Monday, August 19, 2013

Schoenberg and the Paradox of Modernism

Suppose I told you that there was a good book on music composition that was thorough, intelligent and conservative? That the foundation of the method was the mastery of all the traditional elements: the musical phrase and cadence, the motif, the theme, the traditional forms such as the small ternary, the minuet, the scherzo, the rondo and the sonata-allegro. That the composer used as a model for all these was Beethoven and that the basic assumption was that the music to be written was tonal and that every theme implied a harmony, i.e. a tonal harmony. Who would you guess the author to be?

Hindemith? Well, possibly. Stravinsky? Certainly not! Brahms? No, this was written over quite a number of years up to 1948 and not published until 1967. Here is the cover of the current edition:

Yes, that's correct, the author of this very conservative guide to musical composition is Arnold Schoenberg, one of the main proponents of modernism in music. The one who invented 12-tone music; the one who destroyed, apparently for all time, tonality; the one whose music, it is claimed, can empty any concert hall, the teacher of those icons of modernism Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Yet decades after he developed 12-tone technique in the 1920s, he was teaching at UCLA where he wrote this textbook for young students of composition. He taught there through part of the 1930s and the 1940s. Among his students were both John Cage and Lou Harrison. (He used to play tennis with George Gershwin!) On one occasion Schoenberg said, "My music is not modern, it is merely badly played."

Does no-one see the astonishing contradiction here? This is like the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko insisting that his students study traditional drawing working with still lifes and human models. Instead, according to Wikipedia:
In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters.[25] According to Rothko, the work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself." In this manuscript, he observed that "the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color." Rothko was using fields of color in his aquarelles and city scenes.
"The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic." But Schoenberg, rather than regarding the study of tonal music as "academic", i.e. of interest only to historians, made it not only the foundation of his teaching of composition, but the only approach, based on his published texts at least. Atonal music is not even mentioned in this book, nor in Structural Functions of Harmony.

Why is it that the only one of the major figures in musical modernism to spend a significant amount of time teaching composition, taught according to the principles of tonal harmony? I don't want to make too much of this because obviously, as he taught the methods of 12-tone composition privately to Berg, Webern and others, he did not ignore his own method in his teaching. But none of his published works on theory deal with 12-tone composition.

I doubt I can resolve this contradiction; certainly not in a blog post. But I think there is a paradox here and I think the reason for it might be quite interesting. Let's listen to a little Schoenberg to end. This is the Violin Concerto, op. 36, written in 1936, soon after he began teaching at UCLA:

Perhaps in Schoenberg's music we can hear the tension between traditional musical structures and, as he saw it, the historical demands of modernism. And perhaps we could go even further and see these tensions as reflecting the tensions between the "progressivism" of certain 20th century political movements and the terrible struggle between them and the more traditional societies that resisted them. There is a kind of eerie authenticity in Schoenberg's music that is worth pondering...

UPDATE: Replaced the original clip with one of the complete concerto played by Louis Krasner who did the premiere in 1939.


Anonymous said...

The embrace of atonality does not necessitate, or even imply, abandonment of classical form. Schoenberg extended harmonic bounds, but did not abandon form, and thus I believe he is, indeed [though in retrospect] conservative. Schoenberg admired Brahms for his conservatism.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, that is quite true. And you could also say that the "emancipation of the dissonance" extends harmonic bounds as that is the literal meaning. Nor did Schoenberg abandon form. But his method of composing with 12 tones does strike at the heart of harmony in that what it removes is the tension/resolution of traditional harmony. Without that, without the ability to build and then release tension, without the ability to cadence, form becomes an entirely different kind of problem. Wouldn't you agree?

Nathan Shirley said...

I think there is actually a very simple answer.

Many (most?) music theorists lack creativity. The twelve tone system is very rigid, no room for unbridled creativity.

Who embraced the 12 tone system? The music theorists (most of which are composition professors). These were people who wished they could write music, but were generally not creative enough to effectively do so. Schoenberg hit a wall with his own musical creativity so he devised a rigid/calculated system which would guarantee every piece you write would sound modern. Academia loved the idea (audiences didn't) and so now uncreative music theorists around the globe can compose their own "cutting edge" music. And they've been devising their own rigid systems ever since.

So the answer- Schoenberg was just not that creative, being obsessed with the mechanics of music. In short, the perfect person to write a music theory textbook.

So to me it makes perfect sense. Now, if Beethoven had written a music theory textbook it would have blown my mind! But of course composers like him wrote based on instinct, they heard and felt the mechanics of music, they did not read book after book about it.

Did J.S. Bach study textbooks on counterpoint? No, he played it, he dreamed it, he improvised it- Even improvised four part fugues! How many professors teaching counterpoint today can even improvise two part free counterpoint?

Bryan Townsend said...

Much truth in what you say, Nathan. But I think that the tradition of working with very strict musical structures actually has a long history. I'm thinking, of course, of species counterpoint which was used in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Bach may not have learned from a text like Fux's, which was only published in 1725, but I'm pretty sure he followed a similar course of study. Beethoven studied this kind of counterpoint with Haydn and Albrechtsberger and so on.

I actually think that Schoenberg was a very creative musician who was caught on the horns of the modernist dilemma. If you listen to Verklärte Nacht or the Piano Pieces op. 19 or Pierrot Lunaire, I think you hear some pretty creative music. Later on he did tend to fall into rigidity perhaps.

The people that really spread the serialist recipe were ones like Nono, Boulez and Stockhausen in the Darmstadt courses in the 1950s. Henze was also there for a while. You could call them lots of things, but I don't think "uncreative music theorists" would quite fit. They were creative in their own way. In my view the problem is that they tried to completely repudiate the aesthetics of beauty in favor of the aesthetics of a private dissonant language partly for the purpose of shocking the audience.

Nathan Shirley said...

The way I see it, people like Boulez et al. appear to be radicals, but just under the surface what you find is a strong lack of artistic sense and creativity.

The first composers to develop "modernism", people like Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and plenty of others- their music was truly creative. They took existing musical cultures, musical ideas, and had the insight to gave them new life with different rhythms, tonalities, colors, forms, etc.

After this organically developed music spread around the world, many composers, especially younger composers, wanted to join in the fun. Some might have been genuinely excited by these new, often controversial sounds and wanted to top the wildness. Others simply had feelings of inadequacy. There was also a growing feeling that people who didn't "get" this music were unintelligent (this can be a dangerous trend in art).

There was a lot of pressure on these young composers, at a time when the assembly line of the music conservatory had really begun to mature. When they saw an easy way out (the 12 tone system) they jumped on it. The ones on the cutting edge devised their own musically arbitrary systems.

Some of these people might have had a touch of creativity, but for the most part they were FIRST intellectuals, philosophers, musicologists... all fine things to be, but they were not ARTISTS first.

The systems they devised to write music had the goal of appealing to the intellect and to sound "modern" (only for the sake of proving they could top Stravinsky). But they left no room for artistry, that would have been too dangerous as the music might begin to sound old fashion. Sure some of them built in room for performers to "improvise," but the aesthetics of the sound were rarely of concern. What artist isn't concerned with aesthetics? -One who lacks true creativity.

When he wrote his music theory textbook, perhaps Schoenberg wanted to prove to those who thought his music radical and blasphemous, that he in fact possessed a thorough understanding of tonal music. And he obviously did understand the mechanics well... but I think it proved he never completely understood its soul.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, I think that there were two phases to modernism: the first one from the late 1800s into the 1930s and including those composers you mention by name, and a second phase after WWII, that you are critiquing. I probably agree.

But what is needed, I think, is for a really good music historian to do the basic research and try and sort out what was going on at this very complex time in music history. Some of the influences you mention: competition at the conservatory, intellectual influences, the neglect of aesthetics. But there were other influences as well, including, believe it or not, the CIA, who actually funded some of the most influential post-war European composers like Stockhausen as a Cold War project. I think that the book on what was really going on has yet to be written, someone needs to dig into a lot of archives and letters and analyse a lot of music!

Nathan Shirley said...

Absolutely, in 80 years or so, it will be quite fascinating... although by then I would bet most people would have long forgotten about these post-war modernists.

One point I forgot to make (not that it's new to you!)- You brought up traditional counterpoint as an example of a very rigid system of music, which of course it is. However, it was born from natural musical experimentation. The round/canon for example practically requires a good, singable melody which must be constructed in a very rigid way in order to SOUND GOOD. One could easily imagine a family or group of farmers inventing a little tune and altering it into a round through improvisation.

All of this, along with all traditional music from around the world is based on the natural overtone series. The 12-tone system ignored this or perhaps wasn't aware of it, and later academic music falls into the same trap. It ignores the physics of sound and creates its own sort of pseudoscience, in fact I've talked to some who consider themselves a sort of scientist. So you get a lot of vaguely interesting musical "experiments" that end up sounding bad, or at least extremely bland and boring. To a great many, the music on the printed page is the ultimate end product, not the actual sound. This in my mind clearly separates them from what most people consider creative artists.

Bryan Townsend said...

I once took a seminar on what was called "American Experimental Music". There is/was a real tradition, especially in the US, of 'experimental' music. This included Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch and John Cage. The Europeans only came to this later. You could consider Boulez and Stockhausen and the people connected with IRCAM as experimentalists. Oh, and there is the more recent group of French spectralist composers as well.

I'm not sure I want to adopt the position that only music based on the natural overtone series is good music because, for one thing, Western music departed significantly from it with the development of tempered tunings in the 18th century in order to enable modulation to all the keys. I would rather choose an aesthetic objection and just say that a lot of post-WWII avant garde music just doesn't sound good!

Nathan Shirley said...

Good points.

Equal temperament is a fascinating subject (along with the development of the keyboard before it). And it's very true that equal temperament doesn't match the natural overtone series perfectly, but it was simply a compromise, a compromise that comes so close to perfect most people can't tell the difference. A perfect tuned major triad does indeed sound better/purer than the same equal tempered major triad, but that is not because equal temperament seeks to create some unnatural sound, instead it seeks to match the natural overtone series as closely as possible while making it also possible to modulate to all keys (and have them sound equally good).

But I'm not trying to change your mind, the aesthetic objection is certainly very valid!

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, on this one I think you should have the last word!

Bridge said...

@Nathan: I think your basic assumption that "those who can't do, teach" is incorrect. Believe me, you cannot find a more ardent opponent of unchecked serialism and I think that some of the compositions that have arisen out of the 20th century crisis are simply shameful (but it's not like there weren't a lot of those even in Beethoven's time, and Bach's, and for as long as music has existed for that matter). Regardless, I think it's insulting to call Schoenberg an uncreative musician with an inferiority complex. If you had read his textbooks, you would know that he is exceedingly modest and highly critical of the academia. He even says that as a teacher he learns just as much as his pupils. They are actually much more philosophical than you would think. A recurring theme, which he constantly emphasizes, is that the study of classical techniques is merely a study of pragmatism. In other words, you obey the "rules" because they offer you a certain effect while preventing you from unwittingly making mistakes, and when you no longer need them you abandon them.

It's important to note that even in the context of the serialist technique he did not consider any golden rules to exist. The purpose of serialism is to invoke atonality, which is a texture (a very unique and exciting one in my opinion) and if you do not have higher aspirations, you stick with that goal because it produces an effect. If however a higher musical need arises, you don't chain yourself to it which he never did (in fact he started to stray from serialism towards the end of his life).

I'm not a fan of all of his music by any means. Quite a lot of it was experimentation because serialism was still quite new, obviously. It would be absurd to say that a scientist (not to draw a parallel) may only conduct successful experiments to be called brilliant. Furthermore, to suggest that he didn't understand "the soul of music" is not consistent with my experience. You can accuse him of being an dispassionate mathematician all you want, but from reading his words and reading about his endeavors, as well as simply listening to his music, I find him to be very passionate. Oh, there are composers who I would accuse of not understanding music (Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Ustvolskaya), but to me there is a sense of joy and humor in Schoenberg's music that is lacking in much of serialism.

I suppose it's not possible to force yourself to like something. By all means, dislike 12-tone music (I dislike much of it too). I just take offense at you throwing a lot of conjecture around and making psychoanalyses of people you don't know, like saying he was obsessed with the mechanics of music - as if the other people you mentioned weren't. Also, I'm sure that Schoenberg did indeed "dream" in 12-tone because he acquired such fluency in it.

Anyway, serialism is not the musical dead end you think it is. By taking some liberties you can achieve some wonderfully exotic results. The prime example of this is the music of Alban Berg. Unfortunately serialism has been in steady decline since Schoenberg and Berg and hasn't yet made a comeback, but if you want to hear serialism done right, look no further than Berg, who fused 12-tone with Romantic elements. His violin concerto is among the greatest works in history, and I say that without hyperbole. Listen to how cruelly he parodies Romanticism, and yet praises it at the same time. Listen to how melodiously he can traverse the 12-tone wastelands and how much you can achieve if you take a few liberties with the system.

Bridge said...

Sorry, it wouldn't accept my full comment:

By no means an endorsement of serialism over other techniques, in fact I greatly prefer the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and Prokofiev or the Hungarian school (Bartok, Ligeti, Kodaly) for example but I really think it is a unique texture that is worth exploring. There is no sound quite like atonality. I understand if you don't like it, which is totally fine, but to me the sound of complete neutrality - of no tension and yet constant tension, to be exhilirating. You need to acquire a taste for it as you must black coffee, hard liquor or black chocolate. All of these things are bitter and repulsive when you first experience them but if you look past the rough exterior you can really find a lot of depth and implied depth. The same holds true for serialism, in my opinion.

Nathan Shirley said...

Bridge, I appreciate your thoughtful response. It has been a while since I wrote these things, but I don't recall saying anything about teachers being failures. I think perhaps you took much of what I wrote a bit more extreme than I meant. I also respect your passionate defence of Schoenberg, I can be quite critical of his music at times. Let me see if I can't clarify a few things, as I think we actually aren't extremely far apart in our perspectives.

First, a good music theory text book is a very useful thing. I was not attempting to belittle Schoenberg's accomplishment in writing it, which even today stands up just fine. Also, in saying I don't think he was very creative, I don't mean this in an absolute sense, but rather relative to what most people think of when they think of a creative artist. Schoenberg was certainly creative to some extent, but put him next to Mussorgsky, Scriabin, van Gogh, Dali, Gogol, etc, and perhaps you might see what I'm getting at. To me, Schoenberg was more of a thinker than a dreamer (even if he dreamt in 12-tone, which I don't doubt). Nothing wrong with that, after all where would society be without engineers? Schoenberg was obviously a highly intelligent, cerebral personality, and at the same time not devoid of creativity. His paintings are good proof. My favorite contribution Schoenberg made to music is sprechstimme, which of course he didn't completely invent. But again this points to creativity.

I wouldn't even say I dislike all his 12-tone music, in fact there is a good bit I like (more with Berg, much less with Webern). But for me at least, I don't love any of his music. Even with Berg, who is often held up as "12-tone done right," I can't say that I love any of his music, though there are bits and pieces that I do think are highly creative and I enjoy to a decent extent. There is plenty of music by Stravinsky, Bartok and even Shostakovich that I'm not crazy about, and in some cases I actively dislike. But when I hold their best, or just better music up to Schoenberg and Berg's very best, the difference is night and day. And believe me, I am thoroughly acquainted with all this music. I've also played quite a bit. I might even hypothesize that 12-tone held Berg back, but that's true conjecture.

So I wasn't trying to attack Schoenberg as a person, obviously I didn't know him. Rather I was trying to describe someone who dug themselves into a pit, a musical pit. You obviously don't see it as a pit at all, and that might be the biggest difference in our points of view. Some things come down to a matter of taste, you seem to love his music and I certainly have no problem with that. Part of why I tend to be overly critical of Schoenberg's music is because of what it spawned in musical academia. It would be unfair to blame ANY of that on Schoenberg, and perhaps it would have been inevitable even without him. But either way music history paints a definite picture of what Schoenberg's music led to. Personally, I consider it Pandora's box.

Bridge said...

I was actually afraid you wouldn't read my post seeing as the blog entry was posted nearly a year ago and I wasn't sure whether you were still active. Good thing there seems to be some kind of notification system. I hope you didn't take offense at anything I said. I have a tendency to be overly advocative in discussions, it's just the mindset that allows me to best organize my thoughts.

Anyway, I have a better picture of where you're coming from. It's fine that you don't like 12-tone, I'm not one of those pseudointellectuals that accuses people of "not getting it", because you clearly have given it at least some superficial thought if you have performed it. Just to say a few things in closing: Schoenberg's music is definitely less expressive and more intellectual, if I have to bring it down to simplified terms. That doesn't exactly mean I find it aesthetically displeasing, just that I recognize that the lack of functional harmony coupled with decreased emphasis on "logical" thematic development means that it has less of an emotional impact than say Ravel or Stravinsky. I'm finding it very hard to put into words how I listen to serialist music, but I guess I would liken it to reading gibberish poetry. For a lot of people, the apparent lack of structure and meaning is off-putting because people are used to it being tied in an integral way to the work itself. To put it another way, they are used to the structure being a message in and of itself, whereas in 12-tone music is serves little more than a mechanical purpose, to ensure variation and contrast and proper pacing. It's this inability to think of structure in abstract terms that puts a lot of people off. I judge structure solely on its aesthetic merits. That is, it is unimportant to me how perfectly it is applied if the net result is bad (after all, it doesn't exist in a vacuum). That may seem like an obvious statement, but there are people who do think of music as a collection of dry elements, and it is for precisely this reason that I dislike much of modern music. The reason of course being that I simply do not perceive the structure most of the time.

12-tone is very much like a foreign language to me and most people. Sure, I understand the general idea behind it and I have listened to so much of it that I can intuitively sing 12-tone melodies (although certainly they are not in strict accordance with serialism), but I would pretty much liken that to being able to mimic say Chinese. I've watched Chinese films and studied it superficially so I know in general how it sounds, I know a few short phrases and I have a general idea of how the grammar works. But just because I am familiar with it and can identify it does not mean that I have a mastery over Chinese grammar, which is by definition "hidden". To get back to music, I would in most situations I would be able to follow the thematic development, notice subtle variations and because I am well versed in diatonic "grammar" I really have no trouble understanding what's going on most times. With 12 tone I rarely am able to identify a tone row or follow its development, or make sense of the harmonic language. The only thing that's left for me to truly enjoy is texture (and perhaps the general context - despite some claims 12-tone is not without humor). It's in a sense not that different from diatonic music in spirit. The same rhythm is used (obviously 20th century music is often more complicated rhythmically though), the same instruments are used (and by extension articulation) and much to the chagrin of 12-tone composers, it is still very much tonal because of the way the ear works. Truly atonal music would be completely stagnant and uninteresting, and boy did Webern come close. As much as I respect him, and I even enjoy a few of his works, he really took it too far.

Bridge said...


So, as I said, I enjoy the music on a purely textural basis. I don't get the same thrill from it that I do listening to a Beethoven symphony and being able to hear and see (in the score) exactly what everything means (usually), but it's very unique. In a way, it's distilled aesthetics. I happen to be a huge orchestration nerd, and I like to listen to instruments (certainly you can't deny that Schoenberg at least was a good orchestrator). It's a genre that offers true democracy among the instruments, where nothing has function (obviously that is an exaggeration). The music to me is pure colors. The same way I enjoy 12-tone I enjoy surrealist films (Naked Lunch is a good one) and gibberish poetry (to a lesser extent though, I'm not much of a poetry buff. I just like the way the words/images/sounds make me feel. It's exciting.

I apologize for the rambly nature of this post, I just couldn't find a way to condense it into a concise position. Hopefully that elucidates some things. At the end of the day I think we share as much hate for 12-tone serialism because of the implications, the difference being that I can find joy in it. Not that I am uninterested in analyzing 12-tone music, there is no doubt a lot to be learned from the right composers, but I am currently busying myself with good old diatonicism. Thanks for this discussion. One is not unused to people bashing serialism but seldom do they do so in as graceful a manner as you have. If you want to hear the absolute worst 20th century music has to offer in my opinion have a listen to this piece:

Even if you despise Schoenberg, you have to admit that he is quite a bit above this level.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, that is certainly a good example of a horrible piece of music--at least the first minute, which was as far as I wanted to listen!

I'm curious Bridge, what do you think of the music of Boulez and Stockhausen?

Bridge said...

I used to think I liked Stockhausen but I don't listen to his music a lot nowadays. There is this one piece which I think is pretty cool:

There's something alluring about it, but it also leaves me a bit empty because it's highly artificial, as most of Stockhausen does (what I've heard). Not really a huge fan of Boulez either. His piano works have not impressed me that much overall, haven't listened to much of his other stuff simply due to a lack of interest. If you have good works from either of these composers by all means share, I don't hold any irrational grudges. Boulez has some fine conducting gigs, although he is not my first choice for any composer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Boulez and Stockhausen are huge names in post-WWII modernism, but like you, I have found little of their music engaging. For a long time I listened to them because I was told this was important music. But no more. Of the two, Stockhausen is much more listenable, I think. But the problem with both, in my opinion, is that they are using a "private" musical "language" instead of trying to reach out to the audience.