The world turned upside down

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I’m going to make an argument here that will perturb any normal classical music lover: The atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg is not atonal.

Schoenberg is a whipping boy for all those who hate, just hate what happened to music in the 20th century. He is held to be the archdeacon of unlistenable cacophony. But whether you like his music, the way you might like the music of Mozart, or not, a good deal of the disapprobation that has been visited upon him is undeserved and derives from a complete misunderstanding of his music, and I would argue a misunderstanding of what is called classical music, in general. 

Some background: Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna in 1874, when Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms were still alive, and the two ruled the German music world, as two poles of artistic radicalism and conservatism. Schoenberg was 8 when Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, premiered in 1882. He was 23 when Brahms died (when Schoenberg was born, Brahms had not even written his first symphony). 

He became a composer, writing first in the arch-Romantic style that borrowed a good deal from Wagner’s chromaticism and Brahms’ idiosyncratic rhythmic complexity. He came of age in a Vienna dominated by the musical will of Gustav Mahler.

As a composer, he believed he was moving on the logical path set forward by Wagner, Brahms and Mahler, among others, a path that moved historically from diatonic to chromatic music, and then to music of indistinct tonality — which has sometimes been called atonal. His final move was to a structured composing method he felt would reimpose order in the making of music. In this, he was one of the two primary sources of Modernism in music, along with his “archenemy,” Igor Stravinsky.

(That “method” was, of course, the 12-tone, or dodecaphonic system, also called “serial” music — more of that later). 

To those ears used to hearing music with tonic and dominant harmonies in major and minor modes, Schoenberg’s later music seemed hopelessly aimless, and worse, ungrounded in traditional harmony. To them, it seemed like noise rather than music.

Setting aside questions of taste: For some of us, Schoenberg’s music is unutterably beautiful, while others may never see (or hear) past the dissonances. But as I said at the beginning, there is a serious misunderstanding of Schoenberg’s aim. 

By my definition, Schoenberg’s music — even his later 12-tone music — is not actually atonal. If I want atonal music, I must look to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

What! You say? How can that be?

I’m not being facetious: I’m making a central point about classical music.

For the sake of argument, we should say that what we call music is often broken down into three primary components: melody, rhythm and harmony. It is admittedly simplistic to make this generalization, but it has a kernel of truth to it: If we divide the world’s music up, it can be said that Asian music is given over to the primacy of melody and can consist of melodies of incredible complexity; African music respectively finds enormous complexity and expressiveness in rhythm. Yes, there is melody, harmony and rhythm in all these musics, but there is a special place given to melody in the often drone-harmonied Asian music, and a special place to rhythmic complexity on sub-Saharan African music.

But European music has placed its money on harmony. Since the Renaissance, harmony has been the most expressive, and certainly the most complex element of European music. By the 18th century, this had evolved into a system of keys and key relationships.

If you want a demonstration of what I mean by harmony being the central element, consider something as simple as Bach’s Prelude in C-major from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. In it a simple eight-note rhythmic figure is repeated, over and over, twice to a bar, unchanged for 32 bars. That is 64 identical iterations. It serves as both melody and rhythm. The only thing that changes is the harmony, constantly shifting: It is beautifully expressive in its simplicity. 

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Or take a Schubert song. It would appear that the melody is what makes Schubert so can’t-get-out-of-your-head, but in fact, it is the often-wild and inventive harmonies he has underpinned them with. Try re-harmonizing any of his songs and the magic evaporates. 

Reharmonize Andrew Lloyd Webber and it hardly matters; in fact, his music is commonly reharmonized with each new arrangement, so indifferent is the harmonic underpinning. In a good deal of contemporary music (mostly pop) the harmonies are merely ornaments to the beat and tune, and can be interchanged with impunity. The “chords” are just called “changes,” and little thought is given to them, or to their interrelationships. 

This is what I consider atonal music. It may be consonant and it may all sound very pleasant, but it does nothing expressive with its harmonies and there is no coherence to key relationships. 

All music also depends on the setting up of expectations and then satisfying them or deflecting them. This is true of the changing rhythms of African drums or the melisma of the Arabian oud. 

Tension and resolution. 

In Western music, this creation of expectation and its subsequent completion falls primarily to harmony. 

The primary engine of this tension is dissonance and the primary resolution is found in the subsequent consonance. But that is only in the short term. To make a piece of art that lasts longer, requires a more sophisticated pattern: how to delay the final resolution until it comes to us like a dawn sun after a dark night. 

Consider the slow tread to C-major in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where the tonal resolution comes after many short glimpses, but not in full till the finale. Or even more extreme: the way Bruckner withholds the genuine tonal resolution until the very last B-flat chord of his Fifth Symphony. 

Wagner depends on holding off that longed-for resolution; it’s what gives the Liebestod its unendurable sense of longing.

The history of Western music is the history of what Leonard Bernstein once called “newer and better ambiguities” in tonality. The thumping tonic-dominant structure of Beethoven turns eventually to the sliding chromaticism of Wagner, and later, the battering tone clusters of Stravinsky. 

You can hear the way tonality gives direction to music in something as simple as the blues. The chord changes in the blues, although they are sometimes given a little kick by adding sixths or sevenths to the basic chords, is a very simple set of chord progressions. Tonic, tonic; subdominant, tonic; dominant, tonic. Over and over. You can feel the movement at each chord change.

Classical music does that to, albeit in a more complex, subtle and varied manner. You need to feel the chords — the harmonies, change under your feet.

Listen to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one the most memorable and moving in his oeuvre. The melody is hardly more than a single repeated note in a repeated “Dum-ditty-dum-dum” rhythm. But the harmony changes constantly and meaningfully: It moves from A-minor and into C-major and on to B-major and B-minor before noodling back through the dominant E to the home A-minor at the end of the phrase. Beethoven keeps it alive and fresh; he keeps it interesting. 

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You should not only notice, you should feel the harmony. It is meant to convey emotion.

The best way to do this is to listen more to the bass line than the soprano. You’ll get the tune whether you listen especially to it or not, but listen to the bass, and you’ll hear where the music is going.

Brahms always used to cover up everything but the bass staff in a score when looking at the printed version of a new piece of music. He claimed it was the best way to tell whether the music had any lasting value. 

Of course, music isn’t just the triads on parade: It is the non-harmonic tones that give it spice. 

Dissonance is everywhere in music. You cannot have music without it. If you think Schoenberg is dissonant, you should consider Johann Sebastian Bach. He is probably the most dissonant composer of all time. Of course, there is this central distinction between his dissonance and that of Schoenberg: Bach always resolves his dissonance.

If you were to take a simple choral tune, say, “Ein feste Burg,” (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”) and play only the off beats, you would hear something as modern and dissonant as Schoenberg himself. All those passing tones, all those appoggiaturas, all those mordants and nachschlags. Most of the vertical harmony (harmony at any given moment, seen from highest note to lowest bass) in Bach is clangorous , but always resolved immediately and given a place in the key structure of the melody. 

When we are comfortable in C major or G minor, we feel comfortable also to take minor departures, in full expectation of the resurrection of harmonic order. All is right in Bach’s universe.

Schoenberg lived in a different time from Bach, a time when all was not right. It was the early 20th century, and wars, ethnic cleansing, fascism, colonialism’s evils and even the death of God made life seem less secure. For Schoenberg, tension was the order of the day, not resolution. And so, in his so-called atonal music, each cluster of tones, although the equal of any tone cluster in Bach, is not fit into a hierarchy of key, and does not anticipate its own resolution into something emotionally satisfying. 

If Wagner attempted to keep resolution at bay for minutes and quarter-hours at a time, Schoenberg keeps it at bay for entire pieces of music.

Each cluster twists in a matrix of implied tonal structure, but moves from one to the next in such an eel-like manner that no tonal structure is ever settled or constructed. We are never in D minor, although it may seem at certain instants that we are headed there.

The meaning of Schoenberg’s music, thus, depends on our ears expectation of tonality, and its meaning depends on the denial of the same. In this sense, Schoenberg’s music is still tonal, even when it avoids any key center. Even at its most radical, his music relies on our own ear’s sense of the harmonic universe in which it exists to provide “Luft von anderem Planeten:” “air from another planet.”

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That is true even of the serial music he wrote. It’s emotional resonance depends on our placing it in an endlessly shifting tonal universe, a ball of mercury that cannot be pinned down. 

In this sense, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music, although it is written in a key, does not depend on tonality the way Western music from Bach to Debussy did. Its tonality is mere happenstance, something unconsidered because merely habitual, something virtually unseen, or unheard by its creator. 

And hence, I claim that Schoenberg’s music is tonal, and Webber’s music is not.

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