Author Topic: Scriabin vs. Schoenberg: Two Approaches  (Read 514 times)

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Scriabin vs. Schoenberg: Two Approaches
« on: March 09, 2016, 03:52:02 PM »
Scriabin vs. Schoenberg: Two approaches


The Piano Sonata No. 10 opus 70 by Scriabin is so advanced harmonically, so chromatic, that it verges on the atonal. A wandering, seemingly aimless composition, vague and prolix, melodically almost non-existent, rhythmically diffuse, no discernible pulse...what a refreshing break from the "One-two! One two!" march rhythms and clich├ęd phrasings of most Western, even modern, composers.

 This is what happens when harmonically advanced music, becoming more and more chromatic, loses its melodic charms, and becomes a twisting morass of chromatic chord permutations...all things become vertical, sonorous, spectral, and polyphonic independence dissolves in the rapids of harmonic waves of sound.

Schoenberg knew this is what would happen, so he gave the chromatic morass an ordered sequence; a forlorn strategy which attempted to solidify the waves, to regain the polyphonic lifelines of order. Scriabin, instead, chose to die, to drown, to submit his ego to the water, carefully refined and sealed-over. His intense interest in Madame Blavatsky's philosophy shows that he was inexorably drawn to the unconscious, the non-ego-driven, the animus, the dark side of the moon.

Schoenberg was too directed by his agenda and tradition; to transform Viennese ideology into his own creature; nationalistic to a degree, in that he always wanted to "belong," to be a part of, yet, to accomplish this by subverting it finally? A love/hate mission, unconscious forces of his psyche pulling him in two directions: one is the traditionalist, wanting to fulfill the expectations of society, in traditions of love, marriage, heroic accomplishment; and the other, the outsider, lingering outside the concert halls of Vienna, too poor to gain admission to Wagner, playing a makeshift cello, yet knowing more than any typical Viennese citizen. So, finally he was driven to subvert the very language he mastered so completely, by giving it ordered sequence and polyphonic life again. He will not drown in the chromatic sea, but will conquer it, and tame it.

Scriabin, by contrast, submits to the anima; the darkness engulfs his music, he becomes one, in submission and death, to the vast chromatic ocean of colors. Ahh, yes, the darkness!

 These two composers might seem to represent two diametrically opposed solutions to the increasing chromaticism of the 20th century. Scriabin, Dionysius, submitting beautifully and completely to the unconscious drives of chaos and feeling; Schoenberg, Apollonian, feeling the same forces, attempting to control the dragon, to create himself as a heroic victor over the forces of illogic and diffuse intuition; then submitting to its consequences. A removal of ego, but on his terms.

 The modern world, with its relentless logic and order, seems to be the counterpoint to Scriabin's 'psychedelic' vision of color and mysticism; perhaps this is the "corner" to which we moderns relegate out art, as a reminder of the squelched creative forces within each of us. "The darkness" is forbidden; the "void" of the unconscious is "counter-productive" in an industrialized oligarchy. So we declare Scriabin the winner, as a prize Pomeranian lap-dog, a reminder of the darkness, tamed, domesticated, rendered harmless as a curiosity.

 It might appear that we moderns need Scriabin more than we need Schoenberg's logic. In the end, perhaps both composers created their own version of the darkness, coming from diametrically opposed directions.

 For me, and I have given this much consideration, it means that the increase of chromaticism leads to inevitabilities; inevitabilities which are manifest as qualities; namely, less defined melody, and less defined harmony and tonality. This is a simple statistical fact of increasing the number of notes from 8 (tonality) to 12. Redundancy and repetition is decreased, so pattern-recognition becomes more difficult. Like tonality, the brain tends to derive meaning through simplification and reduction.

Schoenberg saw this as well, and gave the chromatic scale a specific sequence, or ordering, which not only defines it melodically, but gives it a horizontal dimension which takes the place of harmonic function (which is manifest horizontally as well as in terms of vertical sonance). Since harmonic meaning was inevitably taken away by chromaticism, Schoenberg decided to replace harmonic meaning with sequences of intervallic relations which give a sense of sonance and vertical movement, yet remain harmonically vacant in the traditional functional sense.


Scriabin, by contrast, chose to remain in the morass of increasingly dense and ill-defined, ambiguous (chaotic?) harmonic chromaticism, which is the inevitable consequence of increasing chromatic density. In terms of harmonic function (tonality), this means an increasing ambiguity, and in a sense, an increasing "meaninglessness" in harmonic terms.

 Yet, Scriabin's late works are indeed tonal, if you've got the ear/brain to handle it; yet, they are on the verge of atonality because of the extreme chromaticism.

 This is the premise: that one had to either remain in the harmonic hierarchy, which was becoming its own undoing, or depart into uncharted territories, and create a new hierarchical system of relations, as Schoenberg did.

 If one wishes not to admit that this change was historically inevitable (although things happen in sequence), then the numbers speak for themselves; 12 is more complex than 8, and produces more cross-relations. But one can choose not to recognize number in relation to music, and see it as purely art, with no dimension of number affecting it.

 If one wishes (on artistic grounds) not to accept this inevitability as inevitable, then there is no point in arguing the point, as it becomes a matter of metaphysics or style.

 Yet, the entire 12-note division of the octave is arbitrary and imperfect; but its hierarchy of vertical sonance relations and horizontal functions is based on natural harmonic principles; "1" is divided into fractional subservient parts.

 Thus, as it has ever been, music represents the struggle between natural sensual factors and geometric constructs.
"In Spring! In the creation of art, it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg
"The trouble with New Age music is that there's no evil in it."-Brian Eno