Raw Material: Schoenberg

(This is the first in a series of short posts, each of which will encapsulate a single observation that will, at some future time, be assembled with others into larger and more complex arguments. To paraphrase Thurber, if you keep going long enough, it turns into a book.)

Schoenberg's contemporaries did not concern themselves with his technique but with his aesthetics. These are of course independent; we will have much more to say on that point! By the time he invented the 12-note technique, Schoenberg was already well into his own reorientation towards his own kind of neo-Classicism. Cause and effect may be impossible to separate, but a 12-tone Erwartung is unthinkable: it would have been too much trouble.

Berg asks "Why is Schoenberg's music so difficult to understand?" and takes many pages and many examples to give the simple answer: because it moves too fast. The rest is trying to make a virtue out of a defect; and the argument does not necessarily transfer to any other work besides the one that Berg was looking at. The point is that music may be either too legible or not legible enough. The badness of the first has been obvious since the Middle Ages; the badness of the second had, unfortunately, to be discovered over and over again.