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Volume 13, Issue 3: Musica

Moonstruck Moderns

Duck Schuler

Richard Wagner danced dangerously close to the precipice of modernity in his use of chromaticism.1 He self-consciously attempted to destroy tonality2 with his never-ending series of harmonies that would not resolve.3 His goal was revolution through art, a revolution which he attempted for the overthrow of Christian culture through the medium of drama as exemplified by the Greeks. But it was Arnold Schoenberg who threw himself headlong over this precipice and with that plunge took Western music into the hellish depths of atonality4 and expressionism. Modernity had come to art music. Schoenberg employed several methods in order to cause the destruction of tonality. He wrote music which did not revolve around a key center, thus destroying the triadic5 nature of harmony and establishing the practice of unbridled dissonance. He invented a compositional style called twelve-tone Music which is based on the recurring sequences of the twelve chromatic pitches (called a pitch row) set in an order determined by the composer. In twelve-tone music, the composer may not re-sound any note until the entire pitch row or any of its various permutations have been heard in order.

Schoenberg's early compositions, written in the Romantic style of the late nineteenth century, were modeled after Wagner's partiality for unstable diminished seventh chords.6 Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899) and Gurre Lieder (Songs of Gurre, 1901) are two works which exemplify this style. By 1908_09, he rejected tonalism completely and began writing atonal expressionistic works such as Pierrot Lunaire (Moonstruck Pierrot, 1912). Schoenberg himself tersely expressed his intention for such compositional changes in a letter to the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni in 1909:
I strive for: complete liberation from all forms / from all symbols / of cohesion and / of logic / Thus: / away with "motivic working out." /Away with harmony as / cement or bricks of a building./ Harmony is expression / and nothing else. /Then / Away with Pathos! / Away with protracted ten-ton scores, from erected or constructed / towers, rocks, and other massive claptrap. / My music must be / brief / Concise! In two notes: not built, but "expressed"!!7
The letter shows his complete embracing of modernity and his desire to see it permeate his music even if it means (as he points out later in the letter) that he must become a martyr for the cause. "Away with `motivic working out.' . . . My music must be brief, Concise! In two notes." So Schoenberg's modernism attempts to destroy a creational aspect of music—that of temporal organization. And brief did his music become. He all but dried out as a composer throughout the period from 1908-1923. His compositions became shorter and shorter until he stopped composing altogether. Should this surprise us? If there is no motivic development,8 there is no reason for one note to follow another. He was liberated from the logic of musical development but found that he had nothing to say. Since he refused to follow a creation model in his compositions, he was required to create his own autonomous structure each time he composed. Because the structure was new each time he composed, it made it impossible for the listener to follow the drama of the music. Before this time, listeners had relied on conventional and expected structural techniques, much like a road map, to be able to follow and understand the music they listened to. That was now all gone.
Schoenberg called for the "complete liberation from all forms," yet by the early 1920s he was willing to shackle himself to a different compositional system, the twelve-tone system. He had traded one master for another. The problem is that the first master, form according to the tonal system of Western music, was the product of observing and imitating God's fashioning of the world. It was an outworking of the imago Dei in the fullest sense. The new master, the twelve-tone system, is a system that cannot be observed in creation, but is a construct of the mind of a man who desires to throw off the imago Dei and replace it with imago ipsius. It is a completely logical system within itself, but the serialization of pitches has no counterpart model in creation. It is no wonder that even the best of twelve-tone music is an ugly and distorted monster when compared to the music of the great composers from any period.
And so the Romanticism of the nineteenth century was put to death. Expressionism (distortion of the music in order to reflect and express inner feelings) in the art world reigned. The pendulum again changed directions—pathos to ethos, and the pendulum swings further and further out with each change. The overly-charged outward emotions of the Romantic's sin nature had to be replaced with the cold, harsh inner expression of modern man's sin nature. Modern art music generally remains in the same sad state of affairs to this day. But as pitiful as the situation is, there is a more pitiable one. Because most moderns are not willing to give up their unbridled emotions, and art music had become extremely ugly, something was needed to fill the void. The chaos of expressionism is often replaced by the juvenile chaos of popular forms. Like lemmings, the people of God have followed the world. Instead of establishing a distinctly Christian culture, we have embraced one of the two extremes of chaotic modernism. When will we search out the mind of God instead of the mind of man?

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