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Arnold Schönberg

Arnold Schönberg's seething emotionalism is one of his most interesting traits. Most of us are emotionally turbulent as teenagers, and then our feelings "settle down" in adult life, to a degree, at least. Schönberg seems to have kept his adolescent intensity of feeling just as strongly at 70 as at 17. This gives his music an incredible drive.

Schönberg's early symphonic poem, "Pelleas and Melisande", spells out in great, expressive detail all of the emotions he associated with the progress of Maeterlinck's drama. This ability to create complex emotional progression in his music was preserved in the First String Quartet, and lasted all of his life, popping up in much later works like the "Accompaniment to a Film Scene". This 10 minute piece seems like a condensed version of the sound track of an entire mystery movie, with a whole psychological and dramatic progression of a plot. The String Trio, composed in his 70's after a "Death" on the operating table, is also ferocious in its extreme emotionalism - an attempt to depict Schönberg's feelings in music.

Many of Schönberg's other works contain similar emotional expressiveness, but of a different kind of feeling - a sort of an introspective, contemplative look at complex inner emotional states, far more static and calm than the "Pelleas" mode. These would include such works as the Second Chamber Symphony and perhaps the Second String Quartet, as well, to a degree, the Piano Concerto.

Another category of Schönberg's work contains much of the same formal development approach as the enthusiastic Pelleas mode, but concentrate on this pure form. This group does not altogether exclude the rich emotionalism of other Schönberg - who after all is an intensely emotional composer - but it concentrates more on formal logic unfolding with tremendous imagination and joy in formal development. This mode includes some of Schönberg's greatest works, including the First Chamber Symphony and the Variations For Orchestra. Here, Schönberg is heir to Beethoven in the logical unfolding of ideas in "pure music". "Herzgewachse" and the Variations for Wind Band seem to belong to this category, too.

Another Schönberg mode is mainly found in such "sprechstimme" pieces as "Pierrot Lunaire", and the "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte", as well to a degree, in the "Survivor From Warsaw". Here Schönberg can directly touch the human heart of his listener with astonishing power. Theses pieces are very complex, and their complexity seems to open new worlds of sound to the listener, as well as very remarkable feelings. The listener can experience ecstasy, as with "Pierrot", or tears, as with the later works. Their power and mysterious quality is most overwhelming.

There are also Schönberg pieces that are best described as "experimental". I don't mean tentative, here; I mean that they are intended to explore new worlds of sound. The Three Piano Pieces, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, and "The Book of the Hanging Gardens" belong here, as well as "Moses and Aaron", to a degree, although this last is a very different kind of work. These pieces are most interesting and enjoyable, and explore all sorts of new things in music, unheard before.

Schönberg's finales are especially interesting. He had a great gift for intricate, logical, and soothing combinations of sounds that he brought into play in such finales. See the endings of his First String Quartet, First Chamber Symphony, Variations for Orchestra, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, and all of Herzgewachse - which in this sense is "all finale".

Schönberg's theosophy during he creation of atonal music makes an intriguing parallel to the similar theosophy of such painters as Kandinsky and Mondrian during the creation of abstract art. The painters were trying to convey the spiritual realm through their art, and one wonders if Schönberg was as well - after all, the first piece of atonal music was a setting of Stefan George's "I Feel the Air of Other Spheres", a description of the spheres through which the soul ascends according to theosophy.

Schönberg and Kandinsky were friends. Schönberg was a painter, too, and an outstanding one, too, in my judgment - a judgment not yet reflected in orthodox histories of modern art. His portraits are especially rich in their broad areas of non-naturalistic color, that somehow yet convey the essence of the physical appearance of people and their personalities far more than most modern portrait painters do. Schönberg himself, his friends like Alban Berg, and important events like the funeral of Gustav Mahler "come through" in ways that few subjects in modern art do. It is perhaps paradoxical that Schönberg, so often accused of being "impersonal" or "theoretical" in his music, should be so devoted to his friends and their inner beings in his art.

Some thoughts on Renaissance Composers

Tomas Luis de Victoria

Victoria's works always sound as if they were some sort of logical argument expressed in music. First one thought or feeling is uttered, then another one that forms a logical progression, and so on to a climax summing up Victoria's ideas. The music often seems to support the individual works of the text, and almost forms a commentary. This is especially vivid in his settings of the Hail Mary.

Sebastian de Vivanco

Vivanco is a little known Spanish contemporary of Victoria. His music is just marvelous. The final "Glory to the.." in his Magnificat is one of the most beautiful moments in Renaissance music. Vivanco's music has a gentle quality, but it is also more lively and more rhythmic than that of Victoria or Palestrina.

John Taverner

Taverner is not to be confused with the modern composer of the same name. He is one of the climactic members of the English florid school, along with Thomas Tallis and the Scots Robert Carver. Taverner's music can open vistas of eternity. One especially thinks of the Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas here, and the sense during the Credo that one is seeing the very long view of reality.

Thomas Tallis

Tallis' motet for 40 voices, Spem in Alium, is one of his greatest works. Among other memorable moments is the one in which the music begins to beat antiphonally like the human heart. Renaissance music in general is timed to the human pulse - the singers used to stand in a circle, hand on the shoulder of the next singer, feeling his pulse - and this makes the pulse in the choral music of the era especially vivid. The work as a whole seems like a portrait of the human condition, as if it were all of humanity crying out.

Tallis' long anthem, Gaudi Gloriosa Dei Mater, is also just extraordinary. Its nine sections rise to climax after climax.

Stabat Mater

This was a Latin poem written in Florence in the 1200's; it is anonymous, but it is probably by the monk and poet Jacopo da Todi. It describes the feelings of Mary at the foot of the cross. (Stabat Mater means "the mother was standing".) It has been set to music many times by composers; an 18th century version by Pergolesi and a 19th Century one by Dvorak are especially good. Two renaissance settings are outstanding, both by English composers.

John Brown's version is one of the early works in the English florid style. This is an especially dramatic use of the florid approach; the outcries on the word "Crucifixus" are especially powerful. William Cornysh is a slightly later composer; his setting is one of his greatest works, and one of the most complex and interesting examples of English polyphony.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin's music has a logical quality. Its development reminds one of Beethoven, in which each theme is logically expanded or changed to form the next piece of music. Josquin's music is formally inventive. I especially like Josquin's masses; he works better the larger his canvas. The favorite so far: Missa Pangua Lingua.

Guillaume Dufay

Dufay's richest and most complex pieces of music are his four late masses. The most complex: the motet Ave Regina Coelum, and the mass based on it.

Thomas Weelkes

I enjoy both Weelkes' motets and madrigals. Many are wonders of ingenious, intricate polyphony. His contribution to the Queen Elizabeth tribute, "The Triumphs of Orianna", is especially good. The poem, "As Vesta Was From Latmos Hill Descending", concludes with the words "Long Live Fair Orianna". Weelkes sets this phrase into a polyphonic climax that is almost as long as the whole poem preceding it. It is a wonderful piece of music.