• Agents of Change

    • Arnold Schoenberg knew how to channel a multitude of strengths that converged towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a musical vanguard now irreversible for academic music.

    Arnold Schoenberg and the rupture gestated by the musical vanguard of the twentieth century / 

    Time is essentially paradoxical: on one hand its nature is indomitable, uncontainable, but on the other, we humanly develop procedures that enable us to measure and only apparently grasp it. The minutes, hours and days go by uninterrupted and, all in all, we establish measures that allow us to identify its passing and believe that we can control it.

    However, we know all too well and because of personal experience that this division is merely conceptual. How can we precisely define, for example, the moment we were six or seven years old, or fourteen or sixteen? Is it not that with the periods of our life that we group and confuse these and that hence it is easier to speak of our childhood and our youth and, in any case, separate each one through specific and notable events, which defined the change from one to the other?

    This is also true in History, the major tale of our species, this collective adventure that although classified in years and centuries, whose authentic meaning is only understood if we pay attention to the “Stellar Moments of Humanity”, to quote Zweig’s title, the events that crystallised the inevitable transformation of ways of being and living in the world that suddenly revealed themselves to have expired, ready to transform into something else.

    In an eloquent understanding of this dual characteristic in relation to their human conception, the distinguished English historian, Eric Hobsbawn spoke of a “long” nineteenth century, as opposed to a “short” twentieth century: the first extends through to 1914 according to Hobsbawn, the year First World War began, while the second ended in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down.

    The arguments for this singular division of history are wide ranging, but in general terms can be summed up as the first time in which the rupture between two collective visions of the world could not have been more radical. The political, cultural, artistic values and those pertaining to almost every other aspect of social life varied diametrically from one century to the next, a shift that was additionally aroused tempestuously. Stillness, parsimony and the conservationism of the nineteenth century followed a stage full of deep transformations, of desperate searches to find, once again, the existential meaning lost in the horror of trenches and massacres, where many constructions of European consciousness were destroyed.

    As with many other transitions, this was also a tumultuous period, rich with fluctuations and the ups and downs characteristic of a period in which different powers simultaneously intervene, each one with their own properties and their contradictions, their interests and expectations.

    A stimulating exercise to approach this period can be developed from music, particularly that by composers of the so called classical or academic music.

    Indeed, what could be more contrary within this field than the compassed and proper waltzes by the Strauss family against the tonalities and dissonances of Arnold Schoenberg, employed as new elements in composition? Do pieces like Wein, Weib und Gesang [“Wine, Women and Singing”] and Verklärte Nacht [“Transfigured Night”] not seem irreconcilable in some way? And yet, only thirty years separate these pieces (Johann Strauss’ II is from 1869, while Schoenberg’s is from 1899).

    Wein, Weib und Gesang transcribed by Alban Berg, one of Schoenberg’s most successful students


    Verklärte Nacht: L'Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez

    According to specialised criticism Schoenberg’s composition method has defined itself in different ways. Some refer to it as “atonal”, others as a “dodecaphonic method” and some others as “serialism”. These concepts vary because for many years the Viennese’s music was unattainable, as was the theoretical theory that defended it. To begin with we can say the Schoenberg took tonal and chromatic explorations to the very limit, which Wagner, Brahms, Mahler and lastly Beethoven, had tried before, a frontier where the path seems to have disappeared.

    Although “atonality” as a term displeased Schoenberg himself, to a certain degree this remains the term that best describes his vanguard. Unlike previous music, Schoenberg’s pieces are characterised by their lack of a dominating key from which the composition finds an order of its own. Hence the metaphor of the path: while at the beginning of a piece others like Bach or Mozart offer the listener the route they will transit through, Schoenberg broke free from this tyranny of form and patterns. For this reason his music sounds so different: because to a certain extent it resembles nothing else, not even itself, a phenomenon that can even be understood from the perspective of Neuroscience, as Jonah Lehrer does in one of the essays from Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which he dedicates to Stravinski and the Rite of Spring.

    One of the most outstanding characteristics from this revolution is that Schoenberg embarked on it fully aware. It might seem surprising, and perhaps even impossible, but the musician’s genius led him to establish himself in the open field of the new and transformative.

    In the same manner, his teaching phase stands out. The number of students that afterwards went on to become distinguished composers is not small; among these we find Alban Berg, Anton Webern and John Cage (although according to Pierre Boulez, the only musically valuable was Berg). Cage has some emotive anecdotes from this period, in which Schoenberg appears as a type of Socratic or Zen master that made his students discover knowing on their own

    The life and work of Schoenberg can be considered a vortex were tradition and the will to change converge, as well as that cumulus of forces that push the necessary renovation of all things and which, at times, few times, takes possession over a single soul, transforming them into an engine that will change an entire era. 

    Tagged: composers, music, Agents of Change, Arnold Schoenberg