Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) 

From the National Post, January 14, 2008

This year marks the centenary of monosodium glutamate, drip coffee makers, the FBI and — most importantly — atonality as we know it.

In 1908, Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg led the classical tradition away from its audience, changing the world with music not in any key and of no commercial value. He put music before audiences, both literally and figuratively, and in doing so created some of Western culture’s best music while gutting classical’s contemporary significance.

Schoenberg started writing compositions as a child in the 1880s, studying Bach and Mozart passionately. And though none of his family was artistic, his music began demonstrating genius, soon blending the sounds of those romantic antipodes, Brahms and Wagner.

In the late 19th century, European opinion was primarily divided between these two composers. Brahms was a supposed reactionary who nonetheless wrote the first pieces that were completely thematic, wherein every bit of the score was related to the main melody. Wagner’s blatantly progressive, extended tonalities seemed too delicate to support Brahms’ tight melodic weaves.

Nonetheless, Schoenberg put them together in his 1899 Transfigured Night, when he was just 25. It wasn’t merely beautiful, sophisticated music; this half-hour string sextet was wise and heart-wrenching, on par with the best of Mahler or Richard Strauss.

Schoenberg didn’t just want to entertain; he was a culture warrior who said things like, “I have discovered a technique that will guarantee German music’s supremacy for the next thousand years.”

At the turn of the century, most serious artists in Vienna were confronting psychoanalysis by looking inward.

Painters were on the front lines of new ideas back then, and Schoenberg was active in this art as well. He and cutting-edge younger Viennese visual artists like Egon Shiele and Oskar Kokoschka were interested in the bald psychological stresses hinted at on the canvases of Klimt, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. Bodies and landscapes could now be legitimately, hideously rendered if the artist was revealing truth, the same way clenched hands betray the lie behind a smile. This style was dubbed expressionism, pulling the romantic pose inside out.

Schoenberg’s view of musical history allowed for a similar inversion. It ran something like this: from Mozart to Mahler, classical music became more and more dissonant, with more chromatic (or “wrong”) notes in it, so that it was more indirect overall with each generation. The handling of chromatic notes was critical to a composer’s unique sound. Schoenberg concluded that since wrong notes were coming more and more into the foreground of compositions, that they were music’s progressive impetus.

But the public was uninterested in difficult music. Schoenberg barely supported his family as a conductor. Critics were childishly toxic, writing clever cruelties like “Transfigured Night sounds similar to Tristan and Isolde if the ink were smeared across Wagner’s score.” By today’s standards, these dissonances are no more offensive than one of Danny Elfman’s soundtracks.

Entire article is here.