Dodecaphony: Part 3

How I got here:
As stated on my About Me page, my interest in music was rooted in a fascination with the piano. It seems natural, then, that as I started to familiarize myself with classical music, the piano was a logical place to start. My jumping off point was Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but only their more popular works. I enjoy Satie, but that was as non traditional as I got for a while.  So what was it, then, that converted me? I feel I should go back and review the “emperor’s new clothes” idea I opened this whole series of articles with. There are inevitably people who like something because they think it’s cool or posh to claim that you like it. New music from indie bands, a certain food, a political idea, whatever. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique has been around for almost a century, and has still NOT gathered a wide audience. It has its dedicated devotees and people are more widely familiar with its existence, but even a large handful of my acquaintances who are music majors or professionals state that they still…. don’t care much for it. Some of that crowd (not the people I know but people who who hold the same opinion) may be inclined to suggest that someone claims to enjoy this ‘atonal music’ because it’s in fashion or considered to be intellectual or somehow enlightened.  I’ve never felt that way. A year ago(-ish), I genuinely couldn’t bear to listen to most of it, and now, I genuinely do enjoy quite a bit of it. Mind you, 99% of the time that I’m listening to anything, I’m listening alone, either on headphones or at my home (well, my dog doesn’t have much of an opinion). There’s no consideration for “coolness” or anyone else’s opinions involved.  I can say it certainly wasn’t study that helped me to understand it or appreciate it. I have, at best, a tenuous grasp of the inner-workings of many of the pieces I enjoy listening to, but have at least come to enjoy them.  The first big step was Scriabin. What I’m talking about is growing accustomed to a new “harmonic language” or using melodies and harmonies in a different way than, say, Mozart or Beethoven (or even Chopin or Rachmaninoff) did. Scriabin had his own journey toward greater chromaticism and “atonality.” Compare, for example, his third piano sonata with his eighth. They are both
wonderful works, but very different in their harmonic language. As an average listener, many would find it much easier to identify with or understand the third sonata. Scriabin had his roots in Romantic music, and influence from Chopin can be heard in his earlier works, but still with a distinctly Russian and individual voice. I’d heard of Scriabin as this mind-blowing genius whose piano sonatas are pinnacles of the repertoire. So I made a concerted effort to “get” what was going on in them. And through repeated listenings, I did, but at first, I won’t lie, some of it sounded like a bunch of noise. And now, there’s nothing foreign or challenging about listening to them. Beginning with his first single-movement piano sonata (using his sonatas as examples), his fifth, his language becomes increasingly more chromatic and dissonant. Interestingly, his non-tonality is the result of an entirely different approach than Schoenberg, one based on “color” and a synesthetic theory of harmony and keys. His fifth piano sonata of 1907 shows unique harmonic language, without many of the conventions of tonal music, which is before Schoenberg did anything freely tonal. The Wikipedia article on Scriabin states explicitly that he developed a chromatic and atonal musical language independent of Schoenberg.  This first progression, from Chopin to Scriabin, was a large step toward the music of the Second Viennese School long before I could tolerate actually listening to it.  It was then a quick and easy jump to adapt to listening to something like Berg’s piano sonata.  The thing that took more time was still the nature of pieces like those from Webern. They’re tinkery and sparse and pared down, at least compared to like, Scriabin’s eighth sonata, linked above, which at times needs four staves to express to the performer what to play. But if you’re used to it, I would think perhaps that you’d take easily to Schoenberg’s op. 11, as discussed last week.  Another sonata that I have come really to love and be mesmerized by is Frank Bridge’s sole piano sonata, a heart-wrenchingly beautiful work. It shows influence from Debussy and the impressionist school (with which I am woefully unfamiliar), but is powerful and moving as a very individual work. I should also say that I came to listen to and enjoy other Russian works, like those from Ornstein, Feinberg, and Roslavets, who all have their own voices and styles.  If you can “get there” with those, then Schoenberg’s op. 11 shouldn’t be any problem. While Webern’s Variations (op. 27) is a late work, it may also be interesting or enjoyable (perhaps more the first movement). It’s also the only solo piano worker ever published by the composer.  Have a look then at some non-piano works. The instrumentation and treatment of sounds and techniques are unique and different, and what may seem unfamiliar are the textures and balance, heavy use of pizzicato, sul ponticello (or tasto), and other interesting techniques that make the instrument make sounds you may have never heard before.  For something more approachable, check out Berg’s Lyric Suite. It’s perhaps more easily understood or digested at first or second listen than Webern’s early string work, his five movements for string quartet, op. 5. You can also get an idea from the difference between these two pieces, in my opinion, for how each of the two composers treat their music and the sounds they’re going for. For what I feel to be very good examples of solid kind of, before-and-after works (although incredibly complex), compare Schoenberg’s first and fourth string quartets. His first is still tonal, but the score is so complex even Gustav Mahler said he couldn’t understand it. The fourth is a very mature work, and fully 12-tone. However, I’d have to say my absolute favorite so far is Schoenberg’s piano concerto. It had my curiosity from day one, but I didn’t know why, nor did I even really enjoy it. But after repeated listenings, it really came to life, and I think now… If I heard it live, I would be moved to tears. It’s just beautiful, and at only 20 minutes is easy to get a full listen of, but still very dense and in a lot of ways also very traditional. But start with the solo piano works.  In summary, if you need to break you ears out of traditional tonality and harmonies, check out Scriabin. From there, Schoenberg’s piano work should be easier to warm up to. Then check out the string works and larger scale pieces. It will take more than one listening. This music is almost assuredly truly for the era of recordings, when music can be repeated and analyzed and pondered over because it is nearly impossible to digest and comprehend at one pass (at least for me, anyway).  I’ve found that some of the music that took me the most time and effort to like (classical or not) ultimately became some of my favorite that I developed a deep attachment to. Once this world of new sounds and colors opens up, you may be surprised what you enjoy.


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