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Schönberg gained our enduring respect for his music primarily through his early breakaways from tonality, in the works including the Chamber Symphony Op. 9, Erwartung and up to Pierrot lunaire. That is, he did so with the pieces which – apart from rage and agitation – also evoked a special type of anxiety: anxiety about a recklessness which seemed to ignore any kind of violation of taboos.
But such emotional reactions are entirely out of place in the face of his twelve-tone creations. Today, they have been replaced by a particular kind of embarrassment, the product of the typical misunderstanding which, in art, tolerates no unresolved contradictions – indeed, wishes to ignore them, if necessary, and which clings to identification with that which is invitingly identical to itself – and be it neo-art or anti-art.
Superficially, Stravinsky’s music met such expectations as did – in different ways – that of Hindemith and Bartók. Even Berg’s and Webern’s works found provisional ways of communicating in this sense, to say nothing of their use of acoustic décor of the established avant-garde.
Schönberg’s twelve-tone music sounds like something vomited to those wanting to rescue coherence of material by helping it along to a new musical thinking. With a fractured spine, it performs tired old philharmonic rituals, provoking aesthetic schizophrenia in listeners. Traditional forms, tonally oriented gestures, street-players’ emphases, tensed to the limit and debilitated by twelve-tone rules: “Here you can still spot them, finely ground up into bits.”
Yet, even as if crippled and disfigured, this music can still be enticing enough for an avowal of friendship. Such provocation – the most grave and cynical since Mahler’s Eighth – is intolerable. Society, unable to withstand this bleak music and its claim on truth, has its techniques for avoiding it; truth is boring so that it is not unnerving. For our society, art is a medium of identification. Contradictions should be critiqued, not grasped. Attempts at rethinking have been made for long enough – and in vain – and now the old, popular game of self-affirmation through art is being hoisted onto new material.
Music is trying to forget its original bourgeois-idealistic stances. But in Schönberg’ music, the demand for beauty, greatness and truth seems failed and embarrassingly grotesque, and barely manages to continue. The avoidance in musical thinking today of such criteria, society’s flight from that grimace in which it sees itself reflected, is in the process of avenging itself. Aesthetic enjoyment in a pluralistic society apparently disburdened of its historical constraints and newly defined by its own whim, still profits initially from momentary antithesis before dissolving into nothingness, useless and superfluous. Intellect, the virtuoso facility of the human conscious mind, is indeed obliged to face the hazard of societal responsibilities, if it is not to become mindless. The stagnation of composition today is the consequence of intellectual atrophy, due to agreeably lingering among aestheticized quasi-problems and evasively turning to superficial quasi-conflicts. To a social consciousness juggling with the old concept of art to disguise the fact that it has become basically superfluous, Schönberg is dead.
But the dead live longer. What Schönberg’s music proposes, its up-to-date, new definition of the concept of beauty, is aimed precisely where art once again takes its bourgeois claim to truth at its word. Nothing remains of the fascination of the chilled and chilling tonal material except the effort of composing technique clotted to a self-serving end. Imagination, vitality, expressivity, the courage to shock – Schönberg has proved that more than anyone else. To him, they were never virtues for their own sakes. And now he has ruthlessly tempered and defused them; likewise, he has denied access to new categories of material. Klangfarbenmelodie has remained nothing more than a futuristic intellectual game.
Yet that effort of compositional technique made absolute means more than twelve-tone frustration petrified into mannerism. That effort, aware of its contradiction, demands listening which is effortful in character – not masochistic tolerance or sensible furrowing of the brow, but pondered lingering within that contradiction.
It is just this sustained contradiction which is the basis – as its reverse side, so to speak – of an experience of the complete transparency of the sounding material which is only possible in Schönberg’s twelve-tone works. Composers once cherished the ambition of achieving structural competence – an objective unattainable because it is inconsistent. Still evident at best in Bach’s polyphony, even there it was jeopardized by vertical integration into the formulae of thoroughbass harmonism, which provided public order and harmonic coherence.
Schönberg dismissed such tonal order anew with every single pitch, without renouncing its elements. In terms of expression, the result is bleakness; structurally, the result is a suspiciously clear aural transparency of a familiar construction otherwise harmonically warmed up wooziness – material which is at once well-known and foreign: the corpse of the consoler Musica in the guise of a challenge to grow up, to be rid of consolation. Desolate music as a rebuttal of self-pity – music as a portrayal of what has become due to the failure of what ought to be – that is the dialectical realism in which Schönberg presents music to us.
Today, Schönberg cannot mean any more to composers than he does to listeners. What can we still learn from him?
He simultaneously closed down the material and method which he had opened up; they remain bound to his idiom in terms of both style and expression. The affectation of his compositional technique makes it at once complex and impoverished. Feeding from it – as Schönberg himself did from Brahms, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven – could only denote reification voided of content. His music belongs to none of the new aesthetic worlds which he mobilized his students and contemporaries everywhere to open up with all their moral strengths. Thus, for composers, he evidently has the topicality and patina of a classic.
Learning from the classics is in any case an art of its own. It is easier to admire them decently as corpses than as manifestations complete in themselves and insufficient for us. Yet, with Schönberg, there is still one barb to rankle us: a criterion of failure, for which we pity him – or envy him.
Paper for the Southwest German Broadcasting Co., Baden-Baden, for Schönberg’s 100th birthday, aired on September 13, 1974: published in Musik als existentielle Erfahrung [“Music as Existential Experience”]. Writings 1966 – 1995. Wiesbaden, etc. 2004, pp. 261 262