EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the first part of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.
Nearly a century after Arnold Schoenberg averred it to be the future of Western art music, dodecaphony remains the single most startling turn in the history of music – any music. Its advent in 1923 was, as the late composer George Rochberg once pointed out, the only occasion in the history of any known culture that tonality – in the general sense of pitch hierarchy, not the specific signification of the major/minor system – had been denied. It is my two-fold purpose to show that 1) The denial failed, because it is an acoustic impossibility, and, more importantly, 2) The attempt at denial, and the belief system built around that attempt, corrupted the vitality and creativity of Western art music, leading to its present marginalization. Along the way, it will be necessary to expose the philosophical roots of what musicologist William Thomson has called “Schoenberg’s Error,”1 and to suggest some alternatives to that thinking.
What I have called dodecaphony is often referenced as “twelve-tone” (in the UK, “twelve-note”) music and is frequently used in tandem with the related but altogether different word, “serialism.” Schoenberg’s innovation arrived in these two different parts: Dodecaphony was the idea that all dozen tones of the chromatic scale should be employed by a composer before any were repeated, while serialism was a mode of compositional procedure in which the twelve tones were laid out in a row or series, and then manipulated formally via ages-old techniques of inverting, reversing and transposing the rows. Serial composition, in other words, was a most efficient way of ensuring that the essential aesthetic of dodecaphony – the lack of tonal implications in the relationships among pitches – was adhered to.
Here is Schoenberg, recalling in his essay, “Composition with Twelve Tones,” how he came up with his inventions:
After many unsuccessful attempts during a period of approximately twelve years, I laid the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies. I called this procedure ‘Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another.’ This method consists primarily of the constant and exclusive use of a set of twelve different tones. This means, of course, that no tone is repeated within the series and that it uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, though in a different order. It is in no way identical with the chromatic scale…..[The method involves ordering the twelve tones of the chromatic scale into a row, known as the Basic Set, and using that row and its properties exclusively throughout the composition in question.]2
The bold statement “twelve tones which are related only with one another” is the crux of the watershed that was Schoenberg’s aesthetic. By “related only with one another,” Schoenberg meant related solely by virtue of being placed in positive relation to each other; as John Cage would later explain it, tones in Schoenberg’s method (and in Cage’s) are “related” in the sense that one piece of furniture in a room is “related” to the other pieces of furniture in that room – they are all in proximity to each other. “Related” in the old tonal sense had meant related to each other hierarchically, as parts of some larger tonal scheme, precisely the thing Schoenberg was seeking to dissolve. This might better be called a “non-relationship” than a relationship; and of course, it is possible to posit non-relationships, at least in the abstract. It is possible to toy with the idea, for example, that each color exists independently of all other colors, that green and purple and orange are not part of a spectrum, but isolated phenomena, and to create a color theory based on that idea. If that were done, however, it can be assumed with relative certainty that the theory would not be taken as anything other than a fanciful “as-if.” Put forth as a universal concept, it would be denied vigorously as clearly and incontrovertibly false. Dodecaphony, by contrast, was hailed as a step forward in an inevitable progression toward a new music.
Why? How was such an aesthetic, asserted without any intellectual or empirical support, accepted as orthodoxy for decades? And why have the acoustic premises of dodecaphony, which are, as is easy to demonstrate, utterly false, never been flushed from music history? Why, in other words, are dodecaphony and the developments that followed from it considered a legitimate part of music history, instead of an aberration in need of correction? There must be some core idea at work that lends the air of being true to abstract assertions like Schoenberg’s, whatever their status in the world of empirical experience. Prior to that, though, there must exist misunderstanding, at a most fundamental level, of what is meant by some of the vocabulary attached to this discussion. Take for example, the word “chromatic.” A typical music critic’s description of dodecaphony generally assumes “chromatic” to apply. Of course, it does not. “Chromatic” has meaning only in contrast to “diatonic,” and both rely for context on the major/minor system of key centers. Music is diatonic when deployed in a particular key of seven tones – major, minor or modal – and becomes chromatic when it slides between those seven, “borrowing” pitches from other keys. When all possible pitches, diatonic and chromatic, are assembled, we have the “chromatic” scale, though in truth it is a diatonic scale (any diatonic scale, depending on where the set of twelve stops and starts) with chromatic embellishments added. What Schoenberg did was to treat the chromatic scale as independent of its origins in the diatonic scale, to employ the twelve tones merely “as a collection of materials,” as Thomson explains it. Dodecaphony is not chromatic any more than it is diatonic. It is, strictly speaking, neutral.
The roots of dodecaphony are generally traced back to Wagner, and especially to Tristan und Isolde, which might with good reason be called the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason was a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score was a turning point in Western music, and for a similar reason. Kant’s text famously placed a limit on what we might know; the synthetic a priori meant that experience is shaped by the categories that populate our consciousness, and therefore we cannot know “the thing-in-itself.” Centuries of assumptions to the contrary were overturned, even made to look naive, by Kant’s observations. Likewise, the harmonic ambiguities of Wagner’s music revealed the foundation of the tonal system developed in Europe after the Renaissance to have been built on sand. From the late Renaissance to the middle of the 19th century, the system of major and minor keys had held the place of an absolute. Systematic tonality defined music-making with its hierarchies of pitch classes. But in the early pages of Tristan rose a chord that would become infamous as the machine of that system’s overthrow. In Harvard’s Charles Eliot Norton lectures for 1973, Leonard Bernstein dramatized the seeming anarchy created by the Tristan chord:
What key are we in? Or no key at all? Did that cadence on the dominant seventh indicate A minor? But the dominant never resolves to the A minor tonic. Instead, there is a long pause, and the phrase is repeated, higher, more intense, with the rising minor sixth now stretched, transformed to a major sixth, again ending on a dominant, but in a different key.3
Bernstein continues, astonished at every turn by Wagner’s ability to suggest multiple possible keys – or no key at all – at once. One needn’t understand the technical harmonic terms to catch the thrust of what Bernstein is saying: From the moment of Wagner’s Tristan (1868), harmonic stability can no longer be taken for granted. After Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself.” One might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.”
The reason for Wagner’s manipulation of tonal ambiguities cannot go unmentioned. Shortly after writing the libretti to the four music dramas of his Ring of the Nibelung and commencing the scoring of the first of them, Wagner read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. Never before had a composer been so directly influenced by a philosopher. Previously a committed revolutionary, Wagner now saw the world as illusory, a chimera of pain followed by extinguishment, the only conceivable moral path being that of Buddhist-like renunciation.
And so, the music for the last three of Wagner’s four Ring installments, and especially the music for his next serious music drama, Tristan und Isolde, pushed tonality in the direction of its seeming dissolution, analogue to the Schopenhaueresque theme of renunciation. What could be musically more illustrative of the illusion of material reality than the unraveling of the music itself? What could be dramatically more effective than a libretto in which the characters attempt to maintain the lie of creating a new world through political and ethical reform, while the music denies this possibility in its very nature, seeming to dissolve the world of sound through sound itself? Of course, the actual unravelling of music would not be possible. To do that literally, to eliminate music, would be, perhaps, to tell the singers and musicians to go their own way and sing and play whatever they wish (a notion to keep in mind when we trace the lineage of Wagner’s influence). No, the depiction of disillusion, the musical portrayal of abjuration, could not consist literally in the removal of music, but rather the employment of music to the end of suggesting that the real world is illusory.
There is a doubling-back here that is fascinating. In order for Wagner to sketch this portrayal of a world of illusion, it was necessary for him to employ musical skills, which were in turn assumed to be non-illusory. In other words, systematic tonal music (the only music at the time) was based on the deployment of notes in perfect hierarchical relation. By manipulating this relation so as to undermine the sense of hierarchy, by employing the sort of harmonic ambiguity related above by Bernstein, Wagner was able to suggest that the relation did not exist – that tonality, and by extension, the world of the senses, was indeed a world of illusion. But this suggestion of illusion rests in turn for its effect on tonality’s non-illusory validity! The point cannot be overemphasized: Wagner did not deny tonality in the Ring and his later operas; rather, he masterfully exploited its potential for ambiguity via extreme chromaticism, painting in music a world in which every sensible thing – including tonality, the very thing doing the painting – does not “really” exist. Little wonder that Claude Debussy called Wagner “the poisonous old magician,” and that W.H. Auden, saying the same thing with an opposite normative twist, dubbed him “the greatest genius who ever lived.”
Schoenberg was the most devoted advocate of Wagnerian extreme chromaticism. Yet he also took great exception to the formal ramifications of that innovation.4 His objection lay along the same lines as his admiration, because the very ambiguity that forged a new harmonic language had also dissolved the traditional structures of Western art music. For example, in a fugue, a subject or subjects are submitted to contrapuntal development over a series of overlapping statements in different keys. Sonata-allegro form presents an expository section that explores themes in contrasting keys, followed by a development that at length returns the themes to the main key of the piece, etc. Without stable key centers, these forms and others were rendered inchoate. Schoenberg, then, sought to impose structural norms on the new language of harmonic ambiguity. He viewed increasing harmonic ambiguity as historically determined and therefore inevitable, but the accompanying dissolution of structure could not stand for long.5 From the late 1890s through the first two decades of the 20th century, Schoenberg pushed Wagnerian harmonic ambiguities to their limit, eventually composing what is sometimes called “atonal” music, but which Schoenberg dubbed, with greater accuracy, pantonal music. Pantonality consists in the avoidance of single-tonic tonal implications altogether, as opposed to the ambiguity of Wagnerian chromaticism. The razor-thin line dividing one from another is difficult to define. It is better illustrated, ideally, by listening to Schoenberg’s major scores, from the clearly Wagnerian Verklarte Nacht (1899) to the doubtlessly pantonal Gurrelieder (1913).
Eventually, however, the ambition of avoiding single tonalities, and the mentally draining task of note-to-note decision-making that such avoidance entailed, overwhelmed Schoenberg. His solution: “He opted for Wagnerian chromaticism, but then he relentlessly adapted it to creations of Brahmsian autonomy.”6 In the final number of the four piano pieces making up his Op. 23 (1923), Schoenberg deployed the system that Theodor Adorno would call “a comprehensive principle of construction…transformed into an a priori form,”7 and that American composer George Rochberg, after first embracing and then vehemently rejecting it, would term “the pathology of the 20th century.” Borrowing from his hero Brahms the intense manipulation of short melodic motifs instead of long-lined melodies, Schoenberg struck on the idea of treating each pitch sui generis, without reference to any wider concept of “tonality.” Treated thusly, the composer could manipulate cells of notes in an abstract manner, shaping form, not from harmony, but from “objective” patterning.
This was the “Wagner” half of the undertaking. The “Brahms” half consisted of creating a structure to house this new chromatic vocabulary: the variation of the rows by transposition, inversion, and retrograde procedures; in other words, serial composition. In this way, a single row could generate 48 different twelve-tone statements for the composer to manipulate. The result was no longer simple pantonality, but anti-tonality: a sonic struggle to reverse how tones had related to each other throughout centuries of Western art music. To review how this had worked, we can conceive of each of the twelve tones in the collection of chromatic scale as capable of receiving what Thomson calls “pitch focus” to become a tonic. Therefore, each note is a tonic, or a dominant, or a subdominant, etc., depending on which note among the twelve receives pitch focus. Focus on a B-flat as tonic, and F is the dominant. Focus on the F as tonic, and B-flat becomes sub-dominant. On and on this relational interchange goes, and as the focus shifts, the same B-flat that was tonic to itself and subdominant to F becomes dominant to E-flat, a major third to G-flat, a second (the supertonic) to A-flat, etc. It is a kaleidoscope of shifting pitch relations that eventually produces twelve major and twelve minor scales. Such is the syntax of the major-minor system: the deployment of pitches in relation to each other as multiple, interlocking hierarchies. The hierarchy is fluid (giving it the inherent potential for ambiguity so brilliantly exploited by Wagner) because any of the twelve notes can “take turns” being the home pitch, or tonic; in other words, a piece may be in any one of twelve different keys (twenty-four allowing for major and minor deployments), and may change key from passage to passage, or even measure to measure.
This is how each of the twelve tones functions in tonal music – taking turns in a game of sonic hierarchy, playing roles from royalty (tonics and dominants) to peasants (neighboring chromatic tones, perhaps), complete with the possibility of revolution in the form of key changes. Taken as a whole, however, the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are just a vocabulary lacking a syntax, a syntax added only when a single note receives pitch focus and is “made party to hierarchical relationships” by this focus, as Thomson puts it. “As a construct, the chromatic scale is nothing more than a useful representation of pitch resources, a listing of ingredients,”8 lacking the tension of hierarchy that underlies the phenomenon of tonality. This is demonstrable by the fact that the chromatic scale can start on any note and the resulting scale will have the same note-to-note relationship as if one started on any other note. This is not true of the major and minor scales, for which note-to-note relationships must change as the tonic moves from one pitch to the next. Even the whole-note scale, developed to intensity by Debussy, has two possible, mutually exclusive iterations (C–D–E–F#–G#–A# or C#–D#–F–G–A–B). But the chromatic scale has only one.
This was exactly what Schoenberg sought to exploit in the idea of dodecaphony: a flat assemblage of notes without hierarchy. No more concern about which key(s) might be present, because the 12-tone row banishes all keys. No more worry about note-to-note procedure, because by avoiding all possible tonal connections in the very form of a piece, one’s path to atonality is smoothed. Manipulate the 48 possible permutations of your original twelve-tone row, and you have composed without fear of having made connections between notes, save in the positive sense that the notes are gathered in proximity to each other (“twelve tones which are related only to one another”).
But there’s an obvious problem. The same flatness of relationship that made the chromatic scale fodder for “equal” treatment of tones divorced it from syntax; indeed, the two statements – “lacking hierarchy” and “lacking syntax” – are restatements of each other. The chromatic scale, played sequentially or arranged as a row, is inherently non-syntactical, and music – all music of all cultures at all times in history to which we have access – had, until this moment in Western history, always exhibited a syntax deriving in some manner from the inherent hierarchic implications of the overtone series. This derivation was not theoretical, but practical. As Thomson writes, it came from “people opening their mouths” and singing.9 Vocal practices were later transferred to instrumental ones. To take a representative example from outside the Western tradition, the drone of the Indian sitar results from the direct observation of the acoustic fact of hierarchical pitch-relations. Six or seven of that instrument’s 17 to 20 strings are fretted, and the player plucks these to produce tones. But the remainder are free-floating strings intended to vibrate along with the pitches produced by the player. They ring in sympathy in accordance with the pitch played; in other words, when a fretted note is played, the amount of resonance exhibited by any certain string will depend on its place in the overtone hierarchy of the plucked note. If the note played is, for example, a “D” (in Western nomenclature), then any string tuned to “A” will resonate boldly, as that is the first pitch in the overtone series of “D” after other “Ds.” A string tuned to “B” will resonate less boldly, and one tuned to “E” still less so, etc. As the player moves from note to note, each individual, sympathetic string resonates at varying levels of intensity, depending on its place in the pitch hierarchy of the note played. This makes the color of the sound shift constantly as the overtone series glides from note to note, altering the hierarchy of its pattern with each change of the fundamental tone.
We must stop here to consider the difference between the two different, but related meanings of “tonality.” As we have noted, all musical cultures, prior to the advent of dodecaphony, have in some manner involved relating notes to one another in a hierarchy. Europe’s major/minor scales and India’s ragas are but two examples. Native America’s cedar flute tradition employs a minor pentatonic scale; traditional Chinese string instruments are played according to the ratios of 1/2, 1/3, 2/3, etc., ratios exactly correspondent to the overtone series. There are no exceptions. It is in this broad sense that all music (except dodecaphony, apparently) is tonal (first meaning): its practice relates in some manner to the inherent hierarchy of the overtone series. But Western musicians often use the word “tonality” to refer to the major/minor scale system that was modern Europe’s particular response to the overtone series (second meaning). This was how Schoenberg meant “tonality,” when, for example, he contrasted it to Europe’s earlier modal system of organization, which involved fewer notes and a less definite sense of the tonic pitch. (This is why medieval chant, which is modal, sounds “floating.”) Modality was tonal in the first sense, like all other music. But it was not tonal in the second sense of exhibiting major-minor scale relationships. Thomson points out that Schoenberg declared modality to be “pre-tonal” (implying the first meaning) because it lacked the diamond-hard relationship of dominant to tonic that characterizes tonality (second meaning). This conflation of tonality/first meaning with tonality/second meaning is all the more confusing because, in its first meaning, tonality allows no “pre-tonal” state; it is an always-already reality of pitched sound.
So, by abandoning tonality in the second sense of the Western major/minor system, and substituting for it a system that expressly undermined any other possible tonal connections in the first sense, Schoenberg made in essence the claim that Western tonality was the only system of tonality-in-the-first-sense that mattered. Tonality-second-sense was the only possible ultimate expression of tonality-first-sense; therefore, Schoenberg reasoned, the time had come to abandon tonality in both its meanings. The advent of serialism, far from being the liberating act its champions professed it to be, was actually a bold example of Eurocentric hubris. Schoenberg conceived of “tonality” narrowly, only in the sense of the European major/minor system, and his (seeming) innovation of dodecaphony was announced from within this system alone. A pall of cultural hegemony hangs over dodecaphony, confirmed by Schoenberg’s most infamous statement regarding his invention of it, from a letter to a friend in 1923: “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.”10 Boastfully nationalistic, the statement is also made tragically poignant by the fact of Schoenberg’s Jewish heritage, in light of the coming Holocaust.
1 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error.
2 Arnold Schoenberg, “Composition with Twelve-Tones” (1941), Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein, ed., trans. by Leo Black, Faber and Faber, 1975, p. 218.
3 Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, Harvard, 1976, p. 231.
4 William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, passim.
5 Note, as this description progresses, a dialectical triad expressed. Tonality (thesis) contains its own self-contradiction as ambiguity (atonality as antithesis), resulting in the synthesis of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony.
6 Ibid., p. 175.
7 Quoted in Stefan Muller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, Polity Press, 2005, p. 118.
8 Ibid., p. 88.
9 Ibid., p. 142.
10 Arnold Schoenberg, quoted in Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz. 1977. Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, trans. by Humphrey Searle. Schirmer Books, p.277.