Commentary Magazine

Schoenberg and the New Music, by Carl Dalhaus

Music of our Century

Schoenberg and the New Music.
By Carl Dahlhaus.
Translated by Derrick Puffett and Alfred Clayton. Cambridge University Press. 305 pp. $44.50.

Carl Dahlhaus is not only “the leading German musicologist of our day” (as the jacket of the present volume quite rightly claims); he is also, to my mind anyway, the most learned and provocative aesthetician and historian of music now writing anywhere. Dahlhaus is already known to the English-speaking public through his books Esthetics of Music (1967), Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas (1971), Between Romanticism and Modernism (1974), and Foundations of Music History (1977). But readers understandably reluctant to tackle his very difficult German will gain an adequate idea of his full intellectual range only when his fine study of the rise of tonality, Untersuchungen über die Entstehung der harmonischen Tonalität (1968), appears in translation—which one hopes will be soon.

Schoenberg and the New Music presents 22 of the 40 essays included in Dahlhaus’s Schönberg und andere: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Neuen Musik (1978), together with six others written subsequently. Though it is a difficult—indeed, often a confusing—book, Schoenberg and the New Music is required reading for anyone with the slightest interest in the curious fate of serious music in our century.

It is inconceivable that a book titled Beethoven arid the New Music, or even Schumann and the New Music, could have been published in 1888. Wagner had been dead five years, Brahms and Bruckner were heading into their final decade, Mahler was at work on his Second Symphony, and Richard Strauss’s career was well launched. Or try to imagine a book called Handel and the New Music appearing in 1788—with Haydn and Mozart at the peak of their careers and Beethoven soon to leave Bonn for Vienna. The immense richness and variety of a century that began with Buxtehude and ended with early Beethoven, and of a century that began with early Beethoven and ended with early Schoenberg, ordinarily prevent us from speaking of “18th-century music” or “19th-century music,” phrases that seem too glibly general even to serve as survey-course titles. And yet, with only twelve years remaining in the 20th century, we still speak, often and naturally, not only of “20th-century music” but also of “the problem of 20th-century music” and even of “the language of 20th-century music”—as though that language were as remote as Akkadian or Hittite.

Indeed, to many people much of it is. And here we have a book quite appropriately titled Schoenberg and the New Music, where the phrase “new music” is intended to cover not the music of the last twenty or thirty years but all “advanced” music since Schoenberg abandoned tonality in 1907: the “free atonal” music of the fifteen years that followed, the twelve-tone (or dodecaphonic) music that succeeded it in the 1920’s, the “total serialism” of the post-World War II era, and the aleatoric and neotonal music of the last decade or two.



How did this situation come about? Why is so much of the admittedly most important (in some sense or other) music of the last eighty years still in need not just of commentary (appreciative or otherwise) but of basic explanation? What, finally, are we to think of the music of our century?

Nobody is better fitted than Dahlhaus to address these and related questions. Not only does he possess the extraordinary credentials amply attested to by his earlier books, but he has absolutely no axe to grind. Unlike most writers on 20th-century music, he is neither a reactionary curmudgeon nor an avant-garde apologist. He is out only for historical and aesthetic truth. Yet as I have said, he is a difficult and sometimes a confusing writer, even (or especially) in translation. For in addition to his training as a musicologist, he has evidently had a considerable philosophic education, in the classic German Hegelian-dialectic mode. This sort of education encourages a way of thinking and writing that is somewhat foreign to an English-speaking audience.

In Esthetics of Music Dahlhaus gives a helpful capsule explanation:

The expression “dialectics” means, if understood in Hegel’s sense, that something must be analyzed into opposing phases in order to arrive at the thing itself or to win recognition as what it is. In its first, immediate form, its essence is still hidden. Only a development—an unrolling process—by way of antithesis allows the essence to come to the fore.

Thus Dahlhaus is constantly unearthing antitheses or contradictions or paradoxes, to most of which a reader trained in the Anglo-American mode of philosophic analysis would apply a less stringent name. This makes for a dense and clotted exposition, and often Dahlhaus’s essays seem more like sustained meditations than like arguments, circling around and around a concept rather than moving forward in a straight line. He is difficult not only to read but also to paraphrase, and one is constantly in fear of simplifying or misrepresenting him. Yet his prose fairly bristles with insights, and the task of reading and interpreting him is almost always worth the considerable effort involved.

Schoenberg and the New Music begins with a group of general theoretical essays, most of which deal with the history of such concepts as new music, progress, and genre. I can here only begin to suggest their richness.

Because music historians were long attracted to the metaphor of style or period as organism—a metaphor whose history and disadvantages Dahlhaus has discussed at length in Foundations of Music History—they have often ascribed the quality of newness “to the beginnings of a lengthy period of evolution . . . and not to the middle or later stages.” Thus what has passed for new music—the monodies that Caccini published in his Nuove musiche of 1601, the galant works of the 1740’s—has often been marked more by “an unexpected poverty and thinness” than by “anything strikingly new.” Sometimes what was “strikingly new” came somewhat later, as in the case of Haydn’s Op. 33 Quartets of 1781, which he rightly declared were written “in an entirely new and special manner.” Moreover, since the beginning of the 19th century the question of newness in music has been complicated (and politicized) by the growing conviction that the true enemy of the new is what Schumann called the “juste milieu,” the way of reason and moderation, rather than (in Dahlhaus’s words) “the old, which is far rather understood as something that was once new, as something to which one can relate instead of having to combat it.” As Schoenberg memorably said, “The middle road is the only one that does not lead to Rome.”

Similarly, standards of what constitutes progress in music have changed. “From the late 18th to the early 20th century,” writes Dahlhaus, “it was, next to the development of harmony and instrumentation, above all the growing richness of expression and characterization that was considered progressive. In the past few decades, however, the emphasis has tended to be placed on compositional-technical discoveries and hypotheses, on methods of musical thinking.” Tracing this more modern way of thinking about progress to the alleged analogy between music and the sciences, Dahlhaus dryly notes: “Modern physics includes classical physics; yet it would be a gross overstatement to say the same about modern compositional technique.” And he concludes: “Progress in music is not like that in science, but can be compared to that in philosophy, which is similarly debatable and which seems to consist, inasmuch as it exists at all, less in the solution of problems than in their discovery.”

Finally, there is the concept of genre. “One could say that prior to the 17th century function, text, and texture are the primary factors that determine a genre.” But in the 18th century, “formal types such as the sonata and the concerto began to determine the genre,” along with scoring: “A symphony is nothing but an orchestral sonata.” In the 20th century, however, “the constituent features of a genre—text, function, scoring, and formal model—gradually lost their importance,” resulting in “the disintegration of musical genres.” Thus we have works with titles such as “Constellation” or “Figure” or “Prism” rather than symphonies or concertos.

All of these essays that begin Schoenberg and the New Music are very much worth reading in themselves. But they also have a role to play in the structure of the book as a whole, for they effectively prepare us for the ones on individual composers (mainly Schoenberg) that directly follow. Though Dahlhaus’s tone has mostly been imperturbably equable, one can sense troubling implications in the developments he has been tracing—Schoenberg’s politicized conception of the new, the 20th-century stress on “compositional technique” rather than “expression” as constituting progress, the “disintegration” of the traditional genres. And at one point he has noted, though significantly only in parentheses, that “complex harmony which dissolves or disguises the cadential scheme cannot structure large forms.” What then are we to think of the prospects for atonal and dodecaphonic music to structure the large forms in which Schoenberg, for one, continued to compose until almost the end of his life? The answers are not long in coming.

Schoenberg, as is well known, hated the term “atonality.” “What mattered,” Dahlhaus explains, “was not the negative element, the lack of tonality, but the reason why tonality had been renounced: the ‘emancipation of the dissonance.’” Just as Schoenberg seems to have meant each major work to demonstrate a particular compositional point, so he always sought justification for his compositional practice in music history—which is why he requires an expositor like Dahlhaus, who can match him in historical and theoretical knowledge. His particular justification for the “emancipation of the dissonance” was that the difference between dissonance and consonance was not, and never had been, absolute, but had been differently fixed at different points in history and was, in fact, merely relative, a matter of degree. But while unresolved dissonances in earlier music had always been heard as ellipses that the ear could fill in, Schoenberg intended (in Dahlhaus’s words) that “dependent dissonances are to be reinterpreted as sonorities in their own right. The exception becomes the rule, the characteristic deviation a neutral norm, the ellipsis a closed structure.”

All well and good. But as Dahlhaus goes on to point out, “it is uncertain whether comprehensibility in itself is the decisive factor”: “The emancipated dissonance, . . . in contradistinction to the dependent one, is an event without consequences, an isolated sonority. The chord is not deprived of comprehensibility, but it no longer leads anywhere.” In the 1920’s Schoenberg sought to impose the twelve-tone method as a way of creating the unifying force formerly supplied by the directionality of tonal harmony. Yet, as Dahlhaus concludes, “The difficulty occasioned by the fact that emancipated dissonances could not create progressions remained unresolved.”

Another of Schoenberg’s key concepts was that of “musical prose,” which he introduced in his important 1947 essay “Brahms the Progressive” and which he intended, as Dahlhaus puts it, to perform “a function in the areas of rhythm and melody similar to that performed by the emancipation of the dissonance in the area of harmony.” By citing examples of irregular phrase construction not only from Brahms but also from Mozart and still earlier composers, Schoenberg once again sought to justify his own practice. Dahlhaus too cites many earlier examples, but his point is quite different: “In Schoenberg’s music the neutral medium that held together the heterogeneous musical shapes in Mozart—the medium consisting of the regular ‘pulse’ of beats and the uniformity of ‘harmonic rhythm’—has disappeared.”



Dahlhaus is not a writer who calls attention to his own shifts in opinion. Everything comes with the same mix of authority and judicious awareness of the complexities involved, the authority having been (one feels) hard earned by the awareness. One is therefore reluctant to draw any conclusions about ways in which his thought on these matters may have changed. But the two essays I have just cited come from the 1960’s. In the 1974 essay “Schoenberg and Programme Music,” writing of the 1930 Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, (“Music to Accompany a Film Scene”) he was still willing, at least in this particular case, to take Schoenberg’s side against his critics: “The enduring complaint that the twelve-note structure cannot be heard is mindless: it was never Schoenberg’s intention to emphasize the technique. Yet . . . the sense of a hidden logic forces itself on a listener even if he cannot understand the construction.” But then, in the very next sentence, Dahlhaus seems to turn an unacknowledged corner: “Nonetheless a twelve-note structure that is virtually inaudible and may remain so is without significance for the external form, the outline of the whole. And the price Schoenberg paid in this work for making the compositional technique more sophisticated by using dodecaphony was a coarsening of the formal conception.”

True, Dahlhaus is ostensibly here discussing only a single work. But his language is uncharacteristically violent: “enduring complaint” is a weak and weary rendering of the phrase “unausrottbare Vorwurf,” which might be better glossed as a reproach that cannot be stamped out or exterminated. This extraordinary tone suggests that Dahlhaus is, though perhaps unconsciously, thinking not just of the Begleitungsmusik but of all twelve-tone music—surely there cannot have been that many complaints launched against this particular work. And if the twelve-tone organization, even just of this work alone, is “without significance for the external form” because it is “virtually inaudible,” then why should the reproach or complaint, even it can be justified by reference to Schoenberg’s “intention,” be termed “mindless”? Where, exactly, does Dahlhaus stand in all this?

By 1976, in “Schoenberg’s Poetics of Music,” he was willing to state more generally (though still cautiously) the implications of the technical insights contained in his essays of the 1960’s. “The abolition of tonality,” he writes, “was therefore an emancipation which at the same time represented a loss. And it seems as if the invention of dodecaphony—which he construed as a discovery—was felt by Schoenberg to be a way out of an impasse which had come about due to the renunciation of the backing provided by tonality.” Despite the cautious phrasing, the sense that Schoenberg’s subjective (and mistaken) point of view is being opposed to the musical (i.e., audible) reality is very clear—and is, in fact, still clearer in the German, which does not say “which he construed” but rather “die ihm . . . erschien,” “which seemed or appeared to him.”



By 1984, in “Schoenberg’s Aesthetic Theology,” perhaps the richest of all this group of essays, Dahlhaus was ready to go still further. After speaking of the emancipation of the dissonance as “not so much a qualitative leap logically resulting from what had gone before as an arbitrary act,” he finally (and with some pain) lays all his cards on the table:

Yet the fact remains—and to have to admit this is rather difficult for a historian—that it is, strictly speaking, impossible to give a reason for Schoenberg’s decision of 1907. Those who speak of historical necessity, of the dictates of the historical moment which Schoenberg obeyed, make the event appear more harmless than it actually was. The suspension of the existing order, the proclamation of the musical state of emergency, was an act of violence. And thus the theories with which Schoenberg attempted to justify the emancipation of the dissonance are characterized by a helplessness which prevents us from taking them at their word as being motives for compositional decisions. The same holds true, a decade and a half later, for the step to “composition with twelve notes related only to one another.”

This is indeed a stunning admission, and it prepares us for the rather elegiac tone that pervades the theoretical essays that conclude Schoenberg and the New Music.

These deal mainly with developments of the post-World War II years, which Dahlhaus does not view kindly. Mainly he deplores the tendency of recent composers to relinquish the concept of the autonomous musical work, a tendency directly related to the disintegration of genres on which he has earlier commented. Composers have now “become suspicious of the criterion of survival. . . . Rapid aging is not felt to be a defect or a sign of failure, but is taken as a matter of course, as something that is self-evident. . . . What a composer commits to paper is not so much a text as a graphic means of causing music to be produced.” This stress on activity and process at the expense of structure and product, this “ideology of directness and spontaneity . . . among composers who are tired of the discipline of serial thought,” seems to Dahlhaus nothing more (or less) than “a relapse into a second primitivism.” For he firmly insists that “the category of the work of art, though it is undeniably of Romantic origin, continues to perform a function.”

Opposed (and complementary) to the decline in importance of the concept of the musical work of art is the elevation of improvisation, which Dahlhaus sees as having generated among composers “aesthetic expectations” that are “excessive and Utopian.” For “in an improvisation only the here and now, the direct impression, is of decisive importance. . . . Composition tends toward objectivity; improvisation is mere execution.” And of course one source from which recent composers have derived their ideas of improvisation is jazz and pop music, which Dahlhaus sternly dismisses as “anti-art” that is “directed against the esoteric quality of the musical avant-garde and of art in general.” “The initiated,” he tells us, “do not judge jazz improvisation in formal terms according to the manner in which the details join to make a consistently developing whole, but exclusively in stylistic terms, from the perspective of the homogeneous or heterogeneous nature of the musical means.”



At this point even a reader who has so far agreed with Dahlhaus’s strictures against much of what has happened in 20th-century music feels impelled to object. Does he have any firsthand experience of the greatest jazz? If so, how could he possibly have made the absurd statement just cited? For once, his authoritative tone seems unearned. At another point he defines aesthetic judgment as “a historically circumscribed form of evaluation which is based on the work concept and on the sharp distinction between art and non-art.” It is just here, I think, that his habit of thinking in terms of antitheses, his Hegelianism if you will, betrays him. Whether or not one likes jazz, it is experientially and conceptually untrue that aesthetic judgments necessarily rest upon any sharp a priori distinction between art and non-art. One wishes that Dahlhaus had read some of the works on aesthetics written by English and American followers of Wittgenstein.

One might also offer a related objection to the reason that Dahlhaus gives, in “Schoenberg’s Aesthetic Theology,” for the failure of historical explanations to justify Schoenberg’s jettisoning of tonality:

. . . the attempt to explain in terms of the philosophy of history Schoenberg’s power to take decisions, that is, to interpret the diktat of the individual as that of history, is questionable inasmuch as the concept of the “one” history which the philosophy of history assumes to exist is doubtful and may be suspected of being a myth. What really happens are histories—in the plural: at different places and under divergent circumstances. “History” in the singular is a fiction.

This curious view is restated in several other essays, yet to me it seems mere playing with words. A person has a history, as does a family, a town, a nation, an epoch, the world, the universe. The more general our historical explanations become, the more liable, perhaps, they are to error and distortion. But there is no logically necessary (or determinable) stopping point in the ascent to total generality, and therefore nothing conceptually wrong in speaking of history in the singular.

Anyhow, the real reason Schoenberg’s lurch into atonality (or whatever we choose to call it) is not historically justifiable is that deterministic accounts do not work very well in any sort of history that deals with the choices of rational human agents, and they work especially poorly in the history of the arts. The whole notion that tonality gradually became exhausted, played out, incapable of further use by composers is the real fiction, created in the minds of Schoenberg and others operating under the influence of Marxist and other sorts of 19th-century deterministic dogma. Its untruth is proved by the existence of a wealth of successful tonal and quasi-tonal works by composers such as Stravinsky, Bartók, Britten, Janá?ek, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. The flaw in the phrase “diktat of history” lies not in the latter word but in the former one.



What does Dahlhaus see as music’s future? It is hard to say. In 1966 he was willing to declare flatly: “The premises of earlier music—tonal harmony and metrical rhythm—cannot be restored.” But this smacks of a determinism just as sterile and wrongheaded as Schoenberg’s. In the most recent of the essays collected in Schoenberg and the New Music, “Tonality: Structure or Process?” (which had not even appeared in German when the book went to press), he takes a more moderate position. Objecting to “generally unphilosophically-minded post-modernists” who “regard everything as usable and blithely . . . heap layer upon layer of a whole heterogeneous host of different stylistic fragments and quotations,” he writes: “The virtually inevitable result of all this is an effect which, in Stravinsky, was a precisely calculated technique with clearly established aesthetic assumptions . . . but which at present often seems to be no more than a blind grab into the biscuit tin of the past.” When one thinks of the work of the minimalists and the various promoters of the New Romanticism, it is hard not to agree.

I was surprised, though, that Dahlhaus does not once mention Elliott Carter, perhaps the most distinguished of living composers, and that he mainly mentions Pierre Boulez as an essayist and theorist rather than as a composer—though he spends a good deal of time on the boring John Cage. Moreover, if he were not so committed to his rigid distinction between art and non-art, Dahlhaus might see some truth in the contention of the late Deryck Cooke that the finest jazz and popular music have performed an important function in our century by helping to reinstate what Cooke called “the musical vernacular”—that is, tonal harmony and metrical rhythm—as a vital force in the wake of Schoenberg’s destructive influence.



Yet when all is said and done, all objections duly proffered, one must emphatically repeat that Schoenberg and the New Music is an absolutely smashing book. Of the essays to which I have not hitherto called attention, I would in conclusion single out three: “Problems of Rhythm in the New Music,” in which Dahlhaus sensitively analyzes passages from Webern and early Stravinsky; “Schoenberg and Schenker,” in which he brilliantly shows how Heinrich Schenker, the great conservator of tonality, was really working the other side of the same street as his old enemy; and “The Musical Work of Art as a Subject of Sociology,” in which Dahlhaus defends the autonomy of music history and the musical work against that other notable Hegelian, Theodor Adorno. Schoenberg and Adorno, it becomes clear, are Dahlhaus’s two masters—at least when it comes to thinking about 20th-century music and its problems. Schoenberg and the New Music may be read as his courageous and successful attempt to lay their troubling ghosts.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.