SCHOENBERG'S ERROR

Review of Schoenberg's Error by William Thomson
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.  

Despite its title, this book is not an exercise in debunking. It is a long-overdue reassessment of Schoenberg's doctrine. Thomson's purpose is to expose Schoenberg's monumental errors, and he does so brilliantly. He shows that the assumptions behind the gospel of atonality are fallacies that produced unpalatable music. 

Schoenberg denied tonality because he believed that the evolution of European music had made such a step inevitable. Thomson sees this doctrine as "a classic instance of muddled concepts, reordered history, and shaky inference" (p. 61). Thomson's masterly exegesis, however, is more positive than negative. The book consists mostly of the author's own refreshingly reasonable view of tonality. 

His point of departure is not the objective existence of tonality, but its perception, and that makes all the difference. Also, Thomson never loses sight of the element of time. He rejects pitch-class diagrams, Schenkerian diagrams, even traditional harmony exercises: any analytical scheme based on static pitches. His subject is not some immutable relationship between abstract sounds, but the process of human perception: how we "ingest bunches of tones" (p. 118). 

The most difficult section of the book, and the most rewarding, is the discussion of the role of the overtone series in the perception of tonality and harmony. The argument proceeds from Pythagoras to Schoenberg, exploding myths as it goes. Thomson shows that the overtone series is not the source of our perception of consonance, tonality, and harmony, nor the pattern for an alleged evolution from organum to triadic harmony to chromaticism to atonality. His own conclusion might serve as the motto of the whole book: "...scales, like chords and intervals, come directly from... [human acts]. Once these human acts have produced a collection of discriminable sounds, then the perceptual machinery is in a position to seek controls..." (p. 142). 

Perhaps Thomson's most original and arresting insight is his thesis (pp. 155 ff) that the purpose of most late romantic chromaticism was merely programmatic. In this view, extreme chromaticism did not undermine tonality; on the contrary, it could only have been effective side by side with normally stable tonality. This thesis fatally punctures Schoenberg's dictum, that the evolution of European music had arrived at an impasse because of the breakdown of tonality. Thomson claims that no such thing had occurred, and that atonality and dodecaphony were not historical necessities. 

All this material is presented without cant, without obfuscation, with lucidity and wit. One reads, for example, about the gap that separates "Haydn's triadic insouciance from Wagner's chromatic heavy breathing" (p. 8). Schoenberg is taken to task for "his inclination for truculent profundity" (p. 21). His music is not popular because "one cannot be subversive and inoffensive at the same time" (p. 180). 

No, this is not a crank book. On the contrary, it cuts through the misguided obscurantism of serial theory, and reveals the extent to which Schoenberg himself was a crank.