Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of Twentieth-Century Culture

By Cavanagh, Lynn | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of Twentieth-Century Culture


Cavanagh, Lynn, Canadian University Music Review


Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey, eds. Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of Twentieth-Century Culture. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1997. xviii, 232 pp. ISBN 0-520-20314-3 (hardcover).

Considering that most of Arnold Schoenberg' s musical compositions are rarely performed or recorded, humanist scholars are apt to regard the very notion of Schoenberg studies as peripheral to research on Western culture. Yet the engaging thesis of this book is that understanding Schoenberg is vital to the cultural historiography of the countries where he lived. As ironically suggested by the book's title, the essays collected here thematicize the discords in Schoenberg's life and demonstrate that they are among the building blocks of twentieth-century culture. The fundamental claim is that, despite where he has customarily been placed in history, Schoenberg's path-breaking importance lies not in having invented an influential and infamous method of composing music but in his engagement with the pluralistic social, religious, political, artistic, and educational forces of our century. The evidence arises in the course of close examinations of Schoenberg's milieu, his modes of thinking, and the implications of these for the present day. Musical examples and specifically musical concepts and terminology, where called for in some essays, are kept to a minimum. Therefore, here is a book that can and should be read not only by those specifically interested in Schoenberg' s life and creative output but by anyone interested in twentieth-century cultural ideologies.

Constructive Dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the Transformations of Twentieth-Century Culture is based on a 1991 conference that focused on interdisciplinary aspects of Schoenberg studies and gave secondary attention to music theory and analysis. In his introduction to the book, co-editor Christopher Hailey notes that discussion between sessions at the conference proved to be fertile ground for refining, revising, and integrating the presenters' viewpoints. As a result, one of the strengths of the resulting publication is that its fourteen papers together create a rhetorical impact such as would be expected in a book by a single author-an impact that is all the greater because the collection does not strive to resolve the inconsistencies within Schoenberg's own thinking or between modernist and postmodernist thought. Therefore, whereas each essay is capable of standing alone, a complete, sequential reading of the volume is to be recommended; the essays will here be taken up in this manner. Contributing to its impact, the collection is effectively ordered and arranged within three cumulative sections: "Contexts" (discussing origins of Schoenberg's artistic thought); "Creations" (giving perspectives on specific compositional and theoretical works); and "Connections" (discussing the relevance of Schoenberg's oeuvre to the present-day world of ideas). A decisive moment in the overall discourse is reached in Christopher Hailey's essay at the beginning of section 3, where he urges a new perspective from which to regard Schoenberg's oeuvre (more on this below).

The book fills two general lacunae in Schoenberg studies. First it redresses an imbalance caused by the abundance of published studies that analyze individual compositions as if each were an all-iaws-and-explanations-untoitself entity. Throughout the book, even in those few instances when a specific composition is the subject of the essay, the social and ideological context in which the work arose, or ideas that the work reveals about Schoenberg's thinking on the creative process, are at the fore. (Indeed, although multifaceted in its approach, the book gives no attention to the play of musical design, and places little value on a personal engagement with Schoenberg's music per se. Therefore what the book cannot address is the lack of analytic studies of Schoenberg's works that can be approached by the general reader. …

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