Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg's Transformation of Musical Language

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of Ethan Haimo, Schoenberg's Transformation of Musical Language

Article excerpt

[1] Ethan Haimo's recent study of Schoenberg's music from the years 1899-1909 doesn't present a tidy survey of the works from that era, but instead presents the reader with a critical thesis concerning the evolving compositional features that define the music of this period stylistically. Haimo's thesis cuts against the grain of those well-worn receptions of Schoenberg that are conditioned by the trifurcation of his output into tonal, atonal and serial periods. The cornerstone of this thesis is that "incremental innovation" is a consistent principle applied throughout the period. Of these three style categories, the author is especially troubled by the failed utility of the term atonal. Haimo remains disenchanted with the corollary associations that obtain between the designation atonal and certain analytical methodologies with which he takes sustained issue. Many of the analytical positions in this book descend from his arguments regarding these methodologies and so it is to these arguments that I must necessarily turn shortly.

[2] Haimo characterizes Schoenberg's music of the years 1899-1908 as displaying a principle that he calls "incremental innovation." The nature of that innovation is construed rather flexibly such that the innovatory domain may change considerably from piece to piece. An overall trajectory is maintained within which different individual features evolve continuously. For example, Haimo finds that the programmatic elements of Verklärte Nacht are innovative because they occur within a chamber work rather than a symphonic setting.(1) Within this same piece he notes that the complex palette of instrumental colors, no single one of which is new, is further evidence of incremental innovation. The relationships of certain unusual cadences to the overall formal structure of the work also demonstrate a progressive aesthetic.(2) This principle appears at times to neatly straddle issues of analytical method and compositional aesthetics without ever clearly distinguishing where the one domain ends and the other begins. I sense that this is not a distinction that Haimo is concerned to make, but as it seems a significant one I will be compelled to return to it shortly. The net result of this approach is a picture of consistent but minimal advancement from work to work within the chosen period, with an overall sweep that is quite dramatic in its progress when taken in toto. Haimo thus displaces Schoenberg's famously radical stylistic break until a later point than is typical of recent Schoenberg reception, assigning the break instead to the works written between the years 1909-1911. In pieces from this period, such as Op. 11 no. 3 and Op. 16 no. 5, he finds a nearly complete abandonment of earlier procedures such as form-driven thematicism and comprehensible motivic development. These and other features were used relatively consistently until only a few weeks before the composition of these last two works. He designates these works, after Carl Dahlhaus, as a "New Music."(3) This critique is illuminating and might well begin to recover seemingly intractable works like Op. 11 no. 3 and Op. 20 from the analytical abyss. When we are forced to reconsider the relevance of certain analytical procedures that have yielded much in motivically conceived works like op. 11 no.1, but which have failed to disclose nearly as much in some of those other "new" works, it surely appears that a different set of tools is needed. While Haimo's study consistently underscores the need for such tools, it doesn't usually provide them.

[3] Schoenberg's Transformation of Musical Language remains firmly chronological in its approach to Schoenberg's evolution. The author relies upon careful documentation of primary sources such as compositional sketches, personal correspondences, remarks of acquaintances, and compositional time lines relative to personal circumstances. This approach infuses his arguments with a certain persuasive authority. …

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