Schoenberg’s Error?

With the discussion of Schoenberg in 1926, vol. 3, it seems appropriate to address the controversy surrounding his work.  One should tread lightly here, because musicians and classical music lovers get as upset over the argument as they do over the theism/atheism debate.  But for what it’s worth, here are some of my thoughts.

Why did musicians of the past century develop radical techniques like this?  As for me, my favorite composer to listen to is Mozart, but in my own composing I’m most interested in atonal techniques such as Schoenberg’s.  (And perhaps that’s not so very strange.  Many of Mozart’s contemporaries found his mature work puzzling and overwrought — less so than people have found Schoenberg, though.)  I think it’s a question of creativity vs. a paint-by-numbers approach: in Mozart’s time the Common Practice tonal language was still something not fully understood, not fully explored.  There was still a lot more room for experiment, a lot more room for a composer to create something out of the tonal language; whereas today it seems to have long since been mapped out, fully explored, “solved.”

I remember an interview I watched once with Peter Jackson.  The next film he made after The Lord of the Ring was King Kong.  The interviewer asked him why he made his King Kong as a ’30s period piece instead of setting the story in modern times.  Jackson replied that in the 1930’s there was still a sense of awe and mystery left in Western culture about some parts of the natural world.  Almost all of it had been explored, mapped out, conquered in a sense, but in a few places — inner Africa, the poles, the South Pacific — it still seemed an outside possibility to Western culture of the ’30s that there could really be an island hidden away somewhere in the vastness of the Pacific that had dinosaurs and enormous gorillas on it.  And that’s a good analogy for tonal music, I think.  Since around the time the original King Kong story was set, it’s become difficult for many composers seeking to create something of their own (rather than to be merely derivative) out of the resources of tonal music to view tonality with a sense of awe and mystery, to think that there might still be something fantastic and beautiful to be discovered in it.  So they’ve explored elsewhere.

In any event, so much of the discussion of 12-tone music is really a discussion just of idea of it, and I think that’s a problem.  Before there’s any discussion on the subject, all those involved ought to have actually listened to some 12-tone music.  And not just listened to 30 seconds of it once or twice, I mean really gotten to know some of the important works that use the technique, really made an attempt to hear its sonorities not as dissonances, but as harmonies.  You might still not have any use for it after having gotten to know it, but give it a chance, just as a newcomer would have to listen to a lot of jazz to learn how to hear it.

And where better to start than here at AYICM?  Some very good recordings of serial music are available right here on the site.

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