SCHOENBERG'S LONG SHADOW

.... a personal retrospect.



Preparing to record some short and highly compressed piano pieces that I had been working on, I remembered how impressed I had been over the years by the early piano pieces of Schoenberg Opus 11 and Opus 1, and Webern Opus 27, as his late, momentary bursts of sound, I went to the shelves downstairs and pulled out the old vinyls to see if there was any of the old magic left there for me. I always like the old recordings for the music itself, in some ways better than the latest reviewed performances on flawless CD, which don't show how experimental these early compositions actually were. As I had suspected, there were some new things I hadn't considered, which is why I wanted to go there now.

When you look at a Schoenberg score from the period before 1909, it looks like regular l9th century score with even measures and an assumption that the performer will know how to interpret notes and dynamics as part of his art. But suddenly everything changes with Schoenberg's new scores! The timing and durations of sounds will be spelled out with remarkable precision, dynamics are specified down to the individual note, and from then on performers will know that their business is to follow the masters' exact intention down to the last detail. In compositions which were at that time so novel that a performers would have little idea how to approach them, this detailing made sense. But the result, when you hear a well done performance of these once startling pieces, is that they have a certain hard, also harsh and almost brutal sound. Yes, that is the way they were specifically scored, and you might ask why they have to sound that way.

Schoenberg was competent as an amateur on the cello, but unlike the brilliant pianist Bartok, he would not have been able to play Opus 11 well enough to demonstrate the effect in a public performance. In the years just around his remarkable change of musical thinking, he spent a great deal of time painting, which is a very different art. The artist's attention is driven by brushstrokes of pigment placed on a canvas plane with a plan in fine exactitude. A painting cannot be understood until all the bits of pigment are laboriously put in place, at which point the piece is visually ready for being "understood", ready for its visual performance. You can find a good display of Schoenberg's paintings online. The canvases are weak and thin and it may come as a surprise to see that they are mostly single objects, whether a jar or a flower arrangements or a face, centrally placed on a neutral brushed background.

Very disappointing, seeing what was going to break through in the visual arts after 1910, and you can see why Schoenberg changed his venue so quickly when he realized how the new art was intent on breaking up the work of the previous visual generation. His paintings might be described as a weak imitation of what Van Gogh was doing, but without invention or conviction or emotion. He needed a new approach and took it in the realm of music where he was a well trained traditional composer, but no better a performer than he was as a brush-artist with paint. However he had a novel packet of ideas, and from that moment of his conversion , he became totally in charge controlling of a new kind of musical thinking, which only later would be titled by academic critics as atonal and dodecaphonic. With the new thinking he stood in a parallel line with Stravinsky, Picasso and the new cubists.

For the reborn Schoenberg, who was always concerned with absolute mastery in his compositions, painting on a canvas must have seemed first cousin to locating musical characters on a sheet of score paper. Each page of black dots with their size and surrounding space specified, could be seen as a visually painted score for a piece of music, the sound of which would come only later as a performance at the hands of a skilled professional pianist. Why did he do his experimental pieces with the piano which he could not play? Probably because the equal temperament tuning was flat and not suggestive of voice leading and resolutions, something the trained string performer would have unconsciously introduced .The public could hear his piano music in a concert hall or see one of his finished paintings in a gallery, but in those early years of the last century, the public's opinion for both was very clear. This was intolerable and brutal work, not consonant with what was acceptable as Art.

A hundred years later these early piano pieces are no longer shocking. But listening to them over and over this afternoon, I still find them still somehow brutal. I am reminded of Schoenberg's fierce and fiery personality which stretched from his essays proving the integrity of his dodecaphonic process of composition, to his aggressive tennis playing in his later years in California, where when confronted he could throw down the racquet in fury. Intent and concentrated, a fiery Schoenberg had to be always in control. This shows in these early pieces which are unmistakably aggressive both as musical ideas and in their performed sound. Try as you might, you cannot play them as if there were delicate Debussy etudes.

When Webern much later finished the concentrated writing of the three pieces of Opus 27, which last less than six minutes, he explained in 1937 to Peter Stadlin in detail exactly how he wanted them played. Even more than his musical master, Webern was in iron control in this late and final experiment in compositional compression. It was his final achievement, as he put it, but this was no musical "piece" which he had tried and tested out at the keyboard. It was a scored canvas with all the dots in place, a planned program-piece with conscious meaning, laid out as a musico-philosophical piece of business. At that time it was shocking to hear performed, now for many of us it is a remarkable and most interesting set of Variations; but my last impression is still that it is hard and tough, and when I hear it played I must say I still find it innocently brutal.

Where has Schoenberg's thread gone with new music in the course of the innovative 20th century? At mid-mark twelve tone music was still an interesting avant garde experiment, it was taken seriously by the university graduate programs in music and fostered a wave of dodecaphonic writing in the schools after 1960 with only a small leak to the ear of the musical public. Writing twelve-tone music, like the writing of academic fugues a century earlier, was more an academic than an artistic occupation, and much of the product of both activities lies in the dust of our musicological archives. But the upcoming generation of American jazz artists heard bits of Schoenberg with an attentive ear, and although they may have found rows too formal for their improvised style, they did like the opened door of atonality, which they saw less as protest against the diatonic than an opportunity to become acoustically pan-tonal.

As Rock music developed, it also turned an exploratory ear to Schoenberg, leading to a new kind of less-pop and more-ArtStyle in Rock Music. The European Free Improvisation movement shows this trend in full development and modern Rock has more in common with Schoenbergian tonal freedom than Rock founder Chuck Berry with his three diatonic chords could ever have imagined. Many of our new century composers have turned more and more into the harmonic tonal tide, in an effort to "relate to the public", which means being hearable in concert. But the sound of a palette of twelve tones per octave, with greatly enhanced harmonic and dys-harmonic possibilities, has become so standard in the new style of Rock sound, as well as the pan-tonal dribble-down from university graduate composers to commercial TV and film score writing, as to have become part of our musical culture. Modern music has not become Schoenbergian, but the master has had the last word on the subject: We now can hear his work with an attentive if not always sympathetic ear, and we find traces of his music notions firmly cemented into segments of our musical culture worldwide. The world outside the West has always been pantonal in one way or another; it was Europe which had to become thoroughly diatonic, in order to develop its remarkable harmonic and orchestral potentials.



This is not a piece of music criticism I am writing. I just wanted to clear my mind this afternoon before settling down to do some short and concentrated piano pieces in real-time for use on the internet. I discovered twelve-tone egalitarian music on my own in college eons ago, but believe that it can be blended in with tonal and baroque structural notions for a fuller personal expression. And there is a richness in the sounds which a grand piano can evoke which is wider than the staccato percussionality which these iconoclastic masters found so fresh and inviting. They came from the over-wrought music of the l9th century, wanted an antiseptic ambiance as a way of clearing out the sound of the music of that time, and they had their intended result overall.

Someone said recently that even now if you want to clear a concert hall, announce the performance of some Schoenberg, Teachers and students may stay but the listening public by and large will be out the door. But when I finish tuning my piano tomorrow morning and sit down before the black and white keyboard, I will be in debt to Schoenberg for a range of usable sounds which were not available before his time. I thank him mentally as I prepare notes for gentler passages, punctuated with a bit of brutality here and there, but with more air-space and rich undampered resonances from the soundboard atop of which I can spread new bits of my musical pigment. Doing this live puts a special responsibility on me as pre-designer of the idea, preparer of musical sentences on the fly as if when speaking, contrapuntalist with two hands speaking to each other, and conscious reviewer of what is coming out aloud, as formant of what is to come next.

If this seems overly complex or even impossible of achievement, I remind myself that all this activity is operating effortlessly under the control of a highly evolved human brain. What I am here doing is a mere cerebral trifle. The System runs my bio-chemical corporeal factory with no downtime for decades, it works in the cerebral background, speech chatters out continually in the foreground, while the "emotions", whatever they really are, play their games in the privacy of the frontal lobe. Borrowing just a tad of each of these processes tomorrow for an hour or two while making some music will hardly impinge on the overall neuro-muscular and organ capability of this elderly professor Dr. H., who is still unaware of the full the complexity of his own internal operating system. So he takes his minor efforts as making something fresh and new very seriously, as a conscious process within the unconscious and autonomous webbery which is his self-operating biological identity. It may perhaps result in a poem or an essay or a piece of music which next week can be heard digitally at a distance on the Internet. But there must be something to make, to form and fashion in the wake of the ancient Greek word "poiesis" which is not our poetry but the world of everything that can rise from the bed of thought and come out as a creative act. We all need that dynamic to balance the ordinary things we have to do each day, and as one gets older, that need becomes sharper and a good deal clearer.

Now I can put the old records back in place, write a few words on a piece of paper as reminder that I have something to work on tomorrow, and let the rest conspire in quiet to see if I can turn out that planned piece of piano music. If not tomorrow, then later when ideas have had time to mature. Some of the Schoenbergian ideas which have now had a century to mature may turn out to be useful components for something quite different from their original thrust, as part of a new outlook in a new age.



January 2006
William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris