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Although I enjoy listening to, reading about and sometimes even writing on, the peripheries of classical music, I confess to not understanding the works of some of the composers I go on about; Schönberg’s music being one of those.
Clearly, this is a problem because Schoenberg’s teachings in terms of harmony and development are considered to be one of the most influential in 20th-century musical thought. Nonetheless, whereas composers have admired and responded to his ideas, they have been rejected by others,
Born in Vienna, in 1874, Schönberg’s career was uneventful until he arrived at that stage in when his experiments into discord caused hostile demonstrations in the concert rooms of Vienna. Writing at that time, the celebrated German, modernist composer Paul Hindemith, considered Schönberg’s compositions as “decadent efforts” and even worse – “sonic orgies”. The Nazi Party (like myself, not the best enlightened in such matters) would later brand his works as degenerate, modernist and atonal.
His early works, which included simultaneously extending the traditionally opposed German Romantic styles of Brahms and Wagner, were by no means bizarre works. In them, he made no use of the atonality and polytonality that would come to characterize his later style. For those like myself who are unfamiliar with the technicalities of music; atonality is the lack of a tonal centre. Every pitch is used the same amount of times and there is no defined tonic pitch. Polytonality is when a piece has parts playing in different keys simultaneously. Schönberg became a practitioner of his ultra-modern methods only by gradual stages.
In 1909, Schönberg became more associated with the 19th-century Expressionist movement. It was during this phase he composed “Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op.16.” Their first performance took place at a Promenade Concert in London, on 4.September 1912. The programme issued for this recital described the evening as “experiments in dissonance”. The London Musical Times critic at that time wrote, “While nobody could reasonably claim that he had not been fairly warned, almost everybody seemed bewildered, if not shocked, at the degree which Schönberg had carried his protest against all preconceived notions of music and harmony.” Although not shocked by his music, I confess to being bewildered.
Much of Schoenberg’s later career was occupied with the effort to replace and popularize traditional Western tonality, which I find intimidating to hear and I dislike the starkness in many of his works. Over the years I have taken time to listen to different recordings of Five Pieces in the hope of understanding him better. As I write this piece I am hearing it, (my thanks to Youtube) with Volodymyr Runchak conducting the Academic symphony orchestra of Kharkiv Philharmonic and I still cannot come to grips with it.
Schönberg enthusiasts will surely not appreciate my lack of appreciation. Music, classical or whichever variety, is a difficult and complex subject to write about. It requires a deep knowledge of the topic, which I certainly do not claim to possess. I am simply expressing my view, bearing in mind the old maxim that sometimes “a little knowledge is dangerous”.
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