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The big question: why should anybody care what Schoenberg said? I have no answer yet, I'll think about that one.  But anyways, here are a few more quotes from the book Style and Idea.  The even bigger question of "why should anybody care what Tombo Rombo thinks about what Schoenberg said?"  has also yet to be answered. Oh well!

What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibilty.

(p.216, from the essay "Composition with Twelve Tones", 1941)

This is an interesting definition of dissonance.  Is it the definitive definition?  You can certainly use it that way, but I believe other meanings are also legitimate.  In acoustic research, there is a term called "sensory dissonance" which deals with "beats" between simultaneous notes ( like when tuning a guitar, one adjusts string tension until no perceptible beats occur between the test pitch and a reference pitch).  Not coincidentally, intervals that were traditionally classified as dissonances (seconds, tritones, and so on) have greater interference between waves than do traditional consonances. One could argue that the "beats" that arise when a dissonance is sounded do in fact lead to less comprehensibility to an ear trying to parse the individual pitches, but Schoenberg has a different notion of comprehensibility in mind here, namely stylistic integrity.  In other words, if all one hears is "dissonances" in a piece, then there is in fact no dissonance in the sense Schoenberg is using here.  In fact, if a sensory consonance were to occur amidst a sea of dissonance, the consonance may in fact be the only dissonance in the piece and would need to be "resolved".  Dissonance, in this sense, is actually culturally determined.  Schoenberg claims that the freer use of traditionally dissonant intervals in the late Romantic has made dissonances more understandable, less restricted in their motions, and that it is only a matter of time until completely dissonant music becomes fully comprehensible to all.  Here in 2012, I'd say it didn't quite pan out that way...yet, I do believe there are "stylistic firewalls" in our minds that recognize styles and adjust accordingly. I need to further formulate my ideas on that topic, this is getting a bit "rambly", perhaps cognitively dissonant.  Moving on.

This one is a killer:

Justified already by historical development, the method of composing with twelve tones is..not without aesthetic and theoretical support.  On the contrary, it is just this support which advances it from a mere technical device to the rank and importance of a scientific theory.

(p.220, same essay)

Modernism gone amok!  Why would music need to "aspire" to the level of science, isn't it a unique, valuable art form on its own?  Go ahead and compose using whatever method you want, but please do not appeal to science.  I liked it better when you implicitly acknowledged the cultural underpinnings of style with your definition of dissonance.  Thank you.

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Comment by Tombo Rombo on April 17, 2012 at 6:19am

I am aware of Pelleas, but not as aware as I should be.  The Schoenberg pieces I am most familiar with are Verklaetre Nacht, the second chamber Symphony, Pierot, the op.11 piano pieces, five pieces for orchestra, and the Hanging Garden songs. He was a great composer I think, his early atonal period being my favorite of his, the twelve tone works are actually sort of overly traditional (besides the harmonic language of course),  a bit too "formal" for my tastes I suppose.

Comment by Michael T on April 16, 2012 at 6:49pm

I agree with your last point Tombo. I think 12-tone was Schoenberg's solution to his problem. It certainly was not the inevitable result of a logical progression that it is made out to be. When people like Boulez started to take the principal to extremes it got very silly indeed, at least to my ears. The list of composers who did not follow the approach contains the names who will be eternally remembered-Richard Strauss, Poulenc, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Britten, Copland, Prokofiev, Shostakovich,etc etc.

Do you know his early Pelleas and Melisande?  One of my favourite late romantic pieces.

Comment by Tombo Rombo on April 10, 2012 at 4:34pm

I also think that in one way, Schoenberg's genius was that he manufactured a "crisis" to legitimize his music to music historians.  For example, when I listen to Mahler's Das Lied von Der Erde or Strauss's Elektra, I don't hear two chords over and over in a static, unmoving, bloated, dated style of dead tonality.  I hear great music!  Debussy had found a way out of the supposed crisis as well, as had Charles Ives, Stravinsky, Gershwin, etc.  In other words, Schoenberg's compositions were not some necessary step in the evolution of music.  It was an imaginative, interesting approach to be sure, but it wasn't inevitable or some Darwinian scientific development as he would led you to believe.  American universities definitely bought into his story of music history though, for a time anyways.

Comment by Tombo Rombo on April 10, 2012 at 2:04am

I've never heard Schoenberg's genius described as such, interesting.  When I first read your comment I thought "is the whole of his influence based on the second chamber symphony then?"  That is actually one of my top Schoenberg pieces.  But he also liked to use that E-A-D# sound, which you could call a fourths chord, so I'll let you go on that one.  I don't believe that having no center solves the problem of stasis and non-movement though.  Movement is relative, and without a point of reference, a tonic for instance, all motion runs around like headless chickens, you could say.

Comment by Tombo Rombo on March 29, 2012 at 12:17pm

And of course I have to drop a bomb like "scientific explanations will always be wrong."  I am a baaaad boy.

Comment by Tombo Rombo on March 29, 2012 at 11:47am

I should be a little clearing in my blasting of Schoenberg for his "12 tone music is a science" statement.  There is actually a long tradition of music theorists making claims to the magic of numbers (Pythagoras, Zarlino, Schenker to name a few) and science (Rameau, Riemann for example) to explain how music works.  Schoenberg is not alone here, and many who do not like his music make appeals to science to explain why his music is bad.  My notion that music should stand on its own shows a bit of my own silly bias, perhaps instilled in me by the notion of the "autonomous art work" that arose in the Romantic period.  What it all comes down to (to the sound of farty trumpets) is how one reacts to music, "scientific"explanations will always be wrong, even the explanations of those who don't like the music.  Many times causal explanations are grafted onto experience rather than being "real".

Comment by Gav Brown on March 29, 2012 at 5:13am

TR, I always considered 12-tone music to be an attempt to force music to be a-harmonic, but whether that's true or not the effect is the same to me. I would agree that other composers who followed are more interesting, but altogether, it is a form of music which doesn't appeal to me.

Comment by Tombo Rombo on March 29, 2012 at 12:42am

Interesting take Gav.  By abandoning harmony I assume you mean traditional harmony, and yes he did set off on another path entirely.  Somebody somewhere told me they thought the problem with Schoenberg's music is that the harmonic rhythm is too irregular and rapid for a mind to follow.  Interestingly, much of the rest of his music's construction was quite traditional, if you consider phrasing, motivic development, contrasting themes, that sort of thing.  Dissonant music, or aharmonic, or what you may call it, that makes a cleaner break with the past (take the music of Varese or Stockhausen for example) seems somehow more palatable to me.

Comment by Gav Brown on March 28, 2012 at 7:16pm

I think yesterday's dissonance is today's consonance - up to a point. In Handel's day, the V chord usually didn't have the flat 7th, because it was considered dissonant. In Mozart's day, the flat 7th was in common use. Jazz introduced 9th, 11th, 13th and beyond chords, and other 20th century music introduced quartal, quintal, microtonal (such as Indian and other nonwestern musics) harmonies which to earlier ears would all have been dissonant. That said, there are limits. While Schoenberg has a point, his music is really more about the abandonment of harmony, whereas the above are about extending existing systems (with 11ths and 13ths etc.) or approaching harmony in new ways (such as Indian music or quartal chords). Some people can dig that. Fewer can dig Schoenberg, because he is not so much about adding a new system of harmony or extending an existing system so much as he is about abandoning harmony altogether. At least that's what I feel when I listen to the music.

Comment by Tombo Rombo on March 28, 2012 at 3:06pm

Had to google that one, nice quote.  I'll let others google it as well.

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