It’s a sweltering summer day in the mid-2000s. Middle school music geeks flock to the library for their midday music theory lesson at chamber music camp. There’s a kid who knows what retrograde is already while the others are fighting over what second inversion means. The teacher makes a sly remark, this isn’t the music theory of Arnold Schoenberg, we’re learning harmony. The class laughs but you’re sure none of them really know Schoenberg’s music or even who he is. That was the first time I was introduced to contempt for the creator of serialism. And it certainly wasn’t my last.
In the early 20th century, Schoenberg “emancipated dissonance,” ushering in a new era of chromaticism in western art music that has met its fair share of resistance. He and his early students are often referred to as “The Second Viennese School,” the trifecta of Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven being the first, respectively. Yet how often are works by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern programmed in comparison to the great Beethoven?
Both of these schools of thought, while inherently quite different, are visionary. The First Viennese School brought us the behemoth known as the symphony, art music for public consumption rather than only for the court patrons, quartets that weren’t exclusively about the first violin and some of the world’s most performed operas (I swear not a year goes by without more than one major opera house programming The Magic Flute). These composers brought us the mainstays of western art music that music directors, audiences and musicians flock back to over and over again. They laid a foundation for musical form that dominated for years to come.
The Second Viennese School opened new doors. Schoenberg wanted to create a means to using all the notes in an octave, rather than just those which are part of the scale. He wanted to be able to incorporate chromatic tones into music using a methodical approach. So, he created a new system of harmony called serialism/the 12-tone method/dodecaphony. He taught others this method, notably Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Together, they made up a new school of thought in which chromaticism was welcomed, as was dissonance. Not only were doors to harmony being pried open by this idea. Schoenberg came up with new orchestrations for pieces, most famously the Pierrot ensemble, which consists of a violin/viola, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello and a speak-singer.
(Note: listen by experiencing and hearing the expression of the music, not the individual parts)
This only scratches the surface of what Schoenberg’s ideas were able to inspire in music of the 20th Century. But because his musical ideas veered toward dissonance, appreciation is polarized. High school music theory was met with more disdain for Schoenberg instead of appreciation for the creativity he inspired. That disdain comes from fear because yes, the music is hard, it’s hard to play and it’s certainly not easy listening. But fear of the unknown should not drive our understanding of music, rather, we should be inspired to delve into new sonic territory, to explore an endless sea of harmonic and melodic possibility.
Schoenberg moved to America during World War II and ended up teaching some of our country’s great art music visionaries, including the one and only John Cage. His impact was not only in innovating a system that incorporated dissonance so boldly, but also in asking his audiences to listen seriously and think deeply about the music they were experiencing. These ideas have only grown in the modern era, where art has become more and more interactive and music remains to be chromatically explored. His ideas are a foundation, just as much as Haydn’s were.
Today, September 13, 2017, is Schoenberg’s 143rd birthday. Celebrate appropriately: go cry in the dark to Verklarte Nacht and open up your mind to music that allows you to experience a complete emotional landscape, that isn’t simply passive enjoyment. It will change your life.