Schoenberg, Unfolding, and “Composing With Twelve Tones”, by John Bracket

Schoenberg, Unfolding, and “Composing With Twelve Tones”:
A Case Study (Op. 25/I)

John Brackett


“Composition is: thinking in tones and rhythms. Every piece of music is the presentation of a musical idea.”1
Two fundamental components of Schoenberg’s musical pistemology are present in this quote. On the one hand, we have his notion of the “musical idea,” a concept that has received a great deal of attention in the literature devoted to Schoenberg’s philosophy of music.2 Whether the term is understood as an abstract universal (Einfall) or as a concrete musical particular (Gedanke), the “idea” imparts coherence to a musical artwork.3 In the same passage, on the other hand, we have “presentation,” a concept just as important to Schoenberg but one that has not been given the same intensive and critical attention that it surely deserves. In many respects, it is presentation that enables us to talk about the musical idea at all. For Schoenberg, presentation (Darstellung) is an act of conscientious composition by which the formal/functional properties of motives and Gestalten, along with any possible development or variation, are realized in the creation of a coherent musical artwork. Presentation, then, is the manner in which a musical idea is made comprehensible. 4 It is the responsibility of the composer to adequately present these relationships in a manner that is both logical and clear in an attempt to make comprehensible a purely musical idea.