Hasta la vista, Tonality
We probably all know the basic story of a guy named Arnold, who immigrated from Austria and ended up settling in California. Many of you are probably thinking about the musclebound movie star, who became the state’s governor, and who now has a new “tell all” memoir out. However, there’s someone else to whom the same first sentence could apply. His last name even starts with the same three letters. One main difference is that he didn’t have an affair with, for instance, Brigitte Nielsen. This other Austrian Arnold influenced a range of musicians, including a composer of cartoon shorts, various jazz musicians, and a genre-crossing Icelandic singer-songwriter.
Even if they’re not keen on classical music, many people have at least heard in passing the names of composers who have become well-established within the genre: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, just to name a few. However, even among a number of people who self-identify as fans of the genre, some more “recent” composers are approached with apprehension. One of them is Arnold Schoenberg, who was born in 1874, and passed away in 1951 (which is why I use the word “recent” advisedly).
Schoenberg was a near-contemporary of late German Romantic composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, who created relatively “lush” music, somewhat (though not entirely) similar to what you might hear at the movies. In fact, a number of Hollywood film composers during the 1930s and 1940s (including some who immigrated from German-speaking lands), drew upon both for inspiration. Schoenberg initially created works in a similar style. This is quite apparent in his earlier pieces, as in the string piece Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” 1899) and the full orchestral work Pelleas und Melisande (1903).
By 1909, personal crises and emerging aesthetic changes in other arts (such as writing and painting) started to orient Schoenberg in a different direction. Atonality, perhaps best described as the lack of a set musical key from which to establish tension and resolution within a piece, became a defining feature in Schoenberg’s works. For this reason, atonal works can create a sense of unease for many people, which probably accounts for his relative lack of popularity; there’s tension without the implied promise of release. Schoenberg’s atonal technique appears in his Expressionistic piece Erwartung (“Anticipation” or “Expectation”), as well as compositions with vaguely nondescript and clinical titles like Three Pieces for Piano and Five Pieces for Orchestra.
Not that other composers, such as Mahler and Strauss, didn’t use atonal techniques. They just weren’t as hardcore as Schoenberg. Furthermore, the lack of a tonal centre seemed a reflection of his inner turmoil (not too different from Mahler’s more ambivalent position between tonality and atonality), as well as perhaps that of Europe. Within a few years, boiling tensions among the continent’s major powers and growing nationalism exploded into the mass mechanized death of World War I. By the time it was over, many well-established imperial powers (including Schoenberg’s Austria-Hungary) ultimately collapsed.
By invoking the powers of atonality, Schoenberg claimed that he was engaging in an “emancipation of the dissonance.” Less charitable folks might say that he tried to “have his cake and eat it, too,” as he claimed that his seemingly clean break from previous composition practices remained part of the overall tradition of “Austro-German” composition. Tonality, in other words, was clapped out, and music needed to move beyond its confines to remain fresh (Something only a “German” could do.) After growing weary of atonality, Schoenberg developed the more orderly “Twelve Tone” system in the 1920s, wherein all twelve pitches on the chromatic scale are treated equally.
With their apparent promises of emancipation and egalitarianism, the quasi-political aspects one could read into Schoenberg’s compositional techniques were treated a bit more literally by some of his admirers. Sociologist, musicologist, and aspiring composer Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), who was part of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School (which actively rejected oppressive Soviet-style Communism), was one of them. He praised the dissonance in Schoenberg’s compositions for “confronting” the alienation brought about by living within capitalist society. For Adorno, this accounted for Schoenberg’s relative lack of appeal. It wasn’t that the music hurt listeners’ ears. Rather, people couldn’t handle what the music seemed to imply [for Adorno]. A truth that, per Adorno, more tonal composers tried to sweep under the carpet by “resolving” such internal tensions, remaining complicit in maintaining the status quo.
While Schoenberg appreciated and formed a loyal following, best exemplified by the composers of the Second Viennese School, he usually found Adorno’s extrapolations exasperating. Especially near the end of his life, the composer had justifiable concerns about the idolatry, perhaps even dogma, forming around him, both from Adorno and a number of others. (Speaking of which, Schoenberg’s only opera was Moses und Aron.) In a letter written in late 1949, Schoenberg excoriated Adorno’s Philosophy of Modern Music, “this blathering jargon, which so warms the hearts of philosophy professors when they introduce a new awkward expression.” And this was a book that actually praised Schoenberg at the expense of his rival Igor Stravinsky! Furthermore, as an interview from 1949 demonstrates, Schoenberg doesn’t come across quite as harshly or iconoclasticly as one might caricature him, whether among his detractors or his own followers.
Schoenberg’s influence is quite vast. It goes beyond the confines of literalist acolytes typically associated with western art music, who discouraged their students from working with tonal composition techniques, and whose vehement stance in that regard likely backfired on them and (by unfortunate extension) Schoenberg. One composer who cited Schoenberg as an influence was Arkansas-born Scott Bradley (1891-1977), perhaps best known for lending his talents to MGM cartoons during the 1940s. Yes, we’re talking about the predecessors of Itchy and Scratchy, as well as the frenetic irreverence of Tex Avery (which you can hear bits of in this well-known bit of hilarity):
Thinking about something like Erwartung, one could imagine the effectiveness of his techniques in conveying horror as well. As Alex Ross aptly states in The Rest Is Noise, “horror movies need atonality as they need shadows on the walls of alleys” (38, 2007). Ross also mentions jazz as another type of music that can echo Schoenberg, specifically proffering Thelonious Monk’s “glassy chords” as an example. It’s also apparent in Homage to Elliott Carter and Arnold Schoenberg, performed here by composer Donal Fox:
And now, finally, for the main reason why I posted this, as well as its relevance to genre crossover. This month marks the 100th anniversary of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, another piece from Schoenberg’s atonal period.
For a 1996 performance at the Verbier Festival, conductor Kent Nagano asked singer-songwriter Björk to perform the Sprechstimme role. (“Speaking and singing,” one example of which is Lili von Shtupp’s “I’m Tired” from Blazing Saddles.) For those who know Björk, it’s difficult to categorize her primary musical genre. This is reflected in her Wikipedia entry, which lists around 10 different ones. What’s more, one of Björk’s songs even makes an allusion to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. Throughout “Hidden Place,” she samples a series of notes from that work a number of times.
Luckily, this website provides specifics by including a link to both pieces, saving everyone some work in making the connection.
If only there was some way to make these kinds of relationships, whether musical or extramusical, more readily apparent. I won’t say that it would be as “revolutionary” or “emancipating” as Schoenberg’s music, but it’d be quite a departure from the more conventional structures of recommender systems that stubbornly remain in place today. In the meantime, I have quite a number of readings to do to figure out how to model a broad theoretical framework, which could inform the development of such a system. With comprehensive examinations coming up soon, the number of postings might be spare. But, as the other Austrian Arnold once said…
Bernstein, Leonard. 1973 (1992). The Unanswered Question: The Twentieth Century Crisis (linked at 25:45; extends into discussion about Mahler, as well as Schoenberg disciple Alban Berg).
Ross, Alex. 2007. Authors@Google: Alex Ross (linked at 7:56; about seven minutes specifically on Schoenberg).
Ross, Alex. 2007. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux:
Doctor Faust (pp. 33-73). Brave New World (pp. 355-410).