The Archaeology of Postmodernity, Part II: The Emancipation of Dissonance

E.R.E. Knutsson

From an “archaeological” point of view, there are several striking parallels between early 20th-century Austria (as exemplified by the case of Vienna) and early 21st-century America. The easiest ones to unearth are these: increasingly intense minority activism (encouraged by laissez faire policies), a gradual breakdown of the hegemony of the national language and traditional culture, accompanied by a demographic shift away from the country’s Traditionskern — its Germanic ethno-cultural core.

At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna — as the center of the multi-ethnic state of the Habsburg Empire — sheltered a hodgepodge of nationalities, language groups, religious confessions, avant-garde artists, renowned scientists, and rebellious intellectuals who “comingled to give rise to a unique cultural ambiance.”

The ethnic minorities most abundantly represented were the Czechs and the Jews, followed by the Poles and Hungarians. Jacques Le Rider points out that “the xenophobia aroused by the growth of the Czech colony, and the spread of anti-Semitism made Vienna an ethnic battlefield rather than a melting pot.”  The unresolved nationality conflicts “were sapping the foundations of the Monarchy”, according to Robert S. Wistrich.

Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria

As Stefan Newerkla points out, the basically tolerant laws “provided for the right to have education in one’s native language and stated that no citizen should be forced to learn the language of any other ethnic group.”  Language became a prominent site for inter-ethnic conflicts.  Thomas Wallnig emphasizes the fatal consequences of “the massive struggle between the nationalities that marked the final decades of the Habsburg monarchy”; the state was “unable to establish ‘equal rights of all branches of the people’, since every change to the status quo was interpreted as a political advance by one group at the expense of another with state support.”

These tensions were also felt in the world of music – an art form that occupied a special place in the history and cultural identity of Vienna, as a major repository for some of the greatest composers in the history of Western music (Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, among others).

By the early 20th century, the Jewish impact on music and modernity had become so obvious that critics demanded to “stem Jewish music and Jewishness in music before they spread too far,” as Philip Bohlman points out.

Richard Wagner’s polemical writings — tracing Jewishness in melody and speech, body and race (“inner spaces”) — “unleashed a flood of responses to the presence of Jewishness in music, pro and contra.” The rhetoric shared by Wagner and his detractors stressed the ontological interority of music: das Judentum in der Musik (Judaism or Jewishness in music). As Philip Bohlman notes,

Rather than rejecting Wagner’s anti-Semitism as baseless prejudice, most Jewish responses mounted counterarguments affirming the possibility of Jewishness in music, using the same terms, if not case studies, as Wagner and often embracing the racialization of music.

Thus, Heinrich Berl in his essay Das Judentum in der abendländischen Musik (“Jewishness in Western Music,” later published as a monograph with Wagner’s exact title, Das Judentum in der Musik) not only accepted the charge that Jewishness in music inevitably embodied oriental traditions, but even rejoiced in “the richness of Eastern influences.”

Richard Wagner held that the capacity of Jewish composers only to reproduce enabled them to enter European music history at a moment of historical collapse, in the aftermath of Beethoven’s death in 1827. Bohlman points out that “Wagner’s claim that Jewishness allowed only for the reproduction of music [indirectly] opened the historical door, emancipating Jewish music from ritual and recalibrating it as Western.”  Since Wagner held that Jewish musicians were essentially bricoleurs –  i.e. ‘handy-men’ adopting relational rather than rational approaches to assemble and enchain their performances from bits and pieces – no Jewish innovations were to be expected.

On the other hand, as Thomas S. Grey points out, the Central European lingua franca of Yiddish was seen as “emblematic of a tendency to appropriate and distort all genuine cultural forms, from speech to writing to philosophical or political thought to singing, acting, and musical composition.”

The movement away from classical tonality was thus radicalized with Gustav Mahler’s “tonal irony”, and culminated with Schoenberg’s atonal revolution — the dissolution and abandonment of tonal structures as an organizing system in favor of the radical constructivism that emerged with twelve-tone serial music: “With the progressive fragmentation of musical material — its decomposition into its smallest elements — the hierarchically ordered tonal structures, together with the restrictions they placed upon possible relations and combinations among tones, were dissolved.”

The ‘emancipation of dissonance’, according to Carl Schorske, not only destroyed harmonic order and cadential certainty: “By establishing a democracy of tones … [the] tonal relations, clusters, and rhythms expand and contract ‘like a gas’, as Schoenberg said.”  Schoenberg, as Leon Botstein points out, “sought to transmute a German national heritage — the pre-Wagnerian German tradition, seen as the universal in music — adequately into the twentieth century. In this way Schoenberg sought to dominate the musical world the way Wagner had, but in a manner in which all Jews … could partake as equals. … Like the inter-war protagonists of Esperanto, Schoenberg sought to fashion a new, valid universal modernist art in which both reason and emotion could be communicated and to which no social class, religion or ethnic group had claims of priority or higher status.”

Arnold Schoenberg

Since the Renaissance, Western music  has been conceived on the basis of a hierarchical tonal order, the diatonic scale, whose central element was the tonic triad, the defined key. Musical events, thus, are not of equal importance: Some are structurally important, while others are primarily ornamental.  Music, like linguistic discourse,  has traditionally been a time-oriented structure that progresses from a beginning to an end.  As Carl Schorske emphasizes,

The task of the composer was to manipulate dissonance in the interests of consonance, just as a political leader in an institutional system manipulates movement, canalizing it to serve the purposes of established authority.  In fact, tonality in music belonged to the same socio-cultural system as the science of perspective in art, with its centralized focus; the Baroque status system in society, and legal absolutism in politics. It was part of the same culture that favored the geometric garden — the garden as the extension of rational architecture over nature. … The tonal system was a musical frame in which tones had unequal power to express, to validate, and to make bearable the life of man under a rationally organized, hierarchical culture. To make all movement fall in the end into order (the musical term is ‘cadence’) was, appropriately, the aim of classical harmony in theory and in practice.

Ethan Haimo points out that with Schoenberg’s atonal revolution, it simply becomes difficult or impossible to determine which of the tones in the chord is the unstable tone, and which are the stable ones:

When the dissonance cannot be identified, its resolution cannot be directed. And when that happens, the emancipation of the dissonance is at hand — not as the result of theoretical speculation about the more remote overtones of the harmonic series but as a consequence of the extension of the methods of chordal formation to include multiple altered and elaborative tones. … Schoenberg was not searching for stable intervals when he reached toward the more remote overtones of the harmonic system; instead, his principles of chord formation made it impossible to identify which tones needed resolution. The consequences of this are profound. If dissonance cannot be identified, it cannot be resolved. And if it cannot be resolved, then the very notion of consonance and dissonance becomes moot.

Consequently, some of the essential pillars of tonality were pulled down by Schoenberg: “The lack of directed harmonic progressions throws the existence of a tonic into doubt; the lack of hierarchy abolishes the diatonic scale as a referential collection; the inability to identify the dissonance erases the distinction between consonance and dissonance.”

Nicholas Cook points out the “thread of violent political imagery [that] runs through Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre,” as when he (Schoenberg) writes:

The tonality must be placed in danger of losing its sovereignty; the appetites for independence and the tendencies towards mutiny must be given opportunity to activate themselves; one must grant them their victories, not begrudging an occasional expansion of territory. For a ruler can only take pleasure in ruling live subjects; and live subjects will attack and plunder.

Schoenberg talks of vagrant chords bringing about the destruction of the tonal system.

Cook also points out that ”the overlapping of insider and outsider identities that coloured Viennese modernism is often seen as a specifically Jewish phenomenon,” and that there was “a longstanding Viennese, or Habsburg, tradition … of associating music and social structure.”  He draws attention to “the network of terms connected with harmonic rootedness, terms which have a technical musical meaning yet at the same time carry the imprint of the political and racial discourses of fin-de-siècle Vienna”:

These political and racial connotations tend to be spelt out more explicitly in Schoenberg’s theoretical writings than Schenker’s, and the term Schoenberg uses in his Harmonielehre to describe chords that lack rootedness immediately reveals what is at issue: they are ‘vagrant’ chords. … Circumstances can turn any chord into a vagrant, he says … perhaps he was thinking of the displaced Ostjuden (later he might have thought of himself). … [A]t all events he [Schoenberg] assigns a range of equally dubious attributes to his vagrants: they are ‘the issue of inbreeding’, their character ‘indefinite, hermaphroditic, immature’. It is possible for them to be assimilated (Schoenberg’s phrase is ‘fit into the environment’), but when they appear in large numbers they will ‘join forces’, and ‘through accumulation of such phenomena the solid structure of tonality could be demolished’; elsewhere Schoenberg says that vagrant chords have ‘led inexorably to the dissolution of tonality’.

In the 1920s, the conservative musicologist and critic Alfred Heuss attacked the “specifically Jewish spirit” of Schoenberg’s music, which he saw as resulting from a “ruthless tendency to draw the very last consequences from a narrow premise.” Annegret Fauser points out that Schoenberg’s expansion of Wagnerian chromaticism pushed “quasi-polyphonic voice-leading to extremes.”

According to Arnold Whittall, Wagner’s use of “half-diminished” seventh chords to promote tonal ambiguity at moments of great dramatic tension and instability remained of absorbing interest in the writings of Arnold Schoenberg:

[T]he very “indefiniteness” of the Tristan chord has made it possible for theorists to regard it as a post-tonal or even atonal entity, thereby promoting that very breakdown of tonality of which Wagner’s own practice stopped short. … [T]he tonally disruptive potential of the chord, and of Wagner’s use of it, was well understood by those early twentieth-century theorists who were experiencing the consequences for composition of the breakdown of tonal order and, as they saw it, of the formal coherence that went with that order.

As Cook observes, Schoenberg ends up undermining the conservative discourses from which he borrows: The way Schoenberg turns a conservative argument against the archetypal ‘Other’ into an affirmation of the role of the ‘Other’ in the future of German culture, might be seen as “a deconstruction of the conservative discourse of hybridity”:

It works by taking a political stance, translating that into musical terms, developing the musical argument, and then translating (or leaving the reader to translate) the conclusion back into political terms.  In other words, it uses music to create an assertion about something other than music — in rather the same way … that television commercials use musical logic to make a point about hair dye or financial products (Cook, p. 310).

The birth of atonality was, according to Ethan Haimo, “the result of a single composer’s intellectual and artistic makeup.” Bryan Simms points out that Schoenberg “jealously defended his historical role as the first to break with tonality and as the discoverer of the twelve-tone system.”

Arnold Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality in 1908 and the development of the Second Viennese School were both symptom and cause of an ever-widening gulf between composers using music to make discursive political and aesthetic statements (a product of analytical reason) and a public that still yearned for the psychological satisfaction that comes from formal coherence.

From this perspective, Schoenberg — at least in effect — can be regarded as Wagner’s opposite, as a Jewish “Anti-Wagner”. Wagner successfully claimed for art, according to Tim Blanning, “the function previously exercised by religion and arrogated in modern times by politics or economics.” Schoenberg dethroned that position, by composing “irrational”, atonalistic, “liquid,” “decentered” music, twelve tones “in free circulation, without any firm hierarchy or even distinction between the seven diatonic tones and the remaining chromatic tones.”

As he declared in a letter (1909) to his colleague Ferruccio Busoni: “I strive for complete liberation from all forms … from all symbols of cohesion and of logic.”

Part III: Transvestism in Music

Part I: Viennese Mutations

E. R. E. Knutsson (email him) is a freelance writer.

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