This was going to be a simple introduction to the early works of the Second Viennese School, and to that group of composers itself, but as with many things, it has expanded. I start with a quote (one I will use again at the end):
“Listen, don’t worry about whether or not the music sounds coherent to you the first time you hear it. What about the first time you hear a sentence in Hungarian? — assuming youre interested in listening to and learning Hungarian.” Milton Babbitt
I have to say, I’m a convert. I had originally intended to have a separate “Influential People” post about Arnold Schoenberg, but I figured it would be a bit redundant, and I didn’t want to steal any thunder from this series. Let me explain. I feel like, in any discussion about “controversial” or more modern music, the story of the emperor’s new clothes is a fitting topic. Why? Because in some situations, people assume that anyone who professes to like (let’s use a more extreme example, like) Boulez’s second piano sonata (or the other two), must be attempting to profess his intellectuality because ‘no one could actually like that nonsense.’ And the issue of musicality versus interestingness versus nonsense is a real one, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about the artistic merits of the beginning of the breakdown of Romantic tonality and how Schoenberg began to do what he did, what followed, and how you can get into listening to it and even liking it. Basically what I mean to discuss is how a large chunk of the music world (and one composer in particular) went, in just a few years, from sounding like this to sounding like this, and why people followed. I’m glad we’ve already addressed two of Schoenberg’s early works already, his Verklärte Nacht and Gurre-Lieder. They are perhaps the easiest (well, in some ways) of all Schoenberg’s oeuvre for some people to listen to. That being said, I found Transfigured Night to be challenging at the beginning. For one, I wasn’t used to the sounds of quartets or sextets, a thinned-out, rawly-textured, expressive, exposed kind of sound. Perhaps that seems odd, because I’m sure there are more challenging harmonies and ideas in late Mahler symphonies, but they’re kind of built into such a large whole that they’re not as… Surprising. Listening to VN now is nothing, but it was wholly new at the time. Gurre-Lieder is just huge, and its challenges come from its breadth and scope as well as some of the style of the last section(s), where Schoenberg began to be more unabashedly Schoenberg. And let me just say here that… This article is going to be different from almost every other article I could find on the topic of the second Viennese school in a few ways. > 1. It’s going to be long (long enough that I decided to break it up into a few parts). All the other articles I’ve seen (not theses, but approachable, well-meaning articles meant for a large-ish audience) are woefully short. 2. They’re also, in my opinion, quite un-detailed. While they may be 100% accurate in what they state, they don’t state a whole lot. I am including a disclaimer that the way I explain this (and just about anything else on this blog) is nothing more than the way I perceive or think about something to make it simpler and more straightforward, at the risk of flirting with error or incorrectness. Think big picture, and you’ll still understand a hell of a lot more than you did when you started. So, that being said, let’s talk about why Gurrelieder is so important. As you may
or may not remember from our German(ic) Symphonies series, the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th brought us an era of overwhelming music in both content and scope. Starting with people like Wagner and Bruckner, harmonies and sounds began to change, and people like Mahler picked up the baton (literally and figuratively, I guess) and pushed the symphony to its very limits (the third and the eighth of Mahler come to mind), and this bubble of incredible and massive growth had to burst. As early as the 1880s there were people already kind of… In quiet but strong opposition to the bigness. Erik Satie, a later friend of Claude Debussy, wrote teeny, delicate, harmonically interesting and very beautiful piano pieces. The harmonic style of the impressionists was a direct result of the advances that Wagner put into motion. But wholly more than that was Schoenberg himself, who adored the Romantic idiom, admired Mahler greatly, but kind of topped out the limits of the Romantic ideal with Gurrelieder. Go back and read that article for my thoughts on the piece. In short, he took a long hiatus from the work after he’d started it, and in that interim, had a bit of an epiphany, eventually coming back to finish it with an entirely different outlook on music. I see his determination to finish the work as a purging of everything left from that part of his output so he could move on.
It was the end, for him, of that era. What came next (not entirely chronologically) was radically different, and he puts it so beautifully in a letter to Feruccio Busoni. He says (from this Wikipedia page):
My goal: complete liberation from form and symbols, context and logic.
Away with motivic work!
Away with harmony as the cement of my architecture!
Harmony is expression and nothing more.
Away with pathos!
Away with 24 pound protracted scores!
My music must be short.
Lean! In two notes, not built, but “expressed”.
And the result is, I hope, without stylized and sterilized drawn-out sentiment.
That is not how man feels; it is impossible to feel only one emotion.
Man has many feelings, thousands at a time, and these feelings add up no more than apples and pears add up. Each goes its own way.
This multicoloured, polymorphic, illogical nature of our feelings, and their associations, a rush of blood, reactions in our senses, in our nerves; I must have this in my music.
It should be an expression of feeling, as if really were the feeling, full of unconscious connections, not some perception of “conscious logic”.
Now I have said it, and they may burn me.
When I read that quote for the first time, I’d just started work (in earnest) on a 12-tone work of my own and was quite happy with what I’d done with it up to that point (only a few pages) but was wondering how long I could keep it up if I wanted to write a work that was going to be 10-15 minutes and be what I wanted it to be. It was earth-shatteringly epiphanic. Liberating. That this person had made this decision consciously and had verbalized it and intentionally was going to write other things like it. I’d also been listening to his op. 11, which was fascinating me. Enough about me. At this point, the works Schoenberg was writing were NOT in the 12-tone system that he would later develop. Rather, they were freely atonal (or freely tonal). Many people take issue with the term “atonal.” Atonal sound or music technically has zero semblance of any musically identifiable quality, like… The sound of glass shattering or cans being crushed or furniture being slid across a floor, but even those probably have measurable frequencies. They are still sound. What many people mean by ‘atonal’ is music with no tonal center. Take Scriabin’s ninth piano sonata, for example. Its tonality is very unstable since a lot of the harmonies are based on the interval of a minor ninth, so much so as to be almost without tonal center. But it is in no way related to serial techniques. The same could be said for a piece that relates much more to the topic at hand, Berg’s piano sonata, his op. 1, which we’ve thankfully also talked about here (although I fear looking back at it to see how poorly I addressed it). Only later did Schoenberg develop his twelve-tone technique as a method of using all twelve tones equally throughout a piece (though the method in which this is done may vary). Wikipedia says it this way:
The technique is a means of ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music while preventing the emphasis of any one note through the use of tone rows, orderings of the 12 pitch classes. All 12 notes are thus given more or less equal importance, and the music avoids being in a key.
For an example of why this is important or useful, consider again Schoenberg’s op. 11 (a piece we shall get to in this series for this month). Separate musical analyses from highly-respected professionals result in claims that the piece is in any number of different keys. With a definitive system for using all the tones (pitch classes) equally, that can no longer be the case, even though the 12-tone system can be used to emphasize certain intervals and even create “tonal” harmonies, although this is usually either specifically avoided or produced, not often coincidental. So it could be said that Schoenberg was one of the first to remove himself from the Romantic music machine and get to work on something radically different (or more precisely that he was eventually the first to develop a systematic method for doing so), although, as history shows, those decisions come with at least some degree of kickback, and Schoenberg’s certainly did. But that’s for a later time. < In any case, he developed his system, and there are a few milestones in his output. The fourth movement of Schoenberg’s second string quartet bears no key signature and is perhaps his first “freely tonal” work. If you had to pick a point in Schoenberg’s career where tonality broke down, that would perhaps be it. Op. 11, the work that follows, is, as described before, also “freely tonal,” but it seems it wasn’t until his op. 23 a decade or so later that a definitive systematic approach was brought to his compositions. I am realizing at this point that the general idea in my head for how to explain this is much larger than one article. Let’s leave this one here for now, and get to explaining the twelve-tone technique as well as learning to love it in later parts. To summarize: Arnold Schoenberg was a die-hard fan of the Romantic idiom, and could write in the idiom as well as anyone, as shown by the monstrosity that is Gurrelieder. Works like Verklärte Nacht and his first two string quartets show that he was pushing the limits of traditional tonality to the breaking point. He pushed harder. First came a “free tonality” with no tonal center, and then was developed the (in)famous twelve-tone system, which two of his students picked up on, thus establishing what is known as the Second Viennese School. More would follow, but they aren’t considered necessarily official ‘members’ of this ‘school.’ It’s repulsive for some, a novelty for others; interesting to some, passionate and inspiring to yet others. We’ll talk more about the actual details of the twelve-tone technique in our next (shorter) article.