The Second Viennese School – open door or blind alley?

As part of their Breaking Free season on Radio 3, on Essential Classics I’m presenting, on weekday mornings, the complete run of Schoenberg string quartets, from the Dvorakian D major of Schoenberg’s youth to the gnarled but often beautiful last quartet, a serial masterpiece rarely heard. But has the 12-tone method had its day, now that the new ‘melodic’ phase seems to have taken over? What nowadays constitutes a listening challenge? Is dissonance, of whatever kind, a bar or a stimulant? Please discuss.

14 thoughts on “The Second Viennese School – open door or blind alley?

  1. Rob,

    Re: ‘melodic’ phase. Today is one of the few times in history that so-called ‘classical’ music and so-called ‘pop’ music have entered the same sphere. ‘Pop’ music could have taken a different turn after West Side Story (1948-1963) i. e. more chromatic generally, more ‘theme’-based, even bi-tonal (Bernstein, Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson) but the Beatles came along and took it back to its innocence before developing it in terms of chords, formats, ‘parody aspect’ and a brand new sonic element (backwards sounds, speeding up and slowing down tapes, phasing, general sonics).

    Now we have this awful – ‘four-chord retentive phase’, not the four chords of yore: C-Am-F-G i. e. ‘cadential’ but Am-C-G-F (Adele, Coldplay et al) which is very related to Part and Glass etc… it’s on every TV commercial we see. It’s now! It’s incredibly boring and monotonous. There is literally nothing to occupy us whatsoever within that. But … it’s kinda ‘bleak’ and ‘cold’ – ‘cool’ – therefore ‘modern’.

    With Wagner, Mahler, into Ives, Howard Hanson, Barber – alongside Schoenberg and before Jazz we enter a kind of ‘super-harmony’ ‘stretched’ chromatic phase (Miles etc also), concluding in Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and then Stravinsky. Classical music really ends with Stravinsky, i. e. in the 1970s. So this current phase is not ‘melodic’
    (unless its kind of ‘ironic melodic’ – possibly the best description).

    ‘Melodic’ was already there. It is pop music of the 1960s and 1970s, before machine-like repetition and ‘beats’ set in. Birtwistle, Cardew, Taverner were in the shadows but should have been more a part of that ‘pop’ music culture

    Where we’re going now is anyone’s guess, not very far I would imagine, but it would be nice to get started. Tot Taylor

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s great Tot and I think the point you make about ‘ironic melodic’ is a very good one, better than my rather simplistic definition ‘melodic’. I wasn’t really thinking of the four chord retentive phrase (and its various relations), more the musical equivalent of staying tucked up by the fireside rather than venturing out to reflect the world as it is – which is what Schoenberg and his crew did with a vengeance and which, given the current state of the world, we need to do to – if not in quite the same way. I think of Ligeti, Cehra, Birtwistle, Adès, to quote just a few random (unconnected) talents. The difference between them and VS2 is the principle of law-breaking, which they happily embrace and VS2 (minus Berg) tended not to do.
      Have a very happy new year!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark Hibbs

    The question you ask has less to do with the inherent value of the music than with the environment that is required to soak up and comprehend what is offered.

    Classic standard numbers may be enjoyed by listeners who expect that their acoustic surroundings conform to the tonal world we all live in 24/7. It’s different when what is offered over the airwaves does not fit that picture but demands us to pay attention and assumes a familiarity with the harmonic universe that goes beyond the early Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

    Here in Berlin, audiences at the Berlin Philharmonic will give the first half of a concert a pass or otherwise suspend their disbelief, and simply await Sir Simon’s post-intermission renditions of Mahler, Brahms, and Richard Strauss, if what is on the first half of the programme ventures beyond pre-serial works of Vienna masters. Nota bene this is the response of perhaps a quarter of Philharmonic subscribers–a fairly elite group of listeners who know their German music. Very many of the concert-goers will embrace this music with enthusiasm.

    So it would not be reasonable to expect that casual listeners to BBC 3 will be more willing to go beyond their tonal expectations. But that should not discourage you from programming these works. There will for sure be a small number of listeners who will appreciate this music and will–more importantly–be in a quiet place that allows him or her to concentrate on what is being broadcast.

    Perhaps it would be best to prioritize programming the miniatures of Webern, so as not to encourage your casual listeners to tune out, as they may be comforted that pieces of music they don’t comprehend will be over in 3-4 minutes–!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well funny you should mention Webern Mark because that’s exactly what we’re doing next week – songs, and the string quartet works. I have always flown a flag for Webern, especially the orchestral pieces and cantatas. As a presenter it’s always a challenge to condense as much information and enticing description into as few words as possible, so that listeners forget me and pick up where I leave off. It’s a world I’m eager to share even though I take on board what ‘the other side’ says, which is what I have to do – even when I don’t agree with it. Then again you could pass me the entire day on Radio 3 and I’d have no trouble filling it with what I consider to be interesting material (both repertoire-wise and recordings-wise). Whether others would agree is quite another matter!
      Happy New Year

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Rob – I have been away and missed the Second Viennese School series, but managed to catch up through the podcasts. Fascinating, especially the short essays.

        Maybe I have missed the boat, but I have long thought that Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto would be an ideal candidate for Building a Library. It’s a challenging work, but ultimately rewarding. As well as a number of older recodings still available, there are the recent versions by Hilary Hahn, and a strong, almost analytical performance by Kolya Blacher. The leading aim of Building a Library I take to be looking at works which will yield understanding, and perhaps affection, through repeated listening. The Schoenberg Violin Concerto, I think, deserves that kind of attention.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. After more than a century of failing to persuade audiences to love this music we need to acknowledge that there may be something inherently unlovable about the whole approach. I note with relief that some of the attitudes to composition that prevailed when I was studying at the RCM in the late 70s no longer hold sway and that many younger composers are making serious efforts to reconnect with the audience that their predecessors lost by prioritising harmonic and tonal experimentation over communication.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. … or maybe other kinds of experimentation, vagely along the lines of World Music, Prog Rock and Jazz, perhaps. There is no lack of ways to experiment and communicate while keeping your artistic integrity intact.
      Best. Rob.


    2. Mark Hibbs

      I still am convinced that communication is a main route to understanding this music, particularly as long as there will be anything like a chronological or historical approach to what happened to music in the 20th century (and if the musical public’s embrace of Alex Ross is the mainstream approach, then I rest my case).

      Now, let’s imagine a fictive listener browsing through Boulez’ CD box of “Complete Webern.” If he selects Disk 5, “String Quartets and Trios,” and plays it through from start to finish, he or she will experience a great shock: First comes ten minutes of the post-Mahler-9 world of Slow Movement for String Quartet from 1904. Thereafter dead silence for 5 seconds. And then a slap in the face right from the first percussive downbeat of Five Movements (1909), and on it goes on for 15 minutes.

      At some point I assume the uninitiated listener will ask: “What the hell happened for the composer to suddenly affect this radical change within the short space of 2-3 years?” In fact that question is raised generally because never before in the history of western music did the public encountered something in the mind of a composer as abrupt as this. You could, I guess, approach this music without referring to this stunning development, but it would be fair to anticipate that the listener will ask what it was that Webern was trying to do, and to answer that question you have to begin with what he was doing before.


      1. Interesting Mark – but then again, what about Beethoven, from Op.18/1 to the Grosse fuge (where tonality is again stretched), or Stravinsky, ‘Fireworks’ prior to he Rite. There are hints in place between these phases just as there are in Webern’s finely tooled early string writing – Langsamer satz – and the severely condensed/contracted later work. I maintain that you CAN hear a sort of continuity: the voice is the same but what it says is entirely different, almost like a violent change in political direction. Submit to one and you may not like the other, but then listen more carefully and the family resemblances become clearer. At least that’s how I hear them. Best


  4. Mark Hibbs

    Rob, when I wrote that, I knew I would be putting my foot in a debate over exactly what you picked up.

    I couldn’t agree with you more that there are continuities between Langsamer Satz and the Fuenf Saetze–how could there not be?–same composer, just four years apart. I intended my slightly overdrawn remark to address the point that we three had raised in this thread about how to draw in listeners less familiar with this music to truly appreciate it and come to some kind of understanding of it. It is particularly in that context, to a new listener, that the contrast between what Webern was doing in 1909/1910 and what he did before must require some kind of explanation.

    I drew my example from a disk where the chronological little jump from 1904 to 1909 must shock a new listener. In fact more generally considered, for Webern the transformation came about even more suddenly than the disk in the Boulez box might suggest, not in four years but in as little as 12-18 months, if we consider that Op. 1 Passacaglia is dated in 1908.

    So, yes, Beethoven’s development is at issue as you say (I once played the middle section of the Grosse Fuge for someone who didn’t know much about music and she guessed that it had been composed in about 1900… so your point is well taken) but that late fugue is still a tonal work and Beethoven had travelled a long road for about two decades (late 1790s until mid-1820s) since Op. 18 before he got there.

    Regarding Stravinsky, the transition from Firebird to Le Sacre is, to my ears, less fundamental than what the Second Viennese group did in just a couple of years. Stravinsky remained profoundly committed to tonality until pretty late in his life, and while the polyrhythmic brute force of Le Sacre assured him a succes de scandale, to me its almost as if he himself was just a tad shocked at the primal forces he unleashed in that masterpiece and so he eventually took refuge in Les Noces by way of Renard and L’histoire du soldat–! But again, I somewhat provocatively overdraw here.

    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Listening to Webern’s Rilke settings this morning I suddenly realised how entirely natural the music sounded – the word painting as vivid as Britten or Debussy, and even more intense. Had you asked me years ago whether I would ever feel like that I would have answered a very definite ‘no’!
      Very best

      Liked by 1 person

  5. re: ‘Le Sacre’ and transition: always found ‘Firebird’ to be so much more interesting (and advanced) on a ‘pure music’ level. I don’t hear too much of a transition. ‘Le Sacre’ sounds overall ‘piano orientated’ -eventually someone had to write a primitive ‘symphonic piano’ thing – Stravinsky did it. It is obviously written for dancers – i. e. for movement. Firebird is essentially four or five pieces of ‘grade one’ fabric which are pure inspiration (‘in the air’) – the themes literally ‘take flight’ in several places. Likely that he had these motifs for a while. These magical sections sound fresh this morning as I check thru. You may also hear the beginnings of literal ‘serialism’ or repeats of a stick of notes which are re-harmonised then re-harmonised and stretched (in two keys, in three keys) again whereas to my ears ‘Le Sacre’ has just one (extremely big) trick going. best, Tot Taylor


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