Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Slouching Toward Lachenmann: Transfiguring the Night

The only person who can help poor Schoenberg now is a psychiatrist.
-Richard Strauss

"You're a slouch not to like it," he said to me one day.  "Studying ordered relationships is ultimately the best there is.  Order is everything."
-Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

When I was in high school, the curriculum included a mandatory music appreciation class.  In addition to being mandatory, the class marshaled all the worst features of classroom instruction to make its case:  a huge amphitheater of a classroom, an otherworldly teacher who wasn’t able to communicate his love of music to the class, and an approach of pure lecture with the odd bit of listening thrown in.

How it came about I don’t recall, but perhaps in desperation, the teacher decided on a student lecture, and the student he chose for this assignment was me.  My topic was the twelve-tone system, about which I knew not a whit.  I suppose he intended this as a reward to one of his few attentive students.  I accepted it as such, though I knew it wasn’t bound to increase my high school popularity quotient very much.

I took my assignment seriously.  I found out the names of the twelve-tone big three—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—and got LP records containing music composed by each.  I read up, as best I could in those pre-internet days, on what “twelve-tone” meant.  The basic rule seemed to be that you had to use all twelve notes in the chromatic scale before you repeated any one of them.

I don’t recall what pieces I listened to, but I do remember that, despite repeated attempts, I couldn’t make sense of them.  I liked the idea of having a system for writing music, though.  Sort of like the rules for a sonnet, I thought, a framework to guide you on your way.  I decided, since I didn’t understand the stuff I was hearing, maybe I’d just write one that made sense to me.  (Ah, the hubris of youth . . .)

While the class dozed and doodled, I did my best to explain what I’d learned, including some examples from LPs.  I saved the piece I’d written until the end.  To my surprise, some of my classmates awakened long enough to proclaim it genius.  My piece, they said, was so much better than those other ones.

The piece I wrote is lost to time, but I guarantee you that genius it was not.  What I’d done, as I recall, was to package those twelve tones into something like an ordinary melody.  Not entirely hummable, but more like music familiar to us all.

On that victory I rested, and that ended my travels into Twelve-Tone Land until today.  There isn’t any way, you see, to slouch toward Lachenmann, without at least trying to listen to what came before.

Arnold Schoenberg invented the twelve-tone system.  He’d been composing without any kind of system in a sort of musical free verse.  When that became too exhausting, he went in search of “a more orderly way of working,” according to Alex Ross.  Ross describes the method Schoenberg found like this:
A particular arrangement of twelve notes is called a series or row.  The idea is not to consider the row a theme in itself but to employ it as a kind of fund of notes, or, more precisely, of relationships among notes, or intervals. . . . The composer can run the row in retrograde (go backward from the last note).  Or he can use an inversion (turn it upside down).
Ross reports that, in all, there are 479,011,600 permutations available, “the factorial of twelve.”

And this isn’t exhausting?  Just thinking about all those permutations puts my mind in a twist.  Is this music or mathematics we’re talking about?  I mean, I know there’s a kinship, but, as composer Ben Johnston said (to my great relief), “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible.”

Still, I wanted at least to hear what all the fuss was about.  After all, Schoenberg’s music inspired at least one Wassily Kandinsky painting.  He taught a lot of composers, too, including John Cage.  And twelve-tone music and its progeny, the Finnegans Wake of music John Metcalf spoke about, is the music many Minimalists reacted to and felt compelled to clear away.

Alex Ross comments, “The early works of Schoenberg always come as a pleasant shock to listeners expecting a grueling atonal exercise.”  My own experience bears that out:  Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht) is a piece I actually enjoy.  Ross is on target also when he writes that “Schoenberg’s early atonal music is not all sound and fury,” pointing to Farben, one of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, as an example to prove his point.  But as Schoenberg and his students, Berg and Webern, move further into atonality and twelve-tone music, they still leave me behind.

Last year, we ventured up to Bard to hear the final program in its summer concert series, devoted to Alban Berg.  One of the pieces on offer was the Suite from Berg’s twelve-tone opera, Lulu, mounted at the Met last season to much acclaim.  I found the music hard listening, and I marveled that the singer found her way through the thicket of disconnected notes.  But every now and then I heard something weirdly beautiful, like the haunting music of a vibraphone sounding on its own.

I don’t know whether Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern will ever make my top ten list.  On the other hand, I’ve signed up to hear Berg’s Wozzeck at the Met.  I’ve no illusions I’ll find it easy going, but I’m curious.  And it does have the virtue of being short . . .

Postcript:  The title of this post is taken from Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, sometimes translated into English as Transfigured Night.  I had originally entitled the post "Listening to the Unlistenable," but after listening to total serialism, the twelve-tone system seemed warm and cuddly by comparison (well, almost).

Post-postscript:  To learn why Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is quoted in this post, click here and scroll down.  (Or, better yet, read the whole of Alex Ross's fascinating article about "Imaginary Concerts.")
Mitsuko Uchida talks about Schoenberg's Piano Concerto:  "You must be stubborn to want to learn it."

The painting at the head of the article is Kandinsky’s Impression 3 (Concert), which was inspired by Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2.  The painting of Schoenberg is by Richard Gerstl.  The painting of Webern is by Max Oppenheimer, and the painting of Berg is by Schoenberg.

The initial quotation is from Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma, By Michael Kennedy, p. 173.  The Ross quotations are from The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, pp. 212-213, 50, and 56.  The Ben Johnston quotation is from Talking Music, by William Duckworth, at p. 153.

Listening List

Verklärte Nacht (1899)
String Quartet No. 2, 4th Movement (I feel the air of other planets) (1908)

Farben, from Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909)
Friede Auf Erden (Peace on Earth) (1911)(thanks to Mark Kerstetter at The Bricoleur for alerting me to this piece)
Three Piano Pieces, op. 11 (1909)
Piano Concerto (1942), here and here.

Wozzeck (1914-1922), three excerpts here, here, and here.
Lulu Suite (1913-1929)
Violin Concerto (1935) 


Langsamer Satz (1905)
Five Pieces for Orchestra (1913) 
Variations for Piano (1936)


  1. Hi Raining Acorns .. love your name! Also would love to know more about music - it's a mystery to me .. though maths and music are meant to go together well.

    Interesting opportunity (shock one granted!) to learn about music theory .. pity the manuscript is lost to time ..

    Thanks for the learning curve .. Hilary

  2. I QUITE liked the Schoenberg String Quartet. What a great appreciation for music you have! I am like that too--I love all kinds of music.

  3. Thanks for the playlist.

    As you know I just heard the Friede auf Erden live. I have to say, sitting waaayy up in the rafters in a sold-out auditorium, the music sounded rather thin and far away. It's very subtle music and I wished I was closer to the stage. The Maestro paired it with Beethoven's 9th, which of course sounded like COLOR and STEREO by comparison, but I love such contrasts. Afterward a member of the orchestra told me about Shoenberg's 'Pierrot Lunaire' in such glowing words that I had to check it out, and I'm enjoying that as well. There's a great website devoted to it:

    (that Oppenheimer painting is wonderful)

  4. Dear Raining Acorns,
    thank you for that inspired way to show what 12 tone music is. How sad that your own attempt got lost! (Though you are not that convinced by it now - but it would have been interesting from hearing it in these days).
    I just had to correct a word in my comment: first I wrote "from seeing it now". I am a person who "sees", Husband one who "hears". I read something and see a lot of pictures - he hears rhythm and analyzes. (I can analyze to, but from a different angle). So when long time ago he took me to a very modern concert - well, I suffered (having the ears of a bat).
    In advising students about studies, I often have the phenomenon that someone with good mathematical skills often plays music and loves philosophy (while law students often have an affinity to comedy and theatre).
    I will learn further from you, thank you. By the way, maybe the word "romanticize" is also targeting the word "verkärt"?
    I would

  5. Haha: don't know how that mysterious "I would" managed to get to the end of the text above - strange, because maybe I wouldn't - whatever it means :-) Britta

  6. From Prokofiev's 1939 article 'can there be an end to melody?' (which, by the way, he regarded as 'the most important element in music' - and by then, he'd tried it all):

    'Now imagine a short tune of say eight notes, How many different variants does that offer us? I will tell you: 25 multiplied by 25 six times..The result, I believe, is something like 6000 million possibilities...'

    and he goes on to talk about the role of rhythm, harmony and counterpoint.

    I reckon Berg was the only one of the twelve-tone boys who could write melodies with a loose adherence to the system (viz Lulu's theme). Whereas in something like Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra I wonder what the point of variations on a twelve-note row could be, since anything can be related to anything and, orchestration and rhythm apart, it all sounds the same to me...

  7. You have left me behind but I have something for you from Beloved about Wozzek

    Erich Kleiber who did the first performance of Wozzek in the 20s also did it with Covent Garden where B had the pleasure of working with the great man. B has done it many times since but remembers in particular that the orchestra found it a huge eye opener at first. It took many purely orchestral rehearsals to get anywhere at all (more than 16 he remembers) and playing the music was like hearing a foreign language or writing with the wrong hand.

    It took lot of hard work, in other words.

    But then, when it finally came to the performance, B found it the most inspiring and wonderful piece of music. Kleiber gave all of the musicians a libretto for a keepsake.

    So, go and enjoy. And tell me what you think.

  8. Hilary: Thank you for stopping by RA. Interesting to think of the correlation between music and math. That’s a big reason why I so loved Ben Johnston’s comment that “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible.” Certainly that’s true for me.

    Heidi: Music is a good thing, right? The first time I heard any of String Quartet #2, I was at the Guggenheim for a Kandinsky exhibit. I don’t often do this, but this time I used the audio guide. I’m glad I did, as that’s how I learned about the connection between the painting at the head of this post and the String Quartet. I’m not so fond of the painting, but I loved learning—and hearing—what inspired it.

    Mark: Quite the musical pairing, no question! Thanks so much for the link to Pierrot Lunaire. I’ve only heard snippets of it (my musical education is all gaps, which I’m trying bit-by-bit to fill, you see), but it’s one I hope one day to hear live. And yes, that Oppenheimer painting of Webern is particularly good, isn’t it?

    Britta: Loved both your comments! So many interesting observations you make. Modernist music could be troublesome for one with ears of a bat, though I must say that, for me, in exploring this still quite foreign musical terrain, I’ve found that live concert experiences are the best—in part, speaking of seeing, because you can see the musicians tackle the piece. Wonderful to watch. If you haven’t, and have time, to listen to and watch the youtube of Mitsuko Uchida (who, by the way, though Japanese, was raised in Germany), I think you’ll see what I mean. Just as Friko notes in her comment, for even the most expert, this music doesn’t come easily at first take. Uchida is very funny on that point. And, last not least, thank you for the alternative translation!

    David: Thank you for stopping by RA! I love your Prokofiev story (a long-time favorite composer for me). What you say about some 12-tone music rings so true to me (and even truer when one is speaking about total serialism). I see looking back at your own blog bio that you are writing a biography of Prokofiev, the first volume of which has been published by Yale University Press. I suspect that, from your research for that, you are amassing quite a treasure-trove of stories to tell.

    Friko: Between this and total serialism, please know I may be leaving myself behind as well. (From time to time, as I continue my musical explorations, I find I must let the ears recover with a dose of The Sixteen or John Metcalf or Arvo Pärt.) The story from your Beloved about learning to play Wozzeck is a great gift, something I will always treasure. Please let him know I will have it much in mind when I attend the opera. Thank you so, so much for sharing it here!

  9. Mitsuko's performance of Pierrot Lunaire with top colleagues and the riveting Barbara Sukowa, Fassbaender favourite, narrating, was one of the great concert experiences for me, and I see it's being repeated at Aldeburgh in April, so I'm going to try and go again (and hope that this time it gets recorded).

    Apart from that, I still haven't 'got' any other Schoenberg post-Gurrelieder, and Erwartung, however well done, just seems like an experiment in which I can't get involved.

  10. Very interesting piece on the 12 tone idea. I really find the link between math and music fascinating, since on one hand, music seems to be an emotional art form and math of course is very objective. But intervals and numbers definitely come into play in music as well.

    Thanks for doing all that research - just imagine what your HS report could have included had you had access to the internet~

  11. David: Well, then, that settles it. I do hope I get a chance to see/hear Pierrot Lunaire live & that you are able to in April!

    WOS: I shudder to think what that report would have included! (Of course, this post perhaps provides a clue . . .)

  12. WOS: then that makes it eye and brain music, not ear and heart music? I did have to go back and see what my pal Stephen Johnson said about an Edinburgh lecture given by Boulez when he was conducting Le marteaus sans maitre.

    A woman in the audience asked, basically, why people in general, educated concert audiences I guess, hadn't taken to late Schoenberg and the Darmstadt seriaists. Says Stephen: 'Boulez replied very equably, in his nicest Oncle Pierre tones: "Well, perhaps we did not take into account sufficiently the way music is perceived by the listener" '.

    Devastating, non? Like a deathbed confessional...

  13. I think of you composing a piece of music based on the twelve-tone system about which you knew "not a whit" and I marvel at that long-ago teenager. Little wonder then that your adult self is so good at shining a light on this wonderful world of music for those of us like me who most definitely know not a whit about it.


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