The Jesting Dodecaphonist

The persistent contrast between Schoenberg’s heavy content and its feather-light containers was perhaps the most vivid example of postwar irony to be found in all of modernist music. It gave his early twelve-tone music a crooked side that is not only useless to deny, but makes the music all the more genuinely a reflection of its time, all the more genuinely interesting, therefore, as a historical document, and all the more esthetically pleasing.   (Vol. IV, 692)

Stravinsky and Schoenberg represented two wildly divergent paths forward after the war. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t think highly of each others’ music, and the rancor over whose definition of “modernism” was the most true to history occasionally turned to outright mockery (Schoenberg referred to his competitor as “little Modernsky,” for example). Indeed, the cool and restrained neoclassicism championed by the Russian seemed miles apart from the red-hot, wild expressionism (or, to detractors, “romanticism”) of the Austrian. But in many ways the 12-tone technique was just as classicizing as Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, just as driven by the primacy of rationality over pathos, and just as fundamentally ironic in outlook.

Take the formal structures (“containers”) that characterize Schoenberg’s first full-scale 12-tone piece, Suite for Piano, Op.25. With a Präludium, Gavotte, Musette, Intermezzo, Menuett, and Gigue, we’re back in the territory of “Papa Bach’s” pedagogical keyboard works, a bizarre and incongruous fit for the extreme dissonance contained therein. (We’re also back to dance forms, which is another tasty irony considering the lack of motoric regularity in Schoenberg’s music.) As RT notes, these are patently (if not risibly) “feather-light” forms put to the service of one of the most extravagantly intellectualized compositional techniques ever devised. Why would Schoenberg, a la Stravinsky, turn back the clock to mine obsolete forms from the 18th century?

The movement titles in Op.25 are significant for a number of reasons. For one, they create a “classical” and “Apollonian” (read: rational and objective) contextual frame that assists the listener in fusing the poietic and esthetic dimensions of the music’s 12-tone underpinning. Since it’s difficult to “hear” the exacting order and mathematical elegance of a tone row, in other words, titles can belie the craggy and disruptive phenomenological surface, showing listeners that the apparent chaos is actually driven by a deep logic, the cold irrefutability of a mathematical proof. For example, imagine if “Musette” was titled, in the manner of pre-war Viennese fashion, “Manic Laugh Under a Blood Moon” – it would significantly alter how this creepy music is heard. “Musette” keeps it cool and dispassionate. (More on the poiesis/esthesis divide in another post.)

In addition – and this is a point about Schoenberg that doesn’t often seem to be discussed – the adoption of Baroque/Classical forms shows the composer poking gentle fun at his own 12-tone pretense. Take the “Menuett” movement, whose trio section unfolds in the form of a strict mirror canon. Contrapuntal exactitude is rendered absurd in an “emancipated dissonance” context, not that a listener would be able to tell anyway. This technique, which results in grotesquely jagged figuration, “shines such a garish spotlight on the contour inversion as to leave no doubt that the composer is in on the joke” (695). Or how about the “Musette” mentioned above, which references the traditional bucolic imagery of droning bagpipes with a recurring tritone (the tell-tale sign of an unreconstructed expressionist).

In on the joke, indeed.


  1. Stefan says:

    Great insight…I’ve never really thought about it in that way. The form can’t neccesarily be discerned by the listener, but the fact that he decided to label the pieces as such certainly looks backward. This does make sense when one remembers that Schoenberg thought of himself as the next in a progressive line of German/Austrian composers….Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, etc. He was simply (or not so simply) taking the dance forms of former years and “updating” them.

  2. Mark Samples says:

    Zach: I was just rereading this post now, almost five years after you wrote it. Great points–I’m going to assign the post to my music history students this term!

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