Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Second Viennese School

The very use of the name "Second Viennese School" is an act of hubris, marketing and ideology. The reference is to an imagined "First Viennese School" consisting of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven who were not really a 'school', though they were loosely connected and shared a number of stylistic traits. The Second Viennese School was Arnold Schoenberg and two of his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. The ideological strategy is to claim that these three are as central to music in the first half of the 20th century as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were to music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Alas, that is probably not the case.
Arnold Schoenberg

For the Viennese classicists the only real rivals were Italian opera composers, especially Rossini. Otherwise, they were very much the highest standard in music of the time. But Schoenberg and his students faced considerable competition from other aesthetic and technical approaches. They were not the only game in town. The most important other schools of thought were the modern French composers such as Ravel, Debussy and Messaien, the Germans who were still writing tonal music such as Richard Strauss, the Hungarians such as Bela Bartok and a few isolated figures like Jean Sibelius, the great Finnish symphonist. But the biggest rival was the Russian Igor Stravinsky who had achieved great fame and popularity while still retaining his modernist 'street cred'.

Igor Stravinsky

The problem for  Schoenberg and his students was that while they had developed a new method of writing music that Schoenberg fondly hoped would assure the ascendency of German music for the next hundred years, none of the pieces written in this new style had or were going to achieve much in the way of popular acceptance. To this day probably the most performed piece by Schoenberg is his very early Verklärte Nacht and none of Webern's music has achieved wide recognition. Alban Berg is the exception: his operas Wozzeck and Lulu and some other pieces such as his Lyric Suite for string quartet have won quite a bit of praise and renown.

Anton Webern
Alban Berg
I am going to discuss each composer separately in future posts. For now, let's end with that early piece by Schoenberg that is in late Romantic style, Verklärte Nacht:

There are a few strange things about that piece that I will take up in my post on Schoenberg...

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