Not Principles but Music: A Case Study of Arborescent Structures

The initial question with the arborescent structures we discussed (here) is what problems arise from their use. What congestions and roadblocks are caused?

Glenn Watikin’s The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory deals with such an example in the correspondence of Arnold Schoenberg and Rene Leibowitz. Earlier, Schoenberg had created the twelve tone technique of composition. Its radical departure was taken up by many, including Leibowitz.

This form of serialism was seen by some, including Schoenberg, as a sole means of composition. Leibowitz was one of those people as well. Twelve tone technique was the “central organ”, the arborescent structure from which all was to derive.

Sure enough, it came to a surprise to Leibowitz in the 1940’s when he got the chance to look at some of Schoenberg’s latest scores. Watkins mentions what is at the heart of this confusion that Leibowitz articulated in his letter to Schoenberg:

“He had just received the scores to Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon and the Piano Concerto. In the latter work he confesses that he is troubled, noting that it seemed to lack the serial consistency of his recent String Quartet No.4…”

Balancing his letters with what Watkins called “sycophantic praise”, Leibowitz pressed why Schoenberg’s work went away from the arborescent structure he so deliberately created and nurtured. Did it not serve as the revolutionary foundation for music to come?

Schoenberg was dismissive of such ideas.

As Watkins mentions, “[h]e allowed…that he would attempt to give a few explanations [to Leibowitz]: first, that he did not ‘compose principles, but music’; second, that his method of composing with twelve tones ‘was not introduced…as a style to be used exclusively, but as an attempt at replacing the functional qualities of tonal harmony'”.

Inherent in Schoenberg’s response is a stream of contradictions that Watkins takes note of:

“The perspective does not seem to square with Schoenberg’s often-quoted claim of the 1920’s to the effect that he had just made a discovery that would insure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.

Yet, despite periodic inconsistencies in Schoenberg’s proclamations, it is clear from his correspondence with Leibowitz during the final years of his life that for him not only was serialism ultimately not an ‘academic’ posture but also surely not one positioned as the sole solution in an ongoing trajectory of ‘progress'”.

Schoenberg goes against his and many’s view of twelve tone technique serving as an arborescent structure. Instead, he uses it liberally and sprinkles in tonality that his serialism was supposedly upending.

How can the idea of origins explain such erratic behavior?

When dealt with contradictions and nonlinearity, arborescent structures glitch out. As one who believed that “the twelve tone technique will become of exclusive use”, Leibowitz succumbed to its limits. Confusion was all that could be expressed.


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