Herr Arnold Schönberg has often been described as a revolutionary in music and a leader of rebels. In an interview yesterday he denied vehemently that he was any such thing.
I asked him (writes a representative of The Observer) if he would attempt to summarise the tendencies, as he saw them, of what is loosely called “modern music,” and what he thought would be the developments in the future?
He replied that he had schooled himself not to think of these so-called “tendencies” and “directions.” “It is all very well,” he said, “for people who have nothing better to do to theorise about these generalisations, but they have no relation to the reality, no relation to music.” He denied also that he could discern any “tendency” or “direction” in his own work: true, it might be said that there were differences in style between his early works, “Gurrelieder” (written twenty years ago), which he came here to conduct, and the music he is writing now; but there again, to theorise about style and compare and contrast periods seemed to him idle and fruitless.
“I am more interested,” he said, “in the music itself – in the human being and his invention – more interested in the end than in the means.” He added that the difference between consonance and dissonance is only a matter of degrees, and that it was absurd to suggest that there was any change in principle or in fundamentals implied in the fact that composers now use more dissonances than they used to do.
“Classic” and “Romantic”
It was suggested that if there was no change in principle there was, perhaps, a change in spirit. It has been maintained by some theorists that the whole of modern art is characterised by an anti-romanticism which perhaps involves a swing back to the classic spirit …
To such suggestions, Herr Schönberg replied that this antithesis of romantic and classic was unreal and unhelpful. You might call his “Gurrelieder” romantic and some of the later works the reverse of that, but it would mean nothing, or, at any rate, nothing to him. “You might as well call an airship a yellow bag: it means no more.”
One change, he said, there had been. “Early in the century, when ‘Gurrelieder’ was written, when the big cities were growing up and there was a demand for ‘big’ works to be performed in the vast new concert halls, composers were writing for the largest possible orchestra and for enormous choirs. But now, by the appearance of broadcasting and by the many other changes of recent years the conditions have been changed.
(Perhaps that is why the B.B.C. decided to broadcast the ‘Gurrelieder.’) However it may be, I and other composers are writing a good deal for smaller orchestras. That is, also, partly because when one writes in consonances it is possible to write ‘on a broad plane,’ or on a bigger scale; when one uses a greater number of dissonances there is a greater need for artistic economy, otherwise the music ceases to be comprehensible.” (The “artistic economy” means financial economy, too. Herr Schönberg had to have special music paper made to write “Gurrelieder” on!)
The Means and the End
“But is not this greater economy of which you speak, only another way of saying the music is written no longer in the romantic spirit (a spirit which leads one to get one’s effects regardless of cost), but in the classic spirit which regards economy above all things?”
“You are trying,” he replied, “to make me say something I don’t want to say. It is my first principle that the reality of music, or the meaning of music, has nothing to do with its sentiments, its expression, its sonority, nothing to do with performance or atmosphere: the one thing that matters is the proportions between the tones.
I am speaking now as a theorist. As a composer I appreciate that all these other things (which as a theorist I hold to be of no value) are essential means to the end, of which I have spoken. But I prefer to think more of the end than of the means.
Proportion is above all things. It is not, however, a matter of mathematics: it is in music, as in painting and in architecture, a thing one feels rather than a thing one understands. We say of a portrait today it is not like the sitter. What will that matter in a hundred years? Then, it will be only a question of its proportions – of its beauty.”
The Continuity of Music
“I have been all my life emphasising the continuity of all music; the resemblances of the music of today with classic music, and, if you like, romantic music. I hold that now a dissonance is as easily comprehended as a consonance.
All that we are doing is to find more subtle proportions, and to some extent more complexity – though I hold that harmony is every day growing simpler. It was formerly held that you had to go, as it were, a long way round from a dissonance to a consonance; now you can put them side by side. There is a greater complexity, however, in this: in fugal and contrapuntal music the theme was formerly only two or three bars; now it may be a dozen or more. But there is no break in tradition – music is always the same. When you try to make these antitheses and comparisons, it is as though you started a discussion by saying, ‘Well, the sun does go round the earth after all, doesn’t it?’”
The Observer (January 29, 1928)
Wednesday, May 22nd
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