The rise and fall of radical athematicism

Ethan Haimo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

4 Scopus citations


In a famous letter from early August 1909, Arnold Schoenberg wrote to Ferruccio Busoni, describing his credo of composition. For our purposes, the key passage is: I strive for: complete liberation from all forms from all symbols of cohesion and of logic. Thus: away with “motivic working out.” Away with harmony as cement or bricks of a building. Harmony is expression and nothing else. Then: Away with Pathos! Away with protracted ten-ton scores, from erected or constructed towers, rocks and other massive claptrap. My music must be brief. Concise! In two notes: not built, but “expressed.” Schoenberg's rapturous and poetic description of his compositional philosophy is a remarkably precise portrayal of his compositions, beginning with the third movement of the Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11 (completed August 7, 1909). Beginning in August 1909, there is indeed “liberation from all forms” and from “symbols of cohesion and logic.” There is no “motivic working out,” no “harmony as cement or bricks of a building,” no “ten-ton scores,” no “erected or constructed towers,” and Schoenberg's works have become significantly shorter than before (and in the Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra of 1910 would become shorter still). At the same time, essential aspects of the compositional philosophy described in this letter are completely incompatible with the compositions that Schoenberg had written only days earlier. If one were pressed to name the single most prominent compositional feature of the compositions that immediately preceded the letter to Busoni (the first two movements of Op. 11 and Nos. 1–4 of the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16), it would have to be “motivic working out,” arguably some of the most careful, pervasive, and thorough motivic working out there ever was.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780511780912
ISBN (Print)9780521870498
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2010

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2010.


Dive into the research topics of 'The rise and fall of radical athematicism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this