On Beethoven and Schönberg: Audible Fingerprints

One might ask why Beethoven and Schönberg should be performed on the same program. Both produced great masterpieces; Beethoven’s works have enriched the lives of millions of people for the last 200 years and Schönberg is well on his way to becoming one of the most accepted 20th century composers. Yet their significance goes beyond even the quality of the masterpieces they bequeathed us: both Beethoven and Schönberg are veritable structural pillars in the historical development of music. Only a handful of composers in the history of classical music have had the capacity to summarize and even culminate the development of an entire era of composition, while at the same time pointing the way toward a radically different new paradigm or style, and Beethoven and Schönberg are undoubtedly among these few.

Beethoven’s early period is characterized by the development of the existing idioms of Haydn and Mozart, just as Schönberg’s first period is marked by his two greatest influences, the unlikely bedfellows Brahms and Wagner. In Schönberg’s time, Brahms and Wagner had been considered antipodes with few followers in common, but Schönberg ingeniously married Brahms’s structural complexity and Wagner’s harmonic language in his early hyper-romantic works. The middle periods of both Beethoven and Schönberg reveal their own distinctive style, now independent of earlier influences. Beethoven’s middle period takes him into greater clarity and dramatic expression; Schönberg’s ambiguity gradually grows into the twelve-tone system.

Perhaps most fascinating are the late periods: Beethoven’s movement toward ever further disconnection and disintegration, and Schönberg’s “emancipation of the dissonance” in which he establishes the equality of all twelve tones. Beethoven in his late years arrived at extremes of expression; in the piano sonatas these are manifested quite literally by stretching the voices to opposite ends of the keyboard. One could say that he reached a philosophy of discomfort. Beethoven and Schönberg were both concerned with the transformation of musical material, as in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (originally Veränderungen, transformations) or in Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra.

The radical changes in these late periods were to have lasting, irrevocable consequences for the future of composition, and this is what makes their absolute value different from other composers. A composer like Mendelssohn left us no shortage of masterpieces, but his contribution to music did not alter the course of events in any way. Beethoven and Schönberg, on the other hand, have left audible fingerprints on the scores of all their successors, and will most likely continue to do so for as long as music is being written.

 

This text first appeared in the concert programs of the Southbank Centre in January 2010

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