Monday, March 3, 2014

A Look at the Schoenberg Violin Concerto

After doing my six-part review of the Hilary Hahn encore project (start here to read those) I decided to look at some other of her recordings. One commentator recommended the recording of the Schoenberg and Sibelius concertos so I decided to start there. I really don't know either of these pieces, though I certainly know other pieces by both these composers.

I did a series of posts on Schoenberg back in January of 2013. Have a look at this one and click on the others in the sidebar. Indeed, I am fairly familiar with early Schoenberg and even used to have the Six Piano Pieces, op. 19 (in guitar transcription) in my repertoire. But late Schoenberg I have hardly explored at all. So let's have a look at the Violin Concerto, op. 36, written in 1936 when he was living in California and teaching at UCLA.

I don't do in-depth analysis on this blog for a couple of reasons: it is tedious to read and extremely time-consuming to execute. But I have gotten into the habit of giving a little glimpse into how a piece is structured by looking at the opening. It is often a structural and aesthetic practice of composers to foreshadow or lay out or frame a piece of music, or a movement, with the opening measures. The paradigm for this is pretty much anything written by the Viennese classicists, but the most prominent example is probably the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven where those opening four notes on two pitches really define the whole symphony:

"Organic unity" became the standard practice of composers even though few were able to achieve the focus and intensity of Haydn or Beethoven. Mozart, in contrast, managed to write wonderfully structured movements that seem to overflow with a profusion of themes, but still hang together. As Schoenberg was, to some extent, following some of the basic principles of the Viennese classicists, though without traditional harmony, we should be able to gather something from the opening of his concerto. Here is the first page:

As I said I am not going to do a real analysis. But let's see what we can see from just looking at the score. The violin part uses just one motif at the beginning, the rising semitone A to B flat is repeated in the rising semitone C to D flat and inverted in the falling semitone D to C sharp and B to B flat. This passage, occupying eight measures, is the first phrase. Also, the first movement ends with  the same notes it began with:

As an aside, it is somewhat interesting that theorists seem rather at odds as to the form of this movement. The Wikipedia article says that some feel it is in sonata form and others in large ternary with a coda. Personally I don't think you can say an atonal piece is in "sonata" form as that kind of structure is based on tonal relationships. At best you are mimicking a tonal form.

The first phrase of the movement, measures 1 to 8 above, is very tightly written for the violin with two rising and two falling semitones. According to Wikipedia the 12 tone row is A–B–E–B–E–F–C–C–G–A–D–F with the accompanying instruments providing the notes not present in the violin. For example, the violin states A B flat, then we have D sharp (same as E flat) and B in the viola and cello followed by E and F sharp. Then the violin states the next two notes and so on. For a 12 tone composer this the equivalent of Mozart stating the key by outlining the tonic and dominant chords as he does at the beginning of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:

But the difference here is that nearly all listeners are not able to absorb the structure of a 12-tone row on first hearing (or many hearings, for that matter) so the structural significance of this is pretty much lost. After many, many listenings the music will start to feel familiar, but I wonder if most listeners will still be hearing any of the structure?

Still, Schoenberg is following the basic aesthetic principles of music, so why is the music so difficult to absorb? In a sense, it is as if he took what the Viennese classicists might have done and took away every element that made it easy for the listener. These "listener-friendly" elements would include things like clear tonal structure with melodies that outline clear harmonies and equally important, I would suggest, the rhythmic gestures that present them to us: repeated notes tying everything together, rhythmic symmetry in the phrase, dance-like rhythms and making important notes arrive on important beats. Of course the Viennese classicists played with this all the time, setting up and defeating expectations in all these regards, but this only worked because there was a normal expectation. Here, it is as if Schoenberg is trying to prevent us from having any easy access to what is going on in the music. I think this fits with his general attitude throughout his career.

Just for fun, let me see if I can re-write that opening phrase, putting back those traditional gestures that make the music easily accessible. Please don't misunderstand: this is nothing more than a five-minute exercise in music theory and the only point is to say that there MIGHT be, lurking in the far background, some of the bones of the Viennese classical style.

This sounds horribly trite which might mean nothing more than it is much harder to write in the Viennese classical style than you might think. This is not meant to be a parody or satire on Schoenberg either! I'm just suggesting that what Schoenberg seems to have done is taken out every element of Classical style that is familiar, and replaced it with the unfamiliar both tonally and rhythmically. What is this called when Brecht did it in the theater? Verfremdungseffekt, which can be translated as distancing or defamiliarization effect. All I have done, by the way, is taken the bare bones of the violin melody, made them diatonic rather than chromatic and put them into more familiar kinds of rhythms. Underneath I put a simple accompaniment related to traditional harmony, changing the actual notes to ones that work in the key, which I am postulating is B flat. Trivial and trite, yes, of course.

After all that, we really need to hear what Schoenberg actually did!

Some have called this "neo-classical", but I think I have shown that the very elements that would make it "neo-classical" are precisely those Schoenberg eliminated. Stravinsky took traditional harmonies and rhythms and made them "neo" by distorting them and orchestrating them in interesting ways. But Schoenberg here is using none of those kinds of strategies that I can hear.

More to come...


Rickard Dahl said...

It's been a while since I've listened to Schoenberg's Violin Concerto but I must admit it's far more interesting than Alban Berg's violin concerto (at least the first movement). You said atonal pieces cannot be in sonata form. Do you think modal pieces can be in sonata form or is it strictly major/minor that counts according to you?

Bridge said...

Surely you aren't criticizing a 12-tone piece for being too 12-tone. When I think of form in this type of music I don't think of the classical form as it relates to all aspects, especially those relating to harmony as you seem to be focusing on. I think of the general shape of the music, the abstract aestheticism if you will, and how it is presented within its own idiom. There is much greater freedom here than in any Viennese classical piece, apparent anarchy you might say, but if you pretend as if the notes they were playing were diatonic I find that the pacing of the music is not much different. It has moments of varying tension, the orchestration is used to color and indicate importance to parts, rhythm is used to pace in a logical way, the motives even if not immediately recognizable are handled satisfyingly with much repetition and development. There is of course no string dominance or any other such traits.

If you think about it, the mechanics of the music are not that different from what you might normally expect. If you removed the 12-tone aspect it might even sound something like late Mahler. I think that really is the crux here, the 12-tone scheme. It's completely foreign to most people which makes the other aspects superfluous. It is however to me unfair to argue that Schoenberg is in some way trying to impede the listener's enjoyment by sabotaging his own music. It's a language you must get used to, just as you must allow your ear to adjust to Arabic modes and microtonalism, or the more academic microtonalism of Scelsi, Bartok and Ligeti. Microtonal music is arguably even more offensive because it uses overtones even more remote than those that 12-tone composers use. All languages lend themselves better to certain things than others. If you have ever heard traditional classical music with added microtones or music up to early Baroque played in another temperament than 12-TET you've probably experienced the uncanny valley-ish effect it produces. Truth is, diatonicism and equal temperament are in some ways just as artificial as serialism, it's just that our upbringing and common musical culture (in the West) conditions us to perceive it as the natural way. Allegory of the Cave and all that. I don't necessarily mean to say you are inexperienced with 12-tone music, but appreciating it is very much a prerequisite to understanding it.

Those are my thoughts anyway, as a huge admirer of the 12-tone technique (though not so much of the music it has often been used to produce.)

Bridge said...

@Rickard Dahl: I respectfully recommend that you relisten to the Berg concerto if you think the Schoenberg is far more interesting. Not to impugn your opinion or anything, if you truly believe it then all power to you. However, if you are not very familiar with the Berg, trust me when I say that there is much to discover in it. Listen to it with the score if you haven't done so. It is paramount when it comes to complicated 20th century music I find because the structure is represented visually in front of you. It's not necessary of course, but it aids much with comprehending the music. Then again, I could be biased because I have become so dependent on score-reading along with the music that I feel uncomfortable and lost listening without it (if it's music I don't know.)

I personally prefer the Berg for its ingenious treatment of the serialist method, even though the Schoenberg is also phenomenal.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm tempted to let you guys argue this out on your own...

I have to say that I have listened a lot more to the Berg violin concerto and I once wrote a big paper on it, so I know it quite well. I found it much more accessible, even though in a 12-tone idiom, than the Schoenberg.

Oh no, I am not at all criticizing a 12-tone piece for being too 12-tone. That would be silly. I am just trying to sort out why this music is so difficult for most listeners. I think that Schoenberg, instead of trying to sabotaging his own music, is trying to make it immortal by making it uncompromising. But I'm not sure that is a good strategy either! I think that this aiming for posterity rather than the pleasure of the immediate listener, and along with that disdaining the difficulties for the performer, all started with Beethoven.

I think that different musical idioms, especially those ones developed in advanced societies, can be evaluated in terms of whether they seem to "work" or not. Do they, can they, attract an audience? And on the other hand, are there any other criteria? In other words, is there such a thing as aesthetic quality and how can it be achieved?

Those are the kinds of questions I am interested in.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, it is exactly things like the abstract aestheticism and the pacing of the music, phrase structure, how the tension is varied, that I want to look at in the Schoenberg.

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, yes, I'm quite sure that modal music can use sonata form because it can have different tonal centers that can be opposed and resolved, which is the crucial aspect of sonata form. There are very, very many pieces written in sonata form that are more modal than tonal--a lot of Shostakovich, for example.

Rickard Dahl said...

@Bridge, well, I listened to it live and it didn't sound so interesting. Maybe it's harder to listen to that type of music live. Maybe I just don't like the "theme". Anyways, I will give it another listen soon. I'm only a bit familiar with Berg (for instance Wozzeck (which is an amazing opera)).

@Bryan: "Mozart, in contrast, managed to write wonderfully structured movements that seem to overflow with a profusion of themes, but still hang together." Well described. After listening through all of Haydn's String Quartets with the score I'm since today in the process of listening through all of Mozart's String Quartets with the score and even the first one has much better flowing melodic material than most of Haydn's string quartets. Not saying that Haydn's String Quartets are bad, they are great, just less melodic.

Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps it was because of spending a fair amount of time in Italy in his teens, but Mozart just seems to have an inexhaustible supply of wonderful melodies. Haydn can write a movement with just one little motif where Mozart would have several longer melodies.

Bridge said...

@Bryan Townsend: I think nothing more needs to be said than: "...if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art." Either one agrees Schoenberg's words or disagrees, and this is arguably "The Great Divide" of modern music. I don't necessarily think he is trying to immortalize himself by being uncompromising, some humorous quotes by him aside, just that the nature of the music is such that if compromises are made it loses what makes it special in the first place. Here one must define compromises. I sincerely doubt Mozart was continually cursing at Viennese society for being so conservative and letting himself be coerced into writing compromised music. Conditioning is such that people are happy doing things which they are by all rights being forced to do - I think that considering the daring character of Mozart's music his forays into craziness are to be understood as playfulness, of total understanding of the musical culture he belonged to, rather than subtle attempts to inconspicuously break free of his shackles. I'm not putting words in your mouth here, by the way (in the sense that I'm not implying you directly said this.)

@Rickard Dahl: It is very important that it be played by a good soloist and orchestra and conducted by a good conductor. Not that it is any less important in classical works, but people seem to forget how easily things can go wrong and just assume that 12-tone played badly is bad 12-tone. If I remember correctly the Kogan version was quite good, although I have another version I listen to more often (unfortunately I do not know the name of the players.)

Here it is:

By the way, I look forward to the future parts, and hope you get an answer to your questions.

Bridge said...

P.S.: Not implying Mozart is a conditioned sheep or anything, just that I don't think he was able to conceive of such a thing as 12-tone as we do now. It probably wasn't something he conceived of as viable. 12-tone hasn't been around long enough in my opinion for us to say whether it is. It's futile to compare it to the old ways, because as you are well aware, the new music is always horrible dissonance and the old purity itself. A valid point can be made that the immense popularity enjoyed by composers in Classicism is attributable to some balance, but it is debatable whether such a balance is absolute or just a coincidence, a stepping stone if you will.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that the ringing rhetoric of "...if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art" reveals that this is an artistic ideology. Actually, I think there is a fairly ordinary sense in which this is not only true, but obviously true. One of the key elements of the definition of art (or most definitions of art) is that it be in some way socially special: needing special training or understanding or sensitivities to understand or produce, not available to everyone, and so on. The contrasting term is "craft" which is available to everyone in a more humble and mundane way. A string quartet is "art" while a polka is "craft". But people, especially artists, who make use of this kind of statement, "...if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art" tend to use it for some ideological end: to raise up the aesthetic estimation of what they are doing and to lower that which others are doing, to offer a kind of guarantee that their music is destined for posterity, and so on.

In other words, what this kind of statement is claiming is that my music deserves to be part of the canon and that other music does not.

The notion of "compromises" in composition is slightly odd, don't you think? You are writing a piece and it is supposed to be a minuet so you write what is appropriate to a minuet. If it is a fugue, you write what is appropriate to a fugue and if it is 12-tone you write what is appropriate to 12-tone. The word "compromise" used in the context of aesthetics, begs the question. It assumes the conclusion, i.e. that a composer chooses to either write strong uncompromising music or pandering, weak music. This viewpoint is one shared by perhaps Beethoven, certainly Charles Ives, and most likely Arnold Schoenberg.

But it is not one that was shared by, for example, Haydn and Mozart. One of the reasons that I am interested in them and the musical context of their day is because they didn't seem to be caught in the dilemma assumed by a lot of modern composers: to compromise or not. Compromise with what exactly? One's artistic vision? How do you do that? With the requirements of a commission? "I was commissioned to write a violin concerto, but my artistic vision said write one for tuba instead"? Is that how it works? If you are a 12-tone composer and you use a row that has harmonic implications, as Berg did in his violin concerto, are you compromising? Is this an aesthetic betrayal?

I think that the fact is that I can ask these questions (and could keep asking even more and go on all day) tells us that there is something fishy about the whole notion of aesthetic compromise.

Bridge said...

Understand that quotes such as those arose only in rebuttal to criticisms of the day, such as "it is not music." Schoenberg was one of the most humble people I know of and he was certainly not the type to boast overmuch (though of course he felt a certain sense of pride for his work as anybody does.) The point in making such a statement is not to say that serialism is necessarily better than anything else, just that not everything appeals to everybody and if it does, it likely is not artistic. I think of it as a more sophisticated form of the adage "haters gonna hate," to distort the meaning somewhat.

I originally wrote here a somewhat lengthy response to the second half of your post but I decided I do not want to discuss it. There is really no good definition of aesthetic compromise and therefore no good answer to most of your questions so I don't even want to put myself through the nightmare of stumbling over them. The only one I can answer easily is the one regarding Berg.

In my opinion, it is not an aesthetic betrayal to write a 12-tone piece in a tonal idiom. Nowhere does it state that 12-tone music must only be ugly or that it must be strictly atonal (otherwise one would be forced to write only quarter tones at a flat dynamic or something equivalent.) This is in my opinion probably the biggest misconceptions in serialism overall, that it must be as far away from tonality as possible at all times. Using the 12 tones of the chromatic scale without regard for their form or structure or how they relate to one another is exactly as arbitrary as doing the same for the seven tones of the diatonic scales. Imagine a piece written as freely as a 12-tone piece generally is, with no basis in triadic harmony and a method in which all seven tones must be sounded before one (non-adjacent to the current tone) is repeated. Can you imagine how boring that would be? That is precisely what usually happens in serialism - composers assume it's not supposed to sound good and the substance is to be found in how the music is written. 12-tone is nothing more than a texture, a very unique texture that no matter how you shape it will always retain an air of mystique. Sort of like how it doesn't matter much how far you stray from tonality, as long as there is a strong dominant-tonic relationship it all works out in the end.

Just because 12-tone is a deviation from tonality doesn't mean it must be its polar opposite, and that stylistic imitations of tonality are pointless because composers are only trying to achieve tonality, right? Not so, in my opinion. This is why it pains me so much that the good 12-tone composers can be counted on a single hand, because it is in my opinion a beautiful and grossly misunderstood form and it is sad that it is fading away.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have been recently re-reading the Philosophical Investigations of Ludwig Wittgenstein and I'm afraid that all those questions probably were inspired by him. A lot of ordinary notions we have are actually quite mysterious if you dig into them. So, sorry to tie you in knots, but I'm sure it builds character!

I don't have any major disagreements with what you are saying above. Just choosing to write in a 12-tone idiom does not ensure either high or low aesthetic quality. You can have great pieces of music in 12-tone idiom, like the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg, and bad pieces of 12-tone music. Like, I don't know, what piece would you nominate for that honor? Something by Krenek, perhaps? I think we should find a bad piece of 12-tone music because that helps us understand what a good piece of 12-tone music is.

jdh said...

Thank you for sharing your insights about this music. I would only request that in addition to including bits of score, you insert a tiny MP3 of the music itself (or at least a piano reduction) for those of us who can't hear music by reading it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wow, you are right! I usually include a clip of the work in question, but here I did not. I think what happened was that I was originally planning on doing another followup post, but never got to it. Maybe because of the furious discussion that ensued! In any case, here is a link to a performance of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto:

(part 2 and 3 should be easily seen in the playlist to the right)

Chris Wildman said...

brilliant response thank you