Beethoven, Schoenberg, Cage, and the Sovereignty of God

2 10 2008

On my walk home after taking Samuel to school today, I was listening to a podcast of a music concert that featured the piano music (I think) of Arnold Schoenberg.  Following it came a string quartet by what sounded like Mozart.  Listening to these very different styles and philosphies of music led me to consider how various composers looked at their music.  I then compared those perspectives to how one might look at divine activity in our world.

Many people, if asked about classical music, might think about music like that of Ludwig van Beethoven.  Beethoven composed music within very tightly structured forms, but he stretched those forms and included sound combinations which for his day were very difficult to hear and led many to condemn his music as needless racket.  A classic example is his Third Symphony, the Eroica.  There is a climactic point in the music in which Beethoven wrote in a horn part that clashed horribly with the rest of the orchestra.   It did not immediately resolve into a more pleasing chord, but instead, Beethoven stopped the music momentarily and then continued in a more traditional harmony.  Those dissonant chords were so upsetting at the time that some conductors, thinking Beethoven had made a mistake in his copying of the parts, “corrected” the music for their performances.  But Beethoven wrote it the way he wanted it played.  Yes, it was ugly at the moment.  It did not fit with what people wanted or expected.  But the music continued into something beautiful.

Listen to this recording at the 5:40 mark.

In contrast to Beethoven, Arnold Schoenberg wrote what is called twelve-tone music.  Very briefly, in composing twelve-tone music, the composer uses all twelve tones of a chromatic scale one time, and then repeats the series using various permutations of the series.  It is a very tightly structured and formal music.  But for an ear used to listening to tonal music (music like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, for example), twelve-tone music is pointless and generally unpleasing.

Finally, there is John Cage.  Cage attempted to escape all forms and bounds by leaving the composition and performance of the music to chance.  A comparison in the visual arts would be Jackson Pollock.  In a famous example, Cage composed some of his music by rolling dice and allowing the results to determine the order of the notes.   As with Schoenberg, the music of Cage makes difficult listening.

Listen here for a rather severe example.

As I considered these three philosophies of music, I saw a very clear comparison between them and possible attitudes towards the sovereignty of God.  Following a tragedy like the loss of our daughter, Anna, one might conclude that the things of life are random and pointless, like the music of John Cage.  There is no order to the universe.  Everything that happens is a simple roll of the dice.  But someone else might recognize that there is a pattern or form to life and the universe.  But, like the music of Schoenberg, that form has nothing to do with beauty.  There is no attempt by this God to create something pleasing and beautiful.  Finally, one might see the difficulties of life like those moments in a Beethoven composition when all seems out of order, and somehow wrong.  But the composer, the God of the universe, has a plan and is working it out.  And it is a good and beautiful plan.  We must be patient.



One response

14 08 2010
Hearing Beethoven, Reminded of God’s Sovereignty « Anna Resurget

[…] Eroica.  It had been some time since I had listened to it, but whenever I do I am reminded of something I wrote early on after Anna died.  This came at a time when we were struggling with, and affirming, the […]

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