Arnold Schoenberg Breaking Tonality

Breaking Tonality

The German late Romantics created such dense harmonic connections between chords, that any chord, no matter how exotic or distant, could be associated in some way to a central key.  For the listener, though, it made that central key more difficult to determine.

Debussy was less concerned with harmonic dominance and hierarchy. Instead, he explored different harmonic worlds and discovered ways to move from one to the other. His music has sections that are modal (from Pre-Baroque music), pentatonic (from non-Western cultures), whole tone (an artificial symmetric 6 tone scale that he pioneered), and modern chromatic with rich chords that later would become the basis for jazz harmony.

Along with loosening the bonds of tonal harmony, Debussy freed musical pulse to create more subtle rhythm. He brought musical color and texture to the foreground, making them even more important than melody and harmony. These innovations  greatly inspired most of the composers of the 20th century.

Impelled by his deep historic perspective and belief in the Hegelian dialectic, Schoenberg  conceived the “next big step” in musical progress. He came to feel that the entire tonal system since 1600 had exhausted its possibilities, and that for music to survive, another system needed to take its place. The three periods of his music differ dramatically:

1st period (1895-1910)—summation of late Romanticism; Transfigured NightPelleas und Melisande, Guerrelieder—harmonically rich, emotional works largely inspired by Richard Strauss’s tone poems.

2nd period (1910-1925)—Expressionism and Atonality; Pierrot Lunaire, Five Pieces for OrchestraErwartung—works that express “the emancipation of dissonance.” Chords are “freed” from having to relate to a central tonality, leaving music free to primarily explore motives, texture, and color.

3rd period (1925-1951)—12 tone music; Suite op. 25, Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Piano ConcertoViolin Concerto, String Quartets 3 and 4, String Trio, Survivor From Warsaw—Schoenberg conceives the Method of Composing with Twelve Tonesfirst unveiled with his piano suitein 1925. All of his subsequent music explores musical structures with twelve note rows and all of their transformations using transposition and inversion.

The Twelve Tone Method

For Schoenberg, his twelve tone method was the necessary invention to sustain the progress of Western music. His earlier breakthrough, atonality (Schoenberg called it ‘pantonality’), had “freed” chords from the hierarchy of a central key. But it implied no order or method of organization. The twelve tone method both insured that no single chord could “dominate” the others, and provided a powerful musical structure that resonated with contrapuntal techniques from the Renaissance and, especially, of J.S. Bach.

Essentially, each piece organizes itself around a row (or ordering) of all twelve pitches (Western music divides the octave into twelve parts). The row is treated somewhat like a subject in a Bach fugue—it can play forwards, backwards, upside down, or upside down and backwards. Further, the row itself can be played as chords. For instance, four chords of three notes each might contain all twelve tones.

Atonality and the twelve tone method dominated musical aesthetics well into the 1980s. They provided a platform for unimaginable discoveries in musical texture, color, and rhythm, discoveries that composers will continue to explore for many years. However, atonality and twelve tone music also created a powerful division in the listening public for contemporary music that lasts to this day. While Schoenberg felt it was just a matter of time till the public became accustomed to “emancipated dissonance,” even now over a century later that is not the case. Schoenberg’s music is particularly difficult for most listeners. He himself couldn’t completely understand why that was the case, since his later music employed all the expression and motivic development of his earliest music, which people continue to enjoy. This illustrates just how primal a system tonality still is for Western audiences. 

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