by Don Robertson
Part One: Atonality
2005 by Rising World Entertainment
so 'Emancipation of the Dissonance' turns out to be 'Expurgation of
the Consonance.' It is a unique and drastic application of the
old pleasure-pain principle. In this instance, goes the implicit
reasoning, if the pleasurable is totally removed, then the
painful ceases to exist."
Error by William Thomson
born in 1874 in Wien (Vienna) to Jewish parents who had immigrated from
In March, 1900 he began work on a romantic orchestral and vocal masterpiece
However, work was often interrupted because he
needed to earn money by orchestrating operettas. He worked on
Gurrelieder on and off throughout 1903, then put it aside
until 1910; it was finally completed in 1911, receiving its first
performed in Vienna in February, 1913. Gurrelieder
is a masterpiece that represents the final statement of
19th Century romantic music.
the period when he was not working on Gurrelieder, Schönberg
went to work on a new direction of musical composition that became more and more obvious
with each new work that he completed: works such as the first string quartet of
1905 and the Chamber Symphony of 1906. He, like fellow Viennese
composer Gustav Mahler, was now writing music that could reflect a new
musical element, one inherent in the century: stress...the
reaction to the industrial age as it began its plunge into the
20th century: the introduction of automobiles, the
spread of electricity, radio and telephones. Stress was becoming
natural to life, and to art as well,
and that is where the new music of the Viennese composers Mahler, Schönberg, and Schönberg's
pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg was heading.
Around the year
1908, Schönberg turned to what is now known as atonality,
a term that was coined years later to represent music that is
non-tonal: music that does not conform with the system of
harmony developed throughout the world during the previous
centuries, a system that culminated in Western classical music
with the major/minor system. Between 1908 to 1915,
Schönberg wrote in an ‘atonal’ style, but although he
didn't use that term. This is music with no tonic center that uses non-traditional chords
and the free use of dissonant harmonies, or discords.
31, 1913, Schönberg conducted a concert of music in Wien
(Vienna) that included his own Chamber Symphony along with works
by his students Berg and Webern. The audience whistled, laughed, and
shouted insults and fist fights broke out. After the
performance of Berg’s Orchestral Song, Opus 4, #2, the concert
was abruptly terminated and the hall was cleared by the police.
There had never before been a scandal such as this.
Two months later, however, another riot erupted, this time in
Paris. This time the music was Igor Stravinsky's dark and grotesque Rite of
Spring that shocked the audience that was accustomed to his two previous ballets: the
luxurious Firebird and the fantasy-like Petrushka.
Discordant, primitive and barbaric, the work's
premiere on May 29, 1913 erupted into chaos at the
Theater des Champs-Elysées.
continued composing in his new discordant style, however
using a new technique that he called his “method of
composing with 12 tones related only to one another” or the twelve-tone
method. The music was
still atonal and was perhaps even more discordant than before, but
now he had a system, one that he considered a replacement for
the harmonic system that had been in use during the past centuries. He considered that his
new system would compensate for a lack of tonality. In his Harmonielehre
Schönberg stated that “continued evolution of the theory of harmony
is not to be expected at present.” Schönberg
was desperate to go down in the hall of fame of music history,
and he will.
theory was simply that, however. It discounted for the first time the
basis of all concordant harmony in music, dating to antiquity, based on the overtone series
told us that because dissonances were in reality simply upper partials
in the overtone series, they should be treated
just the same as any other
partials. What he didn't understand, or perhaps did not want to
recognize, was the priority, or weight of each partial.
By the mid 1920’s
Schönberg’s music was being
given a little more
attention than before, but it was clearly different than the
dominant style of contemporary classical music of the that time,
a style called neoclassism, that was invented by Igor Stravinsky. In 1924, Schönberg
moved to Berlin
to teach at the Prussian Akademie der Künste.
There, more performances of his music took place. However on
December 2nd, 1928, when conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler premiered
Variations for Orchestra, the
performance was disrupted by hooting from the audience.
1933 Hitler coup, Schönberg, not only a composer who had been
branded decadent, but also a Jew, fled for
then moved to America where he took a teaching job in
Boston. He later moved to
His “method of
composing with 12 tones related only to one another” was
first published in 1949, the first time he had made his method
public. He had begun explaining it
to his pupils, in 1923, however. Now, other composers began
writing about the method, applying it to their own compositions.
One by one, composers fell to the technique which became de rigeur in University music theory classes. After Schönberg's death, even the 'great' Stravinsky,
who had been in heated
competition with Schönberg for the title of "The Twentieth
Century's Greatest Composer," finally adopted the 12-tone method, spewing out a series of
extremely ugly works, many of them using sacred texts. They were
certainly not a tribute to Schönberg, who had lived
near him in Hollywood for years, and with whom he had refused to
meet, but really the final conquering of his rival -- a
conquering by absorbing Schönberg
himself, waiting until Schönberg's demise, of course. This was
a self-assurance that in the end, Stravinsky would be the victorious candidate for Greatest Composer of the
Twentieth Century. These ugly serial works were the straw
that broke the back of one of Stravinsky's greatest supporters, Nadia
Boulanger, who after the premiere of Stravinsky's Canticum
Sacrum, in obvious distress, decried to her
stunned students that serial music just did not work!
I write this at the dawn of the 21st century, I realize that
not many people yet understand the concept of negative music,
which is in reality what Schönberg's atonal music was,
(allowing free use of dissonance as it did) nor have they realized what
Schönberg accomplished with the
introduction of his music. Students, educated in the method in
music theory and composition courses at major universities, took
what they learned from Schönberg's music into the world of motion
pictures and TV where it was used in the creation of what may
have been the prevalent art form of the century:
violent and frightening movies and television shows, where negative music
was used to
stir up the appropriate negative
emotions in the audience!
Understanding the reality of the negative music of the 20th
Century is for the 21st century to discover.
is at least one man, however, who understands the truth
about Schönberg. His name is William Thomson.
He has written a book
about what he calls "Schönberg's Error".
was Schönberg's error?
the book Schönberg's Error by William Thomson)
of even the primal tonal archetypes bequeathed him by
his full musical heritage, believing all the while that
he was rejecting only the major-minor conventions of his
immediate past. He did not understand the full
ramifications of his renunciation, a denial that if
followed rigorously entailed abandonment of the full
range of structuring potentials of pitch. His
transformation of music was motivated by the same
hubris that in the world's myths spells the tragic
downfall of heroes who try to call the shots of destiny.
thought he was fueling music's flight to the next
plateau, in its ascent toward a musical heaven. He was
in reality only fueling the ambitions of a singularly
enormous talent and establishing a brief, strange
interlude in an art's checkered history. It is true, as
some contemporaries have said, that "he showed us
the way." But, some eighty years later, we must
recognize that his way fell short of becoming the next
Golden Age so anxiously sought during the beginning of
the twentieth century. Nor was it the inexorable
"way" that music's hop scotching development
had pointed toward in the long haul of history. As
evolution, it was an ill-conceived , though passionately
propagandized, mutation. It was an achieving far more
radical than Schönberg dreamed."
Error by William Thomson
William Thomson is right on the money! His book presents all the
background material to support the above statements. It
is interesting to read that Schönberg's knowledge of music
history, even of German music written before the 18th century,
was severely limited and that the likelihood of his knowing
about the music of Monteverdi,
Victoria or any of the
great composers of the 17th or early 18th century was non-existent.
Glenn Gould commented that Schönberg had "little interest
in music prior to the time of Bach, was suspicious (and possibly
a bit envious) of such musicological astute colleagues as
Krenek and Webern," adding as well that he "regarded
medieval modes as 'a primeval error of the human spirit.'"
That statement alone has to be classified among the most
ignorant quotations ever made by a musician considered to have a
stature! Schönberg went against tradition. He did not even follow the
example of his own original role models, Brahms and
Wagner, who studied
music as far back as the 16th Century. Schönberg threw out the
baby with the bath water. Arnold
died in 1951. By this time he was being dismissed as
old-fashioned by a new
generation of younger
composers like Boulez and Stockhausen. They instead followed the path of
Schönberg's student Anton Webern. Webern's musc was completely
intellectual, whereas Berg's and Schönberg's still contained elements of
emotionalism, even though it was mostly dark emotionalism.
Webern was totally mental. He boiled music down to brilliant
pearls, mathematical equations, emotionless. The effect of this music is confusion, however. It
was from Webern that the most prominent group of composers
during the second half of the century progressed: Feldman,
Boulez, Stockhausen, Madera, Berio, Xenakis, Christian Wolff among them.
had a strong influence on Boulez. The Sonatine for Flute and
Piano that he wrote in 1946 combined what he had learn of
Schönberg's and Webern’s methods of serial composition with the rhythmic techniques of Messiaen.
In Structure 1a (for two pianos), Boulez extended the
serial technique to serialized pitch, duration, dynamics and
mode of attack. Boulez is a brilliant composer, as anyone
studying Pli Selon Pli can probably attest, but his is the
ultimate in brilliant intellectual music, based on discords. Karlheinz
Stockhause was also influenced by Messiaen, Schönberg,
Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs had been extremely influential
on the music of both Stockhausen and Boulez, the later showing
this influence in his
Kreuzspiel of 1951. Herbert Eimert told Stockhausen that Mode de
valeurs was “punktuell” and thus the term pointilist
was born. Stockhausen explained:
-- Why? Because we
hear only single notes, which might almost exist for themselves alone, in a mosaic of sound; they exist among others in
configurations which no longer destine them to become components
of shapes which intermix and fuse in the tradition way; rather
they are points amongst others, existing for themselves in
complete freedom, and formulated individually and in
considerable isolation from each other. Each note has a fixed
register, and allows no other note within its preserve; each
note has its own duration, its own pitch and its own
more about this topic, see Schönberg:
The Father of Negative Music
comes the Era of Noise, ushered in by American composer John Cage….