The best of Arnold Schoenberg’s occasional writings on music are as richly instructive as his theoretical and didactic ones. Like them, too, many of the essays depend on examples printed in music type, which sets Schoenberg apart from other composer-writers, such as Berlioz, whose many verbal talents the creator of Pierrot Lunaire lacks, or Schumann or Debussy, who are simply more enjoyable to read. But the substance of the musical journalism of these three is less profound than that of Style and Idea, and the rewards of Schoenberg’s book warrant the greater effort it requires, especially in the chapters on “Twelve-Tone Composition.” and “Theory and Composition.” Yet even these are not difficult for anyone conversant with the general principles of musical forms and of such basic devices of harmony and counter-point as chord inversion and canon. Finally, Schoenberg’s own chronological and autobiographical account of the evolution of atonality and twelve-tone composition is still the most accessible.
By contrast, the reader who will profit most from Charles Rosen’s Arnold Schoenberg is one with prior knowledge of the composer, which may raise a question about the market for the Modern Masters series. Laymen have apparently not complained of obstacles of a specialist nature in the monographs on poets, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, political activists—with which the collection has thus far been overbalanced at the expense of those on artists and cinematographers (the latter now possessing the widest of all powers to influence). But who except musicians will be able to follow Mr. Rosen’s exposition of Schoenberg’s serial system, though this is admirably lucid as well as free from the diagrammatic and numerical sigla that limit to initiates1 the readership of most new publications on the subject? Witness an excerpt from Mr. Rosen’s introduction to combinatoriality—torn from the context, to be sure, yet even within this brief essay it seems quite unlikely that general readers would become sufficiently familiar with serial processes to be able to grasp the following principle:
One hexachord is…the exact inversion of the other transposed. This means that when the original order of the notes in the hexachord is restored, a transposition must exist that will transform all notes in the first hexachord inverted into the pitches of the second hexachord in a different order….
But the reasons why the Modern Masters volume is sometimes more difficult to digest than that of Schoenberg on Schoenberg are that the composer did not understand his work in the same way (“I see things that at the time of composing [were] still unknown to me”), that he did not write about his later and more complex developments, and that because of the recent exponential increase in the quantity and sophistication of Schoenberg studies a musicologist of Mr. Rosen’s caliber must contend with a multitude of new material. In short, the contemporary scholar is obliged to keep in perspective a greatly expanded view of his subject, as well as, in Mr. Rosen’s case, to concentrate it into the abbreviated format prescribed for Modern Masters. Owing to this last circumstance, too, Mr. Rosen could not afford to spell out any step that might be taken for granted. Having said this, however, one must add that a characteristic of all of Charles Rosen’s criticism is his directness in identifying and confronting central issues.
The editorial decisions in publishing an enlarged edition of Style and Idea2 involved questions of selection, of sequence, and of language—the last in problems of translation as well as in the possible correction of the author’s grammar and vocabulary (for instance by bracketing an obviously intended word next to a less suitable one). The book’s solutions to all three problems are disappointing. Too many of the additions do not enhance the picture of Schoenberg, while some of them, such as the causeries on national music, which expose his chauvinism and egomania, are damaging:
Wagner’s music was not only the best and most significant of its age…but it was also the music of 1870 Germany, who conquered the world of her friends and enemies through all her achievements….
[In the 1914-1918 war] the battle against German music…was primarily a battle against my own music….
Not against that of Richard Strauss? Was Schoenberg regarded as a threat of European proportions already in 1914? And of Italian national music in the 1920s he remarks that it was
written on higher orders (whereas I, in my reactionary way, [stuck] to writing [my music] on orders from The Most High)…
which illustrates how his wit sometimes comes through as arrogance in his writing.
The new volume also makes available some of Schoenberg’s criticism of his contemporaries, but none of it redounds to his credit. In particular, the article on an early opera by Krenek could have awaited a future “Complete Writings.” Nor does a piece that accuses Webern of brainpicking, written two months before Schoenberg’s death, increase the author’s stature, though it does reveal that he withheld his discovery of the twelve-tone concept (early 1920s) from his pupil. Elsewhere in the book Schoenberg mentions that he confided in Webern about the use of a twelve-tone theme in Jacob’s Ladder (1917), which is not the same thing, of course; but the editor should have referred the reader to the other article in both cases, as well as partially balanced Schoenberg’s late view of Webern by including the 1947 preface to the latter’s Concerto for Nine Instruments—a brief statement yet one that emphasizes the solidarity between the two men.
On the other hand, the essays on Bach, Brahms, Liszt, and Mahler, containing Schoenberg’s most valuable criticism, might have been more effectively placed nearer the beginning of the book. It was in the masters of the past that Schoenberg found his own principles, and his illustrations of transcendent musical laws in Bach and Brahms provide an excellent introduction to the continuation of them in his own. Furthermore, his hubris is less obtrusive while he is observing, for example, that the first three movements of the Pastorale Symphony employ almost no minor chords, and that one of Beethoven’s means of avoiding the minor was
by leaving many sections in unison unaccompanied, where the melody is understood without the harmony;
or when ferreting out the psychological weakness in Liszt that partly explains the failure of his music:
He, for whom the poet stood foremost, suppressed the poet in himself by letting other poets talk him into too much. He, who felt form as formalism, created a far worse formalism—one which is uninhabitable, because in his forms invented by the intellect no living being has ever dwelt…;
or when absorbed in the notion that Philipp Emanuel Bach, and not Johann Sebastian, must have devised the “Royal Theme” of the Musical Offering—as a joke to prevent the elder Bach from displaying his contrapuntal versatility:
In the Art of the Fugue a minor triad offered many contrapuntal openings, [but] the Royal Theme, also a minor triad, did not admit one single canonic imitation. All the miracles that the Musical Offering presents are achieved by countersubjects, countermelodies, and other external additions.
The author of Style and Idea might in some cases have sacrificed literalism for exactness of meaning. Thus “pitch” could have been substituted for Schoenberg’s ambiguous “tone,” when the more clearly defining word is what he means. But in a construction such as “By avoiding the establishment of a key modulation is excluded,” not to have inserted a bracketed comma after “key” is inexcusable. Finally, whatever Schoenberg’s shortcomings as a writer, the only truly mystifying verbiage in the book is contributed by its editor, who nevertheless maligns the composer’s English:
Despite the advice of some of his American pupils, the present writer included, [Schoenberg] doggedly pursued his own path.
The reader will appreciate this doggedness when he tries to penetrate the editor’s statement that
Although the present volume contains most of Schoenberg’s longer articles in both German and English, no more than a small portion of his other writings appear [sic] herein.
But the present volume does not contain any article in German. And what can possibly be meant by the claim:
Published articles…have been used as the basic material—in Schoenberg’s own English wherever possible, supplemented by manuscripts, in various stages of completion, which often serve to illuminate certain points which do not exist elsewhere.
If a point does not exist elsewhere, how can it be illuminated anywhere? And does “wherever possible” refer to the intelligibility of the composer’s English or to the fact that some of the originals were in German? Passages such as these arouse the reader’s suspicion that in the comment
[Schoenberg] had little use for a grammatically correct, so-called polished style of writing that would not [sic] clearly present his ideas,
the editor is speaking not for Schoenberg but for himself.
The most personal of the pieces that appear in English for the first time is Schoenberg’s circular letter to friends in Europe after nearly a year (the winter of 1933-1934) as a refugee in the United States. His grumblings about the musical and other miseries of America are surprisingly good-humored—compared, that is, to most of his other references to the struggles of his life. Undoubtedly Schoenberg did provoke more relentless opposition than any other major composer, and his belief in and assertion of his genius are not only excusable but were indispensable. Yet to be constantly reminded of his heroic persistence and matchless achievements (“One of the greatest virtues of my music is that…,” etc.) eventually dampens the sympathy of the reader, who begins to feel that Schoenberg should have found more consolation in the certainty of having determined the course of music in his time, as well as have realized that the hostility he aroused was commensurate to his importance. “It was as if he saw that the controversial nature of his work was central to its significance,” Mr. Rosen remarks, but though the composer unquestionably did see this, he seems to have been unable to accept it.
In fact the resistance to Schoenberg’s music is perfectly understandable, and his own wishful explanation—that bad performances were to blame and that, if heard as intended, the music would win acceptance—is only one of the causes. Good readings of at least some of his music are no longer uncommon, after all, yet its audience appeal has not grown proportionately. As Mr. Rosen says, “Better performances do not make difficult music popular”; and Schoenberg’s ideas are more complex, densely packed, faster moving than those of any of his contemporaries.
Some listeners would add that Schoenberg’s expression is more intense and disturbing, and that his art lacks emotional diversity, its domain being that of the macabre and of the more ingrown manifestations of Middle European Expressionism—to which those who are most familiar with the music might rejoin that it is also euphoric (the Orchestra Variations), sweet (the Serenade), and not without an “Apollonian” side (the composer’s own adjective for his Septet). But in his first chapter, Mr. Rosen examines such attempts at affective attributing and justly concludes that they are based on incomprehension:
…did [Schoenberg] go so far in the destruction of the tonal system that had ruled Western music for centuries in the interest of giving form to an anxiety that was part of his public as well as his private universe?
The misunderstanding inherent in these questions—the reason why they ought not to be answered—is that they suggest that a style is a simple vehicle for expressing a meaning or an emotion; they turn the style into a pure form and the emotion into a pure significance. But a form and its meaning cannot be divided so simply, above all in a work of music.
At last it seems to be generally accepted that Schoenberg’s compositions of the years 1909-1913, together with some of his serial pieces of the 1920s and later, are the fulcrum of twentieth-century music. This is not an aesthetic judgment, of course, yet Mr. Rosen leaves no doubt that of contemporary composers Schoenberg alone satisfies the condition of true originality, which
requires the exploration of a self-created universe coherent and rich enough to offer possibilities beyond the development of an individual manner.
As for the Schoenberg influence, Mr. Rosen is too conservative in estimating that it has now “surpassed that of Bartók and even perhaps of Stravinsky,” since, soon after Schoenberg’s death, his influence already included Stravinsky. But does Schoenberg (or Bartók, or Stravinsky) still exert any direct influence on most new music being composed today, except in the sense that this music could not have existed without his (and their) innovations? Not in so far as resemblances are concerned, at any rate, or the extension of traditions, the Schoenberg “school,” except as a subject of academic study, now appearing to be defunct, bypassed by others arising from different directions.
Anyone who knows or has read Charles Rosen recognizes the awesomeness of his intellect. For those who may not be aware of his prodigal gifts, it should be said that Mr. Rosen is a polymath who could contribute to at least three other categories of the Modern Masters series—linguistics, painting, literature. Furthermore, he always treats the most highly developed aspects of his subjects, and in language of such precision and elegance as virtually to defy both paraphrasing (which explains why no summary of his Arnold Schoenberg is attempted here) and quotation (most of his arguments being too tightly embedded in contexts to be successfully extracted). When an aperçu can be detached, however, it promises to stand by itself for as long as any writing on the second Viennese school:
[The] miniatures of Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg do not diminish the emotions they express but enlarge them, as if fragments of feeling were blown up by a powerful microscope.
Mr. Rosen’s Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most brilliant monographs ever to be published on any composer, let alone the most difficult master of the present age. It is also the first essay on Schoenberg that is beyond partisanship, as well as the first to place him in the perspective of four centuries of European music. Being concerned primarily with the exposition of musical ideas and artistic logic, Mr. Rosen provides only incidental bits of biography. Nor is his book essentially a work of criticism, though it contains critical insights of a very high order—on style, above all, which will not surprise anyone who has read Mr. Rosen’s The Classical Style.
Still less is Arnold Schoenberg a “survey” of the music. Mr. Rosen concentrates on a few works, mainly of the period immediately before World War I—more on these, in any case, than on the serial pieces of the two decades following it. This focus is now widely shared, yet some of the comments on the serial music could provoke controversy, such as the claim for the Third Quartet as a more “ambitious and in some ways [more] fully achieved” creation than the Orchestra Variations (which is given only two paragraphs). The other most controversial matter is not new but a seemingly permanent part of all discussion of Schoenberg: the assumptions that “harmony is conveyed” as powerfully along a musical line as it is by “a simultaneous chord,” that “harmonic tension” can be “displaced” to “the melodic line,” and that “harmonic dissonance [can] be reconstructed by shape and texture.” These are now accepted ex hypothesi by perhaps a majority of listeners, though some continue to regard them as incapable of proof.
Having said this much, the reviewer can do little more than add a few footnotes of his own, and perhaps help in some trivial tidying up for future editions—since, as if in compensation for the elevation of the discourse, the text does contain a number of minor errors. Thus the chronology of the Paris and Vienna concerts mentioned on page five should be reversed. And surely Histoire du Soldat has been mistakenly included in a list of works exemplifying “the evocation of the elegant surface of the past….” Also, it is not true that Erwartung requires “numerous rapid and expensive changes of scene”; the four scenes all take place in or around a forest at night, require only a few props—moon, bench, pasteboard house, corpse (optional)—and are staged on a single set.
Mr. Rosen is somewhat careless, too, in defining “octave transposition” as “the shifting of one or more notes of a melody to a higher or lower register” (only of a melody?), and canon as “a form in which every voice sings the same line but enters at a different moment…” (and never at different pitches?). And his description of the Sprechstimme part in Pierrot Lunaire as having “a certain improvised freedom of pitch” is insufficient since it neglects to mention that Schoenberg insisted on the performer’s following at least the direction of the notated interval.
Occasionally, too, Mr. Rosen overstates, not in his theses but in the illustration of them. This is hardly of any consequence when, apropos the deployment of the orchestra in Erwartung, he writes that
sixteen first violins and fourteen seconds are called for but used all at once only at a very few points.
(Actually all thirty of them play together in 127 out of 426 measures, or for nearly a third of the time.) Nor is the exaggeration serious when, in the demonstration of his argument that “pitch is…not by any means always the most important [element],” Mr. Rosen asserts that in the third piece of Pierrot Lunaire
the clarinet part could be transposed a half-step up or down while the other instruments remain at the correct pitch, and (although some effect would be lost) the music would still make sense; but if the dynamics are not respected, the music becomes totally absurd and makes no sense at all.
Not much sense, but surely some, as old recordings with practically no range of highs and lows tend to prove. If a clarinet in B flat were substituted for the one in A, however, “some effect would be lost” only on a listener who had not heard the music before, since anyone even slightly acquainted with it would experience acute discomfort, at least in measures 6-9, where, debatably, the pitches are more important than the dynamics.
But a similar magnification of fact also occurs in connection with one of the book’s principal subjects, the “saturation of [the chromatic] musical space” in Erwartung. “Tonality contained within itself the element of its own destruction,” Mr. Rosen writes. One part of this element is modulation, the transition from one key to another, or
the setting up of a second triad as a sort of polarized force or anti-tonic against the tonic; the second triad functions as a subsidiary tonic in that part of the piece where it holds sway, and acts as a means of creating tension. Since dissonance is the essential expressive element of music, and modulation is dissonance on the large scale, it makes expression for the first time an element of the total structure. The concept of modulation was eventually to prove the powerful force that corrupted tonality.
Another part, or aspect, of the same thing, is chromaticism, the use of the subdivisions, or semitone intervals, of the diatonic scale. Chromaticism, Mr. Rosen observes
…contains a kind of magnetic impulse to fill out the space….
Most composers must have been aware of the tendency to fill out the chromatic space as a kind of gravitational force….
The tendency to fill out the chromatic space becomes naturally more marked by the middle of the nineteenth century….
It was Schoenberg’s genius to have recognized almost unconsciously the dispossession of the principal means of musical expression by the new force of what had been a subordinate and contributing element.
This is true, but the illustration that follows overlooks a detail which spoils the perfection of the case. “The last page of Erwartung,” Mr. Rosen says, consists of
massed chromatic movement at different speeds, both up and down…. [The] low woodwinds begin, triple pianissimo, a rising chromatic series of six-note chords. The other instruments enter with similar chords moving up or down the chromatic scale…with the dynamics remaining between triple and quadruple pianissimo.
In fact, however, the basses begin at a louder dynamic level than that, and they are clearly intended to stand out. (“Schoenberg never abandoned [the] hierarchy of principal and subordinate voices,” Mr. Rosen remarks, in connection with another work, and the distinction is “rigidly enforced by the dynamics.”) Moreover, the basses descend not chromatically, but in whole-tone scales (in thirds with the contrabassoon), which are in contrast to chromatic movement. Finally, by rounding out two full octaves, these scales provide a residual sense of a traditional species of cadence.
The core of Arnold Schoenberg is a discussion of Erwartung, perhaps the most radical of all musical creations, as well as, in the opinion of many, the composer’s highest achievement.3 “This quintessential expressionist work,” as Mr. Rosen writes, is a “well-attested miracle, inexplicable and incontrovertible.” Few would demur, while concerning the intractability of the piece to traditional analysis, no one could. Schoenberg himself described one of the chief difficulties:
A great number of more-than-five-tone [pitches] chords…have not yet been systematically investigated. It can be maintained neither that they belong to a tonality, nor that they point toward one. And conversely…no proof has yet been brought that these properties are entirely lacking.4
As Mr. Rosen observes,
Almost all of the chords in Erwartung have six notes.5 …[The] six-note chord is generally made up of two three-note chords outlining the seventh, e.g., a fourth above an augmented fourth….
But to give any more of this analysis would require the quotation of Mr. Rosen’s musical examples, so it must suffice to say that his exegesis of the chordal structure of the work is the most convincing that has so far been made.
The listener with no experience of Erwartung’s harmonic language nevertheless senses its consistency. But he apprehends the form of the piece at a different level from that of chordal relationships. Mr. Rosen states that
It is in the field of rhythm that the large form of Erwartung is most immediately perceptible…[the] contrast between passages with a marked ostinato effect and those with no repeating figures of any kind [being] the chief instrument in the definition of the dramatic action of the monodrama.
This is indisputable, but it overlooks still another rhythmic factor, and one that must be counted among the score’s most innovatory features: the unprecedented fluidity of tempo. In fact the tempo changes every three to four measures (on an average), when not actually in flux (accelerating or decelerating; also—a novelty far ahead of its time—individual sections or groups of instruments sometimes play “out of tempo,” faster than the orchestra as a whole).
Erwartung also has “a shape related to the libretto,” as Mr. Rosen acknowledges, but apart from rhythmic delineation he does not say what this is. Perhaps a layman might describe it as a progression from sudden changes of direction and mood, new starts and resolutions—conveyed, to some extent, by a fragmentary, recitative style—to longer lines and more songlike passages in the later portions of the work. And, in correspondence to this, the same listener would probably retain an impression of an over-all increase in orchestral density and volume from a single instrument at the beginning to that “saturation of musical space” at the end, this being parallel to the greater intimacy of the musical dimensions in the first scenes as compared to the broader, more “open” final one And the hypothetical listener would very likely have had a sense of increasing movement from the more static earlier scenes to the final one, in which the majority of fast-tempo passages occur. But all of this is only to say that Schoenberg’s music drama, like those of most other composers, intensifies as it develops.
There is no fully developed sense of key anywhere in Erwartung,” Mr. Rosen remarks, and it might be added that whatever undeveloped sense of key it may contain is at best ambiguous, ephemeral, and probably illusory, affirmable only during some of the ostinati and in melodic phrases, for although melody and harmony are never completely detachable, spacing (as at 418) can make them more so. But other elements than the harmonic must be considered, especially since one of them, as Mr. Rosen rightly maintains, is even more important. “Form was as basically thematic for Schoenberg as it was for most nineteenth-century composers,” he writes; hence
The really revolutionary act was less the destruction of the tonal frame with the George-Lieder of 1909 than the renunciation of thematic form as well with Erwartung in the same year. In this work Schoenberg did away with all the traditional means in which music was supposed to make itself intelligible: repetition of themes, integrity and discursive transformation of clearly recognizable motifs, harmonic structure based on a framework of tonality.
The statement is unchallengeable, except, possibly, that it does not allow for elasticity among other arbiters of the “clearly recognizable,” and that the “traditional means” to intelligibility, not completely itemized in this quotation, should also include such small fixtures as the use of sequences. But in spite of Schoenberg’s renunciation of “thematic form,” does not comprehension increase with the recognition of recurring thematic figures? Here Mr. Rosen has not completely overcome the long-standing predicament that the lack of well-defined terms has created for all musicians. Thus his definition of a motif as “a succession, generally short, with a latent power of development, of creating a larger continuity” is more precise than his description of a melody as “a definable shape, an arabesque”—only that?—“with a quasi-dramatic structure of tension and resolution.” As Mr. Rosen says,
Both motif and melody are tonal forms. The power of development and variation that lies in a motif is given by the context of tonality…. The structure of melody is equally tonal: a melody is intended above all to be memorable, and its mnemonic powers comes [sic] from the adherence of its line to tonal functions…. Motif generates melody: that is the traditional relation between them….
But since motifs and melodies are also found in atonal music, the statement reveals one reason why they are more difficult to remember in Schoenberg than in Beethoven, namely, that the contexts of atonal harmony are infinitely more complex and difficult to perceive than tonal ones.
This explains why Erwartung can be regarded as a greater event than any of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions, which “required a mimesis of tonal melody.” For Erwartung is
“athematic” or “nonmotivic” in the sense that understanding and appreciating it does not require recognizing the motifs from one part of the work to another as all music from Bach to Stravinsky demands….
This statement, too, is unexceptionable: Erwartung can be appreciated independently of the recognition of motifs. Yet the musical experience is deepened by an awareness of the motivic relationships—which will differ from one listener to another because of the “developing variation” (Schoenberg’s term for a principle of all of his music), the transformation, and even the mergers to which the motifs are subjected. An interval is inverted, or replaced by a slightly larger one—on the grounds that contour is more important than exact distance (as in the case of the Sprechstimme part in Pierrot Lunaire). Also, at least one motif in Erwartung is as short as a single interval, the minor third that occurs three times in the first melodic phrase (bassoon to oboe) and obsessively after that, especially in the vocal part.
These comments are merely a part of one reader’s marginalia. Now it must be said that with this book Charles Rosen not only has created impossibly high standards for the Modern Masters series but also has notched the profession of writing about music to a level that no colleague can approach. His Arnold Schoenberg is indispensable to anyone seeking to understand the crucial musical ideas of the first three decades of the twentieth century.
September 18, 1975
See, for example, Allen Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (Yale University Press, 1973). ↩
The original appeared in 1950 (The Philosophical Library, New York). ↩
Mr. Rosen’s belief that “concert performances have become relatively frequent” seems over-optimistic. Composed in 1909 (in seventeen days!) Erwartung was first performed only fifteen years later, by which time its Expressionism was regarded as embarrassingly “passé.” In fact the music made so little effect then that Schoenberg’s pupil and biographer, Egon Wellescz, actually characterized it as “standing on a traditional foundation.” In view of Erwartung‘s musical superiority and historical importance, however, performances are rare indeed; a fact that is reflected in its representation in the record catalogue by only one fifteen-year-old and inadequate album. Erwartung will receive the attention it deserves only when a superstar soprano “discovers” that it can be a sensational concert vehicle. ↩
Style and Idea, p. 281. ↩
I.e., at least six different pitches; most of the chords have many more than six notes, and some have more than thirty. ↩