can sound as piercing, strident, and unexpected as a train whistle in the dead of night). However, it’s much harder for me ever to become acclimated to his rhythmic language. Take the opening to the Five Pieces (p. 343): the rhythms skitter across the sonic field in a herky-jerky spasm, and the whole movement is filled with starts and stops, non-intuitive accent patterns, rhythmic stabs, tempo shifts, etc. Whenever I listen to this set (and the early piano pieces RT analyzes), it’s the rhythms that I find most arresting, strange, and “difficult.”

Leonard Meyer talked about one of the major challenges in the reception of avant-garde music being a general lack of “motor empathy” in listeners. If we can’t feel the temporal ordering of the music, if rhythm fails to corral our motor energies and implant in us an understandable and physically identifiable model of movement, it’s hard to really empathize with it. Schoenberg aimed to dislocate and confound in the pieces analyzed here; indeed, it seems that he actively wanted to alienate, and rhythm worked toward this goal just as much as pitch.

But modernism is not synonymous with affronts to “motor empathy,” of course. Berg understood this well. So did Bartók, the next major non-second-Viennesese composer we meet in these pages. While getting into some gnarly harmonic territory in his music, rarely does the Hungarian venture into the sort of non-intuitive, jarring rhythmic world so typically of mature Schoenberg. Rhythm in Bartók can be very difficult, but it’s rarely “difficult.” This is one of the many factors that accounts for Bartók’s relative popularity in concert halls (I just saw Salonen conduct Bluebeard at Disney Hall a few months ago, in fact). His music is a lot easier to feel.

In fact, it’s even capable of being adapted for drum and bugle corps and performed at football stadiums:

(A Schoenberg field-show for drum corps is inconceivable, though I didn’t search YouTube for fear that I might actually find something.)

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We eased back into our Challenge this week like an elephant eases into a teacup. This week’s reading covered almost all of Taruskin’s chapter on the early life and work of Arnold Schoenberg, a composer whose opaqueness is famous, and well known in his own day: Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg wrote an article called “Why Is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” in honor of his teacher’s fiftieth birthday (IV, 324). Taruskin’s discussion of Schoenberg’s music includes the opera Erwartung (Op. 17), the art song Mädchenlied (Op. 6, no. 3), Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (“Six Little Pieces for Piano,” Op. 19, no. 1), “Vorgefühle” (“Premonitions”) from Five Orchestral Pieces (op. 16), and the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter. The analyses, which are written in a style considerate of the reader, are still heady and dense enough to give the undergraduate music student—not to mention the intelligent general reader—pause.

Indeed, for many music students, the real question is not Berg’s “why so difficult to understand?” but “why should we try to understand Schoenberg’s music in the first place?” Taruskin offers a compelling answer by linking Schoenberg’s technical developments, the realm of the mind, to his vision of transcendence, the realm of the elevated soul. Rather than being merely a set of mathematical exercises (a common blanket attack leveled at “atonal music” without regard to its accuracy or chronological appropriateness) that negated the spiritual aims of Romanticism, Taruskin argues that Schoenberg was taking transcendence to new extremes (Taruskin uses the term “maximalism”).

This chapter is the final piece of Taruskin’s trilogy of transcendentalism (chapters 4-6), in which he sets forth a major rethinking of the traditionally held division between the Romantic and Modernist periods in musical history. One of its major results is to revise the core definition of what comprises Romanticism—namely, that transcendence, rather than harmonic practice, is the Romantic trump card.

This runs directly in contrast to traditional understandings of the divisions between Romantic and Modernist periods, which are usually cast in technical terms: extreme chromaticism gave way to “atonality” and the final vestiges of common-practice harmony were eradicated, ushering in the new age. The example of this narrative I happen to have on my nearby shelf at the moment is Robert P. Morgan’s textbook, Twentieth-Century Music.* His analysis of Erwartung forms an apt comparison to Taruskin’s. Whereas a description of the plot is something of an afterthought in Morgan’s, second to Schoenberg’s compositional technique, it comes up front in Taruskin’s, framing the entire discussion. In Morgan’s, Erwartung is the clarion call of something new: “With its vivid suggestion of impending disaster and emotional disintegration, it is a true child of the new age” (73, emphasis added). In Taruskin’s narrative, Erwartung is driving toward a climax of pathos, the last gasp of the historical stream of Romanticism. As Taruskin will go on to argue in chapter 8, the “real” twentieth century didn’t begin at the fin de siècle, but in the 1920s when composers like Stravinsky sought to eradicate not Romantic harmonic practice, but Romantic subjectivity.

I, for one, will continue chunking through Taruskin’s text with one of Schoenberg’s (Taruskin’s?) lessons ringing in my ears: transcendence ain’t easy, but it’s worth it.

*Robert P. Morgan, Twentieth-Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe and America (New York: WW Norton & Company, 1991).

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