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Schnberg and the Crisis of Expressionism

Author(s): Alan Lessem


Source: Music & Letters, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 429-436
Published by: Oxford University Press
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SCHONBERG AND THE CRISIS


OF EXPRESSIONISM
BY ALAN LESSEM
IN Arnold Sch6nberg's published writings, as well as those of
Webern and Berg, thereis no lack of referenceto the decisivenessof
the year I908, in which he took the firststeps in what has subsequently been described as 'free atonal' composition. Since then,
too, there has been much wranglingover the implicationsof 'atonality', abstractlyconsidered, but less willingnessto explore some of
the broader issues of the crisisinto which Schonberg and his pupils
were plunged-a crisis which has its place in the social and intellectual historyof our century.
In pre-War Vienna the perilous closeness of political and moral
collapse (and an inevitable general hardening to the pursuitof new
enterprise)brought with it a heightened awareness, on the part of
thinking men, of the phenomenon of social stagnation and disintegration. Hugo von Hoffmansthal described this phenomenon
as "das Gleitende" (the "slipping away" of the world); its most
pervasive symptomswere an abnormal cultivation of the self, a
pre-occupation with the expressions of psychic disturbance and a
guilt-ridden sexuality. Superficially this aspect of the Zeitgeistis
reflectedin the textsof Sch6nberg's 'Erwartung' and 'Die gliickliche
Hand', but it is necessaryto distinguishthose who, strugglingwith a
sense of impotence, responded to their age with a melancholy or
ironic scepticism (Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, Robert
Musil) fromthosewho, on the otherhand, soughtto confrontit with
an ethical opposition, animated not by parochial reaction but by
the traditionalpreceptsof European humanism.
Among the most intransigentin the struggleagainst decadence
was the satirist and polemicist Karl Kraus. In his own journal
Die Fackel (founded I899) he exposed and condemned abuses of
language so evident in the inflated stylishnessand superfluous
phraseologyof the Viennesefeuilletonistes.
An affinity
of temperament
between Kraus and Schonberg drew them, from time to time,
together.In the dedication which the composer sent to Kraus with
a copy of his 'Harmonielehre' (i 91 I ) he wrote: "I have learnt more
perhaps fromyou than one can learn if one is to remain independent"., At the very outset of his book he had attacked the mental
indolence that, in his time, canonized its prejudices in art under the
1 Quoted in Frank Field, 'The Last Days of Mankind: Karl Kraus and his Vienna'
(New York, I967), p. 25.

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(laws of beauty) and refusedto recognize,


name of Schknheitsgesetze
for fear of disturbing a false equilibrium, the relativityof such
'laws' to history.Anothername that appears in the 'Harmonielehre'
is that of the architect Adolph Loos, with whom Schonberg was
personally associated for many years.2 Round the turn of the
century Loos campaigned as a journalist against the pseudohistoricismprevalent in the architectureof Vienna, directing his
which, since the
attack primarilyat the decorative art of Jugendstil
Secession of i 897, was widely considered as setting the tone of
fashionably modern taste. In his essay 'Ornament and Crime'
(I908) he presentedhis views concisely: "As ornamentis no longer
a natural product of our civilization, it accordingly represents
Lack of ornament is a sign of
backwardness or degeneration...
spiritual strength".'
Loos was a pioneer in the new trend towards functionalism
in architecture and handicrafts. Similarly, Schonberg made it
clear to the readers of his 'Harmonielehre' that his concern was not
with 'aesthetics'but withskillscomparable to those of a good cabinet
maker:
Sparenessofmaterial!thatis, in truth,artisticeconomy;to use only
the means that are indispensablynecessaryto the productionof a
particularresult.All else is purposelessand hence clumsy.Nothing
can be beautifulifit is not organic.4
To Schonberg and like-mindedthinkersthe general Viennese taste
(ornament) was a formof intellectualdishonesty,in that
forSchmuck
a pretentiousparade of effectswas allowed to conceal a real poverty
of substance. It was a means, merely,of affectingan equivocal pose
and impeded what Sch6nberg took to be a proper communication
of ideas. With regard to this problem he wrote: "Great art must
proceed to precision and brevity . . . This is what musical prose
should be-a direct and straightforwardpresentation of ideas,
without mere padding and emptyrepetitions"."
Paradoxically, however, the desire for a "direct presentationof
ideas" would pose a very real threat to the formswhich had conventionally mediated them. For in the philosophy and practice of
art it had been commonly understood that immediatelyperceived
reality is, as such, not an aestheticphenomenon, and to become so
must be mediated through some form of representation(Hegel's
Schein).The challenge, for Sch6nberg and his contemporaries,was
to discover how expressionand formcould be properlyconciliated

2 Evidence forthe associationcan be foundin the publishedSch6nbergcorrespondence. See Erwin Stein, ed., 'Arnold SchoenbergLetters',trans. Eithne Wilkinsand
ErnstKaiser (New York, i965), pp. 144-50.
3 Ludwig Munz & Gustav Kunstler,'Adolph Loos' (London, 1966), pp. 228-9.
4 Arnold Schdnberg, 'Harmonielehre', rev. and enlarged ed. (Vienna, 1922),
p. 325.
5 Arnold Schonberg,'Brahnis the Progressive',in 'Style and Idea', trans. Dika
Newlin (New York, 1950), p. 72.

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without resorting to the gratuitous solution provided by mere


compromise. As Sch6nberg put it: "I believe it won't do: to toy
with freedom while one is still bound to the unfree".6 For those
who met only indifferenceto the urgency of this issue, it became
necessary,for the sake of 'truthfulness',to contemplate the risk of
going beyond entrenchednormsof asthetic mediation. Art had to
become 'Expressionistic'.
The music of Schonberg's crucial period, which extended from
I908 to the compositionof the firsttwelve-noteworks,was shaped,
as he noted some years later, by powerfuland pervasive subjective
impulses: "In my firstworks of the new style I was guided, in the
shaping of forms, by exceptionally strong forces of expression
both with regard to particulars and to the
(Ausdrucksgewalten),
whole".7 Further, he allowed himselfto believe that the intensity
of the subjective demand would, of necessity,generate artisticforms
that were appropriate to it. Intuition, firedby necessityand rarely
disturbed by conscious reflection,could be trusted to do its own
work., In close accord, the painter Wassily Kandinsky described
"inner necessity"as a fundamentalshapingforce; indeed, the affirmation of its intuitive rightness was as widespread in the early
years of this centuryas it had been over a hundred years earlier.
Then, the rebellious attitudes of J.-J. Rousseau, evident too in
German Empfizdsamkeit,
came as a reaction to eighteenth-century
intellectualism.Similarly, the rationalistic and mechanistic modes
of thinking which, as methodological procedure, dominated the
latter part of the nineteenthcentury,seemed to those who became
heir to it to exclude a wholenessof spiritand to deny the significance
of temporal flux and its necessarily non-conceptual expression.
Joining in the protest,afterNietzsche, were proponentsof a Lebensphilosophie-prominentlyWilhelm Dilthey and Henri Bergson;
furthercorroborationforirrationalmodes of cognitionwas given in
the phenomenologyof Edmund Husserl. "Vital experience" came
to be interpreted,in Bergson's sense, as the unique and the irreversible. It was to be valued as a means of bridging the gap between
the metaphysical and the physical, between universals and particulars.
In Germany a freshburst of activityin the arts, literatureand
drama carried with it a new set of attitudeswhich, achieving some
degree of coherence between about i910 and I925, has retrospectively been referredto as Expressionism.The Expressionistsbelieved
themselves to be caught in a malaise of degenerate cultural and
" 'Harmonielehre',p. 472.
7 ArnoldSch6nberg,
'Gesinnungoder Erkenntniss
?', 25 J_ahre
Neue Musik: J_ahrbuch
1926 der Universal-Edition,
ed. Hans Heinsheimer& Paul Stefan (Vienna, I926), p. 27.
8 "In composingI decide only throughfeeling,throughthe feelingforform.This
tellsme what I mustwrite,all else is excluded. Everychordthat I put down answersto a
compulsion:a compulsionofmyneed forexpression,but perhaps,too, the compulsionof
an unsolicitedand unconsciouslogic in the harmonicconstruction"('Harmonielehre',

P. 502).

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intellectual life, and hence the importance attached by them to a


new content,one that would signifya rebirthof moral and spiritual
values. Expressionismwas never a conscious grouping or movement
that could be definedby any kind of common programme,but poets,
dramatistsand painterswere drawn togetherin theirrejectionof the
methods of Naturalism, and also set themselvesapart fromImpression and Symbolismby refusingthe refugeofferedby the temple of
art. A commitmentto intuition, they believed, would lead them
back to an essentialhumanitywhichboth materialismand astheticism
had by-passed. Refusing all compromise, they pledged themselves
to a constantlyself-renewingsensibilitywhile acknowledging, too,
that anxiety was the price to be paid for continuing exploration
with unforeseeableresults.There were differencesamong them, but
all seemed to have agreed on Kandinsky's warning' against an overevaluation of formal convention made without referenceto that
which animates it: namely, inner content. Believing himselfto be
peculiarly sensitive to what he described as the "Abstract Spirit"
of his time, Kandinsky hailed the approach of a new era in which
the sensuous propertiesof art would find their proper place as an
expressionof spiritual values. There is, too, an echo of the theories
of early Romanticism in the primary place Kandinsky gave to
music as 'pure' expression; his desire was to achieve, for painting,
the emancipation from ordinary significationalready attained by
music.

Schonberg and Kandinsky first met at a holiday resort-a


meeting recollected by Kandinsky in a letter to the composer of
I July 1936.10 No date is mentionedforthe meeting,which probably
took place round i 909 or i 9IO. The men may have met by chance,
that they were
but Willi Reich, in his recent biography, suggests1L
from the
of
an
excerpt
brought together by Kandinsky's reading
das
his
in
he
then
'tYber
which
from
quoted
'Harmonielehre',12
The
of
correspondence
in
der
Kunst'
191!2.
published
Geistige
between the two testifiesto the close mutual interestin one another's
work during I91i-I213 -an interestrenewed by Schonberg in 1922L4
but suspended a year later as a result of Kandinsky's alleged antiSemitism. Sch6nberg's essay 'Das Verhaltnis zum Text' was published in Kandinsky's almanach Der Blaue Reiter(1912). 1 In it he
praised Kandinsky's book 'On the Spiritual in Art' and expressed
enthusiasmover the promised emancipation of the "painting of the
' See, in particular,WassilyKandinsky,'Ober die Formfrage',Der Blauc Reiter,ed.
WassilyKandinsky& Franz Marc (Munich, 1912), p. 78.
10 See JosephRufer,'The WorksofArnoldSchoenberg:A Catalogue of his Compositions,Writingsand Paintings',trans.Dika Newlin (London, I962), p. I86.
11See Willi Reich, 'Schoenberg: A Critical Biography',trans. Leo Black (London,
1971),

p. 41.

In Die Musik,x

(1 9I 0), pp. I o4-8.


12 See letters
ofI6
to Schonberg
ofKandinsky
1

I9I
November

and 13 JanuaryI9

in Rufer,'Works',pp. I85-6.
14See letterof 20 July I922 to Kandinsky,in Stein, 'Letters',pp. 70-72.
15 Togetherwitha manuscriptfacsimileofhissong'Herzgewachse',Op. 20.

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12,

future" fromthe externals of ordinarysubject-matter." In his own


book Kandinsky equated Sch6nberg's renunciationof tonalitywith
the aims of the new movement: namely, the liberation of art from
conventional aids to perception and cognition: "His music leads us
to where musical experience is a matter not of the ear, but of the
soul-and fromthispoint beginsthe music of the future' 7 The goal
of contemporaryartists,Franz Marc insisted,was "to create symbols
for their age, symbolsfor the altars of a new spiritual religion. The
artist as technician will simply vanish behind such works"."8The
parallel with Schbnberg is important.For it is the voice of this new
generation that speaks, in particular, in the third scene of 'Die
gliickliche Hand', where the effortsof worker-technicians(and
even of the protagonisthimself) to create a merely decorative art
(Schmuck)are scorned and rejected.
An affinitybetween Schonberg's objectives and those of the
Expressionistshas been suggestedin much of the criticalliterature.',
Certainly, the desire of the time for Ausdruckswahrheit
was one that
he shared. All that was not essential to it, including, and in particular, what Kandinsky described as "conventional beauty", had
to be sacrificed.Art historianshave, of course, recognized the roots
of this desire for 'naked' expressionin early Romanticism, and have
queried the independence of Expressionismas a category of style.
One need only cite, in supportof thishistoricallink,Arnold Hauser's
descriptionof the essence of Romanticism and compare it with an
'Expressionist' programme attached to Schonberg's music by a
contemporaneous critic:
Romantic art is the firstto consistin the 'human document',the
screamingconfession,
theopen woundlaid bare.2?
Sch6nberg,indomitable,offershimselfto the whole world with all
his privatedaemons.Indeed, in a virtualfrenzyof confession,
he
tears open his breast to show the stigmata. . . The blood of his
woundsbecomessound.21
Expressionism,to be sure, did tend towards Sturmund Drang
histrionicism;how one prefersto respond to that aspect of it is a
matter of taste (and it does seem that our contemporarytaste has
16 "When ... Wassily
Kandinskyand Oskar Kokoschkapaint pictures,the objective
theme of which is hardlymorethan an excuse to improvisein colorsand formsand to
expressthemselvesas onlythe musicianexpressedhimselfuntilnow, theseare symptoms
of a graduallyexpandingknowledgeof the true natureof art. And with greatjoy I read
Kandinsky'sbook On theSpiritualinArt,in whichthe road forpaintingis pointedout and
the hope is aroused thatthosewho ask about the text,about the subject-matter,
will soon
ask no more" ('Style and Idea', p. 4).
17 WassilyKandinsky,'On the Spiritualin Art', ed. Hilla Rebay (New York, 1946),
P. 36.
18 Franz Marc, "Die 'Wilden' Deutschlands", Der Blaue Reiter,
p. 31.
19Of particular interestis Arnold Schering's early study, 'Die expressionistische
Bewegung in der Musik', 'Einfiihrungin die Kunst der Gegenwart' (Leipzig, 19x9),

PP. 139-61.
20

21

Arnold Hauser, 'The Social Historyof Art' (London, I962), iii, p. 187.
ErnstDecsey, 'Zur Schonberg-Kritik',
Die Musik,xii (I9I2), p. 184.

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decreed against workslike 'Die gliicklicheHand'). But it would not


be fair to brand the Expressionistsas self-indulgent,for it was
preciselythe self-indulgenceof the etiolated aestheticismin which
late Romanticism had founderedthat they rejected. The stand that
Sch6nberg took, with Kandinsky, against an 'empty' beauty (one
devoid of content) was one that alienated him fromeven the once
well-disposed among his critics. In igi i Richard Specht claimed
that he had now only 'contempt' forthe praiseworthysophistication
of melodic and harmonicresourcesachieved in workspriorto I 908.2 t
Adolph Weissmann described his 'Expressionism' as a capitulation
to immediate and local excitation, by-passingany corporeal frame
Arnold Schering
of referenceand sacrificingart to spirituality.23
or
believed that such impulses would lead to a kind of Ubermusik
even Anti-Musik.24Paul Bekker, though more sympathetic than
others,neverthelessdrew similar conclusions:
as it developedfromthe classiThe musicof thenineteenth
century,
a corporealical art,was shaped by theurgetowardsrepresentation,
zation of the processof feeling. . But here lies the chasm. Schonberg's musicdoes not illustrate,it does not represent.It lives in a
strange,unknowndimensionof feeling,in which the corporeal,the
firmoutlineoftheartisticobject,no longerexists."
To suggest, as Bekker does, a 'chasm' separating Schbnberg
from the nineteenthcentury is, surely, to overstate the historical
argument,foralready in that centurythe problem of 'representation'
within a classical frame of referencebecame a central one. The
historical development would rather seem to be one in which the
rebellion of Romantic transcendentalism against the aesthetic
immanence of classicism culminated ultimately in, as it were, a
total mobilization: art against art. The resulting crisis has been
discussed by T. Wiesengrund-Adorno, who argues that feeling
'truly' expressed can no longer recognize the autonomy of art. In
Expressionismart survivesonly in threateningto cancel itselfout:
The essential,disruptingmomentis for[Schonberg]the functionof
musicalexpression.Passionsare no longersimulated;ratherdoes his
music record, untransposed,the impulsesof the unconscious,its
of traumatic
shocksand traumas. The seismographicregistration
shocksbecomes,at thesame time,thelaw oftheformofthe music.2
To identifyformand expressionabsolutely, as Adorno seems to
do, would be to postulate an extremenominalismand also to suggest
an absence of workingprocedure in the music. Recent attemptsto
ii (I 9 I ),
22 Richard Specht, 'Arnold Sch6nberg:eine Vorbemerkung',Der Merker,
p.697.
ii (i92o), p. 566.
desAnbruch,
23 Adolph Weissmann,'Malerische Musik', Musikblatter
24 Schering,op. cit., p. 143.
(Berlin,1921), p. 170.
Zeitbilder
26 Paul Bekker,'Arnold Schonberg',Kritische
26 Theodor Wiesengrund-Adomo,
'Philosophieder neuen Musik' (Tubingen, I949),

p. 42.

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seek out and define the characteristicsof Expressionismin music27


have stumbled against this problem, and have not passed beyond
merely descriptive determinationswhich rely heavily on reference
by negation. Most problematic is the negation implicit in Karl
W6rner's Momentform,
signifyingas it does the absence of any kind
of repetitionor systematicallyconceived relationshipbetweenformal
parts.28Worner's term is, of course, self-contradictory,
as formhas
to do with relationships. Furthermore, Schonberg, who always
subjected any considerationof isolated particularitiesto the criterion
expressed by the word Zusammenhang(formal connectedness),
would surelyhave rejected the implicationsof Momentform
as irrelevant to his concerns.While granting,with Bekkerand Adorno, that
it was characteristicof Expressionismto insiston the precedence of
'spirit' over 'art', one would nevertheless expect the absence of
means of formalorganization to be apparent rather than real. The
source of these means derived, as Schonberg frequentlyasserted,
from an almost somnambulisticintuition; thus the formal relationships created by them, rather than sounding on the surface of the
music, will be found to exist buried in its deeper tissues. They are
the subconscious controllingforcesfrom which stems the logic of
all dreams and visions.
Yet for much of the music of this centurythe metaphor of the
dream and its wider implications needs to be thoroughlyexplored.
Psychologists have attributed the extraordinary, hallucinatory
vividnessof dream images to the deeply buried 'syntax' that creates
them. Schonberg stressed, often enough, the hidden, compulsive
logic that underlay the operation of his musical fantasy.In common
with some of his contemporaries,he believed that a return to the
deeper recessesof the psyche would not only tap afreshthe sources
of artistic inspiration but would also lead away from the senses
towards what he described, in a letter to Nicholas Slonimsky,as a
"higher and better order".29 It may be suggested, then, that his
surrender to an untrammelled fantasy during the 'free atonal'
period representedan evolutionaryretreatfromwhat he saw as a
blind alley of over-refinement,
the retreat being made in the hope
of an advance in a new direction. Arthur Koestler has described
such action as reculer
pour mieuxsauter-"a favouritegambit in the
grand strategyof the evolutionaryprocess".30He believes that it has
27 See, in
particular,Karl H. Worner,Walter Mannzen & Will Hoffman,article
'Expressionismus',in 'Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart'. See furtherH. H.
Stuckenschmidt,'Was istmusikalischer
Expressionismus
?', Melos xxxvi (1 969), pp. I-5.
28 See Karl H. Worner, 'Schonberg's
"Erwartung" und das Ariadne-Thema', in
'Die Musik in der Geistesgeschichte'
(Bonn, 1970), pp. 9 I-I i 8.
29 Letter of 3 June 1937, in Nicholas Slonimsky,'Music Since I 900', 3rd ed. (New
York,1949), p. 574.
80 ArthurKoestler, 'The Ghost in the Machine' (London, i967), p. i67. Koestler
adds: "It seemsthat the task of breakingup rigidcognitivestructuresand re-assembling
them into a new synthesiscannot, as a rule, be performedin the full daylightof the
conscious,rationalmind. It can only be done by revertingto those morefluid,less committedand specializedformsofthinkingwhichnormallyoperate in the twilightzones of

awareness"(ibid.,p. 197).

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played as importanta part in the historyof human endeavour as it


has in biology. While the parallel with biology must remain hypothetical,it may become a usefulone in elucidating the phenomenon
music, art and
of so-called 'primitivism'in early twentieth-century
drama. It seems no accident that, contemporaneouslywith Schonberg,composerssuch as Stravinsky,Bartokand Ives foundinspiration
in elements that precede or underlie the civilized superstructureof
culture.
Musical fantasywas once described by Sch6nberg as "a dream of
1 promisinga liberation from the limitationsof
futurefulfilment"',
ordinary sense-experience. The monodrama 'Erwartung' can be
viewed as an allegoryof such an 'expectation', perhaps by necessity
nocturnal and experienced only in a state of hallucination. In
'Die Jakobsleiter', 'One Wrestling', having abandoned old laws,
awaits the intuitionof new laws, and the archangel Gabriel speaks
of a necessaryblindness. In 'Pierrot lunaire' the blindnessis that of
a pathetic (and again nocturnal) clown who is the alterego of the
Romantic hero; here the artisticconventionsof the past, rejected
by Expressionism as being no longer authentic, are momentarily
restored and vindicated through the spirit of irony. Through the
War years, the crisisof form,to which was linked a crisisof personal
belief,remained unresolved.The Rilke poems chosen by Schonberg
for his orchestral songs of Op. 22 give voice to his own anxious
expectations; the poem entitled 'Alle welche dich suchen', for
example, ends with the plea, "Gib deinen Gesetzen recht, die von
Geschlecht zu Geschlechtsichtbarersind". In 'Die Jakobsleiter'the
Biblical ladder becomes a symbol of evolving life in its struggleto
overcome mere existence. Gabriel makes the 'dissolution' of life
and its illusions a condition for entry into the spiritual domain
where the 'laws' are to be found; the music, with its high degree
of textual integration,its clarity of line and thematic work, points
to the imminence of such laws. Most significantly,an emerging
principle of organization, described some years ago by Winfried
Zillig,32yields strictformalrecurrencesand pitch symmetrieswhich
should be associated, in the text,with the concept of a transcendent
order. Schonberg's secrecy with regard to the development and
consolidation of his twelve-notemethod was surely motivated, not
by narrow pride, but by a natural reluctance to allow the method
that is, without relation to the human
to be evaluated in abstracto,
and spiritual experience out of which it evolved.
31 "Fantasy, in contradistinction
to logic, which everyoneshould be able to follow,
favorsa lack of restraintand a freedomin the mannerof expression,permissiblein our
day only perhaps in dreams,in dreamsof futurefulfilment":Sch6nberg,'Tonality and
Form',in Merle Armitage,ed., 'Schoenberg'(New York, 1937), p. 260.
32 WinfriedZillig, 'Notes on ArnoldSchoenberg'sUnfinishedOratorio "Die Jakobsleiter" ', The Scorexxv, (I 959), pp. 7-x6.

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