Thursday, November 6, 2008

A primer on Schoenberg as Postmodernist

By 1908, Arnold Schoenberg had completely abandoned traditional triadic tonality, signalling the consummation of a process that had begun in 1900. While Schoenberg had tinkered with the limits of traditional triadic tonality in his early song cycles such as the expressionistic Gurre-Lieder (1900-1901) and Zwei-Lieder (1907-1908), his final break with triadic tonality came with the composition of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908). Set to the tragic love poetry of Stefan George, the piece was notorious for its radical use of chromatic harmonies without any single established tonal center. Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (1908) set out to further develop his newfound compositional idiosyncrasies, although its critical reception met with similar ends, that is, uproar, disapproval and harsh criticism. Needless to say, the premiere of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten in 1910 hardly fared any better. Life, it seems, was a bed of nails for Schoenberg: besides facing rejection from his critics, he was also rejected by his own wife, who ran away with mutual friend and painter Richard Gerstl.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to see why Schoenberg prized the “struggle for [artistic] truth higher than the truth itself”. Seen from a different angle, “struggle” could be interpreted as Schoenberg’s strategy of romanticizing or justifying personal crisis by conflating the realm of the personal with the realm of the artistic. “Beauty,” he claims, does not reside in the completed artistic object but “in that everlasting struggle for truth”. In the first published edition of Harmonielehre (1911), Schoenberg’s preface clearly instructs the pedagogue to adopt the philosophy of the struggle in which “the search itself” for artistic truth is valorized. For Schoenberg,

“[The] thinker, who keeps on searching ... shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved ... Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is definitely not something to find ... movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails ... Only activity, movement is productive ... Comfort avoids movement, it therefore does not take up the search.”

The impulse to “movement”, as demonstrated in the rest of the Harmonielehre, was one that sought to move beyond the “comforts” of traditional triadic harmony, a “search” that involved the exploration of new laws and organizing principles beyond the limited scope that traditional tonality had permitted. It would be nearly a decade later before Schoenberg finally reaped the fruits of his “search” with the invention of the 12-tone composition system. Until then, Harmonielehre was at best a traditional harmony textbook peppered with ruminations and speculative thought, making arguments for what was eventually (and famously) known as “the emancipation of the dissonance”.

Indeed, what Schoenberg set out to demonstrate in various chapters of the Harmonielehre was precisely the very constructedness of tonality as a compositional aggregate of laws and common practices. For Schoenberg, traditional tonality “is no natural law of music [which is] eternally valid” , but a historical construction which has gained its validity through years of shared practice, a “system of presentation (Darstellung)” through which the production and reception of music occurs. This Darstellung may ensure a common tonal language between producers and receivers, but what Schoenberg also points out is the way in which “Tonality” as a system is disciplinary in nature, qualifying certain practices under its umbrella while rejecting other practices as invalid or incorrect (such as parallel fourths and fifths in counterpoint). Schoenberg rejects the totalizing tendencies of the tonal disciplinary system, claiming that any meta-theory of art must necessarily “consist ... of exceptions”, although he remains aware of how the establishing of artistic laws can often “influence the way in which the sense organ of the subject, the observer, orients himself to the attributes of the object observed”.

Based on this logic, Schoenberg deduces that the dialectical separation between “consonances” and “dissonances” within the logic of tonality is inherently faulty for two reasons. Firstly, given that the basis of tonality rests on the acoustical properties Klang (tone), then the Klang must already be intrinsically “dissonant” by virtue of the “dissonant” partials heard in the higher overtone series. Since the “dissonant” partials are higher in pitch and therefore less audible than the “consonant” first few partials of the fundamental Klang (the octave, the 5th and the major 3rd), it follows that the distinction between consonance/dissonance is of “degree, [and] not of kind”. In other words, the consonance/dissonance antithesis is a false one; in the acoustical reality of the Klang, they are merely coordinates on the same trajectory. Secondly, Schoenberg argues that the binary distinction is cultural and based primarily on the level of acceptance of the listener. If the chromaticism of Wagner, Debussy and other composers can be successfully recruited into the realm of “consonance” by acculturated listeners, then it would only be a matter of time when the “growing ability of the analyzing ear” is able to embrace “the whole natural phenomenon” of Klang as consonant.

The longevity of the consonant/dissonant binary (which privileges the former), Schoenberg posits, also partially lies in the historical treatment of the identified “dissonant” tones as “passing tones”, consequently reifying or confirming “the phenomenon of dissonance itself”. What Schoenberg refers to here is the way in which the linguistic tropes used to characterize “dissonances” (i.e. as merely “passing”) simultaneously serves to construct a hierarchy of tones, an act of proscription which “names” certain intervallic relationships as less-essential than others. For Schoenberg, the “dissonant” had to be disciplined by the logic of tonality by constructing an epistemological binary (consonant/dissonant) which served to maintain the pre-established hierarchy, albeit by articulating a repertory of rules by which “dissonances” were to be “treated”: “Dissonance was accepted, but the door through which it was admitted was bolted whenever excess threatened”.

It is important to note that Schoenberg did not altogether dismiss tonality as a tool for the artists’ kit. On the contrary, Schoenberg sought to criticize the way in which tonality as a Darstellung was asserted as natural law or unquestionable rule. “Tonality” for Scheonberg remained a viable “formal possibility that emerge[d] from the nature of the tonal material, a possibility of attaining a certain completeness or closure (Geschlossenheit) by means of a certain uniformity”. To the extent that Schoenberg claimed to be “emancipating” the dissonance, this purely meant that he was attempting to undo a deep-rooted epistemological bias in the tradition of tonal music that established a hierarchy of privilege, assisted by rules of “proper treatment”. Simultaneously, as a composer, Schoenberg was attempting to establish theoretical grounds by which his non-normative chromatic dealings were justified.

To the end, Schoenberg remained resentful of the term “atonal” – an invention of the rival Hauerian school of thought which Schoenberg vehemently disagreed with. For Schoenberg, the notion of ‘atonality’ was oxymoronic in the sense that it “could only signify something inconsistent with the nature of tone”. By proposing the use of “polytonal” or “pantonal”, Schoenberg was sending a clear message that he was not attempting to adopt a radically relativist position in opposition to traditional harmony. Rather, Schoenberg saw himself as reworking the basic assumptions of tonality, rethinking the organizing properties of traditional tonality in terms of the twelve tone chromatic scale. By the end of Harmonielehre, Schoenberg expressed his excitement that:

“[We] are turning to a new epoch of polyphonic style, as in earlier epochs, harmonies will be a product of the voice leading: justified solely by the melodic line!”

In the mid 1920s, Schoenberg’s dreams for a utopian tonal democracy finally came to be realized in the tone row – a series of the twelve chromatic tones arranged without any repetitions. Once the “Basic set” (BS) of 12 non-repeating tones had been established, a series of rows could be derived from the basic set through (1) inversions, (2) Retrogrades, (3) Retrograde inversions, and (4) transpositions of the rows. Through a single BS, 36 different rows may be generated, forming a pool of creative raw material to draw from. Schoenberg’s so-called “method” of composition with twelve tones was not the only system in existence. Josef Matthias Hauer, a rival theoretician, had similarly come up with a system and theory of ordering twelve tones in a composition, based upon pseudo-Romantic ideas of “spiritualization” and “the purely musical phenomenon of the interval”. Similarly, Hebert Eimert’s 1924 treatise entitled Atonale Musiklehre attempted to treat Hauerian speculation in a systematic way, while excising the more abstract “spiritual” claims.

Although both Schoenberg and his rival schools each drew up ideological systems in which to justify and systematize the handling of twelve tone composition, their individual philosophies and approaches to dodecaphonic music differed vastly. Schoenberg harshly criticized Hauer for attempting to elucidate the “natural laws” concerning twelve-tone music, claiming that “[Hauer] looks for laws ... where he will not find them”. Instead, Schoenberg accused Hauer of “inventing kinds of form that will make it possible to accommodate the twelve tones without repetition” as merely “a means to an end” . In other words, Schoenberg accused Hauer of doing exactly what he was accusing tonal conservatives of in Harmonielehre, which is, seeking totalized epistemological universes that try to “round off the system” by increasing the girth of their theoretical fences. Schoenberg, of all people, understood the problems which “theory” and “established convention” inflicted upon the discursive field of music. While “theory” portends to describe, too often it prescribes, and ultimately proscribes, as Schoenberg had argued with the case of the consonance/dissonance binary. Similarly, newly erected laws would inevitably enact new modes of disciplining and hence new methods of exclusion by defining itself against a non-privileged musical “other”.

After all, it was the unshakable walls of historical tradition and musical “law” that operated to “exclude” Schoenberg from wider circles of musical acceptance. In Schoenberg’s eyes, he knew he was categorized as the dissident “dissonant” out of line with conservative “consonance” in Viennese musical life. At the same time, he was painfully aware of the ways in which these binaries operated to affect public musical tastes, and the reception of his works. In some ways, Schoenberg’s utopian ideal of “pantonality” underscored a personal yearning for a plural universe where his music would be properly ‘understood’; a musical universe in which the dissonant could lie beside the consonant in ‘harmony’; where the diversification and conflict of musical “laws” reflected nothing more than personal compositional and theoretical choices; where the “struggle” for truth was to be venerated over (the potentially tyrannical nature of) truth itself. To this end, through the vision of a post-consonant/dissonant world, Schoenberg was already espousing an ethics of postmodernism.

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