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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Does Music Predict The Future?

What we can learn now from Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring about the First World War

Question to you the reader: where do the terms and principles come from listed here below? Here they are:

1. Equality
2. Unification
3. Regulation and control

Are they from a political manifesto for an independence movement? No. Are they a management manual for discussion proposed by the police force after the riots in England this past week? No, wrong again. Are they from a Communist manifesto? Good try, but still wrong.

I will tell you where they come from: they are from an article Composition with Twelve Notes by the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) published in the 1940’s. Here are some quotes from the essay:

“The regular application of a set of twelve semi-tones emphasises all the other tones equally, thus depriving one single note of the privilege of supremacy.”

“The third advantage of composition with a set of twelve semi-tones is that the appearance of dissonances is regulated.”

These two quotes above are translated from the original text. The numbered headings above are my own, but the words are taken directly from the composer’s own text of three guiding principles.

Schoenberg devised this method of composition in the 1920’s. It is called serial music. Music was heading this way, for there were signs of the breakdown of tonal music for some time before then. Tonal music (as opposed to atonal music) contains tunes and chords which have dominated music for centuries, whether in “classical” music or “popular” music.

There were signs too of a breakdown in society before the catastrophic First World War (1914-18) and the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the confusion of social and political upheaval it was difficult to see where it was all heading. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Bur what if music, in spite of its abstractness, actually parallels society’s changes? Even more startling, what if music actually anticipates them? All we would need do is to listen and know where we are heading.

Here are some historical facts about three music events. Two of them included premières which changed the course of music:

Berlin, 16 October 1912: Schoenberg’s chamber opera Pierrot Lunaire is greeted with whistles and laughter. The text uses poems which imply or refer to self-discovery through alcohol and sex.

Vienna, 31 March 1913: Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 is performed. Although not a première, people leave the theatre noisily and fighting breaks out. Later in the concert Schoenberg had to appeal for calm when more fighting broke out, but eventually had to call the police and cancel the last work on the programme.

Paris, 29 May 1913: Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite Of Spring is premièred. Just two months after Schoenberg’s concert in Vienna a riot occurred at the ballet. Nijinsky had to shout instructions to the dancers from the wings, for the noise from the audience was so deafening that they could not hear the orchestra.

Now consider these dates:

Sarajevo, 28 June 1914: Assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand

28 July 1914: Start of the First World War

February 1917: First revolution in Russia deposes the Tzar

October 1917: Second revolution in Russia creates a Bolshevik (Communist) Government

My two quotes from Schoenberg echo the Communist revolution and its aims: that all notes should be equal is the equivalent of all people being equal. Although the composer wrote this in the 1940’s, his music before the First World War already pointed in that direction. The violent public reaction to the music in the 1912 and 1913 concerts is no surprise. The musical language was new or revolutionary. The subject matters in the ballet and opera were without precedent including ritual violence in The Rite Of Spring.

Now, wasn’t the First World War a terrible ritual of violence, with the bunkers replacing the theatre stage, and the slaughtered soldiers in place of the ballet’s pagan victim? And are not Schoenberg’s words about his musical language, “depriving notes of supremacy”, the same avowed aims of the Communist Revolution?

Maybe signs were there in the music I have referred to of the impending violence and changes to come between 1914 to 1918. And just maybe, if we too can now learn to read the implied signs in music, we can look into the future. If this is possible then music will be considered more than a reflection of society’s values, but an indicator of impending changes.

So the next time you whistle a new tune as you walk down the street, remember there may be more to it than meets the eye, or rather, parts the lips.

Read more:
Arnold Schoenberg, Composition with Twelve Notes

The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky

August 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=665 .
© 2019.

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