Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Arnold Schoenberg and Modernism

Arnold Schoenberg is a very, very complex figure. He is of enormous importance in the history of music in the 20th century, the founder of the "Second Viennese School" that I talked about here. Let me illustrate Schoenberg's complexity with three images. First, the stern, serious composer of modern music:

Second, a self-portrait (Schoenberg was also a painter), showing a more tortured, expressionist side:

Third, an image of Pierrot, the sad clown from the 17th century Italian commedia dell'arte, from the eponymous character of the poems by Albert Giraud that Schoenberg chose to set in one of his most famous pieces: Pierrot Lunaire:

In addition to these three facets we could add others: the German nationalist who said that his discovery of the 12-tone method would assure the dominance of German music for the next hundred years; the charismatic teacher who numbered as students not only Alban Berg and Anton Webern, but also the philosopher Theodor Adorno and even the American composer John Cage; the brilliant theorist who wrote Harmonielehre and the collection of essays Style and Idea; the painter of considerable ability; the Jewish emigrant from Nazi Germany who settled in Los Angeles and even considered writing music for films.

Here is a quote from Schoenberg: When asked by students in class to define "good" music, Schoenberg said: "If you arrange a piece of music for zither and it still sounds good, that's good music."

Schoenberg is often accused of being the only composer who is guaranteed to empty any concert hall, but I think that is unfair. I know quite a few composers that could empty a concert hall or two!

I have a feeling that this post about Schoenberg is going to become two or three, so let me start with his early music. Born in 1874, he grew up surrounded by the last stage of German Romanticism and his early music, such as the Gurre-Lieder was influenced by Wagner and Mahler. Here is just the orchestral prelude to part one:

That was rather lovelier than you expected, wasn't it? He began composing the Gurre-Lieder in 1900, but the orchestration was not completed until 1913. A mere six years later than beginning them, he wrote a piece for chamber orchestra that showed a considerable change in style. Here is the first part of the Kammersymphonie, op 9:

Schoenberg himself regarded this piece as the first step towards a new style and I think we can certainly hear a change in atmosphere, a disturbance coming from the depths. There was a great deal more change to come and I will turn to that in my next post on Schoenberg.

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