Stylistic Development in Schoenberg’s Work
Today the question about Schoenberg is framed in very different terms than those of ten years ago. If back then it was still important to demonstrate that his work was engendered not by a capricious proclivity for experimentation but rather by the implacable force of his intention, now that Schoenberg’s individual law has been spelled out with complete clarity, it is instead needful to point out that it is not merely an individual law but is rather signalizing the free implementation of historical necessity in objective terms. Hardly anyone still talks about his futurism in the light of a technical consistency that relegates to incoherence all music that remained below the high water mark set by it. But the shockwave that emanates from Schoenberg’s music as from every form of art that undertakes to read the emergent ciphers of the changing transparencies of history with the power of incipience; the uneasiness in the presence of its clear and aggressive exactitude, the dim-witted resistance to the illumination of the material that is fulfilled in it, has survived and is searching for fresh arguments. The resistance to Schoenberg does not arise from his difficulty or solitariness or intellectuality or any other clichéd abstraction. It arises, rather, from the polemical stance that constitutes the entire mode of existence of his music as surely as it does that of Karl Kraus’s prose, that electively affined prose that passes judgment before it has uttered its first argument. The immanent aspiration of Schoenberg’s music is this: to be allowed, once it exists, to manipulate the material solely in conformity with that material’s emergence from the music’s own dialectic. Its exclusivity is not that of the private cabbala but that of the exclusion of all contemporary intentions that lie before it and that it supersedes while these intentions, as measured by its own standards, are exposed as inchoate, frangible, illusorily self-evident. “That can be done more simply,” says the smith of Die glückliche Hand—in the wordless execution of his hammer-blow resounds his verdict on the methods that are being employed alongside his own and to which his technique has curtly issued their walking papers. For all the historically significant decisions in Schoenberg’s work have been made in the theater of operations that is his technique. He has no “will to style,” as people are fond of calling it now; he does not say à la Frederick the Great in the joke, “Soldiers, I’m your Commander in Chief in the Seven Years’ War”; rather, the historical answers delivered by his music are invariably solutions to the most concrete technical problems. The evolution of the means takes place as a result of the urge to compose more correctly—of the requirement to follow the material in whichever direction it is propelling itself under its own power instead of leading the parade with stylistic compromises. In this constellation of the historical and the technical lies the true onslaught effected by his music, such that anyone who would exempt himself from the juridical force of its historical verdict is ineluctably compelled to understand that whatever he is undertaking is technically inadequate from the outset. This is the source of all the resistance: it ranges along the gamut from the inferior soul who supposes that Schoenberg wrote Erwartung so that after him motor-minded composers would no longer be able to get away with shifting about triads, which they themselves would have grown tired of over the long run, and would have to start using six-note chords, all the way up to the pathos of those who venerate him as a martyr sacrificing himself so that after he is gone everything will once again be able to go on exactly as before. It is all such resistors who must now be confronted by a demonstration of this selfsame concretion of history in technique, of this selfsame transparency of the technical to the gaze of history. The demurrals at isolated subjective capriciousness and abstractly programmatic revolutionariness on which all the arguments against Schoenberg center are refuted by Schoenberg’s genuine dialectic, wherein there supervenes a productive coalescence that naïve credulity in mere nature is all too fain to write off as abstract historicism.
That Schoenberg began with Wagner is received opinion, and the same people who accuse his most recent works of bad singularity accuse his earliest ones of epigonal dependence. The accusation takes style rather than concretion as its starting point and is therefore untenable. Even the plenitude of thematic shapes in the Gurrelieder, to say nothing of Pelleas, has nothing in common with Wagnerian sequential technique apart from its adumbration of chords, its melodic middle voices, and an admittedly good bit of its orchestral sonority. In truth even in its New-German beginnings his music is already dialectical. In the most crudely formulaic terms, it cognitively consolidates Wagner and Brahms, in the sense of effecting not a “synthesis” whose hollowness the young Schoenberg already fully saw through, but rather a transformative, authentically dialectical correction. Its critique of Brahms fulfils itself as a critique of the retrospective disposition of his harmonic means: of his diatonic system of harmony, which perforce refreshes itself via the tonality of church music and which disavows itself not only via its rich motivic-thematic relations but also and already via its spacious modulations. He confronts it with the Wagnerian chroma and above all with the qualitatively new individual chords that originate from the latter—secondary dominant seventh chords, minor ninth chords, augmented triads, and the plenitude of inversions that are still punctiliously eschewed by Brahms. On the other hand, Brahms’s consciousness of stepwise motion, which constitutes the only meaningful form of harmonic movement and which Schoenberg has firmly adhered to all the way up to his twelve-tone period, is applied as a corrective to New German chromaticism, which had undoubtedly enriched the available stock of chordal material, which had brought the harmonic totality into agreement with individualized chords, but in exchange had completely obliterated the dialectic of harmonic progression, neutralized the resistances, instituted a blank functionalism via the monarchical sovereignty of the leading tone and fifth scale degree, a functionalism that ultimately showed itself to be no longer capable of the construction of form but rather was obliged to subjugate form to the external force of the dramatic affect or to keep goading forward the undifferentiated harmony in the pseudo-movement of the sequence. All this has already been outgrown in the young Schoenberg’s works, most certainly by the op. 6 Lieder. In his chromatic harmony a distinction is drawn between strong and weak fundamental scale degrees; the place of the leading tone is taken by the cadence—but a constructive cadence that goes out of its way not to achieve the obsolete cadential effect and circumscribes that effect via the valence of its constituent chords. The sequence appears not as a transposed repetition of the same harmonic process; rather, it varies that process in the meaning of the harmonic construction; the motif of repetition begins to vanish altogether under the compulsion of a thematic variation technique which, having been engendered by Brahms’s practice in his sonata-form works, ultimately attacks that practice’s pre-planned symmetry itself; polyphony emancipates itself from the schema of the enriching accessory and is interlocked with the harmonic-thematic construction; the forms of classicism, seriously confronted with their own principles, begin to tremble; but the harmonic progress, encountering as it does the resistances that the formal construction presents to it, heats itself to an incandescence to which the secure edifice of the sonata ultimately falls victim. The fire is ignited in the sonata’s own house; only the house’s walls can fully withstand the force of the blaze. The D Minor Quartet, the Chamber Symphony [now known as the First Chamber Symphony thanks to Schoenberg’s completion of the Second Chamber Symphony in 1939 (DR)], and the F-sharp minor Quartet are the stages of the catastrophe that carries the sonata within itself in its onslaught. In the D minor quartet polyphony unfolds autonomously for the first time; the economy of thematic construction is fully realized; tonality stands firm against that economy’s attack; the adagio is that tonality’s fairest threnody. In the Chamber Symphony the attack is directed at tonality itself; its organological law is broken not only by the values of fourth-based chords and the ladder of whole tones that is constructed into a Mixolydian E major but even more so by the self-assertive law of the voices, and it is still to be found solely in the iron bracings of the work’s construction, despairingly preserved by them, but not in in its load-bearing foundation. Next the F-sharp minor Quartet, one of the most accomplished of Schoenberg’s works, comprises in its four movements a kind of monad of Schoenberg’s productive dialectic and effectuates it. The first movement surveys the formal world of chromatic-tonal construction—a world already miniaturized by its distance from the surveyor—while still remaining within the confines of that world; the second, a preview of the inferno of Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand, lets slip the latter’s demons against that world; the third engulfs the sonata entirely in the idea of radical variation and guides it through the darkest gorge of lamentation—the lamentation of human beings bereft of the consolation of form—and into the open air. The last movement answers from the great beyond, “from another planet,” in historical-cum-dialectical terms no less than expressive ones; such that this work seems to enunciate an allegory of history itself. This movement also launches Schoenberg into his period of virtuous anarchy; a period that one slanders if one denies the presence of all the form that still figures in it; for it really should go without saying that its liberty is not that of the Dadaists and that whatever part of it may survive in history is sheltered within itself as its mystery; whereas before what mattered most was exposing oneself to history’s assault and venturing forth hand in hand with history instead of heading off that assault all too prematurely. History’s dialectic also contains these epochs of Schoenberg’s work within itself. Initially the pressure that broke tonality to pieces begins to ease up; all of Schoenberg’s dialecticism is comprehensible as such a dialecticism of rigor and explosive power. The Piano Pieces renounce not only tonality and surface thematic cohesion but also elaborated polyphony and drift on the disengaged chords with eyes shut, blindly plotting out the rhythm of the process by appraising the interior of each of them individually. The George Lieder, more appurtenant to the orbit of the F-sharp minor Quartet, retain many thematic and almost tonal ties to that work, but they simplify them by dint of that penetrating critique of the ornamental that was already inaugurated by thematic economy and the dissolution of the tectonic symmetry of the old sonata form. The op. 16 Pieces for Orchestra fall back upon the developed polyphony and integrated thematic construction of the Chamber Symphony and draw them into the emancipated material. They unprecedentedly evince thematic work that is independent of the ordering principle of tonality, and by dint of their technique of variation, which does not scruple to devote its attention to the most minuscule thematic unities, they establish an ordering principle of their own; they establish this principle in their fundamental shapes, which anticipate the principle of the twelve-tone technique that was to follow them. But at the same time, the last piece, “The Obbligato Recitative,” succeeds in achieving that transparent, fluorescent and at the same time exceedingly well-contoured polyphony of principal and subsidiary voices that preeminently characterizes the succeeding groups.
In this polyphony what Hába termed the “musical style of liberty” is realized: Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand are this style’s principal works. To be sure, contrary to the neoclassicist’s description of it, this style need not be conceived of in terms of “pure destruction.” Paul Bekker and Hanns Eisler have drawn attention to the aria form of Erwartung as a succession of recitative, aria, and finale; Bekker has with particular perspicacity seen how in this monodrama the origin of opera and the conclusion of its romantic period converge in the form of the lamentos. The disenchantment of opera, the abolition of everything decorative in it, even its musically decorative semblance, has driven into the open its origin—the lament of the forsaken creature that finds its consolation under the cupola of the notes. Thus the George Lieder were already grouped around the idea of consolation; thus the libretto of Erwartung, from which Schoenberg drew inspiration, was conceived in terms of this idea, and so the stylistic form of the opera itself presents itself in such terms. But nothing would be more wrong than to descry a constant “primeval meaning” of opera in this, a meaning that once it had been accepted as a given could be arbitrarily identified in varying shapes in every historical period. A primeval meaning can never be abstracted from the historical figure of the works; rather, it is determined solely in their historicality. Thus it is not the case that the Platonic idea of consolation and lamentation underlies all of opera from Monteverdi to Schoenberg, and that variations on this idea are sung by Arianna and the nameless woman. Rather, the celestial bodies of lamentation and consolation rise over the landscape of the soul, which begins solitarily singing and whose solitude is established in song even though the respective pathways of soul and song are not mutually comparable. No archaic law of form envelops Erwartung: as it is fulfilling its own formal law, the images whose rigid eternity always remained unattainable by classical yearning genuflect to it. Hence, contrary to the fairly plausible assumption of a fairly serious conjecturable interpretation of the work, the psychology of Erwartung, the quasi-Freudian psychoanalytic unfolding of an affective moment towards the depths of its dynamic structure, is not a mere empty shell wherein the amaranthine destiny of Ariadne might be realized, a shell delineated exclusively by the painful portraiture of a godless reality. Rather, the space in which mourning and consolation meet each other today is solely the psychic inner space. Accordingly, the reduction of form in this inner space is no accident that could ever be arbitrarily corrected via a demonstration of the arioso structure. Rather, the form of the opera shapes itself out of the mutual attraction of the disparate moments and its total construction is situated in this attraction—during the period of Erwartung’s composition Schoenberg spoke of a “sex life of sounds”—instead of being imposed on it as a binding schema. This is where the rules of the operatic form meet their limits. This opera emerges out of the dispersed particles of emotional responses, particles that the musical gestures terrifyingly assimilate: it is not the a priori that imparts meaning to them. Thus it goes without saying that when Schoenberg later returns to the construction of form, this construction does not supervene as a stipulation of the structure of the whole, that it instead gleans the abovementioned particles from the interlocking texture in a kind of montage without once again having recourse to the functional organization of the harmonic complexes that is dissolved in Erwartung; that by means of the “row,” the regulative principle of the construction of form, he banishes this construction’s virtual thematic work into the particles. Vis-à-vis Erwartung, Die glückliche Hand signifies a first turn towards such construction. It takes up certain tendencies of the Five Pieces for Orchestra; even in its orchestral sonority it is the richest and fullest work that Schoenberg has ever conceived; this sonority is more unified, in its tutti it is more gracious than the chamber music-like orchestration of Erwartung, in which the instruments were massed together for only a few seconds at a time. The work’s symbolic libretto, which keeps a firm hold on the idea of lamentation and consolation even as its symbolism endeavors to guide this idea out of the vegetative inner space of the soul and concretely objectify it, may also play a part in this. To be sure, like Erwartung, Die glückliche Hand is largely athematic. But at the same time it rediscovers the idea of repetition and no longer clings to the norm of the complete uniqueness of every musical event. During its great coloristic crescendo, the interplay of motifs is sustained by constant variation; the violent music of the smith’s workshop has the contours of a fugato passage; but above all, by both musically and visually obvious means, a recapitulation is intimated, and thereby an external architecture is drafted in broad outline. The musical comprehensibility supports the symbolic expressionism of the libretto, just as, conversely, in Erwartung the insightful monodramatic course of the incommensurable music points that music along its way. Nowhere else does the current of Schoenberg’s music flow more fully and broadly than in Die glückliche Hand; nowhere else does its maelstrom draw one in to deeper depths; nowhere else do the natural drives and the illuminating power of consciousness interpenetrate each other more intimately than here.
Nevertheless, the work transcends itself. It is the turning point from which Schoenberg’s dialectic rises up as a living, feeling body to execute the judgment of history with its material. With Die glückliche Hand and, if you like, already with Erwartung, absolute subjectivity is transformed into objectivity, and is thus transformed more bindingly than would ever have been possible for the immediate objective will. The images that descending subjectivity discovers within itself are the same images that it takes control of, knowingly and cheerfully, in the end; the form in which its singular moments interconnect is the same form with which the construction embraces its elements. Thus does he arrive at twelve-tone technique. If the mutinous subjectivity of the opera fades away in the expiring notes of its diminuendo of the soul, in the Little Piano Pieces, and in “Herzgewächse,” above the silence that resigns itself to this pianissimo and that carries within itself the op. 22 Orchestral Songs and the operatic fragment Jacob’s Ladder, the most recent stratum of Schoenberg’s compositional activity is rising. To term this stratum constructivist is as inaccurate as it was to term the preceding stratum expressionistic. For in Schoenberg’s work content and construction do not constitute a duality that would permit him to accentuate the former and the latter in alternation; rather, they are dialectically bound to each other. The construction of the twelve-tone works merely applies a rational formula to the constructed elements of executed musical movement without thereby subordinating them to the vacuous fiat of a catechized ratio; the technique’s high level of consciousness is evinced by its inner technical criteria. In this technique the Schoenbergian dialectic has not yet reached its telos. If the works of incipient twelve-tone technique—the op. 23 Piano Pieces and the Serenade—preserve the freshness of improvisation in their outer formal carapace by resuming Pierrot’s playful approach to form (an approach that turns serious in their case), a new constructive stringency supervenes in the works that follow them. Their historical function is comparable to that of his three works of chamber music [i.e., I believe, Verklärte Nacht and the first two string quartets (DR)], whose construction penetrated and fractured tonality. The Piano Suite and the Wind Quintet seem to be made of steel; in the Wind Quintet the bygone and transparently fraudulent sonata is exorcised as if by means of some ineffaceable inscription. Here, on the other hand, productive anarchy slips away from him now that it is entirely sublimated and muted in play. This anarchy subsists in the material basis of the stringency; but in the [presumably op. 29 (DR)] Chamber Suite and the Third Quartet, he learns to wield it in such a fashion that the constructive compulsion of the compositional superficies is entirely stripped away, shifted indoors; and in the op. 31 Variations [for Orchestra (DR)] he wins back all the melodic freedom that the two immediately preceding works forego in their struggle for material objectification. As of now, the last station of this dialectical journey is the opera Von heute auf morgen. In this work, stringency and liberty have become genuinely and felicitously indifferent to each other. Having been fashioned out of a single twelve-tone row, in the absence of any prescribed formal character it acquiesces in the dramatic moment as only Erwartung has done before it. At the same time, it makes manifest something that at bottom is borne and consolidated by all dialectics: the image of the real human being.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2020 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Werke, Rolf Tiedemann, ed. in collaboration with Gretel Adorno, Susan Buck-Morss, and Klaus Schultz (Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1986; Directmedia: Berlin, 2003), Vol. 18, pp. 385 ff.