Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea

Arnold Schoenberg was a hated man. This is the consequence of being a pioneer, an original thinker, his big mouth notwithstanding. I’m not trying to crown him with infallibility, but only to give credit where it’s due. Our culture loves the yellow journalism technique of painting with broad strokes of sycophancy or character assassination, depending upon the frenzy of the moment. There is little room for careful discussion.

We live by a kind of cult of personality that obsesses on surface details, and I’m not sure it’s anything new. Human history is a monument to the permanence of stupidity, and that’s largely a fact that has to be accepted. With this backdrop, the prophets and the geniuses can look like dreadful fools. I prefer to see them as heroes. It takes great dedication to turn one’s head into the wind in the hopes that a massive effort will yield the tiniest result, the slightest movement of mankind away from absolute buffoonery. Alas, most of us would rather admire a fireman that climbs a tree to rescue the neighbor’s cat.

Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on a wide range of musical and other topics. The title is well-chosen: His central thought revolves around the essence of the idea. He shuns superficial appearances in fanatical fashion, to the point of overstating his case at times. This is forgivable. After all, what philosopher hasn’t overstated his case? Schoenberg is concerned with what the composer has to say: What is his thematic material? How does he apply it? How does he develop it? To Schoenberg, style grows naturally out of an idea. It is backwards, in his mind, to sit down and say, “I want to write a piece in the style of early 20th century France, or in the style of Anton Heiller.” This leads to hollow music making. I’m reminded of Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony” or the churchy ear candy of Dom Lorenzo Perosi.

Schoenberg’s obsession with the musical idea itself is refreshing in the age of music that the author himself describes as having limited psychological appeal; music that “goes right to the feet.” There is nothing wrong with vapid music if it is played in the dance club or the gym; the problem is that too much music is vapid. The head of the Second Viennese School, however, runs a bit off course at places, in my opinion, because of this admirable core belief in the idea. For instance, he writes about the “primitive ears” who prefer to relish tone colors over other musical matter. I guess we know what he thought of the music of Olivier Messiaen! Related to this is his strange idea about instrumentation and orchestration. While he doesn’t argue for anything coming close to a total absence of colorful variety, he calls for a slimmed-down orchestra, one that gets rid of “useless” instruments that have a limited scalar, dynamic, or artistic compass. He asks whether the bassoon, for example, has ever been anything but comical. I’m more inclined to agree with Ernest M. Skinner that the bassoon can assume any character. The Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird comes to mind as an instance in which it is something other than funny.

All the same, Schoenberg claims that the orchestra’s power comes from its variety of tone color, and he cites the pipe organ as an example to prove this. Baroque organs, which were built on largely homogenous choruses, were not powerful, but Romantic organs, which were conceived with solo voices in mind, can knock the walls down. (Organ aficionados will relish the ironical choice of Schoenberg’s words that “loudness is achieved through mixture.”) ┬áThis is completely on Cloud Kookooland, and it’s pretty safe to say that Schoenberg was not acquainted with the research of Skinner, who discusses this subject in his book The Composition of the Organ. It was progress in the ability to develop higher wind pressures in organs, and therefore more largely-scaled pipes, that have allowed more modern instruments to blow off the archbishop’s mitre with a middle C. None of this is to say that I find Schoenberg’s streamlined orchestra to be an attractive idea; he simply chose the wrong example in arguing for what he sees as a moderate approach to this reform.

Schoenberg also has a strange approach when it comes to modality. He sees the efforts of late 19th and early 20th century composers to write in modes to be useless, an adoption of an outdated musical technique. To his credit, though, this might be the only point in the book when he caves in to the temptation to Whiggism. Schoenberg thinks this attitude is based on progress, but it really seems like it’s actually based upon a misapprehension of the modes. Implying that the half-step relationships of a scale are the only ones capable of establishing a tonal center in certain stereotypical ways, he says that all the ancient modes can be reduced to two: major and minor. And yet, he forfeits his argument when, in a later essay, he rightly states that the establishment of a key can be a difficult thing that is often only achieved by restating the tonic until it can be perceived as home base. Can’t the same repetition be used in modal constructions? Is E not the final of Pange lingua? Is it really just a melody in C Major that ends on the third? I don’t think so.

Naturally, Schoenberg spills a great deal of ink on the concept of “atonality,” a term which he disliked. He takes issue with those who claim he was a revolutionary; he saw his music, rather, as an outgrowth of everything that came before it. It might seem preposterous to those obsessed with initial impressions, but it makes perfect sense. Think of Hans von Bulow’s reaction to the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “If that is music, it makes Tristan sound like Haydn.” The assertion that a new piece of music is aural nonsense has been a favorite game of the stodgy for a least five centuries, and it is useless. Moreover, if by “atonality” we mean music that lacks a key, we are describing a lot of music that existed long before Arnold Schoenberg. Tonality, like metrical music, might well prove to be a passing fad in music history, in the long run. Schoenberg cites some examples of dissonance in history—Mozart’s “Dissonance Quartet” and Beethoven’s Great Fugue. I would add certain measures of Frescobaldi’s Fiori musicali to that list, and one could make some very powerful arguments that in Bach’s music tonality was not always front and center. So much for revolution.

Schoenberg takes the time to discuss formal considerations viz. “atonality.” In older music, sections were often demarcated by modulations; in the absence of key centers, other methods of formal articulation are needed. This seems to him to be the primary problem to be solved with the new style of music, and not any notion that dissonance is against the “laws of nature.” Gravity pulls us downward, Schoenberg reminds us, but airplanes carry us upward. Planes are contrary to nature, yet they use the laws of nature. This is in addition to the fact that even the most remote dissonance is somewhere on the overtone series, which is the “law of nature” of harmony. Moreover, in Schoenberg’s music, dissonance is not a thing in itself, not necessarily a manner of poetic expression, but rather a result of the musical ideas. It’s a far cry from Charles Ives going back to his scores and adding crunchy chords in order to make his music sound “modern.”

Schoenberg’s writing comes from the fire in his belly. He might be a logician, but he is not the cold logician that many cartoon writers claim he is. The proof of this is in his rejection of the many efforts of Hauer and other theorists to codify the musical language of the Second Viennese School. Most music majors have had to make at least one matrix in their careers, writing a tone row and sticking to it slavishly. It feels more like calculus than music. This is not Schoenberg, who was more comparable to Palestrina, who never hesitated to change a note to make a passage work. These men are music-makers, not pipe-layers. This truth is not convenient for those who brandish their historicist clubs in the dungeons of what passes for music criticism these days, and many listeners, hungry for an excuse to dislike Schoenberg’s music, are all too quick to latch on to these careless ideas rather than to listen to the music from the inside out, focusing on the ideas rather than the surface impressions.

It is enough to be an innovator in musical language, but as it turns out Schoenberg was even more, as he invented a new system of musical notation which, as far as I know, has not really been adopted. With three broadly-spaced lines, it’s reminiscent of the early efforts at diastematic notation. Exact pitches are notated by placing noteheads directly adjacent to or away from the lines, with the additional help of slashes that further clarify a note’s position. Using this technique allows the composer to notate a much wider range in an equal vertical space, and in many ways it might be superior to the standard five-line staff. But I can’t see it ever being adopted. As it is, string players don’t like to play in flat keys; how will we ever convince everyone to completely learn a new notation system, even just for modern music? Nonetheless, these efforts show the fertility of Schoenberg’s mind; if he were just a rabble-rouser he wouldn’t have bothered with a project such as this.

There are other things to admire about Schoenberg, too. He was certainly an astute observer. His thinking on vibrato reminds me of Lilli Lehmann and Joseph Joachim, both of whom used vibrato as an ornament and did not indulge in the “goat-like bleating” that Schoenberg rails against. He has interesting thoughts on the relationship of the music to the text as well: While one might (might…) be able to accuse Handel of word-painting at a superficial level, Schoenberg is more concerned with more hidden relationships between the music and the text, aspects that might not be apparent at first blush. I’m reminded of the work of certain chant scholars in this regard, who find definite relationships between the text and the music that are missed by those who go at the problem with the Baroque model in mind. Then there is the question of the downbeat. From Bach, Schoenberg says, he learned disregard for the strong beat of the measure. How many performances have been ruined by a continuous assault on the downbeat? Schoenberg offers a remedy for this tendency: aiming for the “center of gravity” of a phrase. There are debates about whether the melody or the rhythm is primary in music; Messiaen, for instance, says that any melody will always have rhythm and therefore that rhythm is primary, but does this mean we should forget the line? Rhythm is a method of organization or articulation and not in all cases the primary thing. Schoenberg asks us to remember the melodic line, and I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. It’s a pretty reasonable response to an argument that is more or less myopic.

As one would expect, Schoenberg takes some time at the end of the book to comment on several composers. He loved Mahler and thought him a saint; hated Stravinsky and regarded him a panderer; offers well-measured praise for George Gershwin. He sees in Brahms not the pure classicist but the progressive who was a master of the irregular phrase. The book wraps up with some comments on social and political matters. At the end of it all, Schoenberg, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Austria, seems to have been in a very healthy, a-political place. Politics, after all, is for lesser men.

On many of the subjects that Schoenberg takes on, one can quibble, or even boldly object, and I in fact don’t find myself in complete agreement with him. In one thing, however, I hope there will be unanimity: Arnold Schoenberg was a true artist. By this I’m not necessarily referring to the way his work turned out, but rather the spirit in which it was created. He was a man who had the need, the urge to create. There was the desire, as he put it, to let off the “internal pressure” of a gestating work. More than that—fundamentally, even—he wanted to say something, to create a thing of beauty: Not just to pander to stylistic expectations, not to sell records, not to get in tight with a conductor or an orchestra manager with an agenda, but to make music. That is, after all, the vocation of the musical artist. We could do far worse in finding a role model.