If Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance, did Debussy emancipate the consonance? 

Even if the answer isn’t yes, this strikes me as an interesting question.  Schoenberg took dissonanct sonorities from late 19th-century German composers and, instead of continuning to treat them as elaborations of standard harmonies, he treated them as sonorities in their own right — without need for “resolution.”   Is this not what Debussy did as well — but with unaltered sonorities like dominant sevenths, ninths, open fifths and so forth?

More importantly:  is this a good enough question to wake up this sleepy page.  Here’s hoping. 

24 Responses to “Debussy and Schoenberg”
  1. DJA says:

    Did Debussy emancipate the consonance?

    I like it.

    but with unaltered sonorities like dominant sevenths, ninths, open fifths and so forth?

    Sure, but Debussy also did the same with sonorities that would have been considered dissonant enough to require resolution in a tonal context.

  2. Doug Palmer says:

    Who will emancipate form?

  3. Doug: Tom Johnson did his share, I think.

    David: I’m not excited, no. The question could also be: did Radulescu emancipate the consonance, or did he emancipate the dissonance? At least, he’s still alive!

  4. Too me, what Debussy did was more like a de-functionalization of Tonality. Whereas Schoenberg simply abandoned tonality in favor of music which didn’t sound tonal at all, and ultimately constructed a new non-tonal functionality, Debussy retained the _feel_ of tonality while largely abandoning strict functional control of chords and intervals. I think the reason it worked out this way was that Schoenberg is more interested in the horizontal (counterpoint and the line) and Debussy is more interested in the vertical (the construction of chords). Schoenberg makes his non-tonal music work by using updated rules of counterpoint — even his ugliest chord progressions work because the voice-leading makes them work. Debussy makes his non-tonal music work by building sonorous chords that are harmonically vague enough that they can safely be strung together. Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance is not so much the emancipation of dissonant chords as the emancipation of dissonant intervals in counterpoint, and the twelve-tone system is a way of regulating those intervals. Debussy emancipates what we might call chord progression disfunction.

  5. Alan Theisen says:

    Schoenberg emancipated dissonance (actually, my bid would be with Mahler for this).

    Debussy emancipated musical rhetoric (far more important, in my humble opinion).

  6. Is Lucier’s “Wind Shadows” consonant or dissonant? Any ideas?

  7. Matthew says:

    “Emancipation” is kind of a loaded term for this sort of thing. I have an image of a bunch of dissonances rattling their cups against the bars of their cell, waiting for Arnold to come and bust them out. One interesting way to compare Schoenberg and Debussy is to hear them as the difference between the sounds of a minor second and a major second. Schoenberg loves that half-step crunch—it’s all over even the early tonal stuff. Early Debussy, on the other hand, is filled with the sound of added sixths, a sol-la clash. From there, it’s an easy step to both the minor-7th chord and the subdominant major-7th/major-9th. Maybe Debussy was able to get away with a comparative non-dogmaticism just because the sounds he loved were already floating around Western music, and argument that leads into Galen’s dead-on horizontal/vertical analysis.

    In response to Samuel: personally, I hear almost all of Lucier’s music as consonant, but only because the soundscape and the sonorities are so consistent within each piece, which gives a sense of sonic stability. That’s probably because Western counterpoint is hopelessly ingrained in my ear—to me, calling something “dissonant” means it wants to move forward in time, whereas “consonant” sounds are just there, not necessarily needing to go anywhere. (There’s probably another juicy thread comparing Schoenberg and Webern in this regard—or even Boulez and Barraqué.)

  8. Richard Buell says:

    Weighing in on the subject of the vertical and the horizontal, here is Arthur Honegger in “I am a Composer” (London: Faber and Faber, 1966):

    “Listen to what Rene Leibowitz says, the eminent theoretician of dodecaphony: ‘It follows that the composer’s thought can finally express itself in an entirely linear (horizontal) fashion, since no vertical restriction can retain its hold on him. There are no forbidden dissonances, no fixed harmonic formulas(such as the finals of modal counterpoint, or the harmonic degrees of tonal counterpoint); which is to say that the composer can give free rein for his voices, which will thus gain at the same time a total individual freedom and the means of free superimposition upon one another.’

    “And further on: ‘the immanent possibility for the composer to write in a purely horizontal manner, without any a priori vertical concerns.’

    “Nevertheless [Honegger continues], it is not to be forgotten that the listener hears music vertically, and that the most complex contrapuntal combinations lose all interest and reveal nothing more than an elementary facility when they are allowed to pass beyond all

    “A further inconvenience in the twelve-note system is the suppression of modulation, which offers so many renewed possibilities.

    ” … Remember the answer by Louis Beydts in the ‘Figaro’
    inquiry: ‘There is general agreement in the judgement that Andre Gide is the best writer of our time; yet he uses exactly the same words that Racine used.’”

  9. Richard Buell says:

    “[I have] no faith in the supremacy of the C major scale. The tonal scale must be enriched by other notes. Nor am I misled by equal temperament.

    “Rhythms are stifling. Rhythms cannot be contained within bars. It is nonsense to speak of “simple” and “compound” time. There should be an interminable flow of both. Relative keys are nonsense, too. Music is neither major nor minor. Minor thirds and major thirds should be combined, modulation thus becoming more flexible.

    “The mode is that which one happens to choose at the moment. It is inconstant. There must be a balance between musical demands and thematic evocation. Themes suggest their orchestral coloring …

    “One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door. Greater nuances … There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

    – Claude Debussy in a conversation with Ernest Guiraud, transcribed by Maurice Emmanuel: quoted in Edward Lockspeiser, “Debussy: His Life and Mind,”I (London: Cassell, 1962).

  10. Robert Jordahl says:

    Excuse me, why does a consonance need emancipating?

  11. Ian Moss says:

    With props to Galen for his take (which I agree with), I do nevertheless like “emancipation of the consonance” because it highlights the fact that certain sonorities which were once considered quite dissonant are now heard as consonant in the 21st century. I think a lot of this has to do with popular music’s widespread adoption of the blues scale and modal harmonies at the expense of traditional major & minor in the last 40 years; even relatively uneducated listeners are completely comfortable with major ninths and minor sevenths as a result. And in choral music, composers like Eric Whitacre are popularizing diatonic cluster writing, where every note in a diatonic (or modal) scale is sounding at the same time. I would argue that a lot of people do not hear these sounds as fundamentally “dissonant” the same way that they would a piece that lives in a more chromatic universe.

  12. Steve Layton says:

    As it stands now, dissonance in harmony really only means one of two things: presence of a minor second (or some of its transpositions), or noise. Every other interval, while sometimes theoretically dissonant, never quite crosses that “urgent” boundary. Also interesting is that as we narrow the minor second the urgent dissonance also fades fairly quickly. Some of us will now claim — and maybe truthfully — that even the minor second is no longer dissonant to them. In that case the only place left for them to find that “urgent” point in harmony is in the inharmonic, i.e. noise.

  13. J Palarino says:

    Who will emancipate form?
    Perhaps John Cage already has.

    I think part of this idea is limited only in the sense of western harmony and, not to get get entirely into semantics but, perhaps what is musically consiered consonant and dissonant needs a bit of a linguistic upheaval. Consider the issues of equal temperment, quarter-tones and eastern musical stylings. For me personally I think of interval relationships as color rather than consonant/dissonant (major/minor) relationships. This all being said, perhaps this concept of emancipation with the music of Schoenberg and Debussy does not lye so much in Schoenbergs dissonant emancipation and Debussys consonant emancipation but both mens ability to create a harmonic vocabulary that didnt entirely synch up with earlier notions of consonant, dominant…or more so tonic, dominant relationships and use of chord extensions in the case of the later.

  14. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Ben Johnston argued that Debussy was actually trying to fake >5-limit JI tertian sonorities in the context of 12tet. Don’t know if that’s “emancipation” or not…whenever I hear that word, I wonder who is trying to make who or what a slave.

  15. Ivan Sparrow says:

    Debussy liberated harmony from its functional constraint. He thus helped make the transition from “harmony” to “sonority”, an important difference carried and developed by the likes of Varèse, Xenakis and Feldman, to name a few.

  16. J Palarino says:

    Ivan hit it on the head I think. The shift from “harmony” to “sonority” well done with that one.

  17. Batuhan Bozkurt says:

    And Cage emancipated music?
    (someone might beat me up for this but oh well…)

  18. The liberation of consonance was foretold by Wagner, but was the project of minimalism. We now live in an age where dissonance doesn’t imply your are going anywhere and consonance doesn’t imply you are stopping anytime soon.

    Other comments:


  19. “And Cage emancipated music?”

    Cage emancipated musicians from a particular conception. Music is free, it is man who is everywhere in chains.

  20. Chris Sahar says:

    The problem with the question is “consonance and dissonance” are not something which can undergo a “liberation” by any composer. The best a composer can do is offer fresh habits in place of stale habits.

    However, the discussion has brought up some wonderful points wherein the history of music changes profoundly as a notational system is developed — music can have a horizontal and vertical quality and also a third dimension – timbre. We all know this but I think historically the horizontal and vertical features usually are played out before we get to the timbral explorations. The early 20th century is remarkably similar to the early 17th century — Monteverdi demanded the greatest timbral control and expression in vocal and instrumental music. There were some foreshadowings (some of the expressivity of the French chansons and the harmonic explorations of Portuguese composers such as Cardoso) but Monteverdi was the turning point. In similar vein we have foreshadowings of Debussy’s explorations in late Listz piano works (about after 1870) and of Schoenberg’s revision of old contrapuntal techniques and extended tonalities with Late Brahms and Mahler.

    As for Schoenberg, I don’t think he differs so much from Debussy. The row technique is really treating all twelve tones as equal expressive sonorities. Schoenberg’s orchestration is just as sonorous and colorful as Debussy — compare Moses and Aaron to Pelleas et Melissande to see the coloristic effects in to two very philisophical operas (in opposition to the verismo opera of the time). Where Schoenberg differs is that he aims to create a stronger synthesis of three dimensions of notational music. One could say very broadly Debussy’ approach is more intuitive in his timbral choices whilst Schoenberg is more systemic in the same choices.

    As side note, the one composer who is both equally systemic and intuitive regarding timbre and its relation to the horizontal and vertical qualities of composition is Stravinsky — which may explain partly his chameleonic oeuvre.

  21. Batuhan Bozkurt says:

    “Cage emancipated musicians from a particular conception. Music is free, it is man who is everywhere in chains. ”

    Totally agree. Music is free, so was dissonance. It was musicians who were in chains. Emancipating music as I told, was meaning what you exactly say. The situation is the same with dissonance and anything else I can think of actually. It’s about musicians and chains.

    But one should be aware of the paradigm he/she is floating on, as Cageian thought stands consistent by itself, it’s just another way of looking at things(which does not degrade it’s value).

  22. T.D. Lake says:

    Just a side note: As a composer in the post-modern era, I worry less about “emancipation” and more about “form.” I am free as a composer to do pretty much anything I want, from elbows on the piano to handstands and recorders and honestly, it’s limiting my choices that interests me. To tie this in with the post about audience and composition… the form the music takes depends on my performers and their audience, and I essentially “pour” my concepts into that mold.

    Debussy wrote in a time when his music was controversial; now everyone loves it. Schoenberg was controversial, and while people may not exactly love his music he’s widely studied at the conservatory, and is accepted as a major figure in the history of art music. What Cage did, and what some people haven’t figured out yet, is that it was no longer good enough to break all the rules. The rules have all been broken, and this is in fact the state of post-modern art music. It doesn’t need to be emancipated, it is emancipated, it needs form.

  23. Henry Holland says:

    Schoenberg was controversial, and while people may not exactly love his music

    I apologize for being pedantic, I know you mean “Schoenberg still can have people fleeing for the exits”, but there certainly are people who love Schoenberg’s music. I’m one of them. I love the early Tristan-esque stuff, the expressionist stuff (5 Orchestral Pieces, Ewartung) is some of my very favorite music, one of the greatest nights of music I’ve ever had was Kent Nagano conducting Moses und Aron here in Los Angeles about 5 years ago, I might go to Leipzig next year as part of a European trip to see a production of a triple bill of Gluckliche Hand/Erwartung/Von Huete auf Morgen and on and on. It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t trade the 5 Orchestral Pieces for all the music written by the S21 sacred cows. See also: Boulez, Birtwistle and Berg (the Real 3 B’s!). I know it’s hard to imagine, but some of us really *do* like that kind of music.

  24. Chris Sahar says:

    TD Lake –

    I like what you said about Cage. I have read that his apparantly loose “chance” music was based at times on some very elaborate parameters. If I take this with your comment, would you say Cage was attempting new methods of “control” in composition?