Schoenberg and His School    (Rene Leibowitz)
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Schoenberg and His School    (Rene Leibowitz)
B0558. (SCHÖNBERG) René Leibowitz. Schönberg and His School. Trans. by Dika Newlin. New York, Philosophical Library, 1949. 305pp. Bibliography; Discography; Catalogue of Works; Bibliographies of works by Alban Berg & Anton Webern; torn DJ.

“René Leibowitz, Polish-born composer living in Paris, himself a student of Schönberg and Webern, is the latest, and in some ways the most formidable, champion the Schönberg school has yet had. No serious musician denies the historical importance of Schönberg's contribution, nor the fact that all contemporary music, directly or indirectly, owes something to his daring. The thesis might be stated in this way: the essential core of Western music in the last thousand years has been its polyphonic structure. The fact that we, in our music, hear independent melodic lines sounded simultaneously (polyphony) separates our music from that of all other peoples, and gives it its special glory. Unfortunately (according to Leibowitz), simultaneously heard melodies tend to form chords which gradually take on a life of their own as a harmony. At first in the modal system and later in the tonal system, harmony preempted the place of counterpoint. Melodies were no longer free to move outside their harmonic framework. This hegemony of harmony could not be destroyed until the tonal system itself was destroyed.

It was Wagner who precipitated the suspension of tonality through continual chromatic modulation, and Schönberg who first bravely dispensed with all feeling for tonal centers, thereby freeing polyphony from its harmonic fetters. It was then necessary to organize the new world of a-tonal sound, which Schönberg proceeded to do with the creation of his compositions written in the twelve-tone system. The rest of the book is devoted to a brief analysis of each of the master's works and those of his followers, Berg and Webern. Nowhere in his book does the author speak of the special world - Vienna at the turn of the century - which so strongly influenced the esthetic ideals of the music of Schoenberg and his school. The declining romanticism of that period, with its tense emotionality and its love of complexities, powerfully influenced the new revolutionary music. Its principal adherents, even today, are those who feel a natural affinity with the language of an exaggerated romanticism. Leaving aside their specific expressive connotations, Schönberg's innovations posit certain fundamental theoretical problems. Has the tonal system really been exhausted and should it be abandoned or are there still hidden resources to be tapped? Must music always be based on themes, or can we envisage a new anthematic music? Isn't it time to find a new way of organizing musical structure based on entirely new principles?

It is one of the ironies of the twelve-tone system that its supporters should be so anxious to prove that they are in the main line of musical tradition. Leibowitz in particular grovels before tradition in a way that is most unsympathetic to the American mind. Especially since this tradition-drenched music actually makes a bewilderingly untraditional impression on the uninitiated listener. Similarly the author makes a kind of fetish out of musical logic. Faithful to his Central European training, he holds before us the ideal of a music in which there is ‘not a single note of figuration which does not result from the development and variation of the basic motive’. But isn't it ironic that it should be just this music, of an undeniable ingenuity in note-for-note logic, that appears to have no inevitability of flow for the unprejudiced ear? In the name of logic, Leibowitz contends that only the music of twelve-tone composers can be considered truly representative of our time. Perhaps. But then what are we to do with triflers like Stravinsky and Satie - abandon them for the good of our musical souls? As an antidote to so much method I suggest that the author relax long enough to contemplate the charms of the unanalyzable and the non-systemic, which, after all, is what makes music an art and not a science.

For this reader the chapters devoted to the music of Anton Webern were the most absorbing. Here one finds material nowhere else available in English. Whatever the purely musical quality of his music may prove to be, it makes clear that Webern undoubtedly possessed one of the most original musical minds of our century, and that he carried the implications of the twelve-tone system closest to their inevitable conclusion. In spite of its fanatical tone and dense prose style this is an important book for all those professionals who want an authoritative analysis of the workings of the Schönberg system.”

- Aaron Copland, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27 Nov., 1949