A Century of Schoenberg: The Emancipation Of Dissonance

Schoenberg’s quest to free musical tones from the ­hegemony of harmony and the 100th birthday of his Pierrot lunaire

Top Stories | Cynthia Peck | October 2012

At the University of Southern California, where Schoenberg taught (Photo: Arnold Schönberg Center)

A century ago this month, a 40-minute event in Berlin – the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire – marked a decisive split in the European music scene. While the piece was received moderately graciously by its first audience, it was to become part of the schism between what people called "music", and something they considered, harshly, "new music". It is a schism we still live with today.

Until the turn of the last century, audiences waited with bated breath for music hot from the quill, be it a new opera by Verdi or a symphony by Brahms. The new Musikverein opened in 1870 as a neoclassical Greek temple for world premieres. While their reception was not always positive, listeners were curious and hungry for new compositions. But by the nineteen-teens, new music had become unpleasantly "newer than new".


Creating Pierrot lunaire

Schoenberg, born in Vienna in 1874, was part of an Expressionist revolution going on in Austria and Germany, a revolution that was easier to digest when it came from the brush of Wassily Kandinsky or Oskar Kokoschka.

Framed by a mystical world of good and bad fortune, auspicious and inauspicious numbers, Pierrot lunaire is a group of 21 pieces setting poems by Albert Giraud that Schoenberg wrote rapidly in the spring months of 1912. The instrumentation was novel: a small group of two strings, two winds and a piano, plus a "Sprechstimme". With its echoes of German theatre, the macabre saga of the clown in the throes of a moonlit nightmare can be read as an alternate state of the poet or the artist.

The Sprechstimme was something particularly unusual: a pitched, rhythmical voice that neither sang nor spoke. It rather screeched, sighed and wailed – bel canto replaced by a nearly grotesque "bel parlare". Nonetheless, Pierrot, in its radical move away from traditional tonal form, has become a twentieth-century landmark.

There is no substitute for familiarity born of repeated listening, especially of "difficult" music. So luckily, this October we have two chances to hear Pierrot lunaire: On 5 October, at the opening of an exhibit called "Pierrot lunaire = 100" at the Arnold Schönberg Center. And at the Konzerthaus on 17 October with members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the German actress Barbara Sukowa, who has performed the piece brilliantly for the last 30 years.


Scandalous Schoenberg

Schoenberg – described as idealistic and ruthlessly honest, doggedly persistent and irascibly proud – has also been called the "emancipator of dissonance". But from his perspective his music was not "atonal": He rather broadened the tonal spectrum, disregarded the historical terms consonance and dissonance, and freed the twelve pitches from a central tonal centre. They became related only to one another, which loosened their hierarchy of pleasant or unpleasant, beautiful or ugly. In his music, the interval of a third – the call of a cuckoo or a classic doorbell chime – was equal to seconds and ninths, jarring and dramatic. "All I could do was to swim against the tide," he once said. It was the birth of "the modern", a new musical language that all composers since have had to grapple with and somehow incorporate.

Schoenberg was teaching at the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1933 when the newly elected German government decided to purge "Jewish elements" from institutes of higher learning. By October, Schoenberg had Anglicised the spelling of his name (from Schönberg) and immigrated with his family to Los Angeles. There he again became a professor, first at the University of Southern California (USC) and then at UCLA. He never returned to Europe, dying in L.A. in 1951.


Moving the legacy

The composer’s archival legacy was originally housed at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC. It was moved to Vienna in 1998 after USC was unable to keep its obligations to the Schoenberg family and a new home was sought where the Schoenberg legacy would be kept alive and active. Some thought Vienna a poor choice: After all, it was embracing a son who, 60 years earlier, most likely would not have survived there.

But "Schoenberg made his peace with the city," according to the late pianist Leonard Stein, one of his star American pupils and the original director of the USC Schoenberg Institute. "He was offered the keys to Vienna on his 75th birthday and was happy to accept. His ashes are buried there."

Today, Vienna’s Arnold Schönberg Center houses a public research library and the permanent exhibit "Arnold Schönberg, Who I am", which includes a reconstruction of Schoenberg’s L.A. studio. The Center also hosts regular exhibitions, concerts and symposia, such as this month’s three-day event "Arnold Schönberg, Max Reger and the Society for Private Musical Performances".

Today, Schoenberg’s music is regularly played. It still makes extraordinary demands on performer and listener. Nonetheless, historical or cultural significance aside, the value is inherent in its expressivity and the emotions it evokes.

With a modicum of goodwill, Schoenberg will expand your listening horizon. And so what a chance this month’s anniversary brings: a taste of his masterpiece Pierrot lunaire.

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