Use the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale* and consider each note just as important as any other – by combining the number 12 with a principle of democracy, equality, the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg invented at the beginning of the 20th century a new form of musical harmony. A very crude summary of what is called the Twelve-tone technique, I agree. And since this sounds rather abstract, let’s listen to Schönberg’s music, which is much less abstract. In 1927 he wrote String Quartet No. 3 Op. 30. He did not indicate any tonality, and that’s what duodecaphony is about – equal treatment for all notes. There must not be any prevalent tonality!
In his compositions Schönberg intended to replace the structure formerly provided by dominant notes leading to a specific tonality by tone rows and transformations thereof. This would lead to a compositional principle known as serialism*. And if you listen to String Quartet No. 3, you will hear such tone rows in their original form and transformed later on. What shall I say? Schönberg lived in revolutionary times, and revolutionary thinking pervaded every aspect of life: politics and economics of course, social questions and arts. Music was no exception to the rule.
Schönberg rejected central elements of bourgeois culture; his music did not intend to entertain, to praise God or to express any flowery or nostalgic emotions, but to reflect and foster man’s progress, his active movement, his way forward to transform society. Times were cruel? Then music should be cruel. Revolution was in the air? Then it was the duty of the composer to express and support this. No, Schönberg did not want please. And he did not mind if the audience did not understand his composing principles. The message was important.
Tension becomes the norm
So what is the message of String Quartet No. 3? Listen to it and observe your emotions, the direction your thoughts take. Anxiety? Tension? That’s what I sense at then beginning of the first movement, but listen to that fast played sub-theme – it keeps coming back and at some point it starts to sound familiar. Once it sounds familiar, it gives me comfort, it is no longer new, the revolutionary and therefore frightening aspect fades away. A life in dangerous times – tension becomes the norm.
The adagio starts with a melodic figure, a little sad, I could imagine a cemetery, the burial is over, people are heading home, just a few people stay behind and exchange memories about the deceased. The movement remains lyrical, but towards its end, Schönberg asks questions – pizzicato*! Or is it a statement? Perhaps. As for the third movement, called intermezzo, I cannot describe its emotional or intellectual content. Have a look at the picture that illustrates this post. I shot it while I was listening to the third movement. I was in my car, I drove by these colza fields, and in my mind the music matched the contrast between the grey sky and these radically yellow plants.
What is right? What is wrong?
The final movement starts agitated. There is a message in it, Schönberg insists on a certain idea related to the first movement. Mitchell Newman called it “light-hearted and happy” in his program notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I don’t feel that. I sense confusion: What is right, what is wrong? Schönberg has no answer except: Time will tell.
And now? I like that piece, it has been recorded by the Leipzig Streichquartett. It is stimulating, and I find it very appropriate to listen to at this specific moment of the 21st century, almost 100 years after it was written. Are we on the verge of a new social revolution? Time will tell, and until we find clarity we will have to live with uncertainty.
© Charles Thibo