The Second Viennese School

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The “Second Viennese School”


         It is a commonplace, of course, in history to observe that there are times in which most aspects of life seem predictably to change little—whether economic, political, social, or artistic.  Inevitably, there follow those times in which nothing is predictable and significant alterations in every facet of society seem to cascade, one upon the other, and nothing remains the same thereafter.  We now understand the beginning of the twentieth century to be one of those periods.   All was in flux--science, art, philosophy—and most lamentably, politics and military power, as well.   The cataclysm of World War I was nigh, monarchies were to disappear, and new and oppressive forms of governments arose.  Intellectual life in all its forms walked, as it must, hand in hand with these events, and especially so the arts.  Any visit, today, to an art museum reveals the stark changes in perception, technique, and expressive means underwent by visual artists of that time.   In music, the parallel upheavals were equally fundamental and epochal.  And the epicenter for that remarkable pivot was fin-de-siècle Vienna—the city of Freud, Mahler, Klimt, Wittgenstein, and a host of other seminal intellects.

            The legacy of titans of Western art music that lived and worked in Vienna is fundamental to music history:  Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms.  But, by the end of the century, thoughtful composers—especially in Vienna—agonized over how to move forward in musical style, but yet maintain the tradition and rigor of their formidable predecessors.   The music of Wagner, especially that of Tristan und Isolde had taken traditional tonality to the brink of dissolution, and others, Gustav Mahler most importantly, extended that trend.  But, the way forward was more than murky.  It remained for an intense, largely self-taught, composer and teacher, and two of his immensely gifted students to explore one of the ways to the musical future.  That, of course, was Arnold Schoenberg and his protégés, Anton Weber and Alban Berg.

            Together (often deemed confusingly as the “Second Viennese School”) they proposed and produced masterworks in a musical style that was one of the major directions in musical composition of the twentieth century.  Others—notably Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, and their successors—offered other different, distinct responses to the question:   “What is modern music, what does it mean, and what does it sound like?”  Schoenberg began to compose early on in a musical style that attenuated the tonality of Romanticism in a dense, chromatic texture.  It didn’t take long for him to jettison all pretense of traditional adherence to the idea of composing in a single tonality, with excursions to related key areas, and the psychological pleasure of returning home.   Three hundred years of building, extending, and integrating amazing nuance in this technique saw much of its apotheosis in the work of Wagner, Richard Strauss (later), and Gustav Mahler.  But, Schoenberg saw that it had run its course.  His personal musical solution, and that of his talented young students, Berg and Webern, led first to atonality, and when the limitations of that became apparent, to the 12-tone technique.  Together, working in almost total collaboration, they moved quickly from late Romantic style into jettisoning the core of that style—tonality—for the bewildering world of atonality, and finally into the organization of atonality into the totally controlled texture of 12-tone composition.   Their collective body of works, while certainly not the all-encompassing solution to twentieth-century modernism, nevertheless constitutes a treasure of musical masterpieces from the first half of the century. Moreover, their artistic solutions became perhaps the dominant style of composition for a time after World War II—especially for Europeans and those in the American academic school—attracting even the attention of Igor Stravinsky, who had thitherto steadfastly maintained his own stylistic identity.   While it must be admitted that the dissonance and frequent obscurity inherent in Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern has never been to everyone’s taste, there is no denying the fundamental ethics, integrity and genius of their work.  While they differed, often strikingly—in their respective styles, they all offer rewards to the listener who will spend the time to listen without preconceptions and with an open mind.  Beauties and profound musical meaning lie beneath the daunting surface.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2015 William E. Runyan