Music28 Dec 2009 08:00 am
A great deal of 20th-century music is based on the foundation that the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) laid with his two greatest innovations: dissonance and the twelve-tone scale.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the greatest composer of the classical age, was only thirty-five years old when he died. Franz Schubert, dead at thirty-one, was even younger. If Schoenberg had passed away at a similarly young age, he may have been remembered as a minor twentieth-century figure whose Gurrelieder was an impressive work in the tradition of Richard Wagner. It wasn’t until Schoenberg outlived both his Viennese predecessors that he began using his most influential techniques: atonality and the twelve-tone scale.
In the years preceding World War I, Schoenberg began to create radically new musical works, transcending what he called “every restriction of a bygone aesthetic.” His first innovation was the use of atonality. Atonality overturned the traditional relationship between “dissonance” and “consonance” in Western music. A “dissonant” chord or note is one that sounds unresolved, hanging in the air, and requires a “consonant” sound to balance it. (Imagine a conductor dramatically raising his hands near the end of a symphony, and then slowly lowering them to indicate the final, “consonant,” note.) Schoenberg ignored the distinction between consonant and dissonant sounds altogether. He declared this an “emancipation of dissonance,” still perhaps the best definition of atonality.
The twelve-tone (or “dodecaphonic”) scale is different. If atonality was a grand rejection of the Western musical tradition, the twelve-tone scale was an attempt to integrate atonality into everything that came before it. In writing a “dodecaphonic” work, a composer begins by arranging the twelve notes of the chromatic scale (C – C# – D – D# – E – F – F# – G – G# – A – Bb – B) in a non-repeating set. This forms the melody of the piece, which is repeated, inverted, reversed, and otherwise manipulated (much like the melody in a fugue). Schoenberg called this “The Method of Composing with Twelve Notes only related to one another.” It is the technique he is most famous for, but atonality had a much more lasting impact.
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