Modernism Monday: “Three Piano Pieces, No. 1,” Arnold Schoenberg


So, March 31st was a weird day in history.  Let’s review:

– 1774: The port of Boston, Massachusetts, closed pursuant to a decree from the British Parliament, known, handily, as the Boston Port Act.

– 1909: Construction began on the Titanic, and Serbia accepted Austrian control of Bosnia and Herzegovina (good one, guys).

– 1913: The Vienna Concert Society rioted during the performance of new music by, among others, Arnold Schoenberg.

Let’s hear why they might have rioted.

It’s pretty unfriendly music, by which I mean it has no melody, discernible rhythmic structure, or emotional base.  If someone asked you to hum a bit of this to help them remember how it goes, you’d be really hard pressed to do so.  It’s the musical equivalent of those modernist pieces of art in galleries that have caused millions of people to say out loud, “seriously?!  could have painted that.

And yet.

Schoenberg wrote this piece in 1909.  Only about twenty years prior, in 1888, Erik Satie wrote his delightful “Gymnopedies.”  In 1890, Claude Debussy wrote “Clair de Lune.”  All of a sudden, classical music took a sharp lefthand turn away from the easily digestible and towards the challenging and assertive.  Stravinsky wrote his famous “Firebird” (remember the piece from Fear Day – sorry – Valentine’s Day?) a year after Schoenberg wrote these three piano pieces.  All of a sudden it seemed that Western music was running away from its stolid four-square forebears as fast as possible.  And people hated it.  They walked out during opening premieres, they denounced modern composers in the press, they labeled the music degenerate.

And yet.

When I listen to Schoenberg, I hear the sounds of a world about to be thrown into the most unimaginable hell.  Five years and five months after this piece was written, the government of Austria-Hungary issued the so-called “July Ultimatum” and invaded Serbia in reaction to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.  So began World War I.  The music and art produced around that time evokes horror, sadness, and loss.  I hear Schoenberg and I see Otto Dix.  No one should want to hear such music.

"Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas," Otto Dix, 1924

“Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas,” Otto Dix, 1924

And yet.

Still it persisted – in fact, it thrived.  Schoenberg and his contemporaries wrote music that did not dictate an appropriate emotional response.  The music is purposefully murky and vague.  It reflects back to the listener whatever emotions the listener brings to the piece.  In this way, and also from a purely technical music theory perspective, Schoenberg pushed the boundaries of music so far beyond the popular comfort zone that it helped pave the way for Gershwin and Copland, Bernstein and Arvo Pärt.

I used to have a really difficult relationship with Schoenberg, and sometimes I still do.  But I am grateful for the opportunity to be challenged, to be pushed as a lover of music, and to reflect on whatever emotions his compositions evoke.  Art should challenge, it should be difficult to deal with, we should wrestle with it.  What’s the point of life, otherwise?


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