Schoenberg’s 1910 music theory textbook Harmonielehre describes Klangfarbenmelodie (German: sound-color melody) as a musical technique that “involves splitting a musical line or melody between several instruments to add color and texture to the melodic line.”  Schoenberg references this technique in relation to his Second String Quartet in a letter to Josef Rufer from 1951, writing that “many parts of the introduction to the fourth movement . . . are never merely individual tones played at various times by various instruments, but rather a combination of moving voices . . . still not melodies, but rather individual appearances within a form to which they are subordinate.” 

This approach to composition can be compared to pointillism, a painting technique pioneered by late 19th-century neo-Impressionist painters, particularly Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Pointillism takes a logical, systematic approach to making art. It involves applying tiny dots of pure, absolute color to the canvas, and relies on the audience’s eye to blend these individual points into the intended color, thus forming a recognizable image. Coincidentally, Signac compared the way in which he chose his colors to “that of a composer considering each instrument while creating a symphony.” 

The way in which small chunks of melody are used as the basis of the Klangfarbenmelodie technique can (to a certain extent) be compared to Schoenberg’s concept of a Grundgestalt. Grundgestalt refers to short, recurrent units of motivic material, similar to Wagner’s Leitmotive, defined as a theme recurring throughout the length of a composition or story. Schoenberg also describes Grundgestalt in Harmonielehre, writing that “every idea needs to be broken down into its components . . . since, although we conceive of an idea as a totality, we [can only express it] part by part.” 

The very first bar of the Second String Quartet’s first movement makes up one Grundgestalt unit and quotes a sequence of four significant pitches: A-G#-F#-C#. This little tune was purportedly a signal that Schoenberg and his compatriots would whistle at one another as a “call to forge ahead” against the overwhelming dismissal of new music by critics and audiences, and this quartet certainly ‘forges ahead’ in the search for their new frontier. It begins reasonably tonal and expected, but by the end of the work, it has devolved into a hybrid tonal/triadic/atonal free form that itself can be seen as ‘forging ahead’ into a new realm of music. I am planning to use a visual representation of that specific motive in the form of a visual motif in my prints to begin to tie the individual pieces together as a set.

At the Leopold Museum’s exhibit of Schoenberg’s work in Vienna, I was especially drawn to a display of playing cards from a set that he created in 1909. Playing cards generally come in four ranks of 13 individual cards (ace numbered through 10, jack, king, queen). Thirteen was also a significant number to Schoenberg. He had triskaidekaphobia, or an extreme fear of the number 13, and was therefore apprehensive that he would die during a year that was a multiple of that numbr. Although this did not occur, he did die on Friday the 13th, 1951, at 76 (an age he had apparently been warned about, as 7+6=13).

A surface-level examination of Schoenberg and many of his works could lead to the impression that they have a wholly analytical, logical, ‘higher mind’ character. Schoenberg’s obvious affinity for rules, order, and numbers connect well to the mathematical, orderly associations of playing cards, but this preference for order does not necessarily lend well to either my personality or my artistic idiom. However, much of Schoenberg’s visual media and his personal writings reveal an expressive, emotional side that I find is perhaps easier to connect with. 

I created a set of 13 linoleum-cut relief prints depicting unique programmatic content, based on the intricacies of the Schoenberg's Second String Quartet and on Schoenberg himself. While seemingly disparate when considered as single works, the prints are tied together in a manner comparable to the conceptual technique behind Klangfarbenmelodie and pointillism, in which “each component is conclusive in and of itself; yet capable of melding with the others to form the whole.” The set achieves thematic unity through its focus on the Second String Quartet’s background and intrinsic story, and through a general systematic approach to the framework shared by pointillism and Klangfarbenmelodie: the use of small, distinct pieces of material to make up a concrete whole. The series also attempts to achieve visual cohesion through a numbering and visual system based on playing cards, and through the Grundgestalt symbol motif I fashioned.  One of the compositional challenges posed by Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet was to “integrate such radically diverse surface materials into an organic whole.” Similarly, the thirteen seemingly disparate prints work together in my series to form a cohesive whole that references and details the nuances of the quartet. Thirteen ‘daubs of color’ combine to form a ‘rank of cards,’ if you will.

 © 2020 by Alexandra Huryn. 

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