Schoenberg's Error

Schoenberg's Error

Schoenberg's Error

Schoenberg's Error


A critical analysis of the composer Arnold Schoenberg's explanations of musical structure, which find Schoenberg's theories driven by his own interpretations of 19th century ideas and his assumption that the hierarchical structuring of pitch could be ignored without sacrificing musical meaning.


Toward the end of 1924 one of the world's great music publishers, Universal of Vienna, released Arnold Schoenberg's Suite für Klavier Op. 25. By usual standards this was not an auspicious event, even in the sedate circles of classical music publishing. In fact, few persons in addition to Schoenberg himself -- some close friends from his circle of present and past students like Erwin Stein and Alban Berg -- were even aware that this collection of short piano pieces had been committed to print, much less that it could, in time, come to signify something far greater than just the music it contained.

Even Stravinsky's notorious Sacre, older by some dozen years, could not match this slight composition's eventual symbolic power. In some ways its release was the public revelation of what would become one of the dominant forces in twentiethcentury music. Inauspicious at birth, perhaps, its compelling role in history was nonetheless confirmed by developments during the next fifty years.

Even today, most serious music lovers do not find Schoenberg's suite of little pieces especially delightful. In fact, the composition's principal claim to fame was not its substance but Schoenberg's use of his "method of composing with twelve notes" as a controlling agent throughout all six movements. He had composed music earlier that made use of the same method, but not to the degree incorporated in the Suite. This latest piece signaled an epochal point in the composer's creative life, one of those deliberate turns in a personal road that ultimately changes the direction of many others as well. From that time in 1924 to now, professionals and nonprofessionals alike have argued the musical validity, the artistic propriety, the historical justification of Schoenberg's contribution to how we think about music. Ironically, like the Suite, Schoenberg himself seems destined to endure mainly as a mythic symbol of musical revolution. Posterity seems intent upon neglecting both.

Schoenberg's quick and brilliant mind sought ultimate answers; but he now seems more an extension of intellectual beliefs of nineteenth-century Romanticism than an oracle for an ineluctable evolution. Early in his maturity, he was consumed by the intoxicating ideas of his troubled times, some of which he did not fully compre-

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