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Vienna, Austria is a city built on pure genius. Around every corner is seemingly a bust, a statue, or perhaps a performance hall with another name written below, and another story to be heard. It is, in many ways, the central home to great classical music, and in fact composed music with an orchestra of any kind.
Before traveling anywhere, we prefer to pin down cultural cornerstones of the place we’re visiting and learn a little about its history, and how those cultural relics made the city into what it is. If this is the case, then one must start with the musical history of the First and Second Viennese Schools.
Classical music lovers might already be aware of the the First Viennese School, a name applied to the Classical Period in Western Art Music where three giants reigned among ordinary men. Among them, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, they created some of the most notable and remarkable pieces of the Classical Era that spawns inspiration among art music enthusiast even still. You don’t need to be in Vienna to hear these legends of music history, as virtually every day anyone with a television, radio, or computer might run across an iconic work that came from the First Viennese School composers.
Consider the example below of Beethoven’s Sonata No.21 in C Major. This is a fine example of the beautiful works during the First Viennese School, and the practice of what is considered tonal music. Tonal Music simply means that the piece follows and resolves around a central key or tone, such as the Key of C Major, as in this example.
Yet, there was another school, a “new school” that the Art Music loving Austrians of the early 20th century called the Neue Wiener Schule, or New Viennese School. Today, called the Second Viennese School, wasn’t quite a rebirth of Classical Viennese ideas, but rather a unique venture that largely coupled itself with the expressionist movement in Germany and Austria through its originator, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg’s style, both in harmony and development, has continued as one of the most influential of 20th-century musical thought.
Schoenberg developed the Twelve Tone Technique (a compositional style ensuring that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale were used as often as another, while preventing particular emphasis of one specifically) and led a cast of students who would go on to change the face of not only Viennese Classical music, but shape the future of Western Art Music. He often resisted central motifs in his compositions, creating mosaics of sound that were truly eclectic and ground-breaking for the time. This, in contrast to the sounds of the First Viennese School, is what is called atonal music.
These sounds could be crushing and dark, with the fiery, creative dissonance of some Frankenstein’s monster of music theory, often resulting in a musical composition that exalted, stressed, then ultimately released the listener in a thunderous crash.
An example can be heard here, in the work Drei Klavierstücke:
The stark difference is apparent, isn’t it?
Schoenberg’s pupils were a varied tree – including Gustav Mahler, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler, Alban Berg, Nikos Skalkottas, and American composers John Cage and Leon Kirchner, among others. Some were accomplished in their own right before uniting with Schoenberg and adopting his atypical philosophies, such as Eisler, who composed the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic, while those who came along at the latter end of Schoenberg’s teaching were seemingly birthed in his originality – leading to wild and innovative pieces such as John Cage’s 4’33. This was a piece that stretched the idea of uniqueness, as it instructs the performers not to play their instrument during the entire duration of the piece (incidentally, four minutes and thirty-three seconds), throughout the three movements. In this, the actual composition is not of “music”, per-se, but rather the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed.
You can witness the peculiarity of 4’33 in this performance by William Marx. Notice the specificity of how Marx closes the piano cover to signal the beginning of the “performance”, a practice common of Cage.
The Second Viennese School was, in fact, less a moment of musical history but a movement in musical history. Where the First Viennese School was daring in its order and complexity, the Second stood the old rules on their heads. During this time, Vienna was an artistic melting pot of clashing cultures and visionary ideas which later gained worldwide recognition. This movement, which at its core influenced not only music but all of Viennese art and eventually giving rise to the birth of artistic counterculture in Europe and abroad. Sparse, angular sounds that often completely abandoned tonality became commonplace and it was then that the Classical and Romantic Periods of Western Art Music had truly become something new – something wildly different. In fact, much of what is played today in concert halls throughout Vienna (and Europe) lean a bit more to these visionary Second Viennese School composers than those of the First, as many find the sounds wild and more appealing.
In this way, Schoenberg was most certainly a musical revolutionary. For 100 years, composers have been extending his legacy in increasingly radical directions, and the idea of atonality (a term he actually despised) spread beyond his death in 1951. It can be argued, in fact that Schoenberg’s life and movement influenced the Beat Generation of the 1950s (which followed immediately after his death). As Jazz music became more experimental in the wake of the ending of World War II, many musicians looked for outside influences, and Schoenberg’s trend-bucking compositions were just the thing to fill the mind of creatives in Europe and America in the mid-1950s.
The style, free of musical dogma and restriction, was a liberation for composers at the time – and continuing so, since. The less stringent, Neue Wiener Schule principles popularized by Schoenberg are today commonplace, but not without difficulty. For every Igor Stravinsky, who adopted the Twelve Tone Technique (though was never an exclusive practicer of it) and developed one of the most strikingly original music reputations of the 20th century, there is a David Del Tredici – who experimented with atonality only to return after the pressures of being labeled a musical outcast.
However great the struggles, those who have succeeded in Schoenberg’s wake have continued to change music in much the way he did – by extending the idea of the possible and experimenting endlessly with sound and theory, thereby changing the landscape of the musical world.