Music in the Prison of History

On December 21, 1908, several hundred men and women gathered at the Bösendorfer-Saal in Vienna, settled into their seats, and bore unexpected witness to one of the great revolutions in musical history. Heading the program that night was a new work for string quartet and soprano by a controversial young composer named Arnold Schoenberg, already known in Viennese music circles for his challenging style: tense, drawn-out Wagnerian harmonies, allowed only the briefest and rarest moments of respite. And indeed, as the first three movements of his piece unfolded — Schoenberg straight away twisting the four lines of the quartet, cat’s-cradle-like, into one splayed chord after another — the crowd could be heard growing increasingly restless. But none of this was, strictly speaking, out of the ordinary. Yet.  Then came the fourth, and final, movement. Suddenly, and seemingly without preparation, Schoenberg abandoned any sense of a home key, or resolution, at all — and unleashed on the unsuspecting audience eleven minutes of total, unforgiving dissonance. There had been near-precedents: flashes of atonality in Debussy, Scriabin, and Strauss. But Schoenberg’s radicalism was of a different order. Unlike Debussy, he did not employ dissonance as a streaky, painterly effect. Unlike Strauss, his atonality did not just bubble up momentarily from otherwise conventional harmonic tensions, as though somebody had simply turned up the heat too high and accidentally caused simmering chords to spill over, for a second, into outright dissonance. No, Schoenberg used atonality, really for the first time in history, directly: as an all-encompassing, self-contained — and consciously abrasive — musical language of its own.  The audience was, predictably, stunned. Schoenberg would later reminisce, perhaps a little romantically, that the crowd began to “riot.” The morning after the concert, one local paper ran the headline “Scandal in the Bösendorfer-Saal!” In another, the music

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