An Interview with The Foremost of Modern Impressionist Composers
Secured Expressly for The Etude By Laura Remick Copp


“To the Etude readers this message is given. The only way to understand and enjoy modern music is to hear it as often as possible ; hear, hear, hear it, a hundred times. That is the only way. The present generation is conservative and accustomed to certain scales, keys and chord combinations, so that their hearing has always been along these stereotyped lines. The new generation may “catch” the modern idiom, as they are not so hampered by precedent. But to understand modern music, one must study. It is a science to be investigated like any other.
“To know Bach, Beethoven and other masters, we studied their works; and if we had no clear conception of the fugue and the sonata forms, as presented by them, our critical opinions of them would lack foundation. And so a clear view of modern art can be attained only after examining the technical ideas and innovations. A knowledge of the c1assics interferes with this understanding of the new and exotic no more than an acquaintance with French, German or other language would interfere with the study of Chinese. Repeated hearings are the only solution. A prominent violoncellist told me he played a Bloch quintette seventy-five times before he really
heard it, and then he liked it.”

The Courage of Individuality

“As to my own music, years before l had the courage to write out what I heard it came to me from – well, perhaps from the devil – but l heard and heard and finally chanced it and wrote. Art is ever changing. It must be, to create and live. After so long a time, it is better to wipe away all existing things and to start afresh.
The acceptance of that which is new is, in general, difficult for men. The very people, who, because they have a conception of beauty, eventually possess such a thing as culture, defend themselves and what pleases them with decision against the new, which should in their opinion have the effect of beauty, whereas as a matter of fact it only tries to produce truth. Age old systems of music have reached their limits and old theories have been run to death; the new must be tried.
In the early centuries a third was considered a dissonance, as only fifths and octaves were accepted; but for me no dissonances exist. Consonance and dissonance are merely a matter of degree, anyway. Modern composers have not changed the fundamental principles of music. Many of what are considered ultra-modern chords are merely what were once known as passing or changing chords, with the distinction that they now leap over resolutions formerly considered indispensable. Thus, totally new harmonies, new combinations of tones are formed. One dissonance succeeds another, apparently for no particular reason, causing the mood of music thus written to be frequently elusive and baffling definition; for I do not resolve ail dissonances (some may ask, ‘Do you resolve any, Mr. Schönberg?’). l allow them to follow each other, or to merge into other chord combinations without resolution. This produces to ordinary ears strange chords (of so-called Schönbergian color). A grouping of fourths, g-c-f, c-f-b flat, for example, with new effects resulting from the strange sounding together of these tones and intervals. To one accustomed only to those built up in thirds, these newer combinations sound wrong, but Scriabin built chords of other intervals than thirds, such as



l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center. It is It is not, however, a matter of mathematics, for in music as in painting and in architecture it is a thing one feels rather than something one understands.”
To a question calling him to account for the unusual leaps of his melodies, Mr. Schönberg replied, “My melodies leap, yes, but so do those of Brahms.” Here he illustrated on the piano one by Brahms that does leap; and it is true that he did not always adhere to his “trapeze” form of melody, as Robert Haven Schauffler, in his recent book on Brahms, calls it; but he did skip about. Surely though Mr. Schönberg must admit and probably does that no composer’s melodies leap from top to bottom, from highest octave to bass register, as do his. By the way, a suggestion may not be out of place. This composer’s melodies can be more easily heard if the skips are deleted, as it were, and if all the pitches that are on different planes, or in different octaves, are put as nearly as possible into one and the same octave. Try it. It helps. Naturally this changes intervals and the effect.
“I have a basic set of twelve tones,” he continued, “which are the semitones in an octave, c, c-sharp, d, d-sharp, e, f, f-sharp, g, g-sharp, a, b-flat, b-natural and which l consider of equal importance (not, as of old, first the tonic, then the dominant, dominus master], which governs the key, then the sub [or under] dominant, and so on; but all are equal).
This is most strange to ears hearing the other way; but it is not necessary longer to use the first few harmonics, as has been not, however. done so long, with c-e-g-c-e as the harmonic pattern.



Instead employ the so-called higher harmonics and build chords from them.
“When one considers all of the semitones in an octave of equal importance, the music thus formed has in consequence no feeling of key or tonal center in the old sense; but, as l said previously, there is a feeling of all keys merged into one or a unit y of keys. (Does it, perhaps, follow the socialistic tendencies of the times?) But, at leas t, it is a very democratic way of conceiving music, as there is no dominant, dominus or master. All of this sounds strange indeed to ears not at all used to such harmony.
From these twelve very democratic tones and different combinations of them spring my melodies or musical ideas with which I work and which I then develop as any composer does. These melodies are harmonized and there is, of course, logical connection between the melody and harmony and unity in following chords.”
So Mr. Schönberg takes away from us all of our keys, major and minor (for there would be no such distinction in his “all-are-equal” ideas); and all of our scales (using only the chromatic, if he uses scales). He disregards our system of harmonies, that is, the lower, simpler ones, upon which our chords have been built. He eliminates our scheme of resolutions of chords, piling unresolved ones on top of each other. He changes our chord construction, which has been to form chords of thirds. He does away with the relation of tones and the idea that some – such as dominant, leading tone, rest tones, active tones and others are more important than others in the scale. He has revived the free barless rhythms of the old Netherlands music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – barlines in such places being considered a nuisance, as they tempt one to render false accents; especially when such difficult conflicting rhythms are his!

Sincere in Art

So what are we to do but hear, hear, hear until our ears are attuned to the new state of things. At least we know he is sincere; for in his Harmonielehre he says, “I have learned this from my pupils. From the faults of my pupils when l gave them insufficient or wrong instruction, I have learned to give them the right instruction.” This proves his sincerity. His vision is an intensely individual one, to which his technic has been made to correspond.
Asked if any color stimulates him as red velvet did Wagner, or if country scenes or air help as they did Beethoven or Brahms, he said, “No, I love all beautiful things, but do not depend on them for stimulation or inspiration. I write because I feel like writing. Something, perhaps like an electric wave, touches me; then l write because I must. The urge is from within and I write what comes to me. At first hearing this Music may affect one as it would a cabinet maker if he were asked about the cosmos; but it can be understood and liked if heard sufficiently, and if the aesthetic ideal is understood.”

Art True to Ideals

“One cannot do all things equally well; nor should one undertake too much; so I chose my music and have not painted for twenty years. I had no tangible ideal to express in my painting, nothing I can put into words, neither have I in my music. I portrayed subjects as l saw them; just as l write music as l hear it. I see beauty in an eternal struggle for truth and perceive that fulfilment is always the point to which desire tends, but which could as easily be the end of beauty; and l realize that harmony – counterbalance – is not a motionless state of inactive factors but a balance of the most highly strung forces which cause struggle to take place in life: If I have a musical creed, it is that to represent life in art, with its mobility, its possibilities of change and its necessities, to acknowledge development as the only eternal law; these should have a more fertile result than to accept any finite point in development because a given system finds its conclusion there. My continuaI development has been in the direction of newness. From my earliest works, which naturally are much easier to hear, I have always written just what comes to me, perhaps unconsciously. The artist, who has courage gives himself up wholly to his inclinations. Only he who yields to his inclinations has courage; and only he, who has courage is an artist. To him it is sufficient to have expressed himself. To say what had to be said according to the laws of his own nature. The laws of the nature of a man of genius are the laws of the future of mankind.”

Self-Test Questions on Mr. Schönberg’s Article:

1. Why are repeated hearings of modernistic works necessary?
2. What innovations in the uses of dissonances are characteristic of works by modern composers?
3. How does Schönberg use the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale?
4. Name some Schönbergian novelties in treatment of musical resources?
5

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. What might be said to be Schönberg’s “musical creed”?

The Etude 52/10 (October 1934), p. 573, 609

 

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