Monday, March 23, 2015

Schoenberg and the Dissonance: Some Background

Sometimes I forget that most of my readers are not musicologists! My post yesterday about the "emancipation of the dissonance" was an example. So today, let me fill in some of the context.

Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most interesting and complex figures in music history. I suggest reading the whole Wikipedia article as it is quite good. Schoenberg was born into the late 19th century musically dominant city of Vienna in 1874. The style of music was harmonically rich, orchestrally powerful and lengthy. The leading composers were people like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Schoenberg's early music was in this style and well-received. The prelude to his Gurre-Lieder is an example:

But Schoenberg was not content to rest there. He sensed that a huge transition was coming in music and that it was his destiny to be part of it. The fundamental change was in the whole concept of harmony. Schoenberg felt that the old strictures of the resolution of dissonance and cadence had to be overthrown if music were to progress. What I mean is that previously you could use dissonances, but they had to be resolved in a certain way and ultimately, the music had to arrive at a cadence, even if, as in the music of Richard Wagner, this was delayed for a long time.

For a while Schoenberg simply threw the rules away and wrote free music according to his instincts. An example of this stage are his Six Little Pieces, op. 19 for piano:

They are so brief because, operating purely by instinct, it is hard to create larger structures. After Schoenberg had written music like this, he strove to understand intellectually what was going on and finally came up with a way of structuring music other than with tonality. This atonal music was to be given a structure according to all the 12 chromatic notes of the scale arranged in a certain order. This was not like a melody, but rather a kind of intervallic structure that could be worked with using some age-old contrapuntal methods to create longer pieces. His Violin Concerto is an example:

What my previous post was about was the ideology that has been connected with this whole movement. A phrase used by Schoenberg, the "emancipation of the dissonance" was connected with the process. I was pointing out how misleading it is. In the original post I referred to connecting harmonic usage with the harmonic series as a misunderstanding. Let me hasten to say that this was not Schoenberg's misunderstanding, but rather of those theorists quoted in the Wikipedia article on the emancipation of the dissonance. Schoenberg was a superlative theorist and teacher apart from being such an important composer.

Now go back and read yesterday's post if you like!


Anonymous said...

As much as I agree with you that the *historical* development of harmony has to be found in voice leading, the *musical* explanation lies with the harmonic series.

Let me explain what I mean. You say that the third came about as a means to go from V to I. Historically it may well have been the case that a bunch of monks were not happy with their clumsy cadences and decided to throw in a third; they liked what they heard and bingo, we had a third.

That could well be true, so what you say may be correct, but that's a historical explanation. It begs the musical question: Why did they like it? After all, there are many ways to go from G to C? Why the third? Why not the second? The explanation is that the third is the interval between two low-numbered overtones. And that is the *only* reason the monks liked it.

In fact, why 12 notes in the chromatic scale and not say 11 or 13? Only the harmonic scale can explain that. Since all of Western harmony is based on these 12 notes, you just can't understand the origin of harmony without, well, the harmonic series.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a very valid perspective. I could quibble and point out that in different cultures the journey from, say ^5 to ^1 (sorry, can't do the hats directly over the numbers, but I am referring to scale degrees) can be done in a lot of different ways. In flamenco, for example, it moves via the flat ^2. In Javanese and Balinese gamelan music there are lots of other possibilities that do not fall comfortably in the tempered or untempered chromatic scale of Western music.

What you say is very true of Western music. But isn't the explanation you offer also an historic one? Historically theorists in the West (going back as far as Pythagoras) have understood intervals as being derived from the harmonic overtone series. Is this true in Africa? or Asia?

Anonymous said...

You're right. I should have been more careful in teasing out the contingent factors from the psychoacoustic elements of the discussion. I believe basic harmony is universal (thirds, fourths, fifths, etc) and common to all cultures. But scales are not: they reflect both the technology of the place and the social purpose of music. The 12-note chromatic scale is not universal, even less so the diatonic scale. In the European context, I would say that the main behind it is social, especially the important of vocal music and the need for transposition, -- something that many non-Western cultures don't seem to share).

Bryan Townsend said...

I agree completely. I think that the modes and then scales in use in Western music are there because they facilitate the kind of music, harmonic and contrapuntal, that we like. Imagine the complexity of an Indian raga in multivoice counterpoint! Haven't we traded melodic complexity for larger scale harmonic structure?