Arts Review

The Burden of Music History

By the fin-de-siècle, composers of Western art music had to rethink the terms of their shared musical language. The reasons were myriad. For some, the expressive potential of tonality—the system of harmonic organization relied upon since the seventeenth century for musical coherence—had been exhausted. There were only so many ways the succession of tonic, predominant, and dominant chords could be deferred, expanded, or hinted at before inevitably returning to the tonic at the end of a work. For others, the assumption behind this sonic grammar—that music needed to be propelled forward through the constant buildup and release of tension as dissonant harmonies resolve to consonant ones—seemed arbitrary. Perhaps a temporal art could be de-temporalized. For still others, it was ideological; certain modes of musical thinking had become so tainted by certain worldviews that a clean break was required. Richard Wagner, for one, had co-opted Ludwig van Beethoven’s musical revolution—in which the dominant-to-tonic progression was transformed into a drama of heroic triumph—and reinterpreted it as a metaphor for Teutonic superiority, anointing himself as the leading superhero. Writing music in the twentieth century thus became a fraught balancing act, subject to historical burdens as well as contemporary demands. To distance themselves artistically and ideologically, composers had to keep an obsessive eye on the past as they searched for novel harmonies and innovative ways to organize them. The bar for originality, in turn, was raised ever higher as new musical languages emerged with every new work. And yet, composers were losing listeners as the use of their shared language waned.



Pianist Marilyn Nonken and soprano Deborah Norin-Kuehn explored Arnold Schoenberg’s arguments for the future of Western art music in a concert presented by the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development as part of Carnegie Hall’s 2023–24 series, “Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice.” The performers applied the theme thoughtfully to Schoenberg’s artistic evolution by pairing three of his atonal works—Three Piano Pieces, op. 11; Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19; and The Book of the Hanging Gardens, op. 15—with one of his early twelve-tone compositions, Five Piano Pieces, op. 23. When he abandoned tonality, Schoenberg was certainly leaping off a precipice, but the radical sound of his music belies the more traditional aspects of his new compositional methods, including the revival of dance forms from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In conventional tonal music, each piece is centered around a key—C major, for instance—and it makes sense to our ears because C major is established and confirmed by the continual reappearance, in various guises, of its tonic (C-E-G) and dominant (G-B-D) chords. Other chords within C major may intervene in the process, and the music may modulate to another key—which is, in turn, established by its tonic and dominant chords—but we only hear the work as satisfactorily complete when it concludes in C major through a final dominant-to-tonic resolution. Composers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries found staggeringly creative ways to delay the inevitable, even subvert it, but for these tactics to succeed, they count on the fact that our ears instinctively know what the key center should be.


Example 1. Arnold Schoenberg, Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, opening of the first movement


Schoenberg’s atonal works have centers, but they are not the major and minor keys we know so well.[1] Schoenberg thought any musical sound, even just a few pitches, could do the job. The first movement of op. 11 is a canonic example of how atonality operates. The piece begins languidly in the right hand as the melody descends from B to G♯ to G♮. This three-note figure seems basic, but it gives our ears no point of reference because together they do not form a harmony we recognize as belonging to any major or minor key. In Schoenberg’s musical language, however, it is as good a place to start as any, for the next distinct pitches we hear—A, G♭, F—is a logical continuation: when BG♯G♮, as an entity, is shifted down a whole step, the result is AG♭F. Of course, the rest of the movement does not simply proceed by stepwise transpositions of BG♯G♮; there are many ways for Schoenberg to establish it as the atonal center of his movement, just as there are many ways that a musical work can be in the key of C major. BG♯G♮ can be inverted, retrograded (ordered backward), inverted then transposed, retrograded then transposed, transposed then inverted, absorbed into a larger cluster of pitches, and so on. This atonal center thus serves logically to limit what notes can follow it, much like the tonal center—a major or minor key—logically limits what notes can follow the opening tonic chord. The farther away the music gets from the center, atonal or tonal, the more dissonance we hear and the more tension we feel, and when the center returns, the more satisfying the resolution.
Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method expands upon his atonal system. Here, the center of a musical work is scalar, but rather than the familiar major and minor scales, it is one that involves all twelve pitches of Western music (the chromatic scale) in any order the composer chooses—resulting in the tone row. Every note in this series of twelve pitches, which will be different for every piece, must be stated in the predetermined order before the row can be repeated—hence this compositional technique is also known as serialism. Like Schoenberg’s atonal centers, the row can be varied through inversion, retrograde, transposition, or some combination thereof. The original tone row, like an atonal center, is comparable to the tonic key of a tonal work. For the sake of variety and contrast, a sonata in C major will likely modulate to G major or A minor before returning to the tonic, and Schoenberg thought of the various derivations of the tone row as serving similar functions. As op. 23 is a transitional work in Schoenberg’s output, only the final movement, a waltz, is twelve-tone. The other movements are atonal or serial. (Strictly speaking, the latter does not necessarily need to involve all twelve pitches; the composer may choose fewer notes for the tone row.)



In theory, then, Schoenberg’s atonal, serial, and twelve-tone music operate in much the same way that tonal music does—through the buildup and release of harmonic tension. In practice, however, the logic of these new musical languages is difficult to grasp aurally. Unlike in tonal music, we can neither anticipate what comes next nor perceive distance from the center without extensive study of each individual piece, for Schoenberg’s methods only organize pitch—composers are free to put their pre-chosen pitches anywhere in the musical register and at any time, including simultaneously. The AG♭F at the beginning of op. 11, for instance, are not exactly the next pitches of the melody after BG♯G♮; the G♭ and F instead become part of the accompaniment in the bass, sounded together with an added B, while the melody continues on to A to F (see example 1). And without a tonal frame, we hear both BG♯G♮ and AG♭F as tense harmonies. Likewise, tone rows are inherently dissonant to our ears, since they are re-orderings of the chromatic scale, and the pitches therein can also appear anywhere at any time. Tone rows, too, can be stated simultaneously as their derivations, heightening the perceived harmonic tension. The “tonic” tone row of the op. 23 waltz, for example, is the first twelve notes of the dissonant, angular opening melody, and the chords accompanying it (not included in example 2) consist of pitches from an altered version of that row.


Example 2. Arnold Schoenberg, Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, fifth movement, “Waltz,” opening melody


In effect, Schoenberg did not invent only a few new musical languages but rather the bases for countless new musical languages. All three movements of op. 11, all six movements of op. 19, all fifteen songs from The Book of the Hanging Gardens, and all five movements of op. 23 have unique centers that are each developed in different ways. Despite the conceptual logic behind them, each of these pieces places a considerable burden on trained musicians, never mind the casual listener. We must deny over three hundred years of tonal music history to make sense of them, and we have only a few minutes to do so; most atonal and serial works tend to be musically dense but durationally brief.
Nonken and Norin-Kuehn, seemingly determined to challenge listeners, designed a thoroughly difficult program. Most Schoenberg-themed concerts I have heard tend to include more familiar, reassuringly tonal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Johannes Brahms to give listeners a break; they are also the composers Schoenberg considered his “teachers” and whose methods influenced his. But while Nonken and Norin-Kuehn deserve credit for their unapologetic repertoire selection, in their performances, they seem to have overlooked a crucial component of Schoenberg’s music: his new approaches to organizing pitch were not the ends, merely the means.



Schoenberg’s atonal works on the program—the piano pieces of op. 11, op. 19, and the songs on poems by Stefan George, op. 15—were written during his Expressionist period, so called because like other anxiety-ridden artists coping with the frightening realities of the modern era, he tried to capture the rawness and intensity of the emotions roiling his psyche. Just as painters were disrupting conventions of perspective and writers those of syntax, Schoenberg remade tonality to achieve a heightened expressivity. It is no coincidence that between 1908 and 1920, Schoenberg was absorbed in painting and drawing, in addition to reading Symbolist and Expressionist poetry and setting it to music. He thought himself an amateur, but some of his visual artworks, such as The Red Stare, are as arresting as Edvard Munch’s The Scream.[2]
Schoenberg had mostly stopped using atonality (and canvases) by 1921, and the ensuing period is as much neoclassical as it is serial. Reviving old traditions—but at an ironic distance—was a common coping strategy among artists in the interwar years. The emotional content of the op. 23 piano pieces, written between 1920 and 1923, may not simmer at the surface as they do in the Expressionist works, but there are flashes of humor and wistfulness as Schoenberg parodies Viennese waltzes, marches, and his predecessors, all the while paying tribute to them.



For a program with such expressive potential, Nonken and Norin-Kuehn’s performances were disappointingly sober. Norin-Kuehn gave a subdued rendition of The Book of the Hanging Gardens, but it was not for lack of trying. The soprano made an admirable attempt to convey the sensuous, dreamlike quality of George’s poems and Schoenberg’s settings by balancing softness with intensity, but her voice ended up sounding weak and wispy instead. Her efforts, moreover, muddied her diction, and the crispness of the German consonants was lost. Nonken, with her obvious technical gifts and distinguished scholarly credentials, knew her way around the piano pieces, but she favored a literal, accurate execution of the text instead of an interpretation that conveyed the emotional undertow. In notating his music, Schoenberg was uncommonly prescriptive about what to do when—his dynamic, articulation, and expressive markings litter every measure, evident even in the brief examples excerpted above—but like his prescriptions about pitch organization, they are a means to an end. Nonken gave the impression she was playing softly because the score said so, not because with three different shades of pianissimo in as many measures, Schoenberg was perhaps trying to draw a tremulous human voice out of the piano. I missed the intimate drama of the first movement of op. 23, a quirky dialogue between a capricious, imploring lyricism and an unyielding, sarcastic stoicism. I sorely missed the humor of the last movement—an elegant but somewhat deranged waltz. The traditional dance rhythms and regular phrase structures are evident, but the tempo marking is so swift that it is as if a recording of a waltz is being fast-forwarded. To most listeners, the palpable dissonance of Schoenberg’s music may obscure its humanity, but it is certainly possible for capable performers like Nonken to overcome our preference for consonance by highlighting the gestures—the sighs, guffaws, stutters, wails, pleas—that all expressive music, tonal and non-tonal, have in common.
In both attempting to rewrite and extend Western music traditions, Schoenberg is usually diagnosed by musicologists as suffering from Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence. Benjamin Britten, conversely, had no such ambiguous relationship to music history. In an often-cited interview, he famously responded that, rather than feeling the “great burden of tradition,” he was “supported by it . . . I cannot understand why one should want to reject the past . . . I’m given strength by that tradition.”[3] This was arguably an understatement; Britten delighted in past traditions.
At Alice Tully Hall, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the Calidore String Quartet—violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi—in a concert that culminated with Britten’s String Quartet no. 2 in C, op. 36.



The work was premiered in 1945 as part of two recitals at Wigmore Hall to mark the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death. The first, on November 21, was the anniversary; the second, on November 22, happened to be Britten’s thirty-second birthday—a symbolic passing of the torch if ever there was one from the greatest composer of England’s past to the greatest one of its present. Earlier that same year, the premiere of Peter Grimes had not only cemented Britten’s international stature overnight, but also revived opera in England, which had been a defunct genre after Purcell’s passing.
The third movement of the string quartet is a direct tribute to his predecessor. Britten constructs an elaborate series of variations, replete with a solo cadenza for every member of the ensemble except the second violin, on the theme from Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor, Z. 730. On the concert, the Calidores performed it immediately before the quartet for comparison, but the web of musical references Britten spins throughout extends far beyond late-seventeenth-century England.



The first movement begins at the dawn of Western music history with a haunting melody that is redolent of plainchant. Like those that would have emanated from Medieval Roman churches, it is sung in unison by the ensemble, but Britten adds a drone in the viola part to modernize and enrich the overall texture. By the middle part of the first movement, however, Britten transports listeners back to the twentieth century as snippets of militaristic marches and flashes of sardonic wit whirl by, summoning the spirit of Dmitri Shostakovich, whom Britten admired. (The two composers eventually met and exchanged many letters throughout their mostly long-distance friendship.)
Britten often spoke publicly of his love of Felix Mendelssohn’s music, allusions to which permeate the second movement. Broadly, it is a more demonic take on the supernatural from Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, op. 21. Specifically, Britten’s scherzo evokes the scherzo from the latter’s String Quartet in E♭ Major, op. 44, no. 3; the theme, texture, and freneticism of both are too strikingly similar for the overlaps to be coincidental. Both movements also share the same key (C minor) and meter (6/8). In the first half of the concert, the Calidores performed Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor, op. 44, no. 2, but it seems a shame not to have programmed the E♭ major one instead.



Britten’s revival of these old musical traditions is nominally neoclassical, but there is little apparent irony or remove in his music. Whereas Schoenberg highlights the distance between the past and present by reconstituting, at warp speed, a simple waltz with a hyper-modern musical language, Britten highlights the proximity: each of his allusions sounds both old and new, of its time and of his time. The sources of his inspirations are rarely distorted or suppressed, and yet he recontextualizes them so that they are not mere replicas.

Likewise, Britten’s second string quartet is both tonal and not-so-tonal. As the title states, it is “in C,” which is ambiguous precisely because the music never quite settles in C major or C minor. At the beginning—and conforming to Medieval musical practices—the unison melody is modal, starting on C. At the quartet’s end, the ensemble hammers away at C-rooted chords—eighteen of them!—in fortissimo, but all are marred by dissonant pitches that suggest C major and minor simultaneously. The “wrong” notes are eliminated in the final three blasts of the chords, but despite the sheer volume, it is too little, too late: tonal conventions have already been left in the dust. As Britten was well aware, only a dominant to tonic resolution can properly establish C major as the key center; his is a C major by attrition.



As a musical polyglot, Britten spoke modern musical languages as fluently as he did historical ones. Throughout his career, he used atonal, serial, twelve-tone, and many other avant-garde techniques as needed, often fusing them with more traditional methods. Remarkably for a twentieth-century composer, not only was Britten mostly unburdened by the past, but he also saw little distinction between the past and present. In a less-often-quoted section of that famous interview, he added, “I know it changes—of course traditions change. But the human being remains curiously the same.”[4]
The Calidore Quartet, with their orchestral sound and indomitable technique, navigated the complexities of Britten’s ahistoricism with ease. Despite the many disparate musical languages and styles Britten packed into his second quartet, the performers smoothed out the many edges, making them sound less disparate than I would have expected, and yet still distinct. On occasion, I wished the Calidores would have taken more interpretive risks. They followed, for example, Britten’s metronome marking in the second movement that should be taken with a grain of salt; the scherzo’s characteristic breathlessness, not to mention its Mendelssohnian spirit, is difficult to pull off without playing at a speed that is swift enough to make the performers feel slightly on edge.
Though the first half of the Calidores’ concert did not involve twentieth-century music, the relationship between the composers fittingly mirrored that of the second half. Just as Britten revived Purcell’s music, Mendelssohn revived Bach’s. By 1750, the year of Bach’s death, his music had long been considered too antiquated for Enlightenment values. Without Mendelssohn, who instigated Bach’s revival in 1829 with a performance of St. Matthew Passion, we would probably not know his music as well as we do today. Bach never wrote specifically for string quartet, as it was not a conventional Baroque genre, so contemporary ensembles make do with arrangements. The Calidores selected fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, arranged by Mozart, which made for an apt prelude to Mendelssohn’s E minor quartet, op. 44 no. 2.



This pairing of Baroque fugues with a Romantic quartet at the concert, moreover, served as a reminder that the burdens of music history were not only borne by twentieth-century composers. Indeed, it was in the nineteenth century that music first developed a historical consciousness as composers of Mendelssohn’s generation reckoned with the achievements of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. It was also during this period that music history became a scholarly discipline.
The Calidores were, thrillingly, in their element with Mendelssohn’s quartet. With flair and spontaneity, they highlighted his ability to draw on elements from the past while creating an integrated whole. From the first note, Mendelssohn imbues the quartet with a Beethovenian sense of drama as the opening E minor theme, propelled by chords in the accompaniment that sound like a beating heart, surges forward. In the first and last movements, both in sonata form, Mendelssohn uses tactics that Beethoven had standardized to heighten the harmonic tension, delaying the ultimate resolution to E minor—and keeping us in the dark, until the last possible moment, about whether the movements would end in E major instead. At the same time, Mendelssohn’s gift for writing soaring melodies and decorative figuration, which he may have learned from Mozart, gives listeners brief respites from the emotional strain. Bach’s influence is most obvious in the development sections, where composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries typically included fugal textures, but Mendelssohn subtly writes beautiful countermelodies in most of the lyrical sections, showing off his own knack for counterpoint. Even in the opening measures, the E minor theme in the first violin is enhanced by a secondary melody in the cello.



Mendelssohn, like Britten, was fluent in a variety of musical styles, though the resources available in the early nineteenth century were certainly less disparate than the veritable repository that had accumulated by the early twentieth. Also like Britten, Mendelssohn was considered a relative conservative for his time. Both worked during periods when innovation for its own sake, owing to the weight of music history, spurred many other composers to experiment at the extremes.
At Bruno Walter Auditorium, the ensemble Twelfth Night performed music before composers wrestled with such historical burdens. Organized by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the concert, “Before the String Quartet,” could just as well have been titled “Before Music History,” for the string quartet was precisely one of the genres—along with the symphony—that had been elevated from a functional art to a philosophical one by Mendelssohn’s time. The trio sonata, conversely, was the most common, popular instrumental genre during the Baroque era, designed to entertain the masses in the moment. It would not have occurred to their creators that their music might be dissected in the future as reflections of their artistic identities and historical outlooks—that these works might be judged by evidence of innovation or lack thereof. Indeed, the opposite was more likely true—this music would have been based on widely accepted musical conventions so that it sounded appealingly familiar to their listeners.



For us, “trio” seems a misnomer, as the sonatas are typically played by four or more instrumentalists. Baroque audiences, however, listened not to the instruments individualistically, but according to their function within the musical texture. The first and second violins, usually in dialogue, perform melodic roles and thus comprise the two treble parts of the trio. The third and lower part, known as the basso continuo, is often played on the cello (or on other string instruments like the theorbo and archlute) and harpsichord (or organ), which serve as the rhythmic and harmonic backbone. In all three parts, improvisation, or at least embellishment, is expected. The members of Twelfth Night—violinists Rachell Ellen Wong and Juliette Greer, cellist Coleman Itzkoff, and harpsichordist David Belkovski—played with such sincerity and joy that it was easy to see how the genre so beguiled Baroque audiences.



Trio sonatas generally consist of four movements—alternating between slow and fast—that convey contrasting moods through popular dance forms. Each movement lasts only around two or three minutes, requiring performers to turn on a dime. In Arcangelo Corelli’s Trio Sonata in B Minor, op. 2, no. 8, Twelfth Night effortlessly flitted from the pathos of the prelude, the ebullience of the allemande, the solemnity of the sarabande, to the gaiety of the tempo di gavotta.



The players were equally compelling in the Trio Sonata in D Minor, op. 1, no. 1, by Tomaso Albinoni, an heir to the trio sonata tradition Corelli established. Albinoni’s work is perhaps denser and more mercurial than his predecessor’s. In both first movements, there is a brightening—a change to a major key—in the middle, but whereas Corelli eases us from darkness to light, Albinoni makes his move without preparation, heightening the chiaroscuro effect. The fast movements of the latter’s sonata are also more persistently imitative—the dialogue between the violins more of a duel than a duet. Still, in both works, Wong and Greer gracefully performed the melodic lines and handled the dissonances and consonances—created as the melodies weave in and out of each other—with care. The basso continuo may mostly serve a supporting role in the musical texture, but Itzkoff and Belkovski provided essential—and tasteful—harmonic color in the slow movements and rhythmic energy in the fast.



The two featured works on the program were François Couperin’s Le Parnasse, ou l’apothéose de Corelli and George Frideric Handel’s Trio Sonata in F Major, op. 2, no. 4. They were also the most substantial, for Couperin and Handel injected them with operatic ambitions. The seven movements of Le Parnasse follows Corelli as he ascends to the top of Mount Parnassus to take his place next to Apollo, a fitting tribute to one of Couperin’s musical heroes. Even without scenery onstage, Twelfth Night made the pastoral setting come alive. Baroque composers like Couperin were practiced at word-painting—using musical effects to depict literally the meaning of a word, even in textless music. We could actually hear Corelli climbing the mountain, as well as the dripping of water as he drinks from the well of Hypocrene. Handel’s five movements, as Belkovski, the harpsichordist, pointed out in his onstage commentary, contain quotes from Rodelinda and Guilio Cesare, some of his most popular operas.[5] Wong and Greer effortlessly played the roles of opera divas.



Since the trio sonata genre predictably swings back and forth between slow and fast movements, a concert of nothing but trio sonatas risks monotony. Twelfth Night broke the pattern by scattering the five movements of James Oswald’s A Sonata of Scots Tunes throughout the program, performing them out of order. As the title suggests, Oswald put traditional Scottish folksongs, or at least traditional-sounding ones of his own invention, in the treble parts of the sonata, which are then enhanced by the basso continuo. Exuding Gaelic charm, the ensemble spontaneously transported its audience from the concrete plaza of Lincoln Center to a village pub in the Scottish Highlands.


[1] Schoenberg preferred “pantonal” or “pantonality,” but the terms failed to catch on.
[2] Schoenberg had several paintings with “gaze” or “stare” in the title; The Red Stare from May 1910 is probably the most well-known. It is also referred to as the The Red Gaze or Gaze (Karl Kraus: The Great Wall of China). See Object #59 of the Arnold Schönberg Center’s online exhibition.
[3] Paul Kildea, ed., Britten on Music (Oxford, 2003), pp. 328–329.
[4] Britten on Music, p. 329.
[5] Handel’s chamber music is notoriously difficult to date and authenticate, so it might have been the reverse—the operas quote material from the trio sonata.