Schoenberg Is Important

Schoenberg reading in between classes.

Arnold Schoenberg is known to the world at large as the man who championed 20th Century use of the twelve-tone system and its method. To many in his own time he was referred to as the “Satan of Modern Music” and a “Cacophonist” but the man was much more. Schoenberg was a man who was very aware of the tonal world and saw this new embrace of a pantonal world as the next extension of the traditional Western music tradition. The two things that people do not understand are the remarkability of the fact that it was Arnold Schoenberg who developed this system and perhaps more importantly that Schoenberg was a many who loved the classical repertoire especially the works of Beethoven.

The fact that Schoenberg discovers and fosters the twelve-tone system is remarkable when one realizes that he never had any formal training in harmony. This is a fact that he admits in his own treatise and other writings. I suppose that it was this fact that would later add fuel to the philosophical rift and feud between the followers of Schoenberg and the followers of Igor Stravinsky. (Stravinsky of course studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and others.) In the end however, after Stravinsky exhausted his attempt to cryogenically freeze functional tonality in 1954 we see him making the move to serial composition, a move that in my mind clearly solidifies the merit and genius of Schoenberg.

(Note: Composer and conductor Zemlinsky, did give Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint, but this was the only formal training that Schoenberg ever received. Zemlinsky was also Schoenberg’s brother-in-law.)

The fact that Schoenberg was “untrained” by a traditional teacher let alone a famous composer in direct contrast to his other contemporaries might conjure visions of a barbarian hacking away in the tonal jungle with a machete and building a crude hut of “atonality” by decimating the trees surrounding his compound but this idea would be furthest from the truth. Schoenberg loved the work of the masters. At the front of his book, Fundamentals of Music Composition, (which is really a treatise on form) Schoenberg advises the reader to assemble their Beethoven scores as all of his frequent inline citations without a composer listed refer directly to works by Beethoven. In his writings on style and ideas we see his studies of Bach, Brahms, Liszt, Mahler, Berg, Gershwin, Webern, Zemlinsky, and Stravinsky.

It is perhaps and quite likely that because Schoenberg did not receive training from a teacher and instead sought to learn directly at the feet of the Masters, through their scores and through books that he happened on the belief that the inclusion of all twelve pitches of the Western equal-tempered chromatic system was the next evolution of Western serious music. Conceivably, if he’d had a tutor of some sort the idea may have taken longer to come by or never come to him at all in which case we’d be praising the name of someone else for it’s invention. In his book, Theory of Harmony, he also credits the erroneous ideals of previous theoretical authors for his ideals, stating that through these errors he was able to negate them and find truer purer principles.

Why is Schoenberg important? The answer is simple because of his revolutionary ideas in so many aspects of music from teaching to composition to theory and beyond. In 1949, Schoenberg even writes concerning copyright laws of his time speaking on how the evolution of modern media calls for a reform of the law to extend the author’s rights beyond the fifty year period that was then in effect. His writings on the role of the teacher, which he touches on in almost all of his treatises, present a then almost revolutionary idea that the student should be lead on a path of discovery. The role of instructor in his eyes seemed to be more of a guide and mentor to help the pupil realize his/her own potential. Teach not in absolutes that could and would hinder the creativity of the pupil. Again he stresses to the surprise of many people that the pupil must learn to handle “basic tonality” before he/she having an aesthetic in mind moves on to a more complex mode of expression. A principle that was practiced by Schoenberg himself if we review his early works prior to his experimentations beginning in 1908 and his final embrace of the dodecaphonic system in 1923, scream late German Romanticism to the back of the concert hall and the top of the roof tops. The most famous of his tonal works is perhaps Verklärte Nacht. The work which is richly harmonic in nature but ever harkening back to the home key of D minor was deemed “unfit for performance” by Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (The Vienna Music Society or Society of Music Friends in Vienna) because it featured an inverted-ninth-chord which at the time did not exist in the realm of “traditional” Western functional harmony. Listening to it in modern times one could hardly imagine the upheaval and controversy at it’s premiere in 1902.

I could continue to prattle on about Schoenberg, giving more examples from the literature and repertoire but the penultimate conclusion is this: Arnold Schoenberg is fundamentally important to the Western musical tradition because his ideals forced us to think about music in new ways from composition to teaching. If you haven’t already been inspired to do so, give Schoenberg a chance!

Elizabeth A. Baker


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