Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Musical Revoultion

1908 was a watershed year for composer Arnold Schoenberg. His wife had ran off with a painter and had a torrid summer affair. She came back to Arnold and her lover burned his paintings and committed suicide. While his wife was off on her tumultuous affair, Schoenberg put the final touches on the song cycle “The Book of the Hanging Gardens”. As the cycle progressed, tonality slipped away, chord progressions lost their roots. Dissonances remained unresolved. The Second String Quartet, finished after his wife returned, similarly took a more tonally ambiguous path.

Quietly a musical revolution had begun. By the mid 20’s, Schoenberg had created his own tonal system based on the 12 chromatic steps. Under the system known as serialism, music became harsh, dissonant, and rigid to many. To some, it was melody and sound unleashed from the bonds of tonality. To others, it was just a different leash.

Schoenberg’s musical revolution was much like a political revolution. First came the battle with the establishment, sometimes open and bloody, sometimes covert as hearts and minds were won over. Then the final victory after a long struggle. In this case was the final victory the capitulation of Stravinsky to 12 tone music??

As with many revolutions, the victorious oppressed soon become the oppressor and orthodoxy sets in. How many times have we read or even experienced the total rejection and oppression of a musical style other than serialism in schools especially in the 50s and 60s?

A revolution can end violently as it began or can slowly erode and collapse under its own weight. Some may say serialism has run its course and collapsed under its rigidity. I tend to think it still has some life in it.

I do not think the final chapter in this revolution has been written. The revolutionaries in this case have mellowed, allowed some glasnost and perestroika and note that even some of the most tonal and melodic new pieces still benefit from the liberation from strict tonality.

Maybe a new bloody era will come, maybe serialism will peter out completely. Who knows; music sure will never be the same as it was before 1908.

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