ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Contemporary Era

1900 A.D. to present

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

What was happening was a result of the disintegration of tonality, the musical force that had held sway over Western music since the 17th century. Just as Beethoven had seemed to erect towering and intimidating monuments that could never be surpassed, Wagner stymied his followers with the daring of his harmonic language. Stretched to its breaking point by Wagner and his immediate followers, such as Richard Strauss and the early works of Arnold Schoenberg, tonality had reached a point beyond which no composer could go without stepping outside the boundaries of tonality altogether.

That was precisely what the “Second Viennese School” did. Comprising Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his two pupils Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1883-1945), the Second Viennese School (as opposed to the “First” Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) represented some of the first conscious attempts to do away with tonality and replace it with an entirely new principle of composition.

Listen to Webern: Quartet Op. 22, 2nd Movement

In their revolutionary “12-tone” system, every note of the chromatic scale had equal stature; there was no “tonic,” no single key that dominated a musical movement.

Tonality was a very strong tradition to buck—it had been around for over three centuries, and it represented the way most people had grown up listening to music. To make sure that a composer didn’t lapse into some free-form adaptation of tonality, strict 12-tone composition required the use of all 12 chromatic pitches in succession before any could be repeated. Tone rows could be turned upside-down (“inverted”), played backward (“retrograde”) or both (“retrograde inversion”) and then combined in all their various configurations. The “serialization” technique could extend to other elements of the piece besides pitches—some works have instrumentation or dynamic patterns prescribed by a pre-determined pattern.

The result was something that was intellectually intriguing but difficult to hear, and by and large the new style of music met considerable audience resistance, as did many of the other subsequent developments that sought to address the question of where music was going. As acquaintance with non-Western music clearly demonstrates, tonality is not the only means of organizing a composition; other systems could be constructed, but being new, they required a great deal of effort from an audience that was finding itself with more and more musical alternatives.

Composers were challenged with each new piece they wrote to create a unique system of organization for their sounds. It was as if authors felt compelled to write not only in a new dialect, but in a completely new language, and that the reading public had to learn a new language for every new book they encountered.

Some of these new musical languages were deliberate reactions to other developments, or nostalgic evocations of earlier styles. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who went through numerous stylistic changes throughout his career, turned his back on the huge, lavishly orchestrated scores of his three famous ballets (The Firebird, 1910; Petrushka, 1911; and The Rite of Spring, 1913) and became identified with a type of music called “Neoclassical” or “neo-tonal.” While the elements of such music sound familiar, the way in which they are used is not—traditional chord progressions, specific musical forms, quotations from earlier pieces, a sparseness of color and instrumentation, shifting rhythms, all appear as recognizably traditional elements but in entirely new contexts in such works as L’Histoire du Soldat (1918), Pulcinella (1920) and the Symphony of Psalms (1930).

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