On Wagner & Schoenberg

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 23 September 2015 | 8:05:00 pm

From: Carl E. Schorske: Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture.

The nineteenth century saw itself generally as “a century of movement,” in which “the forces of movement” challenged “the forces of order.” Such was the case in music, too. Hence it was the century of the expansion of dissonance—the medium of tonal movement—and the erosion of the fixed key, the center of tonal order. In music as elsewhere, time moved in on eternity, dynamics on statics, democracy on hierarchy, feeling on reason. Richard Wagner, who was both a political and a sexual revolutionary, became Public Enemy Number One of traditional tonality, of key. In his Tristan und Isolde, Eros returns in surging rhythms and chromatics to assert its claims against the established political and moral order of the state expressed in rigid meter and diatonic harmony. Chromatic tones—half-tones—are all of a single value, and constitute an egalitarian universe of sound. To one accustomed to the hierarchical order of tonality, such democracy is disturbing. It is the language of flux, of dissolution. Of liberty or death, depending on your point of view.



Like Richard Strauss and many another young composer of the era, Schoenberg found in Wagner a medium appropriate to his own Lebensgefühl. Always a musician of ideas, Schoenberg was inspired to his first three major works by literary texts on the favored fin-de-siècle themes of erotic affirmation and the dissolution of boundaries. The three tonal poems in praise of love asserted against the conventions of society, Verklärte Nacht (1899), Gurrelieder (1901), and Pelléas und Mélisande (1903), are truly pan-erotic period pieces. Their poets—Richard Dehmel, Jens Peter Jacobsen, and Maurice Maeterlinck, respectively—dwelt in that ambiguous neo-romantic realm where symbolism was born out of disintegrating naturalism. As these poets generally proceeded to their new communications out of the formal poetic structures of tradition, so Schoenberg, in adapting their new ideas to music, approached his task from a formal, structural base provided by his revered Brahms. But it was from his second hero, Wagner, that he found the musical means to erase boundaries in a densely textured web of ever-transforming motifs; boundaries between man and nature, psyche and environment, ethics and instinct, above all between man and woman. In their surges of liquid sound and rhythmic flux Schoenberg’s early works have the true fin-de-siècle ring, conveying the same sense of cosmic amorphousness one finds in Klimt’s “Philosophy” or in Schnitzler’s drifters borne along by nameless instinctual pressures.


Yet even as Schoenberg created a rootless world by the use of modulation-in-permanence and the expansion of chromatic elements, he did not yet break from key or even from the obligations of sonata form. He showed in Verklärte Nacht that, as he said, the “impassable gulf [between Brahms and Wagner] was no longer a problem.” On the one hand, Schoenberg constructed his sextet as a pair of sonatas that firmly reflected the structure of Dehmel’s text. On the other, he used Wagnerian harmonic devices to weaken the sense of tonal center, such as evading the dominant, which normally provides us with tonal location. Schoenberg thus created within sonata form the ambiguity of direction, sensuous flow, and uncertainty of meaning that sonata form traditionally aimed to dominate.

As he looked back on this Impressionist phase in Europe’s music and his own, Schoenberg stressed what in fact was his own special characteristic in that world of flux: the subjective, responsive element in the continuum between the “I” and the world. “The organ of the Impressionist is a … seismograph which registers the quietest movement,” he wrote in his Theory of Harmony in 1911. Because the Impressionist is tempted to follow up the slightest tremors, he becomes an explorer of the unknown. “He is drawn to the still, the scarcely audible, therefore mysterious. His curiosity is stimulated to taste what has never been tried.” To him who demands, the answer is given. It is “the tendency of the seeker to find the unheard of … in this sense, every great artist is an Impressionist: [his] refined reaction to the faintest impulse reveals to him the unheard of, the new.”32 This exploratory sensibility was not only outward-oriented; it also had subjective implications. “What counts is the capacity to hear oneself, to look deep inside oneself.… Inside, where the man of instinct begins, there, fortunately, all theory breaks down.…”This exploration—at once of his interior world and of a world of fragments not yet heard in a sonic unity—Schoenberg began in The Book of the Hanging Gardens.