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The primary aim of Outreach Ethnomusicology is to share fieldwork research. Below is a list of items that are included for view by members of the community. 

Some of these articles are official documents of research which have been submitted to university departments, so they are set "not viewable" by the public, only registered members of outreach can view them. But, we welcome all sorts of articles within the interests of ethnomusicology, so please get in touch on if you think you would like to contribute.

When we receive documents, we usually will have a full read through, and then reply with a formatted version for the internet, ready to publish. How much exposure or access you want for your work will depend on your own needs, and we will publish or unpublish anything upon request. 

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Expressionism - Schoenberg

Laura Thompson Expressionism

© copyright Laura E. Thompson, 2011


In his article “Music without Magic,” Miles Hoffman asserts that the music of the sixteenth through mid-twentieth centuries represents a natural ideal of human achievement. He writes rhapsodically that it took approximately one thousand years for “Music1” to evolve into “both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning.” He jokingly disparages the music that came before that period, and writes that the tonal systems which emerged as the foundations of Western music for many centuries became so important to music not simply by chance, but because of the empirical values of certain relationships between pitches that were not invented, but discovered. He states that there is no question that consonances are universally pleasing and that dissonances make listeners uncomfortable. He believes that this is by no means due to an understanding among listeners of known musical conventions, but because of underlying natural structures that determine the essential effects of specific intervals and other sounds. To Hoffman, dissonance serves a very important function in tonal music—creating momentary tension which will always lead to an eventual resolution through consonance. He also writes that music needs to convey a sense of “a narrative, a dramatic structure complete with characters, rhetoric, direction, conflict, tension, uncertainty, and ultimate resolution.”

These are very specific aims for musical works, and they run almost directly counter to the ideas that Schoenberg wrestled with during the “expressionist” portions of his career. To him, the idea of narrative being an essential feature of music and visual art was antiquated and hopelessly Romantic, and he came to question the primacy of the established tonal forms and chord structures, and began to experiment with using unexpected harmonies to create a kind of emotional impact that was immediate and raw, and not obviously set in the patterns of works that came before.

It is this departure from the traditions of tonality that Hoffman deplores. Though he writes that some composers have made effective use of twelve-tone and atonal techniques, by and large, he says, “History will say that the 12-tone movement was ultimately a dead end, and that the long modernist movement that followed it was a failure.” Specifically, it is Schoenberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance” at which Hoffman directs his fury. He proclaims that this emancipation was unnecessary was a stumbling block towards musical degeneracy. He actually calls the effects of Schoenberg’s explorations, the “tyranny of the dissonance.” It is not only the unresolved dissonances of Schoenberg’s music that Hoffman detests, but the impact of that music on others who began to compose in dissonant atonal styles as well. Since Hoffman firmly believes that dissonance is unpleasant, extended dissonance that goes unresolved is tantamount to musical torture. He combats the theories that this music is disliked because it is not yet understood by its audiences by saying that the classical composers who we, in retrospect, embrace as great were also venerated during their lifetimes. In other words, he calls the notion that new works take time to become appreciated a myth, and suggests that perhaps that reason why some modern music has gained lass popular traction than other music is because it simply is not good.

I particularly enjoyed reading excerpts from Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. I thought he offered a convincing rebuttal of Miles Hoffman’s notions of fixed ideals of beauty and degeneracy in music through his colorful selection of critical reactions to music that Hoffman includes in his pantheon of magician-composers. With the examples, Slonimsky shows again and again in dramatic terms that everything that we take for granted as a part of our musical heritage was once new. And when something is truly new, in the sense of contributing something different from the works that preceded it, it is, without question, controversial.

The colorful examples of criticism of Chopin and Bartók are very interesting because the negative press tends to fall along two specific points: that the music is convoluted or incomprehensible, and that it is ugly. Several of the critics comment at the oddity of Chopin’s modulations and a Bartók critic describes the shell-shock and disorientation of hearing multiple keys played simultaneously. Listeners to both Chopin and Bartók complained that they would not have been able to tell whether the performers played any wrong notes because everything sounded wrong to them with this music in the first place. The idea of beauty as a fixed ideal was captured especially well in one review when the critic L. Rellstab wrote, “We beseech Mr. Chopin, who is really not without talent, to return to truth and nature.” Though the music of Chopin and Bartók is of course very different, I think it is fascinating that listeners during these two periods had such similar concerns when hearing these works for the first time. I also think it is interesting that novelty and confusion with unfamiliar forms leads so quickly into rejection and insults, not only of the music, but of the composers themselves.

According to Charles Rosen, the same new elements that create an immediate backlash against a new work are also the driving forces that often make these pieces gain appreciation with the passing of time. But Slonimsky uses these critical reviews to evoke a broad epiphany among his readers: music does not exist within an unchanging paradigm of beauty or degeneracy. Instead, feelings about music are greatly informed by the musical experiences of the critic at the time they are writing. Slonimsky captures this idea with the phrase, “Their [the critics’] only failing is that they confuse their ingrained listening habits with unalterable ideal of beauty and perfection.”

In his chapter entitled Farben, Allan Shawn draws parallels between Schoenberg’s painting and his music of the same period. I agree that there are many commonalities between the way Schoenberg approached the two media and the issues with which he struggled in both, but I do not think that his music can only really be understood through knowledge of Schoenberg’s paintings. I think that both forms can be understood on their own terms, not only in terms of Schoenberg’s thought process as he created them. It is fascinating that Schoenberg became very specific in his work on particular issues within both art forms and detached himself from others, especially concerns of realism. Shawn notes a special attention to color in Schoenberg’s paintings, in his house (supported by a quotation from Alma Mahler), and in the Five Pieces for Orchestra, though in music, color is not exactly the same as visual color, but that Schoenberg titled one of the movements Farben is indicative that he thought of musical and visual colors as similar features or perhaps even equivalents. Shawn mentions Schoenberg’s deliberate color schemes for many of his paintings and his experiments with mixing new colors for different effects. Similarly, his subtle shifts in instrumental colors in Farben, a movement of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, feel like an exploration of the emotional impacts of different timbres of sound in the orchestra, as a static theme is woven through ever-changing combinations of instruments. I think that the music can provide clues to the paintings just as the paintings can partially illuminate the music, but that ultimately, both art forms say the most about Schoenberg himself, his philosophies, and his artistic approach. Though they can be seen as links to one another, the paintings and the music I think can be truly taken out of the context of their relationship to each other and to their places in Schoenberg’s life and still truly understood in a sort of abstract way on their own terms.

1 Hoffman personifies “Music” here with the capital “M” of a Romantic character or ideal, like “Art” in the Schober poem An Die Musik which he includes in the opening of this article.