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Dissonance 101: a gentle introduction to Schoenberg, Webern and Berg

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Check out our new interactive story, Death and Dissonance, about the uncanny demises of the early 20th century's three strangest and most influential composers. 

Every genre of music has its famously difficult artists — the ones that seem to wilfully alienate audiences in service of some higher ideal, or elaborate practical joke. Think of Captain Beefheart or Ornette Coleman. The most devoted fans of the genre in question will eventually bump up against these musicians. Some of them will run away as fast as they can. Some will find themselves instantly mesmerized by the strangeness of it all, or delighted to feel like they're in on the joke.

But, most of them will probably find themselves between those poles, mired in doubt and unsure what to think.

For classical music fans, there are no composers more likely to provoke that reaction than the three members of the Second Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Under Schoenberg's leadership, these three steered 20th-century music away from traditional tonality, and made a lot of music that's frankly frightening on first listen.

But, if you're new to these guys, I come bearing encouraging news: between the three of them, Schoenberg and his acolytes left plenty of perfectly accessible gateways into their world. The playlist below starts off with music that you'll probably like right away. Then, it gradually moves into rougher terrain. 

Whatever overall impression you come away with, I'll wager that you'll find something in this mix that you'll want to revisit. Check out the list below for a bit of background on each piece. And, be sure to check out Death and Dissonance for more music by Schoenberg, Webern and Berg — performed by Glenn Gould, no less.

1. Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1

In his younger days, Schoenberg tended towards lush romanticism. Here's a perfect entry point into his musical world. If you like this, definitely check out Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, the other major work from his neo-romantic early period.

2. Webern: Im Sommerwind

Webern has a reputation for being the most difficult member of the Schoenberg circle, musically at least. But, his early works are possibly the most straightforwardly lovely music that any of them ever wrote. This tone poem is a particular highlight, but you should also hear his Langsamer Satz, and his unnumbered string quartet from the same year, 1905.

3. Webern: Passacaglia

This is the work that Webern felt was his first real piece of music. Not coincidentally, he wrote it just as he graduated from composition studies with Schoenberg.

4. Berg: Violin Concerto

Unlike the last three pieces, this one shows its composer at full maturity. While Schoenberg and Webern spent their final years writing music that today's audiences still find baffling, Berg was a romantic to the end. You should also hear Berg's Lyric Suite, if you find yourself swooning to this.

5. Berg: Wozzeck

Okay, let's get into the meatier stuff. Berg's first opera, the only one he actually completed, is one of his most popular works. It's also bloody and musically jarring. I mean that in the best way. The playlist includes the first act, as conducted by Claudio Abbado, one of Berg's finest interpreters. If you love this, you should check out Berg's underrated Chamber Concerto, which he wrote just after Wozzeck.

6. Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet

Here's a more mature Webern. By 1909, he'd plunged headlong into atonality, and he'd developed his tendency to only compose miniatures. These movements range from less than a minute long to less than four. That's the thing with Webern: if you don't like it, at least it doesn't go on for very long.

7. Webern: Six Pieces for Large Orchestra

Webern's mastery of orchestration can be a lifeline for those of us who struggle to find something to cling to in Webern's strange, spare music. These six miniatures were composed shortly after the Five Movements for String Quartet. You may find them more likeable.

8. Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire

Possibly the most famous work produced by the Second Viennese School, and one of the most frequently performed,Pierrot is a challenging listen made entertaining by Schoenberg's sense of drama. The texts of these songs do not hold back on the macabre, and neither does Schoenberg. For an even more harrowing experience, have a listen to Schoenberg's one-act opera Erwartung.

9. Berg: Lulu Suite

Berg didn't quite finish his second opera before his untimely death at age 50, but he did compile this set of excerpts for concert performance. Lulu is one of Berg's more challenging works, but his lyricism still comes through. 

10. Schoenberg: Phantasy for Violin and Piano

So far, we haven't heard a lot of music using Schoenberg's famous 12-tone system. This was a method of composing that he devised in the early 20s, that basically shattered conventional harmony completely. Here's a straight shot of it. If you like it, and you may, you should also listen to the two piano pieces that Schoenberg wrote as a sort of proof of concept for the 12-tone method. 

11. Webern: Cantata No. 2

And, we'll close out the playlist with Webern's final work. By now, you should be adequately prepared for this. But, be warned: it does not go down easy.

Listen to CBC Music's Modern Masters stream