The death of musical modernism has been proclaimed since the day of its birth. Like many traditions, it has been proud of its parentage and eager to break free of it, and this double-mindedness has manifested in each generation’s claim that its music is not modern, but merely a continuation of tradition.
Schoenberg, as the continuation of a tradition stretching back to Bach at the earliest and Wagner and Mahler more proximately, embodies the same willingness to preserve in revolution the essential aspects of the classics. Even as he unrooted harmony from traditional function, Schoenberg retained a phrase structure that depended on harmonic balance and opposition. Even as he burst open the strictures of traditional form, the freest of Schoenberg’s works projects a clear-cut structure.
In terms of expression, in terms of beauty and harmonic power, Schoenberg’s works reward the listener who strives to accept what they have to offer. The composer who was confident that a future public would embrace his works was not interested in enticing an academic coterie of note-counters, but rather in using music to communicate persuasively and eloquently.
And it is for this reason that Schoenberg’s music seems at this moment so vital. It speaks out against those who would use power to impose upon others, against dictators and tyrants. It cries out for justice in a world seemingly devoid of it. It appeals to our deepest feeling and inmost humanity.
In 2017, this is what we require: music that engages our emotions as well as our intellect.