The Review/ Feature/

Picking up the Pieces

The music director of the celebrated Against the Grain Theatre opera company considers Schoenberg, Straub-Huillet, and the dangers of "difficulty"

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by Topher Mokrzewski
Mar 8, 2017

On Sunday, March 12, the award-winning Canadian indie opera company Against the Grain Theatre will perform pieces by Claude Vivier and Arnold Schoenberg in advance of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s cinematic adaptation of Schoenberg’s opera Moses and Aaron, screening as part of TIFF Cinematheque's Straub-Huillet retrospective.

Two weeks ago, Against the Grain joined us in the TIFF Bell Lightbox atrium for a live open rehearsal of the pieces being performed. Below, you can watch the video of this unique presentation, and also read AtG musical director Topher Mokrzewski’s helpful primer on Schoenberg’s work — along with his own ambivalent reflections on the shadow that the composer has cast upon 20th- (and 21st-)century music.

These are the facts: Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was an Austrian Jewish classical composer whose life-long compositional trajectory began in the lush terrain of late-19th century Romanticism, developed (some would argue inevitably) into the dark post-tonal chaos of German expressionism, and culminated in that historic and fundamental break from the tonal bonds — which had ruled the structure and methodology of Western music composition for centuries — known as the 12-tone system.

It is no easy feat to write about the most pivotal figure in 20th-century classical music. It is an enterprise which takes one back to those not so heady days of music school, where feverish evenings were occupied in desperate attempts to write anything of consequence for the imminently due music history paper. Back when I was learning his music, it was made clear to me that Schoenberg’s importance and value was not up for debate. It was taken for granted that he was a great composer, and views to the contrary were neither encouraged nor looked upon favourably. Yet while I am fundamentally in agreement with my former professors from a historical and musical standpoint, and while I have a minor affinity for a few of Schoenberg’s works, if I am being completely honest with myself (and with you), I must make an admission. Dear reader, I must confess that I do not really care for the music of Arnold Schoenberg. And I reckon that I’m not the only one.

But let us return to that subject later. The first issue we must address is the question of what makes Schoenberg the most pivotal figure in 20th- century music.

Schoenberg began his musical career as an acolyte of the now almost universally beloved symphonist, Gustav Mahler. Mahler famously wrote that to compose a symphony was, for him, akin to the construction of a world, which is to say it was a creative act of epic proportions.


Gustav Mahler, Third Symphony

Mahler came by his grandeur honestly. The late 19th century was, musically speaking, an inferno that had been set aflame by the genius of Richard Wagner, who famously wrote lengthy operas on grand subjects to poetic prose of his own creation. His aim was to achieve the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art: Wagner believed that the unification of multiple art forms — literary, philosophical, musical, theatrical and more, all tied together with a bow in operatic form — was the only means of achieving progress in art in general.

While Wagner often wrote lengthy polemics on these (and a great many other!) subjects, it is in his musical language that we hear these principles most powerfully put into action. Wagner’s music is intensely chromatic, unstable, churning, heated; unlike much of the music from generations before, it does not adhere to strict key relationships, and the tonal boundaries (that is to say, the predominance of certain key centres) are stretched to a hitherto unparalleled degree.

Wagner’s operas shook the musical world to its very foundations, and became the inspiration for many composers who followed in his footsteps and applied his aesthetic principles to their own work. It’s thus that Mahler was to the symphony what Wagner was to opera, and both were of tremendous importance in the development of the young Schoenberg. In early works like the famous Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), we hear a Schoenberg wholly enthralled by the music of his predecessors: the harmonies are rich and complex, the character is hyper-Romantic, and the overall impression is decidedly sensual.

But the continual subverting of the dominance of tonality by ever more adventurous chromaticism came with consequences. It gradually became clear to Schoenberg (as, indeed, it probably did to Mahler as well, though he died too early to “get there”) that the very fabric of Western musical language was being torn apart. At the turn of the 20th century, and in direct response to the cultural predominance of Wagner’s work, many composers began to find alternative modes of expression and new ways in which to communicate their musical intentions. As Schoenberg began his second phase of experimentation, in atonality (music which no longer operates under the hegemony of a key centre and the regimented tonal relationships which are a by-product of that dominance), his Russian colleague Stravinsky was creating a scandal in Paris with The Rite of Spring, and Debussy and (to a lesser extent) Ravel had revolutionized French music with so-called “Impressionism.” Like Europe in general, European music was in a continuous state of flux.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the original instruments for which the score was written

A brief moment of backtracking is required here in order to shed a little more light on the musical makeup of Schoenberg, with the aim of understanding why he eventually devised the system of 12-tone composition. It’s important to note that while Wagner unquestionably dominated the music world of the late 19th century, his innovations were not developed in a vacuum. Rather, they were a response to a larger musical battle which had transpired earlier in the century, one rather dramatically dubbed the “War of the Romantics.” Wagner’s principal enemy here was Johannes Brahms, a composer who was obsessed with the historical and conceived of his own work as an extension of the tradition which he had inherited from Bach, Handel, Mozart, and most especially Beethoven.

Johannes Brahms, Second Symphony

The details of this aesthetic debate are too complex to be related here, but the mention of Brahms is nonetheless important, as Schoenberg was very much a fan of the composer — a fact which is quite interesting to note, given the polarized nature of musical discourse around this time. The fact that Schoenberg was heavily influenced by Brahms, that lover of old forms and link to the venerable stylistic past of the first Viennese school, indicates that the progressive, rule-bending tendencies he inherited from the Wagnerians was balanced by a strong desire for rigorous order and formal organization.

In the 1920s, Schoenberg — feeling the historical imperative to bring order out of atonal chaos — devised the 12-tone system. Instead of composing works in, say, the key of D major, or shimmying in the endless chromatic muck, he created a method of writing music that takes all 12 tones in the chromatic scale, renders them equal in value, and then organizes them into cells which act as building blocks upon which the composition can be structured. As he continued to develop this method, he applied ever more elaborate devices by which to treat the 12-tone cell, known as a “row” or “set.” This was a revolutionary, and complicated, new way to organize music, and it garnered Schoenberg much praise and much derision.

As far as Schoenberg was concerned, however, the 12-tone system was moving music into the future. Schoenberg later went on to mentor his own group of acolytes, who would be collectively identified under the moniker of the “Second Viennese School.” And his influence did not stop at Berg and Webern: many composers of the next generation took his basic system and ran with it, developing what is now called “serial” music. If 12-tone compositions employ collections of 12-tone segments and manipulate them, then why — so the serialists asked — could this manner of arrangement not also apply to the principles of rhythm, dynamics, or timbre? Over the coming decades, serialism became the dominant compositional force of Western classical music; it was intellectually rigorous and staunchly defended ideologically, with at times an almost religious fervency — think, for example, of Pierre Boulez.

(*Ed. note: is it mere chance that one of Straub-Huillet’s earliest supporters was *the serialist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who wrote to Straub, à propos of his divisive first short film Machorka-Muff,

“You yourself must know that you have not chosen an easy path…. What interested me above all in your film was the composition of the film-time; it is closely related to music. It is all the more astonishing that a film that is relatively taut and brief should have the courage of slow tempi, of pauses, rests…. You have let each element arrive at its own irreplaceable moment. Nothing in the film could be altered or replaced; and there is no ornamentation. ‘Everything is essential,’ as Webern said.”)

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Straub-Huillet's Moses and Aaron

The most prominent Schoenberg work featured in the Straub-Huillet retrospective is the composer’s only opera,* Moses and Aaron*, which is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Schoenberg wrote this work, which chronicles the Hebrew quest for liberation, as both an expression of his Jewish identity and a response to the rise of anti-Semitic prejudice as Nazism spread across Europe. In this regard, therefore, it is a piece which is as timely as ever, since despite a dark century of history it seems that we have not yet found our way toward universal kindness and mutual respect for one another. Like the opera itself, the work of uniting all humanity in harmony remains unfinished.

Excerpt from the Vienna State Opera’s 2006 production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron

From the same production

Though Schoenberg often expressed a desire to complete Moses and Aaron — and though he would eventually immigrate safely to the United States and live well beyond the dark decade when the piece was written — for whatever reason he never got around to it. He did, however, spend the remainder of his days composing and mentoring younger composers. More than any other composer of his era, Schoenberg’s ideas were disseminated far and wide, eventually forming the foundation upon which much of the rest of 20th-century music is built. One could even argue that he is responsible for nearly all music that followed, since even diametrically opposed styles (e.g., minimalism) were developed in direct response to the heavily intellectual, rule- and process-based organization of serialism.

Notwithstanding Schoenberg’s pre-eminence among subsequent generations of composers, however, many musicians, concertgoers and commentators (both in his own time and afterward) have expressed philosophical opposition to the overly intellectualized and rather severe approach represented by the 12-tone system and serialism. Indeed, the track upon which composers of this stripe have set forth has at times been one of conscious snobbery and anti-democratic sentiment. When the American serial composer Milton Babbitt famously penned an article entitled “Who Cares if You Listen?,” he was expressing the view of many composers who have set their sails against the winds of audience appreciation.

This is their prerogative, of course, and I’d be the last one to tout the unconditional value of populist movements, whether in music, politics, or otherwise. There is a need for complexity in music, if only to avoid banality — but it is interesting to note that Schoenberg’s place in musical history was cemented during the same time when performance and audience engagement parted ways from the broad consumption of new works. These days, despite the postmodern plethora of contradictory musical styles (some tonal and accessible, others less so), we musicians are still struggling to make the case for the value and importance of new works. It remains an uphill battle, and one that is not well-served by the elitist tone taken by certain artists who, while talented, lack empathy and the fundamental understanding that art should be created for something other than itself, and maybe even for someone other than oneself.

But this ought not to be a polemic in its own right. In the end, what is more important than my personal tastes or views on Schoenberg, his historical significance or the details of his stylistic innovations, is that you experience his work with open ears, mind and heart. This is the only sensible approach to any “new” music. That it might change your life is a prospect not totally outside the realm of possibility.

Arnold Schoenberg's Suite for Piano, Opus 25