Intrepid Optimist

Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age

Arnold Schönberg: Atonality and Polytonality for Beginners


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”.

About bbryanthomas

Not so young man about town who, having witnessed and enjoyed life, is presently having fun, writing about those by-gone times and life in general.

3 comments on “Arnold Schönberg: Atonality and Polytonality for Beginners

  1. gunnar57hgp
    July 11, 2018

    You have written this in a manner full of sympathy.I do listen a lot to Schoenberg and I wonder if I can suggest another orchestral piece of his, opus 34 “Music to a film scene”? Rather short too.
    Or the Chamber symphony nr 2, not so common as the first chamber symphony.
    And remember, the great admirer of Schoenberg, composer Alban Berg did write an essay titled “Why is Schönberg’s music so difficult to understand?”


    • bbryanthomas
      July 11, 2018

      I hank youmost kindly for your coments. I did not know of Berg’s essay, but I certainly am interested and will try and somehow root it out. As to another picce on Schoenberg; I’ll need time, which at presnt I do not have.


      • gunnar57hgp
        July 11, 2018

        Thanks for reply.You are a master of feedback


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This entry was posted on March 13, 2018 by in Classical music, Feelings, History, Stories and tagged , , , .
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