During my student days, I had the privilege of studying theory with Arnold Schoenberg. He was one of the great masters of the structure and function of "the theoretical" in music of past centuries, in its "process" in the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Bruckner, Debussy, etc., etc. and yet he was the master of twelve-tone music, particularly in its practice. "Twelve-tone what? System?" He disliked this word intensely and substituted technique (twelve-tone technique).
His works have not lost their communicative power nor their gestalt (the singular formal structure), and as stated by Paul Rosenfield in the early 1920s, Schoenberg "is...one of the exquisites among musicians...Since Debussy no one has written daintier, frailer, more diaphanous music. The solo cello in Serenade is beautiful as scarcely anything in the new music is beautiful." I remember as well Schoenberg himself in a class I attended saying, despite his profound involvement in "twelve tone," that "One can still write a masterpiece in C major, given the talent for composition."
"Composition itself has grown too difficult, desperately difficult. Where work and sincerity no longer agree, how is one to work? But so it is, my friend the masterpiece, the structure in equilibrium, belongs to traditional art, emancipated art disavows it. The matter has its beginnings in your having no right of command whatsoever over all former combinations of tones. The diminished seventh, an impossibility; certain chromatic passing notes, an impossibility. Every better composer bears within him a canon of what is forbidden, of what forbids itself, which by now embraces the very means of tonality, and thus all traditional music...The diminished seventh is right and eloquent at the opening of Opus 111. It corresponds to Beethoven's general technical niveau, does it not?...The principle of tonality and its dynamics lend the chord its specific weight. Which it has lost through historical process no one can reverse."
So once again theory and practice have gone their separate ways, guided by "historical process." In this case the Devil sells a new theory to a composer of genius, Adrian Leverkühn (presumably Arnold Schoenberg), in Thomas Mann's great novel Dr. Faustus
. This becomes a symbol of the breakdown of society and culture which occurred in the 20th century. But as usual even in the great ones, such as Palladio, Schoenberg, et al. their theories hardly begin to "cover" their works of the misrepresentations of their works. The most recent example is the dethroned theorist Derrida: "no piece of writing is exactly what it seems" and is "laden with ambiguities, contradictions." One can speculate interestingly on the reversal in Palladio's heavenly derangement of his theories in his actual works, not in his drawings, leaving us with the overwhelming impression that something of greatest importance is missing in his theories.
I decided not to take the Devil's advice. In the fourth quartet I pursued further this intricate and profound connection between past and present, and, utilizing what I have learned concerning the characteristic elements of contemporary music, I have experimented with the idea that Schoenberg tossed out: "One can write a masterpiece in C." Whether this is possible or not, it is certainly a worthy trial, a pursuit that Schoenberg, despite his reverence for the work and changes he made in his own music, using his own technique and vast reservoir of the knowledge of the art of composition of music before he established his twelve-tone technique, revealed in pieces like the Chamber Symphony
, Op. 38. Whether or not this is successful in my piece is unknown to me at present. It was a seductive idea, one that I have been pursuing of late, to possibly reveal the necessary intimacies between the past and present which keep the art of music alive and well.
— Leon Kirchner
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