RT’s juicy analyses of works from Schoenberg’s earliest period of “emancipated dissonance” are focused and compelling in their own right, but best of all – as Mark mentioned in a recent point – they challenge a certain oversimplified historiographical narrative that most of us, at one point or another, were inculcated with, namely that Schoenberg represents a clean and historically (or should I say “historicistically”) necessary break with tonality. Schoenberg’s music is “difficult to understand,” but not because his syntax is from Mars; rather, it’s the same thing we’ve been dealing with for a while now (motivic saturation) only pushed into overdrive. Because RT doesn’t concern himself with proving Schoenberg’s place as the tradition-destroyer (rather the contrary), we are left to focus on other often neglected elements of Schoenberg’s music, such as the fact that functional equality between the notes represented for the composer a musical portrayal of an explicitly spiritual notion of Oneness.
How does one really assess the perceived “difficulty” of Schoenberg’s music? Most writers – RT among them – focus on the way the composer manipulated pitch. This is understandable considering the notoriously meticulous and mathematical processes Schoenberg developed to structure pitch relationships. However, it seems that there are other factors that play just as prominent a role in the general perception of him as a “difficult” composer, factors that aren’t frequently mentioned in discussions of this “atonal” music. I’m thinking particularly of Schoenberg’s rhythmic sensibilities.
At least to my ears, it doesn’t take long for dissonance to establish a new norm while listening to the pieces RT analyzes here. At a certain point, abstruse harmonic configurations and jagged motifs lose their bite, especially when the texture is homogeneously “atonal” (indeed, in these contexts a major chord can sound as piercing, strident, and unexpected as a train whistle in the dead of night). However, it’s much harder for me ever to become acclimated to his rhythmic language. Take the opening to the Five Pieces (p. 343): the rhythms skitter across the sonic field in a herky-jerky spasm, and the whole movement is filled with starts and stops, non-intuitive accent patterns, rhythmic stabs, tempo shifts, etc. Whenever I listen to this set (and the early piano pieces RT analyzes), it’s the rhythms that I find most arresting, strange, and “difficult.”
Leonard Meyer talked about one of the major challenges in the reception of avant-garde music being a general lack of “motor empathy” in listeners. If we can’t feel the temporal ordering of the music, if rhythm fails to corral our motor energies and implant in us an understandable and physically identifiable model of movement, it’s hard to really empathize with it. Schoenberg aimed to dislocate and confound in the pieces analyzed here; indeed, it seems that he actively wanted to alienate, and rhythm worked toward this goal just as much as pitch.
But modernism is not synonymous with affronts to “motor empathy,” of course. Berg understood this well. So did Bartók, the next major non-second-Viennesese composer we meet in these pages. While getting into some gnarly harmonic territory in his music, rarely does the Hungarian venture into the sort of non-intuitive, jarring rhythmic world so typically of mature Schoenberg. Rhythm in Bartók can be very difficult, but it’s rarely “difficult.” This is one of the many factors that accounts for Bartók’s relative popularity in concert halls (I just saw Salonen conduct Bluebeard at Disney Hall a few months ago, in fact). His music is a lot easier to feel.
In fact, it’s even capable of being adapted for drum and bugle corps and performed at football stadiums:
(A Schoenberg field-show for drum corps is inconceivable, though I didn’t search YouTube for fear that I might actually find something.)