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20th Century Music - Part One


Jack Logan, Ph. D.

Every serious artist strives toward a poetic, a longing, a murmur of the soul, a bonding of art and self. . .

--John Silber

When we consider modern music as we begin a new millennium such names as Madonna, Garth Brooks, and the Goo Goo Dolls, as well as others, come to mind. Here, we'll try to determine why the music of these artists sounds as it does and has the emotional impact on us that it does by considering the music of the early part of the 20th century.

Individuality and the Modern World

The world of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954),Edgard Varese (1883-1965), Harry Partch (1901-1974), and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong (West End Blues) (1901-1971) was profoundly different from the current World of the present. In the 1990s man reached the stars with the NASA Space Program, bringing space travel within reach, if not within the economic realm of most people.

As the pace and speed of transportation has increased at an ever-expanding rate from 1900 to the present, so too has the pace and speed of music and musical ideas. Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky (Example: A Soldier's Tale; Fanfare for a New Theater), Edgard Varese (Example: Ionisation) and Harry Partch (Example: Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World) created music that was so individual in character that even the casual listener is able to discern the composer's style by their unique language.

From the beginnings of 20th century music (modern music) to the present, if composers had a single goal, it seems to have been to "reach for space" metaphorically. From Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question (1906) through Iannis Xenakis' Pithoprakta (1955) to Herbert Brun's Infraudibles (1968), Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), and Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (1968) to the recent work of Pierre Boulez, John Cage, (Cage's Autobiographical Statement), Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Erickson, Kenneth Gaburo (Mouth-Piece for Solo Trumpet,) Meredith Monk, Roger Reynolds, David Ward-Steinman and others, musicians are now poised to create music which will someday live in the stars.

Comet Hyakutake and a Cactus (May 1, 1996)
Credit: Rick Scott and Joe Orman, near Florence Junction, Arizona, Courtesy of Night of the Comet

The Composer as God's Messenger on Earth: Arnold Schoenberg

This quest to create a "spatial music" began in the late 19th century with the work of.the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and the American composer Charles Edward Ives.

Arnold Schoenberg and his Circle

Arnold Schoenberg was born in Vienna, Austria during the "bloom" of the Romantic Period in Western music. His musical heritage was that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner and Mahler. Schoenberg viewed himself as the natural heir to this dynastic tradition of Germanic music.

One of Schoenberg's students has reported the composer once remarked: "Either what we do is music or what the French do is music. But both cannot be music." Indeed, Schoenberg was convinced that he was placed upon earth by God to reveal God's laws in musical terms: "I am the slave of an internal power stronger than my education; it compels me to obey a conception which, inborn, has greater power over me than any elemental artistic formation". To this end and around the time Schoenberg was 50-years-old he created the "Method of Composing with 12 Tones" - later called by many other names - atonality, atonal music, 12-tone music and others.

Anton Webern, Schoenberg's most famous pupil, lectured about the genesis, substance and clarity of the 12-tone technique in Vienna during the beginning of the 1930s: "Just as the church modes disappeared and made way for major and minor, so these two have disappeared and made way for a single series, the chromatic scale. Relation to a keynote, tonality, has been lost . . . Schoenberg expressed this in an analogy: double gender has given rise to higher race . . . Now I'm asked: "how do I arrive at this row?" Not arbitrarily, but according to certain secret laws. (A tie of this kind is very strict, so that one must consider very carefully and seriously, just as one enters into marriage - the choice is hard!) How does it come about . . . speaking from my own experience, I've mostly come to it in association with what in productive people we call "inspiration". What we establish is the law. Earlier, when one wrote in C Major, one also felt "tied" to it; otherwise the result was a mess. One was obliged to return to the tonic, one was tied to the nature of this scale. Now we base our invention on a scale that has not seven notes but twelve, and moreover in a particular order. That's 'composition with twelve notes related only to each other.' The basic shape, the course of the twelve notes, can give rise to variants - we also use the twelve notes back to front - that's cancrizans - and then inverted - as if we were looking in a mirror - and also the cancrizans of the inversion. That makes four forms. But then what can one do with these? We can base them on every degree of the scale. Twelve times four makes forty-eight forms. Enough to choose from! Until now we've found these forty-eight forms sufficient, these forty-eight forms that are the same thing throughout. Just as earlier composition was in C Major, we write in these forty-eight forms."1

While Schoenberg created, in his younger years, music based upon the very advanced chromatic styles of contemporary romantic composers of his youth such as Brahms, Strauss and even Wagner, his true contribution to the evolution of Western music is found in the "12-tone" works of his later creative period, examples of which are the Suite for Piano, Op. 25, (1924); Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, (1927-1928) and the Fourth String Quartet, Op. 37, (1937).

The effect of these works upon a listener accustomed to listening to tonal music only, is a feeling of having lost the center or focus of gravity (tonality). Gravity is such an omnipresent natural force that man reacts severely at the loss of this elemental force. As the pioneers of space flight had to learn to accustom themselves to a lack of gravity while outside the earth's atmosphere, so to do listeners have to accustom themselves to music which has abandoned tonality (gravity).

Schoenberg's initial idea for a music that would avoid traditional tonal implications formed the beginning of a movement that eventually led further and further away from the use of tonality altogether.

Pierrot Lunaire, first performed in 1912, is Schoenberg's last great masterpiece of his Expressionist period (1907-1914,) which uses the "Method of Composing Using Twelve Tones," otherwise know as the "twelve-tone technique" or "dodecaphony." Based upon the poetry of Albert Giraud, and the popular 19th-century clownish figure, Pierrot, Schoenberg's treatment of the tonal elements shapes a tonal landscape that is expressionistic and melodramatic, consisting of poetry half-sung and half-spoken (a technique Schoenberg called "sprechstimme") against an instrumental chamber music background.

The first of 21 poems by Giraud, Mondestrunken, or Moondrunk is representative of the nature of the entire work.


The wine which through the eyes we
Flows nightly from the moon in torrents,
And as a spring-tide overflows
The far and distant land.
Diseres terrible and sweet
Unnumbered drift in floods abounding.
The wine which through the eyes we
Flow nightly from the moon in torrents.
The poet, in an ecstasy,
Drinks deeply from the holy chalice,
To heaven lifts up his entranced
Head, and reeling quaffs and drains
The wine which through the eyes we

Schoenberg lived his life as he wrote his music - in a ritualistic, highly crafted and superstitious manner. A short story concerning the nature of the composer's death reveals this intriguing aspect of Schoenberg's character.

"Before 1912, Schoenberg's ritualistic behavior was not apparent. The names of his first two children, Gertrude and George, appear to have been chosen on an arbitrary basis. Several decades later, after Schoenberg married a second time, he chose Ronald as the name of his first son by this marriage and Roland as the name of the second, both anagrams of his first name. Upon discovering adverse numerological implications in the name Roland, he changed the child's name to Lawrence Adam, which contains all the letters of Arnold except the "o".

In symbolism, numbers are not merely expressions of quantities, but idea forces, each with a particular character of its own. The actual digits are only the outer garments. The most generally accepted symbolic meaning of the number 13, one which figured prominently in Schoenberg's life, is that of death. And to the composer, 13 did represent the height of malevolent magic. Born on September 13, he considered this to be an evil portent and was so convinced of the inherent destructive power of the number that he claimed if he interrupted a composition and left it for a week or two, he invariably found that he stopped on a measure that was a multiple of 13. This prompted him to number his measures, later in life, as 12, 12A and 14. "It is not superstition," he often said, 'it is belief.'

The belief was of such an overpowering nature that the composer feared he would die during a year that was a multiple of 13. He so dreaded his sixty-fifth birthday that a friend asked composer and astrologist Dane Rudhyar to prepare Schoenberg's horoscope. Rudhyar did this and told Schoenberg that although the year was dangerous, it was not necessarily fatal. Schoenberg survived it. But in 1951, on his seventy-sixth birthday, the Viennese musician and astrologist Oscar Adler wrote Schoenberg a note warning him that the year was a critical one: 7 plus 6 equals 13. This stunned and depressed the composer, for up to that point he had only been wary of multiples of 13 and never considered adding the digits of his age. He became obsessed with this idea and many friends report that he frequently said: "If I can only pull through this year I shall be safe."

On Friday, July 13, of his seventy-sixth year, Arnold Schoenberg stayed in bed-sick, anxious and depressed. Shortly before midnight his wife leaned over and whispered, "You see, the day is almost over. All that worry was for nothing." He looked at her and died." 2

Schoenberg's "belief" in triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) and his profoundly superstitious nature probably triggered his death.

Webern and Berg

Schoenberg's two most devoted disciples during the early years of the century were Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935). They each created music based upon the "expressionism" of Schoenberg's original 12-tone idea; however, each departed from the original idea in meaningful and substantive ways.

As Schoenberg reacted primarily to the expanded emotional element inherent in late Romantic music by creating very formalized music devoid of a relationship to a central tone; thus, eliminating the emotional "struggle" of chromatic tones seeking to resolve themselves to a central tone, Webern reacted primarily to the Romantic aesthetic's over-stuffed, over-padded, verbose and lengthy qualities. The "minimalist" movement from Webern's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 demonstrates this reaction. This 20-second movement for chamber orchestra may be seen as a clear reaction to the extended length of most Romantic compositions (even the Romantic miniatures were not this short!).

A Strauss tone poem may last 35 minutes - a symphony by Brahms lasts longer than one hour - a Mahler symphony may last 90-minutes and Wagner's Ring Cycle takes four days to perform. Further, the "fabric" of the composition is sparse - individual sounds seem almost isolated in space without reference to each other. This and other works by Webern gave direction to composers with an artistic aesthetic favoring a minimalist attitude.

Alban Berg (1885-1935), a somewhat frail, sensitive and emotionally troubled young man (he attempted suicide at the age of 18 after a failure in school) nevertheless, wrote some of the most important expressionistic compositions of his time. Berg's music drama (opera) Wozzeck (1901) "is one of the first dramatic presentations of the predicament of modern man. Also, the mode of presentation is novel and anticipates the naturalistic movement. Finally, the portrayal of psychopathology - frustration, guilt, and aggression - shows an uncanny preknowledge of the Freudian understanding of the unconscious. Dramatically, the haunted character of Woyzeck (the original spelling) and his hallucinatory states have the aura of the Theater of the Absurd. Added to these elements is the social viewpoint, the outcry for the wretched life of the poor people, victims of forces much stronger than themselves. This social message was most important to Berg, as he made obvious in his postscript to Wozzeck: "What I do consider my particular accomplishment is this. No one in the audience, no matter how aware he may be of the musical forms contained in the framework of the opera, of the precision and logic with which it has been worked out, no one, from the moment the curtain parts until it closes for the last time, pays any attention the the various fugues, invention, suites, sonata movements, variations, and passacaglias about which so much has been written. No one gives heed to anything but the vast social implications of the work which by far transcend the personal destiny of Wozzeck. This, I believe, is my achievement."

With this statement, Berg reveals his true feelings concerning composition - he is less concerned with the material of music and more concerned with the message of music. This detailing of the predicament of modern man and the struggle of the powerless find voice in Berg's opera, Wozzeck.

The true nature of Berg's music is revealed in the fabric of Wozzeck, Listen to excerpts from Acts I and III of Wozzeck. Berg's use of atonality in Wozzeck is unique and is placed alongside and integrated with other musical elements to form a texture that (at times) is anything but atonal. Berg uses marches, Debussyan harmonies, a folk-like song, Mahlerian melody and harmony - all to serve the "idea" of the opera. Thus, Berg departs from Schoenberg's 12-tone method to create music that delves into the soul of man and reveals truths and insights into man's subconscious as meaningful as the most fundamental work of Freud.

2 Peyser, Joan, The New Music, The Sense Behind the Sound, Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1971, pp. 10-11.

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