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Pierre Boulez: Notes of an Apprenticeship (1968)

Schoenberg Is 'Dead 1
o take a stand regarding Schoenberg?
To do so is urgently necessary, certainly; it is none-
theless an elusive problem, defying wisdom, perhaps a
search without satisfactory result.
It would be vain to deny it: the Schoenberg "case" is irritat-
ing, above all because of its freight of flagrant incompatibilities.
Paradoxically, the essential experience is premature in the
very direction in which it lacks ambition. That proposition
could easily be turned around to say that it manifests the most
demanding ambition where the most outdated symptoms ap-
peaL In that maj or ambiguity resides a misunderstanding full
of discomfort over the origin of more or less conscious, more
or less violent reticences, which one resents in a work of
which, despite everything, one feels the necessity.
For with Schoenberg we attend one of the most important
revolutions that has ever affected the musical language. The
material, properly speaking, certainly does not change: the
twelve half-tones. But the structural organization is altered:
from tonal organization we pass to serial organization. How
did the idea of the seri es materialize' At what exact moment in
Schoenberg's oeuvre did it occur' From what deductions did it
result? It seems that by following that genesis, we shall come
very close to uncovering certain .irreducible di vergences.
Let me say, before anything else, that Schoenberg'S discov-
1 The present translation notably in its
greater length-from the verSIOn of thiS essay which appeared in Score
(London) for May 1952 . - TRANS.
S0111e Eclats
eries were essent ially morphological. That evolutive progres-
sion started from the post-Wagnerian vocabulary and reached
"suspension" of the tonal language. One can detect very well
defined tendencies even in Verkliirte Nac"t; the First Quartet,
opus 7 j and the /{a71mlersY1Jlphonie; but it is only in certain
passages in the scherzo and the finale of the Second Quartet,
opus 10, that one can watch a true attempt at revolution. All
the works just mentioned therefore are, in a way, preparations;
I believe that today we may be all owed to regard them chiefly
from a documentary point of view.
Suspension of the tonal system is ac hieved effecti vely in the
Three Pieces for Piano, opus 1 I. Thereafter, the experiments
become more and more penetrat ingly acute and lead to the
renowned Pierrot iunaire. 1 note three remarkable phenomena
in the writi ng of these scores: the principle of constantly
l efficacious variation, or nonrepetiti on; the preponderance of
"anarchic" intervals- presenting the greatest tension relative to
the tonal world-and progressive elimination of the octave, the
tonal world par excell ence; and a manifest attempt to construct
These three characteristics already di verge, if they do not
contradi ct. In fact, the principl e, of variation can he accommo-
dated only badly with rigorous (read: scholastic) contrapuntal
writing. One observes a sharp internal contradicti on in the
exact canons in particular, where the consequent textuall y
reproduces the antecedent-both the sound-figures and the
rhythmic figures. When, on the other hand, these canons are
produced at the octave, extreme antagoni sm ensues between a
succession of horizontal elements ruled by a principle of ab-
staining from tonality and vertical control placing the strong-
est tonal constituent in sharp relief.
Nevertheless, a di scipli ne is outlined which will prove very
fecund; let us keep in mind very particularly the possibility,
still only embryonic, of a series of interval s passing from the
horizontal plane to the verti cal and vice separati on
of a t hematic cell from the rhythmic figure that
has gIven It bIrth, with that cell thus becoming a series of
absolute intervals (us ing that term in its mathematical signifi -
cance) .
Let me revert to the usc of the intervals that I have called
"anarchic. " In Schoenuerg's ,,orks of that period we oftcn
encollnter fo urt hs followed by dimini shed fifths, major sixths
prcceoing major. t hirds, and all the reversals and interpolations
that one can bnl1g to bear upon those two patterns. Here I
observe a preponderance of intervals if the unfolding is hori-
zontal, or of chords if it is coagulated vert icall y, which afe least
IlHi\'e to the classic harmony based upon super imposed thirds.
On t he other hand. I l10te the g reat abunda nce of wide inte r-
v:l ls, resulting ,in a stJ"etching of the register, and thus gi vi ng
the ;]bsolute pitch of each sound an importance never before
dreamed for it.
Sl,lc.h, an employment of sound-material provoked some es-
t hCtICIZlIlg explanations that have since been used as an indict-
ment Of, bcst, as a henevolent defense speech, which has 110t,
howcver, mcluded any general formulation, Schoenherg him-
self expounded on this subj ect in a way that permits us to speak
expressJOl1Ism: /l In the formal elahoration of my first works
1t1 the new style, I was guided above all by very strong expres-
sive In particular and in genera!, but also, and not least,
by a feeling for the form and logic inherit ed from the tradition
:ll1d we ll developcd hy application and consciousness. "
That citation obviatcs the need for any gloss, and one ca n
only agree that, in which Schoenberg's mal1 -
ncr of musIcal t,lunkmg mamfests an interdependence of h:.1l-
and. expe:lments considered cntirely from the formal
POl11t VICW. 1 () S,U11l up, esthetic, poetic, and techniquc :lrC in
phase, If I may aga ll1 be permitted a mathematical comparison,
a flaw that one can pi ck out in each of thesc realms (I dcl iher-
arciy ahst'lin from ;111)' considera tion of the intrinsic value of
post-vVagnerian expressionism.)
Smile RcJd/5
It even secms that in the sequences of Schoenberg's creations
that began with the Serenade, opus '4, he found himself uut-
ridden by his own discovery; the no man's lund of rigor can be
located in the Five Picces for pi:mo, opus 23.
The last point of equilibrium, opus 2 ) c1earl v is t he inaugu-
ration of se ria l writi ng, into which the fifth piece- a wa ltz-
introduces us: each of llS may be permit ted to mcditate all that
very "expressionistic" meeting of the first dodecaphoni c com-
position with a type- product of German romanticism ("Pre-
pare oneself for it by seriolls immobi lities," Satic might have
sa id ) .
And there we are, in the presence of a new organization of
t he sound-world. A sti ll-rudimentary organization that wi ll be
codified with the Suite for Pi ano, opus '5, and the 'Vind
Quintet, opus 26, and will attain consciolls schcmatization in
the Variations for Orchestra, opus 31.
That exploration of the dodecaphoni c realm may be bitterly
held against Schoenberg, for it went uff in the wrong direction
so persistently that it would be hard to find an equall y mi s-
taken perspective in the entire history of music.
I do not make this assertion gratuitously. vVhy'
I do not forget that establishment of the series came, with
Schoenberg, from ultrathematizat ion in which, as I said above,
thematic intervals could be considered absolute interva ls re-
leased from all rhythmic or expressive obligation. (The third
piece of opus 23, developing on a succession of fi ve notes, is
particularl y signi fica nt in this respect.)
It behooves me to acknowledge that this ultrathemat ization
remains the underlying idea of the series, which is only its
purified outcome. In Schoenberg's serial works, furthermore,
the confusion between theme and series is explicit enough to
show hi s impotence to foresee the sound-worl d that the series
demands. Dodecaphonisl11, then, consists of only a rigorous I:nv
for controlling chromat ic writing; plaving only the role of
regulating instrument, the serial phenomenon itself \vas not, so
to speak, perceived by Schoenberg.
"V hat , theil , was his ambition, once the chromat ic synthesis
had been establi shed through the series, or in other words, once
this coefticient of securi ty had been a<j opted' T o construct
works of the same essence as that of those in the sound-uni-
verse he had just left behind, works in whi ch the new tech-
nique of writing should "prove its worth." But could that new
technique produce convincing results if one did not take the
trouble to explore the specificall y serial domain in the struc-
tures? And I understa nd the word "structure" as extending
f rom the generation of the consti tuent clements to the total
architect ure of a work. In short, a logic of engendering be-
tween the seri al forms, properly speaking, and the derived
structures was generally absent from Schoenberg's preoccupa-
And there, it seems, you have what led to the decrepitude of
the larger part of hi s serial oeuvre. The preclassic or classic
forms ruling most of the architectures have no historic link to
the dodeca phoni c discovery; thus an inadmissibl e hiatus is pro-
duced between infras tructures related to the tonal phenome-
non and a language in whic h one agai n perceives the la ws of
organi za ti on summaril y. Not onl y docs t he proposed project
run aground-such" language was not consolidated by such
architectures.- but also the opposite happens, which is to say
that those architectures annihilate the possibili ties of orga niza-
ti on inherent in the new language. The two worlds are incom-
patible, and Schoenberg had attempted to justify one by the
One cannot call that procedure valid, and it produced results
that coul d have been anticipated: t he worst sort of misunder-
standing. A warped "romantico-c1assici sm" in which the good
intentior:ts are not the least unattractive element. One certai nly
gave no great credit to the serial orga ni zati on by not all owing
it its own modes of devel opment, but substituting ot her, appar-
, 7'
, I
Some Eclats
ently surer ones. A reacti ona ry att itude that left the door ajar
for all the more or less disgraceful holdovers.
The persistence of accompanied mclod,, for example; of
counterpoint based upon <1 principal part [lI1d secondary parrs
(Hlluptsti1Jnlle and Nebe17sti1JJ1J1e) . We are in the presence of a
very unhapp' heritage owed to scarcely defensible scleroses of
a certain bastard language adopted by romantIcIsm. Nor 15 It
onl y in the limited conceptions
but equa ll ), in the \vriting
itself, that I see remi niscences of a dead worl d. Under Schoen-
berg's pen. in fact, there abounded- not without
irri tation- the cl iches of redoubtabl v stereotyped wntl ng rep-
resenting, there too, the most ostentatious and ohsolete
ti cism. I refer to those constant anticipati ons, with expressIve
leaning on the key note; I mean those false Of ,
again, those formulas of arpeggios, of devices, of repetltl ons,
whi ch sound terri bl v holl ow and deserve to be call ed what
they are: "Secondil ;Y parts." Fi na ll y, 1. indicate the moro:c,
disagreeable use of " derisively poor- call it ugly:-rhvthml c,
in which tricks va rying t he classic rhvthmic are dl sconcertll1g
in their credul ity and ineffectuality.
How could we, \vithout weakness, rel ate ourselves to an
oeuvre mani festing such contradi cti ons? If onl y it manifested
them within a r igorous technique, the only sa fegua rd
what are we to think of Schoenberg's American peri od, during
whi ch the greatest disarray and most deplorabl e demagnetiza-
ti on appeared' How could we, unless wit h a supplemen-
tary-and superfl uous-measure, judge such lack of compre-
hension and cohesion, that reevaluation of polanzmg functIOns,
even of tonal funct ions? Ri gorous writing was abandoned in
those works. In them we see appearing again the octave inter-
vals, the fal se cadences, the exact canons at the octa ve. Such an
attitude attests to maximum incoherence- a paroxysm in the
absurdity of Schoenberg's incompatibiliti es. Ought one not to
have pressed fonn rd to a new met hodologv of the musical
language instead of trying to reconstitute the old one? So
an uncomprehending deviation leaves us perplexed:
III the Schoenberg "case" a ruinous "catastrophe" occurred
which doubtless will remai n cautionary ,
Could it have been otherwise? To answer in the negative
now would he na'ively arrogant, Nevertheless, it is possible to
sec wh.v Schoenberg's serial music was desti ned to defeat. In
the first place, his expl oration of the serial domain had been
carried on unilater.dl y: it '\'::1$ lacking on the rhythmic Icve l,
even 011 that of sound, properly speaking- the intensiti es and
attacks. "Vho ever seriously dreamed of reproaching him for
that' On the credit side, I put down hi s very remarkable
preoccupation, in timbres, with K/ol1gfarbe1l111e/od;e, which
could lead hv general iza tion to the se ries of ti mbres. But the
essential cali se of his failure resides in his profound -misunder-
standing of serial FUNCTIo;"\'s as such, functions engendered by
the very principle of series- without which they remain more
embryonic than effective. Here I mean to say that Schoenberg
employed the sCl'I es as a smaller common denominator to assure
the semantic uni t); of the work, but that he organized the
language clements thus obt<l ined by a preexisting rhetoric, not
:l serial one, I believe we can assert that it is there that the
troubling lack of clarity of a work without real unity becomes
manifest. .
Schoenberg's failure to grasp the serial domain as a whole has
caused enough dissaffectations and prudent Rights to make full
description of it unnecessary,
No hi larious dcmoni sm, but rather the most ordinary com-
mon sense, leads me to declare that since the Viennese discov-
ery, every composer outside the serial experiments has been
useless. Nor can that assertion be answered in the name of a
pretended freedom (which coul d not mean that every com-
poser would be useful in the opposite direction), for that
liberty has a strange look of being a surviving servitude. If the
Schoenberg failure happened, disregarding it wi ll not aid us in
Some Eclats
finding a ,valid sol uti on for the problem that the epiphany of a
contemporary language has posed.
At the very beginning, perhaps one should dissociat e the
serial phenonemon from Schoenberg's oeuvre, The two have
been confused with obvious glee, often wi th poorly di ssimu-
la ted bad faith. It is easy to forget that a certa in "Vehern also
labored; to he surc, one never hears this discussed <lil y JIl orc'(so
dense arc the screens of mediocrity!) , Perhaps we can say that
the series is :l logically histori cal consequence, or-dependi ng
upon what one wishes-a histori call y logical one. Perhaps, like
that certain \Nebcrn, one could pursue the sound-FvlDENCE by
trying to derive the structure from the material. Perha ps one
could enl arge the serial domain with intelTals other than the
ha lf-tone: micl'ocii stanees, irregul:u intervals, complex sounds.
Perhaps one could generalize the serial principle to the four
sound-constituents: pitch, duration, intensity and attack, tim-
bre. Perhaps . .. perhaps .. . one could demand from a com-
poser some imagination, a certain dosage of asceticism, even a
little intell igence, and, finally, a sensi bil ity that will not be
toppled by the least breeze.
We must keep ourselves from considering Schoenberg as a
sort of IVloses who died in view of the Promised Land after
having brought doml the Tabl es of the Law from a Sinai that
some people obsti nately want to confuse with Walha ll a. (Dur-
ing that time, the dance before the Golden Calf was in fu ll
swi ng.) We certainly owe him Pie/Tot 1z17laire ... , and some
other very enviable works. This will not give offense to the
environing mediocrity that wants, very speciollsly, to limit the
ravages to "Central Europe,"
Nonetheless, it has become indispensable to demolish a mis-
understanding that is full of ambiguity and contradictions: it is
time to neutralize the setback. That rectification will be ac-
complished not hv anv gratuitous bragging, much less by any
sanctimonious fatuity, but by rigor free of weakness and com-
promise. Therefore I do not hesitate to write, not out of any
desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful
hypocrisy and pointless melancholy: