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 here, then discuss Schoenberg’s conclusions regarding Brahms’ position in advancing this progression.

Schoenberg appears somewhat elitist about the quality of audiences, offering that most were not up to hearing the multiple complexes of ideas that are found in the best serious music. He infers diminished (musical) intellect as a cause. But many would counter that it is mostly lack of ear training and listening experience that compromises listening comprehension, nothing that a music appreciation class could not remediate.

Further, whichever conceit one labors under, live audiences will be comprised of people of the entire spectrum of listening abilities. Yet Schoenberg persists in addressing an audience as an entity with a fixed listening capacity, apparently defined by the lowest level of comprehension present.

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 maintains 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 (an analogy rather than a literal prescription). 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. These 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 some 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 constructions in meters and polyrhythms throughout his career, providing interest and ambiguity, and taking this freedom farther than had Haydn and Mozart.

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. Richard Strauss and Mahler, both influenced by Brahms, carry on such irregular constructions to a degree beyond merely a style, to the point that it becomes their musical grammar, 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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