Music as Organic Evolution: Schoenberg's Mythic Springboard Into the Future
Published online: 1 October 1993
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374256
Although long an archetype of modern thought, biological evolution's eminent role has not always been an appropriate one: its convenience as a cover for all manner of processive change has often been abused. Arenas of thought once presumed accountable by the biological paradigm turned out to be immune to its claims. Some conditions of our universe just happen, without the blessing of an evolving chain. Chance—that agent of change lying outside the network of an evolving thing—sometimes determines the future more powerfully than orderly selection. The absence of dinosaurs in our world confirms this simple observation.
But the notion of processive teleologies is contagious, invading non-biological aspects of our lives as well. We at times explain a condition as an evolved one, when what we really mean is that it is reducible to a coherent succession in time. Casually, we squeeze our plastic paradigm to fit anything whose current state differs from a prior state, falling for what Stephen Jay Gould has called "the confusion of bookkeeping with causality."1Even more imprudent is our weakness for appropriating evolutionary templates as justifying rationales. We know evolution as a process driven by natural causes; so invoking it, we fancy, legitimizes all manner of nonsense and pain (forgetting that the moth's attraction to the flame is "natural," too.)
If our conceptualizations of evolution's ways and means are yet tentative and checkered, it's easy to imagine the less confident purchase even thoughtful people had on them at the end of the nineteenth century. By then, only a half-century had passed since publication of On the Origin of Species; Darwin was as incompletely understood in 1900 as Albert Einstein's ideas of 1915 were in 1965. Regardless, both scientists readily projected enormous influence outside their separate domains. Their insights, as understood, jostled thinking in neighboring families of discourse and seeped into the explanatory frames of wholly foreign professions. Indeed, by 1900 Darwin's driving idea, and the broad network of applications it seemed to accommodate, made it a ready butt of ridicule or a validating touchstone—depending upon one's inclination—for just about anything. It was an especially seductive idea for the manifesto-ridden arts, where change was more fervently engineered than at any other time in history. It proved to be a widely useful idea, even for those who identified sharp turns from well-travelled roads as the only route to salvation for their respective arts.
This affinity of artists and art theorists for the hypotheses of biology deserves some brief explanation. A tenuous bridge between art and natural science was provided by the organicist conception that informed evolutionary thought well before Darwin. During the eighteenth century it had become a popular model for explaining philosophical points and clarifying natural law, replacing the atomic models favored earlier.
David L. Montgomery traces this popularity of organismic processes back to its most esteemed German exponent, Johann Gottfried von Herder.2 But as he points out, its two prominent popularizers during the later eighteenth century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Jean Baptiste Robinet, transformed this rudimental biological hypothesis into virtual cosmic ontologies. Their individual scenarios were quite different, but they shared two fundamental similarities: both writers were motivated by empirical studies of others (Goethe by botanist Carl von Linnaeus's, Robinet by biologist Charles Bonnet's); and yet neither man's elaborate "theory" had a basis in reality. In fact, as Montgomery points out, credible scientists readily aired the fallaciousness of their respective conceptions.
Of course, wrong-headed axioms have rarely slowed the fervent adoption of ideas, especially when they have appeared to be useful. As for the bargain basement appeal of the organicist/evolutionary idea, Montgomery tells us that
The artists of an entire century might (and did) build madly upon a notion such as the organic connection between dissimilar phenomena, blithely unaware—or at least unconcerned—that it was a questionable concept in the first place. 3
Thinking of individual works as organisms swarming with processes of "generation," "growth," and "transformation" came as easily to literature as to music. Samuel T. Coleridge promoted such notions early in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth it was central to the New Criticism of America, a movement named as well as described in John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism (John Crowe Ransom, The New Criticism. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1941). This American outcropping was sparked by several English and American writer critics (T.S. Eliot and William Empson, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, among others). It stressed the intrinsic value of organic unity and balance, qualities presumed to be demanded for aesthetic superiority.
As for music, the concept of some sort of organic predestined growth, from what Goethe would have called Urtypen, was given a mathematical-acoustical headstart during the early eighteenth century in the treatises of Jean-Phillippe Rameau. The biological/botanical models touted during the second half of the century by Goethe and Robinet cut lasting ruts into peoples' thinking about art objects, preparing the way for an excess of what Leonard B. Meyer has tagged "covert causalism."4
In our day, critical studies in music have not lacked warnings about the seductive dangers of this hidden hypothesis. The most eloquent messenger of late has been music historian Leo Treitler. Over the past quarter-century he has several times renewed his charge that the evolutionary perspective is rooted in a flimsy agenda, for twentieth-century music as well as for the musics of past eras.5
Those biological/botanical models have nonetheless continued to feed our conventional wisdom. As Jan Levy informs us, they tend "to be used as objective description" throughout the community of critical studies in music.6 Talk of "flowering from seed" and "goal-directed growth" to "gradual transformation" and the like are common fare in fin de siècle ArtSpeak. As Levy makes clear, these "truths" are not confined to the scholarly ghetto of academia: "they seep down into the program notes of public concerts and the pages of music appreciation texts."7 And Meyer reminds us that this affinity for causal relationships, "like most deeply held cultural hypotheses, . . . has affected behavior as well as belief."8 Spelling out some concrete instances of this chronic weakness, he observes that
The origin of a composition, a technique, a form, or a genre came to be understood as shaping its end. Notions such as the "germination" or "birth," the "rise" or "development," and (ultimately) the "decline" or "death" of x (the ars nova, opera seria, tonal harmony, and so on) not only are evidence of the power of the organic model but imply that later stages of the historical process were already present in presumed beginnings.9
Meyer's final lines are critical: they remind us of what amounts to an ingenuous twist in the causal-chain metaphor, one enunciated as early as 1918 by Oswald Spengler: the object-as-organism perspective is transposed, for better or worse, to art media as wholes. As Spengler put it, " . . . we have set up the idea of the Destiny of an art, and admitted arts to be organisms of the culture, organisms which are born, ripen, age, and forever die."10 An entire art's processes and products can be thought of as constituting an organic body, its progeny extending over the ages like the successive generations of any other developing species. The ART of music, in other words, is out there in the greater world, like salamanders and fruit flies, struggling and surviving, adapting and evolving as the eons pass.
From this higher-ordered organicist way of thinking, it follows that the many parts constituting an art work will be transformed and shifted relative to one another as their separate carriers—i.e., the representatives of the species—roll off the assembly lines of the centuries. Renditions that are fittest—those best exemplifying "good art"—will survive to later eras. So if the transposed hypothesis is valid, we should be able to study a piece of music from one historical period, tracking the ways its elements and their mixtures were transformed from prior states in earlier periods. Implicit in all of this, of course, were two critical hypotheses. First was the notion of continuity, of a kind of gene-by-gene, organism-by-organism, species-by-species progression from one condition to the next, with causal relationships demonstrable at all levels. Second was the unquestioned assumption of progress, a notion that was basic to the Victorians' credo.11 So best of all, things were getting better with every new stage.
If Charles Darwin is remembered as the principal instrument of retunings for nineteenth-century biological thought, with its reliance on evolutionary process, Arnold Schoenberg enjoys a similar distinction in the pantheon of twentieth-century music. The latter drew more from the former, and, indirectly, from Goethe's and Robinet's entrenched ideas than has been acknowledged. Schoenberg's enormous influence on Western art music and its conceptual underscoring is unquestioned. For close to a hundred years his music and his ideas have stirred composers and music theorists, historians, critics, and listeners in uniquely profound ways. His ideas and pronouncements have been both compelling and intimidating for professionals and laymen alike, and they retain their force more than four decades after his death. His reliance on the paradigm of organic evolution was independently championed by many of his contemporaries, most notably by theorists Heinrich Schenker and Rudolph Reti. With their concurrent yet separate support, the continued solvency of the fundamental idea has been ensured.
Schoenberg's professional coming-of-age in late nineteenth-century Vienna coincided with the brewing of intellectual and artistic ideas that would dominate the following century. Much that we have found notable from the early gropings for direction in our age—much of what we called "modern" during the past three-quarters of a century—was planted in that city or branched from persons tightly bound to it between 1890 and 1920.
His paper trail of speculative apologia made him a prominent figure in the history of ideas as surely as in the history of music.12 Musicians perhaps know best his focus on the breakdown in tonal structure which he found in the music of 1850-1900, the abandonment of pitch hierarchy and harmonic sonance that had controlled music since about a century before Bach. This was the tonality of keys incorporating major and minor scales.
In Schoenberg's judgment, music had evolved beyond these remnants of an earlier time. His perspective was drawn from the chain of history he knew best, the golden age of German music that spanned the two centuries before him. It explained to his satisfaction where music had been, what it was. Even more cogent for his plans, it steered him in the direction of the future. He elaborately justified his own creative path, finding its causes in the general state of music, ca. 1900. In essence those causes resided in an evolutionary process, the efficient cause, in an Aristotelian sense, of the decay and death of tonality. As late as 1949 he was convinced that "this music [his own] was distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music."13
In Schoenberg's thinking, evolution existed not just as a by-product of other forces: the musical fabric was itself (when artfully woven) a playing out of its own inherent dynamics, its response to organically controlled destinies. In his Harmonielehre he describes elements in the Brahms Third Symphony that vent just this kind of part-to-part disposition. Finding significance in the mediant relationship formed by the first movement's second principal theme, Schoenberg observes causal powers at play. For him that somewhat unconventional tonal shift is
the consequence of a principal motive, of the bass melody (harmonic connection!) f- (third and fourth measures), where many repetitions, derivations, and variations finally make it necessary, as a temporal high point, for the progression f- to expand to the progression f-a (F, the initial key, A, the key of the second theme).14
This sort of organic connectedness, one event driving necessarily to its unique consequence, runs the gamut of structural levels in Schoenberg's thinking, individual work to the evolving art as a totality. In this he unwarily yielded to a frailty not unknown to biological thought: associating universal purpose with causality, as if the latter somehow reveals the necessity of the former.
Darwin contended that, given time, his mechanism of survival and adaptation, with its organisms struggling for their individual reproductive successes, could account for the whole long development from Protozoa to Homo sapiens. Schoenberg was convinced that a similar model could explain music's evolution, and, furthermore, could justify the radical changes he championed for the future. For him these conclusions followed directly from close readings of music's tracks in the past; he added only an interpretation of where the art must go next, in an effort to nudge it along its predestined path.
The data Schoenberg turned to for support of his contention was rich in quality but limited in scope. For an archeological dig, the music of a single culture (Germanic) from a two-hundred year span (ca. 1700-1900) makes a meager sampling for divining cosmic prophecies. But this was the music he knew, and he knew it exceedingly well. He seems never to have questioned its adequacy as a base for greater than local extrapolations.
What he found was a unitary evolutionary thread dominating all others. It involved music's pitch content, its steady expansion, era by era, and ways by which the enriched vocabulary was welded together into ever-new melodies and harmonies. The chief result of that expansion, in his conception, was that the hold of tonality had been eroded, its grip ultimately broken. In his mind this was a goal-directed saga, a process somehow independent of human will, yet inexplicably entwined with it. I can describe the process best as a three-stage scenario, a composite of Schoenberg's loosely narrative descriptions and a scheme that survives in today's conventional wisdom as an accurate mapping of music's history.
STAGE I: Modal scales (called Church-modes by Schoenberg), Antiquity to c. 1650: The period of Modality
STAGE II: Major and minor scales, 1650-1900: Tonality
STAGE III: Chromatic scale: Pantonality (the total chromaticism his early detractors referred to as atonality)
Schoenberg was convinced that the modes of antiquity lacked hierarchical ordering, arguing that none projected a central note of focus, or tonic, as in tonality. He allowed that such a central note may have been "felt" in modal music by Medieval and Renaissance listeners, but only in a vague and unproductive way. As he reasoned, "since no one knew which one it [the tonic] was, all of them were tried."15 But he seems to have been unsure just what he thought about the pitch metabolism of early music; some years later he came up with the quaint notion that modal music simultaneously projects both a de jure and a de facto key note, somehow still avoiding the hierarchical ordering of tonality. This amended conclusion is set forth in one of the most subtly obscure passages of all music history:
These [modes] reveal a remarkable phenomenon: the key of the underlying tonal series of which they are composed is different from the key in which the piece really exists . . . the church-modes do not at all conform to the law of tonality.16
The evolutionary process envisioned by Schoenberg was one of absorption: scales of one historical stage were gradually standardized and then transfused slowly into the scales of the next. To follow his reasoning, it helps to think of most scales as consisting of two classes of elements, nuclear notes and accessory notes, a meat and sauce division of structural functions. In adapting to new musical demands, the nuclear collection of a prevailing scale would gradually ingest into its roster what formerly were accessory notes. He knew of the practice of musica ficta, so it seemed clear to him that any mode's operational content was seven nuclear and up to three accessory notes. To him it was proof of a teleology, confirmation of early musicians' intuitive responses to music's march toward the major and minor scales of the next evolutionary stage.
He was convinced that, by around 1650 (he was understandably vague on this point), "the two principal modes used today [major and minor] were evolved out of the church-modes into a predominant position."17 And with this reduction of scale types (whose individual complements of notes were increased) came, of course, the hierarchical dominance that gave one note a unique perceptual role. In the rich metaphorical language of organic things, he explained the dynamics of this process: "The decline of the church-modes is that necessary process of decay from which sprouts the new life of the major and minor."18 But this new factor, tonality, was to be only a brief resident in the evolving Hegelian flux. Schoenberg added " . . . even if our tonality is dissolving, it already contains within it the germ of the next artistic phenomenon."19
Progress from Schoenberg's Stage II to Stage III was processively similar yet bore a new and crucial twist. Yielding to the growing prominence of the five accessory notes of the major and minor systems, Stage III sanctions full equality for all twelve notes. So a collection formerly separated into a two-class society of 7+5 is now classless, no longer encompassed within the hierarchy of tonality. In the latter sense (but only in that sense), Stage III is a twelve-note reversion to the free-for-all seven-note conditions, the modes of Stage I. At least, that's how Schoenberg saw it.
This most recent plateau of progress (Schoenberg liked to think of it as "the Democratization of Tones") was the composer's door of opportunity, albeit one loaded with dangers. Newfound freedom, he was fast to point out, brought with it the risk of anarchy (a popular word in the arts as well as in the politics of 1911). If the twelve notes enjoy equal status, then tonality, the tonal relatedness that held things together so admirably for German music's Golden Age, had become extinct. Thus it became Schoenberg's duty to concoct a new tone-glue, one to replace what had evolved away into oblivion. It is no accident, I suspect, that seers who reveal to us the inevitability of past paths frequently have ready a map for the future.
It is not clear whether Schoenberg's theory of evolutionary determinism or his turn to composing atonal music came first.20 Concept and act seem to have operated hand-in-glove, making the question moot. It is verifiable, nonetheless, that his atonal music began to appear as early as 1907-08. His first verbalization of these matters (in print, at least) came with the publication of his Harmonielehre in 1911, so the record shows only the revelation of a previously fulfilled prophecy. Whatever the chronology, he kept it no secret in 1911 that "Evolution is not finished, the peak has not been crossed."21
There is yet another facet to Schoenberg's musical renovation for which he found evolutionary cause. Although a separate issue, his demand for the "emancipation of dissonance" was causally linked to his prior notion that tonality's contract with music had expired. Just as music's pool of notes had swollen over time, another kind of additive change had taken place with harmony: the kinds of chords acceptable as "musical" (without the aid of special contrapuntal controls) had doggedly grown toward the dissonant side. The consonance/dissonance distinction in music, he concluded, is not so absolute as once thought. The traditional split of these two conditions into the separate camps of ugly/beautiful, pleasant/unpleasant, tense/resolved had been only a product of sloppy language at best, of faulty perception at worst. A more rational view, he insisted, would accept what the history of music appears to reveal: dissonance is simply a separate marking from consonance on the sonance thermometer. Hot and cold occupy the heat continuum, manifestations of the same set of thermal conditions, although they are conditions of different magnitudes, likewise dissonance and consonance. But in music, evolution, over time, shifts our sensory boiling point upward.
Again, what Schoenberg knew of music history fed his contention. A listener can wait through long stretches of Liszt's or Wagner's or Franck's music—some of it, at least—before hearing the simple major and minor chords that were the norms of sonance for Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. So the harmonic weight of "acceptable chords" seems to have increased a notch or two in west-European art music between 1775 and 1875.
But it is easy to be misled by limited samples. Such a progression isn't apparent in the longer haul of music, say music composed between 1000 and 1900. What does prevail is a series of swings from one side of the sonance fence to the other. The resounding "clashes" in music coming out of Notre Dame cathedral between 1160 and 1225, for instance, surpass anything heard in the closely chaperoned dissonances of six centuries later. And the transient note-gratings of secular and sacred music of the late Gothic—say the music of Guillaume de Machaut—make similar fleeting dissonances in the Baroque period—say those of Handel or J.S. Bach—sound tame. So even here, the synoptic kind of simple-to-complex evolution Schoenberg envisioned seems to be more conceptually convenient than real.22
There is an additional reason this idea of consonant-to-dissonant evolution has always been tempting. It seems to confirm implicitly the long-revered Pythagorean concept of determinism by numerical ratio, an idea that since its inception has endured a promising yet troubled relationship with what actually seems to happen in music. Since the series became known as a phenomenal condition, it has whetted the Pythagorean appetites of those who fancied numbers driving all things. The possibility of a complicity between numbers and music's march through the ages was not lost on Schoenberg. For him the sonic evolution had followed a gradual rise up this series of pitch-interval relationships, a trail moving from simple to complex, consonant to dissonant, good to better.
It was a persuasive scheme. Schoenberg knew well the music of only the previous two hundred years, and his hearsay conceptual knowledge of earlier music didn't conflict with what little he knew as audible fact of that repertory. This led him to another decisive conclusion, adding still more light toward the end of the evolutionary tunnel:
Dissonances are nothing else than remote consonances whose analysis gives the ear more trouble on account of their remoteness [as they lie in the harmonic series], but once analysis has made them more accessible, they will have the chance of becoming consonances just like the closer overtones.23
Or let us translate this manifesto of harmonic egalitarianism into another domain of sensory response. Let us say there is no such thing as "hot": there is only the "less cold." There is no "cold": there is only the "less hot." As Schoenberg insists, once we have a better conception of this aspect of sound, once our aural analyzing has made them more familiar, hot becomes only a warmer cold. Indeed, the very distinction itself disappears. It is disquieting to realize, of course, that, given such premises, the same might be said of the fussy distinctions we make between mushrooms and toadstools.
We must not overlook the convenience to Schoenberg's basic theoretical posture provided by this, his proclamation of the emancipation of dissonance. He had drawn the prior conclusion that music's evolution had led to the erosion and eventual obsolescence of tonality. And he recognized a confirmation of tonality in the traditionally sanctioned play between sounds of dissonance (high tension) and consonance (low tension).
As any sophomore music student knows, dissonance in music of the past calls for its resolution to a consonance, and consonant chords make susceptible focal points for a tonal center. So it follows that music freed from tonality should not—indeed, it categorically could not—retain the shackles of the consonance/dissonance polarity. In order to escape fully the gravitational pull of key, music must use chords composed exclusively of the "remote" intervals, chords less likely to impose themselves as tonal centers. His thinking was characteristically brilliant, if rooted in shaky axioms.
Let us note in passing that, aside from the questionable perceptual implications Schoenberg's claim posed for music, there is an inescapable hint here of the pleasure/pain principle. Given unremitting dissonance, it joins with the formerly consonant to yield a new harmonic consciousness. He was supplying the antithesis to tradition's axiomatic basis in consonance; a later synthesis would find simpler sounds once again in league with the less gentle kind. But the hidden Hegel in Schoenberg's conception was too frail to carry the prophecy.
Schoenberg relentlessly followed his conceptualized path. In the music he composed after 1906, the differentiating powers of harmony are essentially neutralized; one rarely hears a chord that by Bach-to-Brahms standards would not be judged irrevocably dissonant. Certainly major and minor triads, the staple chords of eighteenth-century classicism, are abandoned assiduously. Now relics, those sounds would remind us of the sounds of yesterday; they would arouse expectations no longer to be fulfilled if evolution's preordained plan be kept. Those sounds, as Schoenberg put it, would "make claims on what follows, and, retrospectively, on all that has gone before."24
Once he had reached his conclusions, Schoenberg sought a way to harness the potential tonal anarchy evolution had wrought. The rest is richly documented history. As mentioned earlier, by the time he was thirty-three he had achieved a radical break from the past in his music. In the same year Picasso painted his landmark Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Schoenberg began to write music devoid of pitch centers, music meticulously voided of the kind of pitch hierarchy that is tonality. This came to fruition between 1907 and 1908 in the finale of the Second Quartet, the two songs of Opus 14, and in songs set to texts by Stefan George, Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, Opus 15.
By 1921, when he was entering middle age, he had crossed the peak that in 1911 he had proclaimed uncrossed; he had developed his "Method of Composing With Twelve Notes" that would rock the boat of art music for the following fifty years. A product of more than just historical development, its "aesthetic and theoretical support," in his own view, "advances it from a mere technical device to the rank and importance of a scientific theory."25 Here was Schoenberg's way to order pitch, a way to ward off the specter of total musical breakdown threatened by the loss of tonality. (Glenn Gould would humorously refer to the method years later as "the legislation of atonality.")26 Schoenberg's vigilant controlling of the pitch spectrum marked the first time in history that musical composition was handmaiden to a negative processive intention, the first time the creative act took root in scrupulous negotiations of something's absence.
Schoenberg had no inkling of the intricate maneuverings his inheritors would tease from his straightforward Method when he died in 1951. As our journals and textbooks after ca. 1955 remind us, the humble one-through-twelve guidelines he had set out became seeds for the Serialism that would produce a bumper crop from segments of the world of art music, especially its academic champions, in the wake of World War II. This Second Coming would elicit entangled note mazes from those earlier precepts, aural puzzles at times accompanied by the most cabalistic verbal explications ever encountered in the art. The similarity of this phenomenon to the advent of what writer Tom Wolfe called "The Painted Word," in the art of Abstract Expressionism, is compelling.27
If that mid-century apotheosis, the epiphany of Serialism, was thought to be a part of evolution's freeway, it's fair to say that it turned out to be a dead-end exit. Serialism as a compositional practice, and the whole methodological corpus initiated by Schoenberg's fin de siècle note-searchings, had all but disappeared from the nonacademic scene by 1980 with the histrionics of a whimper. It remains largely a schoolroom curiosity today.
Did Schoenberg's time merely come and go? Or did an inherent flaw in his program predestine the rise and fall of atonality, the rescission of his Emancipation of Dissonance, the abandonment of his twelve-note method, the quiet expiration of Serialism, the miraculous resurrection of tonality?
It's hard to avoid a discussion of aesthetics here, but questions of musical value, important as they are, belong elsewhere. On the other hand, Schoenberg's verbalized ideas, his revelations and extrapolations to the future, drawn, as he claimed, from the evolving record, are quite another matter. They are important to us because they have contributed enormously to this century's received wisdom pertaining to the nature of music. Their validity and their credibility depend upon the meshing of relevant data, on the historical record, on the accumulated information we possess of human perception. On at least two of these grounds, Schoenberg proves to have been a dubious prophet. The reasons he provided for his wrenchings of the musical corpus were baseless. Perhaps his music will endure as historic proof that one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
The reader may recall that his three-stage representation of the pitch evolution, a few-to-many growth in music's raw materials, was both specific and vague. It specifically argued an era-by-era accumulation of new scale notes from non-hierarchical modes through the tonality of major and minor, and on to a predestined total chromaticism, or atonality. But the poverty of Schoenberg's data was destructive: What he vented as fact was at times secondhand speculation, at other times merely an unchallenged conventional wisdom passed on from theorists who knew no more about pre-Baroque music and its theoretical underpinnings—and much less what it sounded like—than Schoenberg. His historical information was frequently erroneous, and since he didn't know the actual music he thought of as modal, he had no option but to accept the impressionistic accountings of modality that fed nineteenth-century theories of music.28
It is not true, as he claimed, that the modes of early Christian liturgy were devoid of hierarchy. It is true that nothing quite equatable with the term tonality was used to describe the musical substance prior to the mid-nineteenth century, and for good reason: like pre-Newtonian gravity, no theoretical construct had been framed to describe a prevailing condition. Some early passages in the literature hint at this engaging kind of tonal metabolism, which emerges when a collection of tones both creates and feeds upon its larger embracing gestalt. One of the closest is in Franchino Gaffurio's Theory of Music of 1482. In speaking of how the modes impose order"—a certain harmony"—on tones, he shakes off his instilled Pythagorean blinkers long enough to marvel that
It is not an unprofitable invention to have an exquisite artificial music discovered by the manifestations of composers on diverse instruments and lyres to be contained in the same tones or modes which human ingenuity in very learned inquiries has perceived to understand, that is, a certain harmony of the [octave], assembled from all [tones], which wonderful union retains all the celebrated virtues of simultaneous harmony.29
An equally tantalizing near-miss can be found in the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems. Its author wonders why altering tuning for the mese (or "middle tone") produces greater upsets in the pitch metabolism than shifting any other scale tone. That the mese could have been the ancient Greek equivalent of a tonal center is a possibility that has not been lost on many subsequent readers. Certainly what this describes is a collection in which one tone performs a central function, the rallying point for all others.
Why is it that, if one shifts the mese, after tuning the other strings, and then plays the instrument, it is not only when the tune touches the sound of the mese that it is unpleasant and seems out of tune, but also in all the rest of the melody? If, on the other hand, one shifts the lichanos or any other note, then the difference is only apparent when one employs this particular note. This is only natural, for all the best tunes make frequent use of the mese, and all good musicians employ it frequently, and quickly revert to it, if they leave it, but not to any other note to the same extent.30
But the absence of a framed theory of tonality is hardly proof that it was not a stock perceptual condition, and well before the eighteenth century. There was no theory of linear perspective until it was "invented" in the fifteenth century by Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Massaccio. Must we assume that people before that time were not subjected to the visual conditions of a vanishing point?
What theorists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance did stress as the conditio sine qua non of any mode, as notes signifying real music, was its dependence on a pivotal note, a note more equal among equals. This note, the finalis (or final), was not defined solely by its terminal location; its role was established as well by pitch kinematics within the whole melody, rhythms (including relative durations), interior cadences, and overall high/low trajectory.
One of our principal sources of theoretical information from the tenth century, Odo of Cluny, was clear about how the mode of a melody is controlled by its final, how it furnishes an essential perspective of structure. He made explicit this determining function, saying that "unless you know the final, you cannot know where the melody ought to begin or how far it ought to ascend and descend."31 Opinion hadn't changed six centuries later. Early Renaissance theorist Pietro Aron echoes Odo's assessment when he observes that "We are for the most part accustomed to base our cognition of music on the finalis."32
Odo's and Aron's opinions in such matters were not unconventional for their times, although I must stress that discussions of modes vary enormously from century to century, writer to writer. What both of those esteemed theorists affirmed remains true for modern melody, at least of the pop-folk-communal varieties: a tune usually ends with its tonic pitch, its do. Furthermore, the identity of that note is co-dependent with the melody's ranging boundaries (its ambitus) and whether the space between those high/low boundaries is divided in one way (authentic) or another (plagal). And this is the hiearchy of tonality—the condition of pitch focus—in one simple form. The scenario can be turned around, of course, to observe that the final note, or tonic, of a melody is pretty much predetermined by the notes preceding it, by how they relate one to another. The cause/effect traffic pattern is cumulative, and it runs unalterably down a temporal one-way street.
Medieval and Renaissance musicians found principal pitches and pitch hierarchies easier to identify in their music than Schoenberg realized. Tonality didn't just emerge after an eleven-century struggle extending from Gregory I to Heinrich Schütz. Tonality, as hierarchy of pitch focus, was most likely present from the time humanity first uttered sounds meant to transcend non-aesthetic communication, when strings of sounds became music. It was a basic part of the ready-made perceptual/cognitive equipment humanity brought to the act of hearing. The claim that tonality—if the word refers to pitch hierarchy in any way—was a property acquired just before the Age of Enlightenment (after positing as fact that modal music didn't have it) is readily punctured. The words of medieval and Renaissance writers (documents Schoenberg didn't know yet flamboyantly disdained) repeatedly confirm the hierarchical format, that a single point in a given tonal landscape dominates its associates in very special ways.33
Even Schoenberg's notion that major and minor scales were the evolved progeny of medieval modes, an idea shared by many of his contemporaries, rests on unsupported inferences. Timidly refraining from the discovery of "modern" traits anywhere in earlier repertories, music historians have at times oversimplified the complexities of historical successions, casting them into overexclusive compartments that accommodated scholarly canon better than they reflected musical reality. Authenticated relics of our remote and recent past, pre-Christian through the Renaissance, reflect a history less orderly than Schoenberg's three-tiered version of Modal/Tonal/Pantonal. It's a flawed conceptualization contemporary historians find difficult to repair.
Wary of this excessive nominalism, some recent scholars have nonetheless reported untidy overlaps in the way scale systems rise and fall in the Western historical succession. As historian Richard Hoppin pointed out in his Medieval Music (1978), the injection by performers of musica ficta into their music, and especially into music best represented as of Mode 1 or 5 (later called Dorian and Lydian), would have engendered a de facto pitch content indistinguishable from that of a modern song in a minor or major key. The continuous use of just one "false note" () in a melody of Mode 5, for example, makes it a de facto "major" melody.34 And this sort of transmutation of note collections was more common, as Hoppin concurs, than theoretical descriptions of the modes might lead us to believe.
The collection of scales systematized over the centuries as the ecclesiastical modes really can't be equated, qua system, with the major/minor system used for defining pitch content in music from around 1700. Beyond the sort of scaffolding represented by their mix of finalis and their authentic or plagal division of the melodic trajectory (their species), modes provided few normative assumptions about what tone might follow which. This is the gist of Harold Powers' criticism of the kind of scalar evolution Schoenberg reported as fact, whereby Renaissance modality gradually metamorphosed into the major/minor conception of the Baroque and, later, Viennese Classicism. In fact Powers dismisses the whole evolutionary notion when so applied, saying that "any question as to how or whether 'modality' evolved into 'tonality' is therefore really a non-question, since they are of different orders."35
Besides, Schoenberg's scenario just doesn't work out as plausible, especially in view of two remarkable turns in musical style witnessed by sixteenth-century Italy. They occurred in the time period identified by Schoenberg as the shift from modality to tonality. One of these turns came in secular music. It showed up early in the century in the late madrigals of Josquin des Prés, toward the century's end in the music of Marenzio in Rome, Gesualdo in Naples, and Monteverdi in Venice. In his own way, each composer created lush textures of exceedingly chromatic sound, music that bursts the seams of any explanation based rigidly on either modality or major/minor keys. Curiously, this sensuous sonic efflorescence seems to have bypassed the ears of its immediate successors, for it fed no generalized evolution in Italy or elsewhere.
The other relevant turn in style came with some of the foremost sacred composers of the same era. As Harold Powers reminds us, composers such as Palestrina and Lasso and Andrea Gabrieli at one time became self-consciously absorbed in applying modal principles to their compositions, perhaps attempting to infuse their music with a subtle kind of symbolism from the Christian past.36 My point is that neither this attempted neo-modalism nor the concurrent outcropping of programmatic chromaticism suggests that an evolution, especially from "modes" to "keys," was in process. Indeed, both eminently suggest the contrary.
Moves to restore modes during the Renaissance (as well as later) were more salutory than substantive. The system had been developed for classifying the pitch structure of single-line melodies; it was never successful for explaining polyphonic music, despite diligent attempts to stretch its precepts that broadly. The limitation was readily recognized, theorists acknowledging it even while in the act of trying to make it work. This refractory quality was what Pietro Aron had in mind when he commented, in his Trattato of 1525, that "celebrated musicians" had abandoned all hope of explaining their music by modal rubrics, mainly because they were so "troublesome and exacting."37
This is a clue to a veritable black hole in the explicative baggage of Western theory: art music lacked any plausible covering theory for pitch structure for more than five centuries (ca. 1000 to 1550). By then, theorists (more moved by what they heard than by the ghost of a revered yet obsolete formula) began to recognize major and minor scales and other kinds of harmonic and rhythmic constellations in their music (Nicola Vicentino in his L'Antico musica ridotta all moderna prattica of 1555, Gioseffo Zarlino in his Le Istitutioni Harmoniche of 1558).
We need not be surprised to learn that a tension between concept and practice can be found in Medieval and Renaissance accounts no less often than in those by modern writers. Theories of scales, like most theoretical abstractions, fall short of describing the real musical thing. This was true when Aristoxenus (in the fourth century B.C.) and Ptolemy (in the second century A.D.) described the music they knew, and it's true of our modern attempts to cast complex and elusive sets of auditory relationships into words. When artists such as Lightnin' Hopkins or B.B. King sing the blues, attempts to encapsulate the pitches of their melodies into a single conventional heptatonic scale can yield a variety of templates, each nominally acceptable. The most common description would posit the major scale as reigning note basis. And that would be acceptably accurate, but only by the forgiving rules of scale-making. A more thorough and precise description would have to account for "blues thirds," and "blues sevenths," and all manner of latter day musica ficta that enter into their creators' productions. Scales are no more than what Paul Hindemith once called "the sterilized derivative of melody . . . not in themselves the material out of which melodies—and harmonies—are made."38 For this reason they can be misleading—or even false to the point of uselessness.
And what about the other end of the evolution question? What about Schoenberg's claim that tonality and its attendant consonant/dissonant polarity had evolved away with the expansion of pitch resources during the nineteenth century, some time after Liszt and Wagner extolled the arrival of Zukunftsmusik? Is this corroborated by the music produced by other major composers in the half-century between 1850 and 1900?
It can be, but only if we are choosy of composers, and then cautious in picking "representative works" of those selected composers as links in this alleged, evolving chain. Anxious to reveal destinies larger than life in music's stylistic progressions, twentieth century writers have on occasion generalized irresponsibly about "inexorability" and "abundance" in describing the growth of pitch resources and the allied weakening of tonality that began, in the most ambitious versions of the story, in the later music of Beethoven. Having drawn the embracing conclusion, one trots out the confirming evidence. And many chroniclers have depended excessively on the same few samples:
Liszt's 1857 Faust Symphony. Stretches of its first and third movements are indeed veritable essays in twelve-note atonality.
Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Completed in 1859, it is a monument of tonal temptation-sans-consummation, keys continually hinted at, only to dissolve with the next chord.
Richard Strauss' underscoring of Nietszche in the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), is also mentioned frequently as evidence that tonality had been outstripped by the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, one brief part, its so-called "Scientific Fugue," is as chromatic and tonally defiant as anything by Schoenberg a decade later.
These three works have been the emblems of veneration, ironclad proof that by 1857 Zukunftsmusik had arrived and that its most conspicuous ingredient was the free mixing of all twelve of the available notes. But they hardly qualify as random choices. Great music they may be, but credible representatives of what was happening in the whole of European Art music at the time they are not. Those who lean on them as capping evidence for the prosecution have rarely been pressed on this point, so they have been benignly accepted as reflections of a cosmic trend, as products of the commanding stylistic fork established during their century.
It is instructive to rummage through the couple of decades following 1865, the year of Tristan's premiere. One encounters no difficulty in turning up a treasury of works created during that period, all survivors in today's performance repertory, all still revered worldwide. But one does find a curious common thread among them: few are meritorious for their bountiful chromaticism; rarely does one stand out from the crowd because of its importunate dissonance. Measure for measure, most music of the time is less chromatic, less harmonically venturesome than some of the music of Bach or Handel (not to mention Monteverdi and Gesualdo or Josquin of some two centuries earlier). If Liszt and Wagner and Strauss were truly the leading edge of a larger evolutionary roll when they composed those three works, they alone were aware of it. As high points of the period in question, consider:
1866-71: Smetana, The Bartered Bride; Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 1; Wagner, Das Rheingold (premiere); Verdi, Aïda;
1873-75 Bruckner, Symphony No. 2; Bizet, Carmen; Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1; Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov;
1876-82: Grieg, Peer Gynt Suites Nos. 1 and 2; Brahms, Academic Festival Overture;
1884-88: Massenet, Manon; Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Franck, Symphonic Variations; Rimsky-Korskov, Scheherazade;
1890-91: Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana; Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 1 (first version); R. Strauss, Tod und Verklärung.
These works are impressive in how they do not confirm that the radical chromatic trail cleared by Liszt and Wagner during the mid-1850s still carried traffic. Compared with Tristan, even Wagner's slightly earlier Rheingold is a tame recital of diatonic platitudes. (It sits without relief on its opening chord for over 200 measures.) And Parsifal, his final music drama, composed over a decade later, is a placid Bachian chorale compared to the writhing ambiguities of Tristan.
It seems plausible to ask: Does the music of Tchaikovsky, one of the unarguable giants of the late nineteenth century, suggest that an evolution was inching along, an impersonal and irrepressible force nibbling away the tonal perquisites of a musical hierarchy? Are the compositions of our list representative of their composers? Can those composers be regarded as masters?
The staying power with professional and lay audiences enjoyed by any one of the named composers hardly suggests musical failure. This is enduring music. It was composed by individuals who were and are still revered as artists of supreme expressive power. They weren't hacks marooned in peasant villages; their arenas were Paris, Vienna, St. Petersberg, Prague, London, Berlin, Rome. They were in touch with the state of their art. They represented their musical culture, and what they created between 1850 and 1900 doesn't support an evolutionary scheme, especially one that ends up where Schoenberg thought atonality and emancipated dissonance must begin.
A curious twist of thought led Schoenberg (along with an impressive number of his successors) into a fundamental miscalculation. What was taken to be an inexorable new riverbed for the whole of music was actually a seasonal rivulet. It was a by-product of the program music that became the cause célèbre of the nineteenth century (and continues to play a dominant role in the concert and film music of today).
Program music—and the category in a broad sense embraces texted music, such as song and opera—heavy chromaticism, and "expressive dissonance" were all bankable commodities for several composers between 1850 and 1900. The former, program music, bears potential causal ties to the latter two, and there was nothing particularly avant-garde about the trio's coexistence within the same composition. After all, composer John Daniel informed us in a catchy lyric of 1606 that "chromatic tunes most like my passions sound," so musicians of the nineteenth century were merely retreading an old tire.39 As Henry Pleasants sagely observed some forty years ago, "the history of Western music betrays certain pendulum-like characteristics in the various shifts from simplicity to complexity, from complexity to simplicity."40
Wagner's Tristan uses chromaticism in its way because the particular emotions Wagner wanted his characters to endure on his stage demanded a particular underlining of musical equivocation. Liszt painted his character Faust in special colors of tonal indecisiveness because that was his way of projecting his version of the special netherworldly machinations of Lucifer himself. And Strauss turned to an unfocused pitch structure for his famous fugue in order to project an atmosphere of much ado about nothing, a satire of academic "busybodyness." It is common knowledge today that the composers' will to depict the "inner life" of human consciousness did not by mere chance coincide with their marshaling of the chromatic pitch reservoir and its proclivity for the conveniently ambiguous.
The evolution Schoenberg described and sought to sustain was more the cloth of conceptual manufacture than of empirical discovery. Having concluded, from skimpy evidence tilted by a nineteenth-century Germanic hegemony, that chromaticism was The Way, and that it got caught in its own cul de sac sometime around 1899, historians and theorists alike proceeded to enshrine only "inevitable" musical artifacts, only those that supported the canon. The Teuton bias in musicology, with its implicit yet insidious value judgments, was elaborately preserved through most of our century, as Roger Rideout has forcefully demonstrated.41
It should come as no surprise that this filtering process logged in a relentless parade of chromatic music. It ran through the heavily "accessorized" major and minor keys of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to Schoenberg's triumphal emancipation of the chromatic scale at the beginning of the twentieth. Any composition declared unfit for the academic seal of approval, even if publicly and permanently adored, had to be plucked from the certified tree, a victim of arrested development or inferior genes. Along the way, music found to be historically representative (i.e., fitting the prescriptive prophecy) was magically transformed for us into music found to be aesthetically superior. And thus one specious value judgment was piled on another. The product was an official progression running straight from the modes of Gregory the Great's plainsong to the twelve neutral notes of Second Vienna's Schoenberg. It is eerily reminiscent of critic Clement Greenberg's reading of history that rendered Abstract Expressionism no less than inevitable during the 1940s.42
This litany of an evolving music achieved a sort of apotheosis around the middle of our century in a warning enunciated by composer Milton Babbitt. In his view the whole magnificent process would cease, and with it, the living, breathing Art of music, unless the compositional persuasion lately spawned as Schoenberg's legacy (clearly an endangered species) were not folded into the world of academe, there to be canonized and protected by its resident practitioners.43
In closing, our concern for the evolutionary aspects of Schoenberg's theories dictates that we acknowledge the Lamarckian ring of his emancipation of harmony. He predicted that once those more complex higher overtones had become familiar to us an adaptation would occur, leaving us free to play in a soundworld unbounded by harmonic fences. As he told it, the period of emancipated dissonance he inaugurated was to be a mere respite of indoctrination. The imposed pain-becoming-pleasure purgatory would be a mere
step for a short period, but one . . . shown to lie along the path followed by the evolution of music, through the works of our greatly revered predecessors.44
Maybe so. But as we have seen, this is easier to confirm when one's predecessors are chosen with great care.
Schoenberg's pat scenario conceals a shaky grasp of the evolutionary process, at least in so far as it can apply to biological organisms. Even if Lamarckian assumptions of acquired characteristics were feasible for such human functions, their working out in the timetable of the evolutionary crawl—lacking an instantaneous mutation—would have required a few more millennia than Schoenberg seems to have had in mind.
The great composer's miscalculations nonetheless nudge us into recognizing something about art that seems to have eluded several prominent thinkers of the early twentieth century. The sorry fact is that if art can be said to evolve at all, it does not evolve in the simple direct and unidimensional way Schoenberg imagined. It cannot, and for at least two reasons. First, as Leonard B. Meyer has said, "Most compositions 'solve' a host of problems—that is, reconcile a variety of claims, some of which, at least, cannot be accounted for on internal grounds alone."45 Second, no art exists as a separate encompassing entity; none behaves as an organism or "container" over and beyond its family of exemplars, its contributaries linked causally in ways that can ensure uniform change. Indeed, the term "evolve" needs liberal qualifications and reservations if it is to be helpful at all in describing historical successions within an art form.
Schoenberg erred in taking the biological metaphor at face value. He fancied the Art as a totality, as a species, if you will, whose systemic changes echoed a persistent struggle upward, the musical "genes" and "organisms" themselves engaged in a battle for survival (in his mind a battle mainly against unreceptive critics), composer to composer, culture to culture, era to era. In such a scheme, the separate individual "organism" could be expected to show accumulated markings from its past, a past that would have shaped it, to a greater or lesser degree, into quite a different thing in drastic cases, to strain the metaphor, a new species.46
And let us not forget that embedded in all of this was the hopeful conviction that these ever "upward" strivings were mere steps in a larger march of progress: that which follows is somehow (and inevitably so) superior, for it is child of an unalterable, a "natural," gestation. Just as some misguided evolutionists celebrated the unbroken path that led to Homo sapiens, Schoenberg's imagined evolvings were destined to reach a still greener pasture with each upward push (such as his, early in the 20th century).47
But there is a simpler and more obvious truth: people make music. They make it in ways consistent with and complementary to the mores of human sensory processing and a prevailing culture's demands (assuming that its consumption and survival are desired). There are substantive consistencies, variances, inconsistencies, and blatant contradictions from age to age as well as within a single composer's output.48 There are artfully made works for us to see and hear and feel and reflect upon and revere, but that, ontologically, is as far as it goes. There is nothing in the practice of any art to quite compare with the conditions of genetic transmission (although there is plenty of natural selection). That's where the art/biology metaphor most conspicuously evaporates.49
Schoenberg's evolutionary perspective, along with the heavy ideological and lexical baggage travelling with it, nonetheless endures broadly today, if often covertly.50 It was especially beguiling during the early 1900s, when Darwinism was making inroads into the conceptual paraphernalia of many other disciplines. But now as then, its uncritical adoption only leads to specious theorizing.
As irony would have it, Schoenberg's actions didn't mesh with his claims for an ineluctable musical evolution. If music evolves in the random/selective way of biological species, then willful human pressure is unneeded to support or to alter the process (except in the sense that cataclysmic "outside" forces might trigger sudden and species-significant change). But Schoenberg clearly willed his conclusions into his alleged musical continuum. His intellectual myopia reminds us of Johannes Kepler, whom Arthur Koestler described as one who "succeeds in proving everything that he believes and in believing everything that he proves."51
Schoenberg's perspective depended upon a tenuous model of the evolutionary wherewithal, one that invokes forces from outside the species. It entailed an omniscient creator, one who imposes change from outside the hierarchy, the divine creation paradigm of pre-Darwinian thought.
His perspective furthermore suffered a myopic trust in an Übermensch minority, the acceptance of an intellectual/moral/artistic elite that would lead mankind in the direction of artistic heaven. In speaking of Henrik Ibsen, Paul Johnson describes the same misplaced trust as "typically Victorian." And in further questioning this deep-seated myopia, Johnson observes that
it did not occur to Ibsen that the minority—what Lenin was later to call "the vanguard elite" and Hitler "the standard bearers"—might lead mankind into the abyss.52
Schoenberg was convinced that his struggles were justified, perhaps even themselves preordained by fate. But in one of the frequent rallying-around-the-cause exhortations of Harmonielehre, he hints at an ambivalence he must have felt, a tension between the individual creative will and forces imposed by the impersonal evolution he postulated. Toward the end of that book he tells us:
We must fight just as passionately as if we did not know which idea would conquer. Although this idea would conquer anyway, even if we did not fight, since its victory is predestined.53
Finally, one may well ask: "So what's the big deal? Why raise such a fuss over the way people describe shifts in musical style? Where, if anywhere, lies the grievous damage of a skewed metaphor?" There is none, so long as the metaphor is known for what it is, not taken as a reliable description of historical process. But lasting damage comes from false claims of "unshackled natural forces," in foisting off particular changes as the unique products of powers operating somehow within and yet somehow without human control. If there is no real evolution, then there is no inevitability. And thus those of any age who might intimidate us with preachments about the necessity and the accompanying aesthetic superiority of any cultural change may have less than cosmic truth at their fingertips.
[N.B. This article is an expansion of an issue raised in the author's Schoenberg's Error (Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).]
1Stephen Jay Gould, "The Confusion Over Evolution," The New York Review of Books November 1992, 47-54.
2David L. Montgomery, "The Myth of Organicism: From Bad Science to Great Art," The Musical Quarterly 76 (1992): 17-66.
4Leonard B. Meyer, "Innovation, Choice, and the History of Music," Critical Inquiry 9 (1983): 530.
5In "On Historical Criticism," The Musical Quarterly 53 (1967): 188-205; "The Present as History," Perspectives of New Music 7 (1969): 1-58; and "What Kind of Story is History?" Nineteenth Century Music 7 (1984): 363-73.
6Janet M. Levy, "Covert and Casual Values in Recent Writings About Music," The Journal of Musicology 5 (1987): 4.
7Ibid., 5. Extensive discussions of this valuing stance rooted in organicism also can be found in chapter 3 of Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music, and his "How We Got Into Analysis and How to Get Out," Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 311-331. Also see Ruth A. Solie, "The Living Work: Organicism and Musical Analysis," Nineteenth Century Music 4 (1980): 147-56.
8"Innovation, Choice, and the History of Music," Critical Inquiry 9 (1983): 530.
10Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: Modern Library Editions, 1932): 149. Spengler's italics.
11A lively discussion of both can be found in Stephen Jay Gould's "Modified Grandeur," Natural History 3 (1993): 14-20.
12In addition to the Harmonielehre of 1911, trans. as Theory of Harmony by Roy Carter (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), the most thorough chronicle of his ideas from over the years can be found in Style and Idea, trans. Leo Black, ed. Leonard Stein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).
13"My Evolution," in Style and Idea, 86.
14Theory of Harmony, 164, my italics. Schoenberg overlooked in such cases the role of interpretation, conveniently ignoring that equally (if not more) plausible outcomes could have been realized. In the case of the f- which he claims as posited by Brahms' earlier motive, a more logical goal (given the conventions of musical notation) would have been the "resolution" of the to g. Or why not a Brahmsian touch of enharmonicism, the earlier dyad metamorphasizing into an e-destiny? Both make more sense—if we must talk organic necessity—than his claim for the -a expansion.
15Theory of Harmony, 25.
17Style and Idea, 276.
19Theory of Harmony, 97. Schoenberg consistently referred to the church-modes, but he seems to have known little about the system of eight modes discussed by writers within the early- to mid-Christian era. He apparently had in mind seven of the modes (authentic genera) as they were discussed by Glareanus in the mid-16th century. Schoenberg's misconception was common in the 19th century; it persists today among some musicians.
20Schoenberg's search for rational procedures to replace those of tonality has been disussed at length by Allen Forte, Jan Maegaard, and Fusako Hamao, each with a particular interest in time and on substance. The most focused examination of this issue is Ethan Haimo's Schoenberg's Serial Odyssey: The Evolution of His Twelve-Tone Method, 1914-1928 (London: Oxford U. Press, 1990).
21Theory of Harmony, 97.
22James Tenney shows a generalized charting of our changing conceptions of sonance, 900-1900+, in an appendix of his A History of "Consonance" and "Dissonance" (New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Co., 1988). The dates of his outline support nothing Schoenberg had to say about evolving scales and harmonies.
23Theory of Harmony, 66. Schoenberg's ladder conception, humanity gradually scaling the heights of harmonic complexity, is too close to the evolutionary idealism of Alexander Pope to ignore. Pope reveals the same sort of simple-to-complex, ignorance-to-enlightenment conceit in the heroic couplets of his Essay on Man of 1733-34 (Epistle I, X from The Complete Works of Alexander Pope [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931], 141).
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou cans't not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
24Style and Idea, 263.
25Ibid., 220. It's fair to say that Schoenberg's ideas were no more nor less scientific than Freud's; both suffered convenient sporadic fantasies in this regard.
26Glenn Gould, "Arnold Schoenberg—a Perspective," in The Glenn Gould Reader, ed. Tim Page (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 111 (and in slightly different wordings in various other sources).
27In The Painted Word (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Geroux, 1975).
28Not all accounts of medieval modes were as flawed as those accepted by Schoenberg. Hugo Riemann (1849-1919) could have set records straighter for the younger composer. But Schoenberg, who had little good to say about any theorist or historian, reserved a special wrath for this scholar, whose scope was encyclopædic. In a spirit of mock formality, he sometimes referred to him as "Mr. Riemann."
29Franchino Gaffurio, The Theory of Music, trans. Walter Kurt Kreyszig, ed. Claude Palisca (New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 1993), 187. Italics are mine.
30Problems, trans. W. S. Hett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924): IX, 20. The question of just what the operational meaning of dynamic mese may have been may never be adequately answered. And yet, pseudo-Aristotle's statement is good circumstantial support for a "transposable tonic," in contrast with the fixed condition of the thetic mese.
31Odo, Enchiridion musices, in Source Readings in Music History, ed. Oliver Strunk (New York: W. W. Norton, 1950), 113. Prior to Odo, some writers preferred to classify modes, especially those for the Antiphons in chant, by initial pitch; its similarly bounding location was understandably viewed as determining. See Willi Apel, Gregorian Chant (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), 148.
32 Pietro Aron, Trattato della natura e cognizione di tutti gli toni di canto figurato, in Strunk, Source Readings, 208. Aron was fully aware, nonetheless, of the problems posed by modes for defining structure in the polyphonic music of his day.
33It isn't irrelevant that scale note names in ancient Chinese theory distinguished between basic fixed notes (wu sheng) and ornamental changing notes (pien). The basic notes furthermore bore hierarchically loaded names, the first note, or kung, serving the anchoring function of our do or tonic. The scale basis of pre-Christian Greek theory was similarly rooted in a system of fixed notes (hestotes) and movable notes (kenoumenoi). See William P. Malm, Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 108-111, and Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York: W. W. Norton, 1940), 23-24.
34Richard Hoppin, Medieval Music (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), especially pages 66 and 73. One should also see Harold Powers' penetrating discussion of modal theory and practice in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 Ed.), Vol. 12, Modes.
35Harold C. Powers, "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony," Journal of the American Musicological Society 34 (1981): 467.
36Ibid., 467. This matter of mode-tonality evolution has enjoyed an uncommon popularity in scholarly circles over the past two decades. It is central to Carl Dahlhaus' Untersuchungen über die Entstehung der harmonischen Tonalität of 1968 , trans. Robert O. Gjerdingen as Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality (Princeton: Princeton University press, 1990), and to Joel Lester's Between Mode and Keys: German Theory 1592-1802 (New York: Pendragon Press, 1989). It also figures prominently in studies of narrower focus such as Walter T. Atcherson's "Key and Mode in Seventeenth-Century Music Theory," Journal of Music Theory 17 (1973): 204-233, and more recently in Cristle Collins Judd's "Melody Types and Ut, Re, Mi Tonalities: Tonal Coherence in Sacred Vocal Polyphony From About 1500," Journal of the American Muscological Society 45 (1992): 428-57 and Beverly Stein, "Between Key and Mode: Tonal Practice in The Music of Giacomo Carissimi" (Doctoral diss., Brandeis University, 1994).
37Pietro Aron, "From the Trattato della natura e cognizione di tutti gli toni di canto figurato," in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1950), 206.
38"The Methods of Music Theory," The Musical Quarterly 30 (1944): 25.
39This line of Daniel's lyric can be found in Christopher Headington's History of Western Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1976), 82.
40Henry Pleasants, The Agony of Modern Music (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955), 87.
41In "The German Model in Music Curricula," College Music Symposium 30 (1990): 106-116.
42As Robert Hughes tells it, Greenberg's convictions of the necessity of what artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were doing then "were so strong that they enabled him to reshuffle—or some would say, stack—the deck of the past art in order to provide a convergent ancestry for it." (The New York Review of Books, October 21, 1993): 46.
43Milton Babbitt, "Who Cares If You Listen?" High Fidelity Magazine 8/2 (1958): 38-40.
44Style and Idea, 261.
45Meyer, "Innovation, Choice, and the History of Music," 536.
46This "new species" is in fact claimed today. It is implicit in every statement made to the effect that "post-tonal music" cannot be "heard" in the same way as "tonal music," not to mention "pre-tonal music." If current music school catalogue listings are to be taken seriously, we now confront three unmarriagable siblings in our art.
47Stephen Jay Gould convincingly blows the whistle on all such teleological biases in his Wonderful Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 27-52.
48The Ravel of the tonally complex La Valse is the Ravel of tonally primitive Bolero; the Debussy of tonally ambiguous Voiles is the Debussy of tonally unequivocal Danse. Or for a comparison of more recent oddly matched progeny, compare Aaron Copland's thornily esoteric Piano Variations (1930) with the "pretty" score he composed for Our Town (1940).
49Especially see Janet Levy's discussion of this point, "Covert and Casual Values . . . ," 4-6.
50The most likely evidence of an evolutionary strain might be found in the way the performance media of "absolute music" grew, over the centuries, from the bare accompaniments of sung and danced music of early history, a process of expansion traceable up into the sumptuous electronic sound sources of today. But even there, it's hard to ignore in history one era's reaction to a preceding era's excesses, which seems most often to lead to a new "beginning."
51Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (New York: Random House, 1959): 255.
52Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 99.
53Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, 412.
Last modified on Monday, 22/10/2018
William Ennis Thomson
After a youth playing jazz trumpet and French Horn, the professional life of William Ennis Thomson (b. 1927, Ft. Worth, Texas) was devoted to collegiate-level music theory and composition. His primary thrust in research and writing centered upon the cognitive/perceptual foundation of music, but the range of his many books and articles extends to political and historical aspects of academe. A complete listing of published articles can be found in Wikipedia, (William Ennis Thomson).
His academic history includes Music School, University of Southern California (Professor and Dean, 1980–1992; SUNY-Buffalo (Music Chair and Ziegle Professor, 1975–80); University of Arizona (Director, Graduate Studies 1972–75); Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Institute of Music (Kulas Professor, 1969–72); Indiana University (Music Theory Chair,1961–69)); University of Hawaii (Scholar in Residence, 1967–68); Sul Ross State College (Prof., 1951–59); Ford Foundation Composer in Residence, Elkhart, IN (1960–61). From 1967-77 he guided the formation of the public school music curriculum for the state of Hawaii.
1975-79 Thomson chaired the Advanced Placement in Music Test Committee; 1971-75; served as Music Panel Member and Examiner for the National Endowment for the Arts; was Fellow and Policy Committee member of the Ford Foundation CMP, 1963-76; and board member, Buffalo Philharmonic,1976–80.
Early in his career Thomson composed award-winning works for band, orchestra, chorus and various chamber media. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-46, mainly as band member aboard the aircraft carrier Lexington.
Now retired from USC, he lives in Bloomington, Indiana.