Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Day 55 "In the trenches" ("Bad blogger! Bad!" edition)

Bad blogger! Bad! NO!

Let the pressure of semester's final-third catch up with me, and slip into lazy-blogging (reactions, photos, or online quizzes) take the place of substantive posts. Digging out here today.

Yesterday in the undergrad class was Expressionism, Pierrot Lunaire, and setting up the great Schoenberg hiatus of c1917-1923, when the pressure of WWI poverty, brief spells as a draftee into the Austrian army, ill health, and (maybe) a bit of an artistic cul-de-sac led him to compose almost no new music. The simplified--but I think reasonably accurate--way we convey it to the kids is to suggest that this hiatus is a logical response on Schoenberg's part to the artistic dilemma of how to organize compositions in a post-tonal world. Over the entire course of the 19th century (and most especially in the second half), German Romantic composed had dominated the world stage with large-scale compositions whose subjective and/or programmatic intentions were conveyed through the essential narrative method of tonality: musical material begins in a "home" harmonic space, is subjected to travel to distant harmonic spaces, and then returns to that original "home" harmonic space again--but is heard anew as a result of the journey it has undergone. This essential romantic (roman-esque) and narrative model holds for most 19th-century German symphonies just as much as it does for operas--or novels, for that matter.

So you frame Schoenberg by talking about the 19th century's gradual expansion of chromaticism as an expressive and coloristic tool: Weber to Berlioz to Wagner to Liszt to Strauss, and the concomitant erosion of tonality as a structural tool. And within this you place Schoenberg's personality and sense of himself (historicist, conscious of the German tradition, desire for comprehensive and rigorous solutions), and then you present serialism--"a method of composing for 12 tones related only to one another", in other words not to either a conventional tonal organization, or even a tonal center--and you say "the remarkable thing about this guy is that not only did he diagnose the problem; e.g., 'how far can you erode tonality via chromaticism until it's totally saturated..and then what are you going to employ for organizing works in place of tonality?', and then, having diagnosed the problem, he actually found a solution. Whether you like the sound of the music that resulted from the method doesn't really matter. What's remarkable is that not only did the guy diagnose the 'total saturation' end-game and the need for an alternative solution--he actually found one."

Makes them listen to the Opus 25 pretty differently.

Below the jump: Sunset.

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

Further ruminations on Schoenberg, with your permission:

A few years ago, I played Pierrot Lunaire for some non-majors who had to make comments in their music journals. One of the more articulate students wrote "I understand that Abstract Expressionism was supposed to communicate the intensity of the subconscious and the artist's inner world, but let us leave this to the visual artists, because this song is scaring me and my dog." Of course, I laughed, but the point is, Schoenberg succeeded - the music does exactly what it was intended to do. If you felt as though you were losing your mind because some vaguely malefic celestial phenomenon was chasing you around, it would scare the crap out of you, and the soundtrack sure as hell would not sound like the Pachelbel Canon.

A student of mine made a really interesting point the other day; we were listening to some atonal stuff, and he remarked that when atonal music is used in a film soundtrack, no one thinks anything of it, because it usually is completely apropos the action on the screen; whereas, when many of those same people listen to the same stuff with no reference point, they find it objectionable. In its time, a lot of the Expressionist stuff was listened to in context, and we often do not experience it that way now. Listening to Berg's "Wozzeck" and seeing the opera are two completely different experiences. I imagine hearing Pierrot Lunaire in its original context was the same. You're not supposed to "like" it, the same way you're not supposed to "like" the Pistols' "God Save the Queen" or even "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In the case of the latter two, we didn't need the movie (the corresponding decades WERE the movie); but we are just far enough removed from Schoenberg to need a little help. We need the story, the context, and perhaps we need to be told that it's *supposed* to be emotionally exhausting; sort of like staring at Munch's "The Scream" for a couple of hours.