Emancipation of the (Rhythmic) Dissonance

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.)


  1. Bob Judd says:

    I really liked your post Zach — and have often felt that privileging pitch over rhythm in the 2nd Viennese School secondary literature needed some counterbalancing. Just as a hypothesis that needs testing: historically, might the fragmented rhythm you observe be connected with recitative (here, wordless)? Freeing texted music from a regular pulse seems to have been the innovation of the Florentine camerata. If atonal fragmented rhythm is a kind of wordless recitative, are there other ways that the music operates like recit.?

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Thanks for airing your hypothesis here, Bob. That’s a really interesting question you raise. I’m not remotely qualified to speak with authority on Schoenberg, but it does seem that he was quite sensitive to the melodic and rhythmic elements of speech (witness Sprechstimme). One wonders if this, and recit, might have played a role in his rhythmic language. If there’s any scholarship out there on this, please let us know. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Erin Maher says:

    Phantom Regiment used Verklärte Nacht in 2000 (along with Jeux, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring), but that was the only result for Schoenberg when I searched on corpsreps.com.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Ah, I though that might be the case, strange as it may be! My has the corps world gotten modernistic in the last 15 years. Remember when it was 80% jazz and pop? Thanks for hunting this down.

  3. Nathan Baker says:

    Excellent post, Zach! Even those of us who have studied (and written on) Schoenberg’s music all too often overlook the rhythmic elements in favor of focusing on the pitch material (granted, we theorists in general have a long history of exhibiting this bias when approaching MOST music–taking a seminar on periodicity in world music with Michael Tenzer and the late Steve Larson really opened my eyes to the importance of rhythmic and metrical elements in music). Granted, Schoenberg’s own writings also tend towards this bias, but I would also be very interested in learning of any connection between his interest in speech and his rhythmic choices.

    As for marching band and 20th century music, I have ALWAYS wanted to see a halftime show featuring Cage’s 4’33”, complete with aleatoric field drill (if only to enjoy the reactions of the audience members).

  4. Mark Wraith says:

    Thanks for this discussion. I want to do a study of body in C20 art music and the example of the Bartok is very interesting. I have just risked handing in an essay arguing, in part, that Schoenberg’s theatre works are difficult because of his introversion. Pierrot Lunaire is different different because being a ‘commission from and outsider’ as Taruskin puts it, and also the request of a practitioner has lent the work a measure of universal interest and the intention to engage. Neither of these aspects seem to have been important in ‘Ewartung’ or ‘Die glückliche Hand’. Schoenberg’s maximalism ‘ the most complex and far-reaching maximalism of them all’ (Dr. T. vol.4: 339), is illustrated by the over-determined staging of Die glückliche Hand and makes it almost dysfunctional as opera.

  5. g says:

    What’s the difference between difficult and “difficult”, as you put it? Your subjective preference for one type of rhythm over another hardly passes for an argument. Personally, I think the rhythm of “Five Pieces” is extraordinary, unique, and utterly compelling. (And not entirely irregular… what about No. 3, “Farben”, which is about as regular and repetitive as it gets?) Also, your argument about Schoenberg’s concepts being mathematically constructed falls totally flat because “Five Pieces” is not at all a twelve-tone work (it was composed in a “white heat” of inspiration), nor are the early piano pieces. Schoenberg was coming up with an utterly personal and expressive rhythmic concept. The “Five Pieces” is more or less EARLY Schoenberg. The “mature” Schoenberg is much more rhythmically conservative. Just take a look and you’ll see.

    Yes, much of Schoenberg’s music is dense and challenging to listen to, and some of it is un-fun and austere. But tastes aside, we still have to rise to the challenge, and attempt fine-tune our ears to his harmonic/rhythmic language. In dismissing it as being uncorrelated with physical movement, you are missing the point. The “Five Pieces” is not music to dance to. Your criticism of Schoenberg comes across, to me, as musical Philistinism…

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