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AS pingpong

No major composer suffers from worse press than Arnold Schoenberg.  His music is vilified, blamed for being ugly and for destroying classical music. But how many of those who think they hate Schoenberg’s music have actually listened — and listened with an open mind and open ear — to what he actually wrote?

The problem is that one’s expectations of the music so color its perception, it can be difficult to actually hear it. Ideas about the music clog the ears.

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

Schoenberg and his 2nd wife in a photobooth

(A parallel case, though less debilitating, is the myth that J.S. Bach’s music is somehow “mathematical,” when the truth is, as a high Baroque composer, his music is often wildly irrational and excessive — the Baroque is, after all, a Romantic phase of cultural history in the eternal pendulum swing between the classical and romantic sensibilities. Listen to the C-minor Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, which starts out as a repeated pattern of shifting harmonies, but then breaks into a series of appended and unrelated cadenzas. Bach tends to pile it on, not work out formulae.)

So, it is the myths about Schoenberg’s music that are the problem, not the music itself, which, given a fair hearing, is instantly communicative.

It is, however, different and unfamiliar.

“I feel air from another planet.”

These are the words the soprano sings in Schoenberg’s second string quartet (1908). Yes, a singer in the string quartet. Makes you reconsider what a string quartet is.

Although he’s one of the major composers of the German tradition, he also wrote music that dispensed with the familiar keys of, say, C-major or d-minor and developed a system for using all 12 notes — both the black and the white keys on the piano — of the octave, arranged in a series, instead of a melody. This atonal music still sounds strange to the ear, as if it came from another planet.

Hence the charge that his music is ugly; that he destroyed music; that it’s not music, it’s mathematics.

None of these canards is true, but they are persistent myths.

Myth 1: Schoenberg is all head and no heart.

If you look at the totality of his output, it becomes clear that Schoenberg is among the last great Romantics. The music is powerfully emotional.

Perhaps because Schoenberg became such an important subject for music theorists that this myth began. They analyzed the music without ever discussing the emotional content of the music. That’s not the composer’s fault: You need to listen to his music — all music — with not only open ears, but an open heart.

Those theorists looked at the basic features of Schoenberg’s theory of 12-tone music and discussed them as if they were the point of the music. AS smiling

That’s like discussing a person’s DNA but not the person’s character. No wonder it seemed to them mathematical and brain-oriented.

In fact, it may be that what really puts some people off is just how emotional it is: deeply and profoundly so, but its emotions are often painful ones rather than simple and happy ones. There is angst, pain and suffering as well as brilliant moments of transcendence, as in his early Transfigured Night. These are emotions particularly appropriate for the violent, chaotic 20th century.

He is more Bergman than Fellini.

Myth 2: Schoenberg destroyed tonality.

The problems with tonality occurred before Schoenberg. Western classical music had become so harmonically complex that often it was difficult to tell what, if any, key a piece was really written in.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, sometimes wanders into the far reaches of tonal ambiguity. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is structured around the tritone, of all things. Rather than trying to destroy tonality, Schoenberg was trying to find a solution to a problem that already existed.

Schoenberg saw what he thought was a directional arrow in musical progress, with each generation from Bach through Wagner more tonally complex and equivocal. He decided it was his duty to take music to the next step: atonality.

But he never destroyed tonality.

“There’s plenty of good music still to be written in C-major,” he once famously said, and much of his later music went back to tonal writing.

Myth 3: Schoenberg was an elitist.

The idea that the composer was an egghead has more to do with his bald pate than his actual demeanor.

He had an interest in many things, including playing ping-pong with Harpo Marx and tennis with George Gershwin. Gershwin painted Schoenberg’s portrait. When Gershwin died, Schoenberg wrote the eulogy.

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

George Gershwin with his portrait of Schoenberg

He designed toys for his children and made them peanut-butter sandwiches cut in the shapes of animals. He enjoyed going to amusement parks, and he enjoyed jazz and socialized with Artie Shaw.

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

Schoenberg with Charlie Chaplin

For his Society of Private Music Performances, which he and his colleagues arranged in Vienna before the Nazis drove them to flee, he arranged Strauss waltzes and songs from operettas.

It is silly to think he had nothing to do with the lowbrow.

He didn’t even have a high-school diploma, and when he was in school, he was an indifferent student.

It’s true that he believed music should always be the best it could be, but how elitist could it be if one of his ambitions was to score films? Although it never came to pass, he was considered for scoring the 1937 Paul Muni film, The Good Earth. Hardly an art film.

Myth 4: Schoenberg’s music is ugly.

Certainly beauty is in the ear of the listener, and some of Schoenberg’s music can be challenging, even to a seasoned audience. But there is little in music as ravishingly beautiful — in a perfectly traditional sense — than his Gurrelieder symphonic song cycle, which out-Wagners Wagner.

And even in the later, atonal and 12-tone music, there is great beauty to those who can get past their initial shock: The piano concerto at times sounds almost like Rachmaninov.

Listen to Hillary Hahn play the violin concerto: Ravishing.

In part, it is a matter of letting our ears become acclimated to the air from another planet. For some listeners, it may take years, but at some point, you wake up one day and say, “Gee, I’d like to hear Schoenberg’s string trio.” And it will give deep pleasure.

Myth 5: Schoenberg killed classical music.

Poet T.S. Eliot once complained that Milton had ruined English poetry for 250 years. Milton’s powerful voice left its imprint on all who came after.

Ironically, Eliot’s distinctive voice has been likewise imitated by everyone, especially by the bad grad-student poets in academic programs everywhere.

But you can’t blame Milton or Eliot for being good and therefore influential.

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

Schoenberg by Egon Schiele

And it’s true that a generation of American college music programs were miserably stunted by the hegemony of 12-tone theorists in the postwar era. It is not Schoenberg, but rather that academic music that is mathematical and not emotional. That’s the music that really is ugly.

But Schoenberg himself would have been horrified at what has been done in his name since his death at 77 in 1951.

At the end of his life, when his disciples once told him that there were now more and more composers writing 12-tone works, he asked, “But, are they also coming up with music?”

Scholars will discuss the minutiae of dodecaphonic theory, but anyone willing to take the chance will learn that the real Schoenberg is one of the great composers of the tradition, whose work is moving, beautiful and — most surprisingly given the myths — deeply and profoundly beautiful.

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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. 

BachPrelude

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. 

Beethoven7

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.”

Schoenbergselfportrait

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.