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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)
Richard Taruskin

In later life, Schoenberg liked to say that the musical explorations that made him notorious were thrust upon him against his will. Generalizing from what he perceived to be his own experience, he made bold to assert that “Art is born of ‘I must,’ not ‘I can.’”7 There was a certain pomposity to the claim. It smacked of Hegel’s “world-historical” figure, the unconscious or unwilling servant of history’s grand design. But there was a kernel of biographical truth in it as well. It is a fact that a period of severe psychological disturbance immediately preceded Schoenberg’s most radically maximalist phase. In 1906–1907 he suffered a major depression, one of several such periods that made his creative output sporadic. (The catalogue of no other comparably productive composer includes so many unfinished works.) His wife, neglected, deserted him and their two small children for a lover, the expressionist painter Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide when she returned to Schoenberg (the composer having also seriously if briefly contemplated taking his own life).

This turbulent episode has often been singled out as the catalyst of Schoenberg’s new and radical idiom. While it may be doubted whether the composer’s emotional and marital upheavals could in themselves have furnished him with musical ideas, let alone a theory of art, the extremity and the sheer violence of the style that emerged—for many, its most compelling aspects—may well have been conditioned by the extremity and violence of the emotions for which Schoenberg now sought an expressive or confessional outlet. The specific means through which Schoenberg sought to realize these ends, however, were conditioned by his knowledge and experience as a musician.

With Schoenberg, equally important and influential as a composer and as a music theorist and pedagogue, we have a unique opportunity to compare theory with practice, particularly at this early phase of his career when he incorporated his most radical artistic ideas directly into his theoretical writings. The most important of these was the Harmonielehre (“Textbook of harmony”), which appeared in 1911 as the distillation of nine years of teaching experience, during which time his pupils had included Alban Berg (1885–1935) and Anton von Webern (1883–1945), who as composers would join Schoenberg in his quests and are now regarded as forming, with him, what amounts to an expressionist “school” (sometimes referred to as the “Second Viennese School” by those who have sought to put them in a direct line of succession from the “school” of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven).

The Harmonielehre is a basic course. It begins like any other harmony textbook with elementary instruction on major and minor scales, triads and inversions, progressions, modulations, and the like. Its final section, however, deals with what was at the time avowedly experimental material; and this concluding portion begins, very significantly, with a brief chapter, “Consonance and Dissonance,” in which that most categorical harmonic distinction is boldly relativized. The first two sentences in this chapter declare the expressionist bias of the whole book: “Art in its most primitive state is a simple imitation of nature. But it quickly becomes imitation of nature in the wider sense of this idea, that is, not merely imitation of outer but also of inner nature.”8 Schoenberg’s discussion of consonance and dissonance is actually a veiled description of his own recent music, cast artfully (and perhaps ironically recalling the Wagnerian slogans of old) as a speculation on what the future may have in store. The difference, he asserts, is only a matter of degree, not of kind. Consonance and dissonance are no more opposites than two and ten are opposites, as the frequency numbers (i.e., the measurable ratios of the overtone series) indeed show; and the expressions “consonance” and “dissonance,” insofar as they signify an antithesis, are false. It all simply depends on the growing ability of the analyzing ear to familiarize itself with the remote overtones, thereby expanding the conception of what is euphonious, suitable for art, so that it embraces the whole natural phenomenon.

What today is remote can tomorrow be close at hand; it is all a matter of whether one can get closer. And the evolution of music has followed this course: it has drawn into the stock of artistic resources more and more of the harmonic possibilities inherent in the tone.

So if I continue to use the expressions “consonance” and “dissonance,” even though they are unwarranted, I do so because there are signs that the evolution of harmony will, in a short time, prove the inadequacy of this classification.9

Dissonances, Schoenberg proposes, are simply “the more remote consonances.” It is a first step toward liberating musical thinking from convention—“from one’s taste or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge, or skill,” as Schoenberg put it to Kandinsky the same year that the Harmonielehre was published—and opening it up to “that which is inborn, instinctive.”

Schoenberg called the logical conclusion (and the practical result) toward which such thinking aimed the “emancipation of dissonance.”10 The term has excellent political “vibes,” especially when one considers that it is the composer, rather than “dissonance” itself, that is liberated by such a turn. As far as dissonance itself is concerned, it is not so much liberated as conceptually erased. (What are the implications of such erasure for listening? Is the listener liberated along with the composer? Let us repress these questions for now, on Freud’s assurance that what is repressed must inevitably return.) As the concluding chapters of the Harmonielehre confirm, the first result of the “emancipation of dissonance” is the composer’s absolution from the obligation to resolve complex harmonies into simpler ones.


(7) Schoenberg, “Problems in Teaching Art” (1911); Style and Idea, p. 365.

(8) Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, p. 18.

(9) Ibid., p. 21.

(10) The term as such appears for the first time in “Opinion or Insight?,” an essay of 1926 (Style and Idea, p. 260).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-006005.xml