lördag 7 januari 2017

Schoenberg and the atonals

BBC Radio Three is running a series of programmes on "The Second Viennese School": the group of composers that comprised Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils and close associates in early 20th century Vienna. Schoenberg himself was the subject of this week's Composer of the Week.

I have never been particularly attracted to that sort of music, though if you are used to singing Gregorian chant, it is not difficult to listen to. There is an interesting background. Schoenberg, who seems to have been a thoroughly good egg who had a hard life, was trying to break out of the diatonic (major and minor key) straitjacket, which, it was felt, had reached the limits of its possibilities by the end of the nineteenth century.

What is still not widely appreciated is that the dominance of diatonic music was a Western European phenomenon which took hold in the seventeenth century. Before that, and outside Europe, modal forms and other scales were and remain the norm. But even within Europe, the rules of diatonic music were famously broken by composers such as Gesualdo, William Lawes, Purcell, Bach, Zelenka, and Mozart.

That is not all. The music of the Catholic church, and the traditional Jewish music from which it was derived, is not diatonic but modal. The mode nearest to the major scale, Gregorian mode 5 (Lydian), is nevertheless different. The minor scale corresponding to the Aeolian mode, has no equivalent Gregorian mode. The other seven Gregorian modes are distant from the diatonic scales, none more so than mode 3 (Phrygian). Thus, if one is used to Gregorian chant, there is nothing strange about twentieth century "atonal" music.

Which brings us to Olivier Messaien, whose music also breaks out of the diatonic mould, but from a starting point in the Gregorian chant which he would have grown up with. There is here a sort of convergence. Messaien famously wrote no choral settings. He had taken the view that he could not produce anything of the quality of Gregorian chant and that it was a mistake to put one's work in a situation where it would be compared. A wise decision - in my view that helps to makes him probably the greatest composer of twentieth century church music.

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