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The Twentieth Century
by Don Robertson

Part One: Atonality

© 2005 by Rising World Entertainment


"And 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."

Schönberg's Error by William Thomson

The Beginnings

Arnold Schönberg was born in 1874 in Wien (Vienna) to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. In March, 1900 he began work on a romantic orchestral and vocal masterpiece called Gurrelieder. 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. 
     During 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.
    On Mar 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.
     During the early 1920s, Schönberg 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.
     Schönberg's 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 of nature. Schönberg 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 Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra, the performance was disrupted by hooting from the audience. 
     After the 1933 Hitler coup, Schönberg, not only a composer who had been branded decadent, but also a Jew, fled for Paris, then moved to America where he took a teaching job in Boston. He later moved to Los Angeles.
     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! 


     As 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.

There 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".


What was Schönberg's error?
(from the book Schönberg's Error by William Thomson)

"Renunciation 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.
     "Schönberg 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."

Schönberg's Error by William Thomson

     Bingo! 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, Lassos, 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 very high 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 Schönberg 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 little intellectual 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.
    Webern 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, and Webern. 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:

“Pointillist --  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 accentuation."

For more about this topic, see Schönberg: The Father of Negative Music

Next comes the Era of Noise, ushered in by American composer John Cage….


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