Arnold Schoenberg: Brahms The Progressive


Schoenberg’s essay is a version of a lecture first given on the event of Brahms’ 100th birthday, then substantially revised on the 50th anniversary of Brahms’ death. This is a wide-ranging essay of uneasy organization, ostensibly dealing with a false characterization of Brahms as more backward-looking than his contemporaries, particularly Wagner. Schoenberg sets out “to prove that Brahms, the classicist, the academician, was a great innovator in the realm of musical language, that, in fact, he was a great progressive.”

Schoenberg annotates his points with many musical examples. For any wishing to understand his points in such detail, the essay is worth seeking out. Interwoven throughout the essay are Schoenberg’s own ideas about the nature of music, and regarding music’s progression from Bach to his own time. I extract these observations as a preface below, then discuss Schoenberg’s conclusions regarding Brahms’ position in advancing this progression.

Before advancing, however, let’s first examine a sidebar that spans much of the discourse, related to how much a composer should require or presuppose of his intended audience. Schoenberg appears somewhat elitist regarding a necessary quality of audiences. He states that great art “presupposes the alert mind of an educated listener”. He continues that such presupposition “enables a musician to write for upper class minds”.

Such thoughts strike discord in a modern mind, but it seems Schoenberg is merely trying to suggest that composers of great art should not concern themselves with audience ‘quality’ at all, but should create with “full pregnancy of meaning”, as if the audience will be up to comprehending the composer’s musical vocabulary and form of expression.

Further in this vein, he suggests that a composer risks offending his audience by simplifying or indulging in prolixity. “An artist need not think very much”, in the sense of “accommodating his style to the listener’s capacity of comprehension”. He cites Mozart’s temporary abandonment of his highly refined style in The Magic Flute, reverting in parts to semi-popular themes. “But the popular parts of this opera never attained the success of the serious parts”. Schoenberg observes that “popularity is only attained in those rare cases where power of expression is granted to men who dwell intensely in the sphere of basic human sentiments”. Schoenberg offers as examples Johann Strauss and Schubert, but surprisingly (to me) not Brahms, who by contributing both popular and serious works to his oeuvre, became simultaneously a great and popular artist.

Brahms the Progressive

Schoenberg identifies necessary characteristics of music: beauty and intelligibility. Further, “great art must proceed to precision and brevity”. “Classical music reveals, by its regularity, symmetry, and simple harmony, its relation with, if not derivation from, popular and dance music.” And this regularity and symmetry combines with prolixity to enhance memorability.

While form provides intelligibility, it adds nothing to beauty; if it remains visible, form detracts from beauty. The composers of serious music link together ideas into a coherent structure, but the form of the structure should not shape the ideas, and should not be evident on listening. Freed from structural constraints, the listener should only hear the pleasing and necessary logic of the discernible flow of ideas.

Just as prose uses different vocabulary to appeal to different audiences, so music can be conceived with more or less complexity in musical language, to satisfy the needs of the audience. Less capable audiences will require more regularity and repetition, and less parallelism, in the expression of ideas.

Next we come to the crux of Schoenberg’s argument, essentially his definition of the endgame of the classical music progression: “A contemporary composer connects phrases independent of their size and shape, only vigilant of harmonic progression, of rhythmic and motival contents, fluency, and logic. …parity and symmetry play a lesser role”.

Schoenberg suggests the progressives of the last two centuries have created the transformation described above. The main achievement of the progressives has been to free the musical ideas from structural and harmonic constraints, to render musical ideas as free-form prose (a metaphor). Progressive music has broken with symmetry, introducing ideas that are enhanced by irregular expression. Mozart, the original great progressive, showed his “vision of the future” through his ability to “systematize irregularity, making it a component principle of organization”.

With regard to Brahms, Schoenberg begins with an observation: “there was as much organizational order, if not pedantry in Wagner as there was daring courage, if not even bizarre fantasy in Brahms.” That is to say, Brahms and Wagner were different personalities, but peers; neither was less progressive than the other, and the subsequent masters such as Mahler and Strauss learned from both.

Schoenberg begins his Brahms discussion with harmonic structure analysis, using examples to show that Brahms was at least an equal of Wagner in extending harmonic freedoms. In his songs, Brahms moved harmonies more expansively than did Wagner in his arias, and Brahms repeatedly provides examples where he avoids establishing a tonality, modulating essentially throughout. Wagner was somewhat freer in introducing harmonic vagrants and unprepared dissonance.

With respect to structural analysis, Wagner used the leitmotif as an organizational principle to unify the otherwise largely unstructured musical lines responding to dramatic action. Brahms relied on classical ’rounded forms’ for his organizational structure: ternary, rondo, etc. Brahms’ classical forms were the result of centuries of innovation and provided the highest available level of musical comprehension to the audiences of non-programmatic (absolute, abstract) music. In both cases, the need for recognizable repetition was the organizing principle.

Neither of these organizational methods is less formalistic than the other. Rather, both represent “the same state of mind, from which one conceives an entire work in one single creative moment”. And both only arise in a mind capable of inspired spontaneity. Some, for want of comprehension, might interpret the structural integrity and inescapable logic of such creative moments as blind luck. Schoenberg implies that in the hands of genius, these mean the same thing.

Schoenberg observes that Brahms’ musical vocabulary results from compressing musical ideas into their most efficient expression and eliminating the redundant prolixity that was characteristic of previous classical (“serious”) music. In this regard, Brahms was a progressive classicist. Further, Brahms created asymmetrical and irregular meter constructions and employed polyrhythm throughout his career, providing interest and ambiguity, and taking this freedom farther than had Haydn and Mozart.

Early examples are provided of Brahms’ creative “liberation from formal restrictions of musical thoughts”, referencing his string sextets and his songs to illustrate his natural freedom with irregular phrasing and rhythmical shifts. Part of this tendency to irregularity of musical line was probably developed during Brahms’ early experiences with setting poetry to song. Brahms insisted the musical meter should reflect the poetical meter, but not too strictly. For example, in Opus 105 # 2, “the little piano interludes which separate and prolong the phrases are suggested by the mood of the poem”.

Reflecting further on why Brahms’ “irregularities are more than the meter of the poem demands”, Schoenberg offers that “the most important capacity of a composer is to cast a glance into the most remote future of his themes and motives, to know beforehand the consequences which derive from the problems existing in his material”. For example, “a composer, feeling that irregularity will occur later, already deviates in the beginning from simple regularity”, preserving balance.

Had Brahms been a dramatic composer, his “freedom of language would be less surprising. His achievements shine brighter when applied to dramatic technique. Brahms’ contributions to an unrestricted musical language enable the opera composer to overcome the metrical handicaps of his libretto’s prose; melodies will not depend on the meter or on the absence of possibilities for repetitions. There will be no expansion necessary for mere formal reasons and changes in mood or character will not endanger the organization. The singer will be offered melodic lines of interest as befits a singing instrument of the performance”. Need for artiface to counteract the growing dominance of the libretto accompaniment is lessened, such as when requiring “the singer to dwell on the dominant of the chord while the orchestra builds up thematic elaborations of his part”.

Richard Strauss and Mahler, both influenced by Brahms the Progressive and his move toward unrestricted musical language, carry on such irregular constructions to the point that “they have become incorporated into the syntax and grammar of perhaps all subsequent musical structure”, a segue to the 20th Century.

Schoenberg concludes with a detailed analysis of two Brahms works: Andante from A-min String Quartet and the third of the Vier Ernste Gesänge. “Both these themes are specimens of a perhaps unique artistic quality, as regards their motival elaboration and internal organization”.

“The sense of logic and economy and the power of inventiveness which build melodies of so much natural fluency deserve the admiration of every music lover who expects more than sweetness and beauty from music. But though I know offhand only one example of such complexity of construction by a pre-Brahmsian composer – by Mozart of course – I must state that structural analysis reveals yet greater merits”.

“At a time when all believed in ‘expression’, Brahms, without renouncing beauty and emotion, proved to be a progressive in a field that had not been cultivated for half a century. He would have been a pioneer if he had simply returned to Mozart. But he did not live on inherited fortune; he made his own”.

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