Six Soundings of
Musical Depths...
Mini-Music 200





Mini-Music  Q & A

What to Listen For In…Schoenberg
Prof. Don McLean

1 – What made Schoenberg one of the most influential composers of his time?

The short answer to this is talent. Schoenberg was a remarkably brilliant composer, an individual of extraordinary gift and unique ‘compositional voice’. He was a great innovator as well, whether one is talking about his early ability in post-romantic extended-tonal repertoire (like Verklaerte Nacht), or atonal repertoire (like Pierrot Lunaire), or twelve-tone repertoire (like String Quartets 3 and 4), or later American period works (like A Survivor from Warsaw). The technical and theoretical aspects behind his creative output were also very influential. Schoenberg was a thinker about music, as well as a thinker in music: he was a great teacher who could convey the understanding of music in a general way, so that the music of his students, such as Alban Berg and Anton Webern, though deeply indebted to Schoenberg, nonetheless found its own unique and characteristic idioms.

2 – Please explain the twelve-tone technique developed by Schoenberg?

As I noted in the lecture, one way of thinking about the advent of twelve-tone music is to understand it as a shift from a combinational universe to a permutational one. What is meant by that is: traditional major-minor tonal music has the seven notes of the ‘diatonic’ scale (think white notes on the piano for C major) and various ‘chromatic’ alterations that embellish them (think of the black notes in this case as leaning on, or substituting for white notes); this happens so that the diatonic and chromatic elements are combined and interact with a clear sense of hierarchy. The twelve-tone universe is permutational because the basic premise is an ‘ordering’ of all twelve (black and white) notes; thus the emphasis is potentially on an equitable versus hierarchic organization of the notes. The fact that twelve-tone music is based on ordering is behind the term ‘serial’ music or ‘serialism’, though this later term is today usually reserved for a post-war style that involves ordering elements other than pitch, such as rhythmic values, dynamics, timbre (tone colour—next year!), etc. For a given composition, the default ordering of the 12 notes (valid in any register or octave, and therefore often called pitch-classes rather than pitches) is called the ‘tone row’ (i.e., an ordered ‘row of tones’). Within a composition the row often occurs not only in its original (or ‘prime’ P) form, but also read backwards (its retrograde R-form), upside down (its inversion I-form) or the retrograde of its inversion (RI-form). All forms can be transposed to begin from any of the twelve notes. This creates a so-called ‘magic square’ matrix: all twelve transpositions of the row, along with inversions and retrogrades are readable off the matrix. (In Schoenberg’s later period, he developed another innovation that combined two transpositionally-related rows to form a ‘region’; known as ‘combinatoriality’, this procedure reclaimed the idea of contrasting harmonic areas in large form works, analogous to contrasting key areas in tonal music.) A lot of ‘theory’ about this can become quite mathematical today, but, with a few exceptions, such machinations were not part of Schoenberg’s compositional motivations or interest. In fact, Schoenberg preferred the description: “Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another”, putting the conceptual emphasis on the new type of relationship between tones rather than on the compositional outcomes that might evolve subsequently in his or other hands. In practice, many twelve-tone rows are constructed to be a free as possible from note combinations that remind us of traditional tonal patterns (such as the row of Webern’s Concerto op.24); other rows, however, may exploit traditional tonal associations (such as the row for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto). Because the overall row form is an ordering of pitch-classes, interest sometimes shifts to the boundaries between rows (known as ‘aggregate’ boundaries) or to various sub-sets (trichordal, tetrachordal, etc.) of the twelve-tone row (known as ‘partition’ theory). The basic principles are quite simple, but the application in actual composition can be quite complex indeed; though no more complex than a Bach fugue or Beethoven String Quartet design. The twelve-tone technique is a very important and influential technical approach to musical composition, but does not replace composition itself. As Schoenberg himself quipped when told that many composers were using his twelve-tone method: “Are they composing any music with it?”

3 – Did any of Schoenberg's genius show itself in his children?

Schoenberg (1874-1951) had two children from his first marriage to Mathilde Zemlinsky (1877-1923), Gertrud (1902-1947) and Georg (1906-1974), and three from his second marriage to Getrud Kolisch (1898-1967), Nuria (1932-), Ronald (1937-), and Lawrence (1941-). Nuria married the Italian twelve-tone (and occasionally ‘serial’ [see above]) composer, Luigi Nono (1924-1990). Since, I’ve met the three surviving Schoenberg children, I can attest that they are pretty clever folks indeed! Though the Schoenberg’s are all at retirement age, they are extraordinarily active: Nuria is very occupied with the Nono Archives in Venice. Ronald is a judge. Lawrence is a music publisher. All are very involved in the Board of the Schoenberg Centre in Vienna. Apart from this peripheral and legacy association, did they go into music. Their mother, Getrud Schoenberg, probably summed it up best: ‘How can they do music, when music is what makes their father so upset!’


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