12-tone music (and atonality more generally) has a reception problem. On the one hand, the mathematical rigor of the compositional process (poiesis) lends it the elite prestige that all things “scientific” garner in the modern world. RT identifies this extreme focus on musical ends rather than means – high academic modernism’s “cult of difficulty” – as a “deliberate strategy… keeping the hostile crowd at bay” (IV, 738). Listeners may not like the music, but, understanding that its composition is akin to research in particle physics – in other words, recognizing that it’s way over their heads anyway – listeners can accept its “necessity.” One takes it at a concert much like one takes a dose of cod liver oil.
It’s fascinating to me how, out of all the “high modernist” art forms, atonality (especially 12-tone music) has been perhaps the most stubborn to absorption into the cultural bloodstream, at least in the concert-going world (movies are another question). Corporations display Kandinskys in their lobbies, yet Webern continues to arouse ire among subscribers in many an American concert hall. A hundred years later and it’s still controversial with audiences. Preoccupied with its “difficulty,” it’s easy for listeners to feel stupid and alienated; after all, it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to listen to music.
This is deeply unfortunate. There is more to the Second Viennese School than pure poiesis, despite the fact that, as RT laments, “… the ‘esthetic’ aspect – the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer – is rarely addressed” (ibid). I recall my first concert experience with Webern (Oliver Knussen with the New World Symphony playing 5 Pieces, Op.10). Never mind its “difficulty,” this music was a sensual epiphany. Knussen lovingly and delicately presented us with five wildly, extravagantly flavored tiny morsels of sound, like rich and unusual chocolates in a box. Each bite was a universe of sonic sensations. After finishing, he turned to the audience and, with the playful naughtiness of a young boy sneaking a cookie, asked if we minded that he played the whole piece once again. We were all intoxicated with Webern.
In my company that evening was a friend who was, to say the least, highly skeptical going into the concert. A rock fan with little or no experience in classical music, she was mystified and fearful of the legendarily “difficult” reputation of the music. (In fact, she even had an excuse to bow out during intermission if her ears were intolerably assailed.) How did she take this performance of Webern? Let’s just say there’s now a CD or two between Tom Waits and Wilco in her music collection. Motivic unity be damned, she was mesmerized by the sheer, luxuriant sonic surface of it.
RT points out that, despite its reputation for onerousness, Webern’s music “lays everything bare.” Eschewing structural analysis for a moment, I’d like to look at one brief moment to illustrate the drastic immediacy of this music, an immediacy that, I think, is heightened by the extreme subtlety of his use of timbre. Tone rows and recurring motives are relatively easy to identify – the act of esthesis, when this is all you’re focusing on, is equivalent to investigating the music’s poiesis. But Webern, like his teacher, was a genius of timbral contrast and control. Since this element of musical sound is much harder to quantify than pitch relationships, it often goes unremarked. In the Five Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, Op.10, however, timbre appears as the primary expressive ingredient. (N.B.: Op.10 is a “free atonal,” not a 12-tone piece. This is a bad recording, but I cant’ find anything better on YouTube):
The whole thing is an intimate landscape of whirling, dynamic, kaleidoscopic sound, but turn to Mvt. 3 (beginning at 1:16) for my favorite example. The PPP opening, which combines mandolin and guitar tremolo with harp, celesta, and a deep, randomly-articulated bell, evokes something teeming, liquescent, and dimly crepuscular. A rumble of the bass drum at 1:36 (though faint in this recording) adds a viscous and chilling sheen to the unfolding sound-world. A muted horn, distant and haunting, rings out bell-like at 1:43. From here it’s all twittering and hushed movement, closing with the rustling wind of a snare drum roll (2:32). Robert Erickson memorably describes this movement as “flickering, hazy insect music.” (Sound Structure in Music, 166)
Actually listening to Webern is a very different experience than either reading about Webern or analyzing Webern’s scores. And it is here that Second Viennese atonality has a PR problem: its intense logic and formal complexity begs it to be read as a gnomic text, yet the way it sounds at its best moments – captivating, evocative, surprising, and chaotic – can be grasped without the aid of the score. All music is about sound, of course, but by fixating on structure and technique (poiesis) – its “difficulty” – at the expense of its sensual sonic surface, a strategy that RT is guilty of, even though he recognizes the bias, it’s easy to forget what a singularly bewitching sound world we’re dealing with. Close the score and listen to Webern – you might be surprised.
Posted in Twentieth Century | Tagged Ruminations, Webern | 4 Comments
Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909; rev. 1949)
By Richard Hoffman, Oberlin Conservatory
Written for the concert Focus on a Masterwork: Brahms’s Fourth Symphony performed on April 30, 1993 at Carnegie Hall.
Despite — or because of — a series of bitter disappointments during the years 1908 and 1909, both in his personal life and in his artistic endeavors, Schoenberg experienced a creative frenzy which he never again equaled. This period culminated in the composition of Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16, (summer of 1909) and the monodrama Erwartung, Opus 17 (written in the short space of a fortnight at the end of the year).
In these two years, Schoenberg’s musical language underwent a gradual change from extended tonality to atonality (Schoenberg initially abhorred the negative connotation of atonality and preferred to consider his middle, expressionist period as pan tonal) leading to the abandonment of traditional tonality or, ultimately, as he called it: “the emancipation of the dissonance.” Prior to Opus 16, the non-tonal, quasi-stream-of-consciousness intuitive compositional process was found only sporadically in certain movements or sections of a work, e.g., the Second String Quartet, Opus 10, the last movement; the Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11, also the final movement; several songs from the Book of the Hanging Gardens, Opus 15…all intimate chamber music intended for a knowledgeable public. For the first time, the full force of a new musical language was unleashed on a less sophisticated audience by an augmented orchestra, in all of its five movements. And what an audience it must have been at the first performance of Opus 16 on September 3, 1912, at one of the Promenade Concerts in London; Henry Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall Orchestra!1
A critique of this first performance appeared in the London Times of September 4,1912: “It was like a poem in Tibetan; not one single soul could possibly have understood it at first hearing. We can, after all, only progress from the known to the unknown; and as the program writer, who had every reason to know, said, there was not a single consonance from beginning to end. At the conclusion, half the audience hissed. That seems a too-decisive judgment, for after all, they may turn out to be wrong; the other half applauded more vehemently than the case warranted, for it could hardly have been from understanding.”
Edward Newman, the eminent music critic, wrote in The Nation: “It is not often that an English audience hisses the music it does not like; but a good third of the people the other day permitted themselves that luxury after the first performance of the five orchestra pieces of Schoenberg. Another third of the audience was not hissing because it was laughing, and the remaining third seemed too puzzled either to laugh or to hiss … May it not be that the new composer sees a logic in certain tonal relations that to the rest of us seem chaotic at present, but the coherence of which may be clear enough to us all some day?”
There exist more versions and transcriptions of Opus 16 than of any other work by Schoenberg. The original score, published by C.F. Peters in 1912, without titles; the revised version of 1922 with titles and with several changes, especially in tempo markings; a reduction for chamber ensemble, 1920; and the New Version, revised and reduced to normal size orchestra, September 1949 and revised in 1973. (Beside these authentic versions there is Anton Webern’s reduction for two pianos, 1912 – based on the first edition, but with titles – and a chamber ensemble version by Felix Greissle.)
The first piece, “Premonitions,” is based on essentially three elements: a short, fanfare-like motive, often outlining anaugmented triad; a trichord D, A-sharp, C-sharp virtually omnipresent; and a relentless multiphasic ostinato. The ostinato dominates the middle section (tutti orchestration and varied rates of speed) while the trichord triumphs at the close (low brass, flutter-tongue, crescendo) over the ostinato (cello and double-bass, diminuendo) and the descending modified fanfare motive in the low woodwinds.
The second movement, “Yesteryears,” is cast in a tripartite form and is tonally colored (opening in D-minor) with unusually pungent woodwind combinations. The middle section employs oblique chromatics. The return of the contracted initial section is like a flashback and projects the mood of nostalgia: of deja vu. The surface content of the Impressionists and Debussy’s favorite expression marking, “tristo e monotono” comes to mind.
The third piece, “Summer Morning by a Lake” (“Colors” in the 1949 version; “Farben” in the 1922 revision and in the Webern piano reduction; “Der Wechselnde Akkord” in Schoenberg’s chamber ensemble reduction of 1920), was quite literally a “watershed” piece, serving as a prototype for many post-Second-World-War serial composers in its Pointillistic use of instrumental colors. Overlapping timbral changes of a tive-note chord, each of the voices moving up a semitone and down a whole tone – at its own speed arrive at the initial pentachord a semitone lower. The entire process is reversed in the reprise, where the motion is a semitone down; and a whole tone upward. during the stretto of the three-note cell there occurs a palindromic progression of the kaleidoscopic heterogeneous timbral mixtures. The gentle oscillation of the “changing chord” reflects (according to Schoenberg) the play of light on the waves of the Traunsee as well as the rocking of the row-board on the calm surface of the lake. To complete this impressionist painting – Klangfarbenmelodie – there appears a quite realistic interference motive (predominantly in the harp and celesta) to depict fish jumping out of the water in an attempt to catch insects.
The fourth movement, “Peripetia” (the sudden turning point in the plot of the Greek drama, which assure the inevitable tragedy), is the shortest and most explosive piece of the set. The last eight bars are a crescendo (staggered entrances) ending in an overwhelming climax with a composed echo of 2-1/2 measures!
The fifth and final piece bear the title “The Obligatory Recitative.” Its richly polyphonic texture belies the fact that a single melodic line runs, uninterruptedly, from beginning to end. The “recitative” is passed through the entire orchestra as a strand of seamless fragments. The consistency of the lilting Landler-like (3/8 time) qualities results in a lyrical bucolic mood with, perhaps, a touch of bittersweet resignation so characteristic of the Austrian psyche. The apocalypse with a happy ending!
1.Actually first performed in Berlin, February 4,1912 in a two-piano, eight-hand version by Erwin Stein.
2 Arnold Schoenberg: Berlin diary, edited by Josef Rufer: The wonderful thing about music is that it allows you to express everything so the initiates will understand, but, without betraying your inmost secrets – the secrets you don’t confess even to yourself. But titles betray you after all: Moreover, the music already expresses the ideas that are important – so why use words? If words were necessary you would use them in the first place, whereas in art you can express more than in words. Anyway, the titles I might use betray no secrets, because they are either very cryptic or very technical. Thus: I. Premonitions (everyone has them), II. The Past (everyone has one of those, too), III. Chord-Colors (just technical) IV. Peripetia (vague enough, I suppose) V. The Obligato (or perhaps “fully-developed” or endless”) Recitative. But there should be a note to say that these titles were added as a necessity of publication and not to provide “poetic” atmosphere.