The Archaeology of Postmodernity, Part III: Transvestism in Music

E.R.E. Knutsson


The Austrian statesman Clemens von Metternich once declared that the Orient started southeast of the city walls of Vienna. Western Europe’s centuries-long confrontation with Oriental empires helped define Central Europe as a cultural and historical frontier region.  The experience of imperial subjugation and multi-ethnicity — an Eastern European patchwork of ethnic groups with different languages, cultures, and traditions living closely together — became essential parts of the Central European historical experience.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna

As Anthony Alofsin points out, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was “a collage of so many nationalities that it could never be transformed into a unified nation-state.” Within this collage, Jews achieved cultural preeminence. As Robert S. Wistrich points out,

In 1900, Gustav Mahler was the leading conductor and composer in the city, Karl Kraus its high priest of satire, Arthur Schnitzler its outstanding playwright, Adolf von Sonnenthal its greatest actor.  The founder of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, Victor Adler, was a ‘Protestant’ Jew and many of his leading associates were middle-class Jewish intellectuals. Sigmund Freud had just published his epoch-making Interpretation of Dreams and psychoanalysis was about to be born. Waiting in the wings were such central figures of twentieth-century culture as Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Buber and Franz Kafka, not to mention writers like Joseph Roth, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Felix Salten, Stefan Zweig and Peter Altenberg – all of them of Jewish origin.

Alexander Ringer points out, perhaps defensively, that “as long as familiarity with New England transcendentalism or American individualism is considered indispensable for a meaningful appraisal of Charles Ives and his particular mission, Arnold Schoenberg, his exact contemporary and eventual fellow American, deserves equally serious attention in equivalent Jewish terms.”

In this context, the significance of Schoenberg’s “antirational” view of art and his personal experiences with anti-Semitism in the early 1920s has been emphasized:

His acknowledgement that he could not escape his Jewish heritage initiated a protracted period of reflection upon Jewish issues from both theological and political points of view culminating in the early 1930s with yet another attempt to give a comprehensive statement of his position by means of words and music — this time in his opera Moses and Aron, which presents his personal vision of Judaism.

The moment of truth is usually believed to have come in 1921, when he was asked for his certificate of baptism (to prove that he was not a Jew) while on holiday in Mattsee, near Salzburg (Austria).  Schoenberg explicitly articulated his identification with a classically Jewish perspective and declared himself “no longer a European” but a Jew, in a letter to the painter Wassily Kandinsky written in 1923:

For I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew. I am content that it should be so! Today I no longer wish to be an exception; I have no objection at all to being lumped together with all the rest. … We are two kinds of people. Definitively!

Schoenberg’s statements of an explicitly Zionist position begin in 1924, when he, according to Nicholas Cook, “argued that only military victory could secure a Jewish state in Palestine against its enemies.” In The Biblical Way (1926) he presented his belief in the necessity of an exodus of European Jewry in the form of a psychodrama.

In a letter of 13 June 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Schoenberg declared: “It is necessary to give up all Western acquisitions; we are Asians and nothing essential binds us to the West. … We must return to our origins.” A few weeks later, Schoenberg stated that he planned “a long tour of America, which could perhaps turn into a world tour, to persuade people to help the Jews in Germany.” He explains that he considers this more important than his art, and that he is determined “to do nothing in the future but work for the Jewish national cause.” On another occasion during the same year he states it explicitly: “I offer the sacrifice of my art for the sake of Jewry.”

Arnold Schoenberg: His sometimes banal use of language is expressed in Die Sanftergebenen: “O wie schön lebt sich’s doch im Dreck” (Oh, how beautiful it is to live in the muck).

Although Schoenberg — whose ancestry included both rabbis and cantors — for a period of time discarded the Jewish faith for Lutheran Protestantism, the proximity of his ideas to Jewish theological thought remained obvious. Adorno had a point when he asserted that Schoenberg translated the Old Testament ban on images into music: Dissonance can be seen as an expression of the need to change forms of expression in art, absolutely necessary in order to fulfill the old Jewish prohibition on images.

As William E. Benjamin points out, “Schoenberg realized that Judaism provided a historical model for what he was attempting as an artist.” Robert Wistrich emphasizes the “connection between Schoenberg’s musical agenda, his Jewish identity and the commitment to a Jewish national renewal (by returning to the essence of ancient Judaism)”: “The Mosaic aversion to idolatry, to visible symbols and mystery, as well as the Judaic call for the triumph of rational consciousness, are harnessed by Schoenberg to the cause of twentieth-century modernist expressionism.”

In Judaism, as in Islam, it was sacrilegious to make a figurative representation of God. With very few exceptions, there were no Jewish painters before the Russian artist Marc Chagall, who had to come to Paris to paint.”

Gleichgewichtsstörung: The Schoenberg-KandinskyTango

Schoenberg’s friendship and cooperation with the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky — a philosemite who was erroneously listed as a Jew in the Grosse Jüdische National-Biographie (1929) — underscores the impact of the blurring of boundaries between art forms, as well as the underlying, religiously motivated, “aniconic” (i.e., without icons) or “iconoclastic” thematic structure. Music meant a great deal to Kandinsky; he referred to his own paintings as “compositions,” and became deeply interested in Schoenberg’s attempts to establish correspondences between musical tones and colors, and in his rejection of the traditional tonal order.

A new kind of transvestism among the arts was thus born:

We see, for example, a painter who wrote an opera libretto (Kokoschka), a poet who composed music (Pound), and a composer who painted pictures (Schoenberg). It is as if artistic talent were a kind of libido, an electricity that could discharge itself with equal success in a poem, a sonata, or a sculpture. Throughout the modernist movement, the major writers and composers both enforced and transgressed the boundaries among the various arts with unusual energy – almost savage at times.

As Christian Meyer, director of the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, points out:

The first decade of the twentieth century saw an almost simultaneous musical and visual revolution. Because of Schoenberg’s innovations, musicians were freed from the system of tempered tonality.  At the same time, painters, especially Kandinsky, broke away from the system of central perspective and figural representation. These traditions had been legitimated for centuries by an overwhelming number of masterpieces and were so universally sanctioned that they had come to be regarded as the unquestioned essence of both arts. This explains the anarchist energy that had to be unleashed to liberate music and painting from the bonds of tradition, and at the same time it illuminates the “atonal character” of pre-World War I painting in Europe, which reflects this revolution.  While Schoenberg’s music was an inspiration to Kandinsky as he explored abstraction, today Kandinsky’s paintings function as ambassadors for Schoenberg’s musical works.  The strong colorful essence of Kandinsky’s prewar works has the same richness of sound colors in Schoenberg’s compositions.

Schoenberg approved of Kandinsky’s Der gelbe Klang with its “ungraspable” dimension, comparing it to his own Die glückliche Hand – a work that, according to Christopher Butler, explicitly challenged “the ‘laws’ of art as imposed by the Academy, along with the order of society as a whole.” According to James Leggio, Kandinsky’s “floating sensations” and celestial aspirations were reflections of Schoenberg’s release from “the gravitational grip of tonality”, a feeling of “weightlessness.”

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Kandinsky explained to Schoenberg that Der gelbe Klang was based on the anti-geometrical type of construction attained “by the ‘principle’ of dissonance.” Referring to the Ten Commandments in a letter to Schoenberg, he emphasized the power of negation and the difference between the law as a sign (word) and its signified (the meaning of the law). Kandinsky broke the link between the sign and a transcendental linguistic signified and hence equated art with reality.  As with Schoenberg, the artistic form is conceived as pure perception — independent of external references. This flight from meaning (in the traditional sense) eventually reached its final destination with the Dadaists: “The Dada Manifesto of 1918 proclaimed proudly and in capital letters: DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING.”  As their contemporary Ferdinand de Saussure stated: “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.”

Kandinsky and Schoenberg viewed their urge to change forms of expression as motivated by the desire to comply with the ancient Jewish prohibition against images. The old Jewish prohibition on images is characterized by its ability to uphold a separation between the pictorial and its referent, that is, the difference between the sign and what it signifies.

Vassily Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert), painted immediately after attending a concert featuring Schoenberg’s music in Munich on 2 January 1911

Steven Beller cites Schoenberg’s maxim “music should not decorate, it should be true,” and suggests that his explicit invocation of musical logic (most obviously in his serialism) represents an “invasion of the world of aesthetics by the ethical impulse of truth.” Beller comments that “it does not seem improbable that this stemmed from attitudes whose origins lay in his Jewish background.” Nicholas Cook agrees: “The whole debate about ornamentation … might be seen as resulting from the application to art of traditional Jewish thinking.” Both Schoenberg and Heinrich Schenker have been described as “Grenzjuden” (frontier Jews) — both cultural insiders and alienated outsiders.  Schenker held that Jews are “the compulsory instructors of humanity.”

The Jewish position, inclined to abstraction as in the work of Schoenberg, stood in tension with the aesthetic hedonism of the official Catholic culture of Austrian society.” No wonder, then, that shouting and scuffling accompanied the 1908 premiere of Schoenberg’s Second Quartet in Vienna — a work that certainly did not result in aesthetic pleasure in the audience. A near-riot erupted on March 31, 1913, at an orchestral concert in Vienna in which works by Mahler, Berg, Webern, Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg were played.

As Carl Schorske points out,

The system Schoenberg thus devised was no return to the hierarchical, privileged order of the diatonic system.  Yet its democracy of twelve tones would cohere again in a systematic way: in a hidden order, created by the composer — one in which above and below, forward and back, were related visibly to the analytic mind, even though not generally accessible to the listening ear. … Schoenberg as psychological Expressionist confronted his listener with an art whose surface was broken, charged with the full life of feeling of man adrift and vulnerable in the ungovernable universe; yet beneath it he posited out of his own powers a subliminal, inaudible world of rational order that would integrate the chaos. Here liberated dissonance became a new harmony; psychological chaos, a meta-sensuous order. … Thus Schoenberg the artist, even as he turned back to the faith of his fathers and submission to God, became man the creator, what Goethe would have called ‘der kleine Gott der Welt.’

At a personal level, Schoenberg was hardly a moral icon. Richard Taruskin points out that Schoenberg’s personality “was as absolutist and despotic as any dictator’s,” and that “his personal relationships could be repellently exploitative.” Schoenberg’s only name for skeptics, adversaries, or opponents was “enemies.”

The big step that others called the leap into “atonality,” a term that he deplored for its negativity, Schoenberg called pantonality or the “emancipation of dissonance.” Schoenberg characterized the Tristan chords as “spies reconnoitering weaknesses” to be exploited “in order to create confusion”.  But, as Taruskin points out, it was not dissonance itself that had been emancipated: It was the composer who was liberated “from the constraints of ‘voice leading rules’ whereby dissonance was subordinated to consonance in traditional harmony and counterpoint.”

The assertion that Schoenberg’s atonality represents a consequence of the chromaticism of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has been commonplace for quite some time.  Heinrich Schenker held that Wagner was directly to blame for the excesses of Schoenberg and his school.  But, as Richard Taruskin points out, the Wagnerian “crisis of tonality” was not Wagnerian at all: “It was read back into Wagner by Schoenberg’s apologists”:

Wagner used the chromaticism of Tristan und Isolde to delay to the point of torture the harmonic resolution that would symbolize the slaking of sexual desire. That harmonic tension … was the mainspring that controlled the syntax of what we now call “tonal” music.  Did the delays caused by Wagner’s chromaticism attenuate that harmonic tension? Don’t be silly.  They only magnified it, vastly so.  Wagner’s chromaticism gave tonality a new source of strength and expressivity. The consequences Schoenberg drew from Wagner’s musical style were entirely idiosyncratic and ahistorical, inevitable only in eyes blinded by “dialectic.”  To say the very least, they had nothing to do with Wagner’s creative aims, least of all in Tristan.

Schoenberg’s style recognized “no distinction between consonance and dissonance, so that harmonically speaking, literally anything goes.” Schoenberg once cracked to a pupil, “Now that I’ve emancipated dissonance, anybody can be a composer.” Removing the qualitative distinction between consonance and dissonance “eliminates the concept of the one being beautiful and the other ugly.”

While Wagner in his heyday took center stage, Schoenberg remained marginal or sectarian, as noted by Leon Botstein:

In contrast to Wagner, Schoenberg’s music and the rhetorical strategy employed in its defense (designed largely by Schoenberg himself) never achieved wide acceptance. … [F]rom the beginning, in the face of controversy, [Schoenberg’s] assertion of artistic integrity assumed a nearly puritanical façade of ethical superiority. Schoenberg’s envy of Stravinsky, Ravel, Respighi, and Bartók took the form of high-minded moralizing about aesthetic concessions and superficialities.

Nevertheless, it is a matter of fact that without Schoenberg, our era would have made a different sound.” As Jacques Le Rider points out, the utopias of mysticism, genius and narcissism – as responses to “feelings of solitude, ego-fragility, and instability” – had in common the striving to transcend limitations imposed by tradition: “they negate the male/female dichotomy and tend towards an androgynous ideal; they aim at the auto-destruction of a self that suffers because it cannot accept its contingent qualities (sex, race, etc.) and at the creation of a more perfect self.”

As Taruskin notes,

Surmounting the majory/minor dichotomy, voiding all distinctions between particular keys, was for him an achievement comparable to embodying androgyny or double gender. … To his pupil Anton Webern he confided that pantonality, like androgyny, “has given rise to a higher race!”

As Jacques Le Rider points out, “Viennese modernism recognised that [the] old certainties had crumbled. The androgynism of the modern psyche and the inextricable commingling of Jew and non-Jew had given rise to the most bewildering confusion.”

Egon Friedell presented his essay on Peter Altenberg (“the Zarathustra of the Café Central”) as a “natural history” of the human race in process of mutation. Indeed, the phenomenon of Schoenberg “stemmed from an intellectual Gesamtkunstwerk, closely related to new ideas then overflowing from science, literature, and painting that quickly intermingled with those emanating from music per se.”

It has been suggested that the formation and evaluative assessment of systems in relativistic or quantum physics and atonalistic or dodecaphonic music are inspired by the same operative principles and insights, and that there is “a historical-cultural link between these two system mutations as such and the new world-view they produced” (e.g. probability taking over from determinism, the pivotal role of the observer, theoretical pluralism, etc.). In many respects the determinism inherent in tonality theory reflected the determinism in classical physics. In a similar fashion, quantum physics and atonality share an indeterministic rationale, affirmed in the principle of probability and in the disappearance of external determinism (tonality).  As Mark Delaere points out: “In quantum physics external determinism and causality were toppled. The description of reality in terms of probability represented the triumph of ontological determinism over the mechanical determinism of classical physics.”

The ‘twelve-tone idea’ can be defined as a systematic circulation of all the twelve pitch classes based on “transposition, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde-inversion”; a shift from harmony as its principal structural determinant and toward counterpoint, reversing the stylistic change that occurred from Bach to Mozart by returning again to polyphonic thinking,” as noted by John Covach (pp. 604–610).

Delighting in parody and outrage, the avant-garde, according to Richard Drain, “fought a guerilla war against bourgeois culture”, the first onslaught of which came with futurism (launched in 1909), followed by Dadaism in 1916. Dada preferred non-Western cultures to ‘modern’ culture, opposed all –isms, including modernism, favoured spontaneity and a cabaret environment, cubist paintings and cacophonous music. Relativity – a key modernist notion, invoked also by the Dadaists and the futurists – was used “to deflate the status of ‘objective’ truth, license multiple viewpoints, and release them from the judgement of a final authority.”

Indeed, transmutations parallel to the convergence between Kandinsky’s painting and Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music – a turning point sometimes described as a ‘Metaphysik des Schwebens’, i.e. a ‘floating’ condition between the subject and the world – can also be seen in a general shift away from apparently absolute certainties in the direction of relativity: Boasian anthropology, denying the concept of race; Saussurean linguistics, insisting that there are no positive quantities but only differences; Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; the Heisenberg Indeterminacy Principle and the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’, marking the advent of a “postmodern” science characterized by “paradox, uncertainty, and the limits of precise measurement”; Einstein’s theory of relativity; Nietzsche’s scorn for the unfounded pretences of religion, logic, or history; Freudian “decentring” of homo sapiens, not to mention expressionism, surrealism, absurdism, Cubism (Picasso’s “extravagant deformations”), Dadaism, and atonalism in the arts.  Charles Lemert has pointed out that the rise of the relativistic paradigm – or relativistic deconstructionism – was based on the conviction that reality itself is not self-evident and orderly. Relativism is critical of traditional rationality, uncritical realisms, strict tonalisms, objectivisms, and systematic explanations.

This development set off a chain reaction that paved the way for the critical dismantling of Western tradition and traditional modes of thought, the cultural logic of deconstructionism or The Culture of Critique, according to which “the Western ideal of hierarchic harmony and assimilation” was gradually destabilized and perceived as “an irrational, romantic, and mystical ideal.”  The outcome was a gigantic meltdown of a whole civilization’s “cultural DNA structure,” a transition to “liquid” (post-)modernity through a memetic “epidemiology of ideas,” inventing a kind of “assembly line nihilism.”  The age of the gardeners has been succeeded by the age of the hunters and the order of chaos and wilderness.

Jacques Attali was right: music is prophecy. Music makes mutations audible.

Part I: Viennese Mutations

Part II: The Emancipation of Dissonance

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

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