Can you whistle Schoenberg?

Did Schoenberg really consider himself the composer of catchy little tunes? Rick Jones tests out this theory on two junior human guinea-pigs

Mailman whistling Schoenberg (Credit: Jonny Hannah)

Although Arnold Schoenberg once promised that ‘one day even mailboys will whistle my tunes’, there is very little evidence to suggest that this is yet the case. Admittedly, one does occasionally hear postal-service employees singing, humming or indeed whistling in public melodies with Schoenberg’s signature on them, but it usually transpires that these are nothing more than familiar choruses performed wildly out of tune. My barber, for instance, is fond of the song ‘Cry Me A River’ but whenever he attempts to grapple with its notes, what emerges is not that theme at all but the principal subject from Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto Op. 42 or something very much like it.


It was with this in mind that I decided recently to try and teach two choristers of my acquaintance that very Schoenberg melody. After all, very little effort is actually made by anybody to facilitate the fulfilment of Schoenberg’s prediction. Do choirmasters breed familiarity with Schoenbergian themes by teaching their choirs to sing them as an exercise? Do schools play them in assembly? I think we all know the answer.

It was convenient that the pair of choristers – two Southwark Cathedral trebles – happened also to be my sons. This meant that a) they were always on hand to hear the music and b) they could not very easily refuse to participate. So for three days I persisted in playing the theme apparently to myself but within their earshot, with the aim of subliminal training.

To those of you who do not know the Op. 42 subject, I should explain that it is a ‘note row’, a form of melody which refuses to fall into any key. It is usually therefore quite hard to sing. There are two rules governing the construction of a note row: first, that all twelve different black and white notes on the keyboard must be used; and, second, that no note may occur twice. Music created by such a series of notes is called serialism. The order of the twelve notes in Schoenberg’s Op. 42  is as follows: E flat-B flat-D-F-E-C-G flat-A flat-D flat-A-B-G. In the event, the composer hardly complies with his own rules as both A and B are repeated as a sort of hiccup but this may be excused as poetic licence. Music is after all an art and can never be totally bound by mathematical strictures without losing its spontaneity.

On the fourth day I played to the choristers – let us call them Treble X and Treble Y – the first 40 or so bars of Mitsuko Uchida’s recording of Schoenberg’s Op. 42. As the music plinked its steady course, I solicited their comments.

‘It’s a bit kind of all-over-the-place,’ said Treble X with uncomplicated honesty.

‘It sounds like Tippett,’ said Treble Y brightly for he had just sung that composer’s St John Service for the first time.

‘Why is it like that?’

‘Because it’s messy,’ said Treble X provocatively.

‘Do you recognise it?’ I blithely asked.

‘Is it what we’re singing tomorrow at choir?’ This was a decent stab by Treble Y who knew that I was in the habit of putting on CDs of their choir music.

‘You’ve played it?’ suggested Treble X with a rising, questioning intonation. 

‘When have I played it?’

‘You’re always playing it. You played it at lunchtime today,’ put in Treble Y, suddenly inspired.’

‘What do you mean always? How long have I been playing it?’

‘A couple of days,’ said Treble X. ‘Non-stop.’

‘Very good,’ I said, relieved that the first part of the experiment – recognition – had produced more or less the desired response. I told them a little about serial composition and the break with traditional diatonic ways of organising notes so that their eyes glazed over and they began to look longingly out through the French window. Nonethless a little bell tinkled somewhere in Treble Y as he asked if he could have a bowl of cereal please before bed.

The next task was to get them to sing the tune. On the fifth day, I wrote it out in very large notes on a metre-long piece of white card. The boys then sang it reluctantly but with reasonable ease, the score in front of them and a heavy accompaniment from the piano. Given that mailboys usually have to carry large sacks of mail with both hands and will not have the luxury of a score to whistle from, the experiment could not be considered complete until a rendition from memory had been attempted. I find that the easiest way to learn an abstract melody is to fit a lyric to it, preferably one that is relevant to the exercise. The words ‘You wait, said Schoenberg starting to bristle, my tunes one day mailboys will whistle’ fit the notes quite neatly and, on the sixth day, are what I gave them to sing. Alternatively I could have forced ‘Cry Me A River’ into place but there are too many slurs involved and in any case it would only have the effect of mimicking my barber.

Some note rows are easier to learn than others. Shostakovich, who was disdainful of the technique, invents a simple, even deliberately banal one for the finale of his Symphony No. 14. It includes no difficult intervals, just fifths, fourths and minor seconds, and sounds like a fanfare played on a dented trumpet. Bartok on the other hand designs one for the second subject of his second Violin Concerto that leaps about wildly and irrepressibly and is unlikely ever to be accurately singable by mere mailboys.

Despite Schoenberg’s intent to deprive music of its key, his Op. 42  theme suggests E flat major. The first four notes are easily pitched in this context. Indeed, the whole melody can be divided into clusters of adjacent notes which imply particular familiar chords. The third and fourth bars (‘starting to bristle’) suggest A flat seventh, bars five and six (‘my tunes one day mailboys will’) A major and the last (‘whistle’) G major. In fact by the rules of serial composition the note row has not only to extend horizontally along the stave but also vertically across it, which ensures that the underlying chords are built only of neighouring notes in the row as well. In other words it is not just the keyless melody that gives the music its eerie weightlessness but the unresolving dissonances too. The writer Heinrich Jalowetz noticed this too in his essay ‘Twelve-tone writing in Mozart’ as he identifies a stretch of the 40th Symphony in G minor in which the underlying harmony is a traditional sequence of cadences but the treble line a bona fide note row. Amadeus got there first!

In the event, having been softened up for it for five days beforehand, Trebles X and Y found Schoenberg’s theme quite easy to sing although the A flat (‘to bristle, my’) was rather low for them. This was unfortunate as the minor seventh drop makes it the hardest note to pitch especially after the tritone from C to G flat. It is easier to sing the section from A flat to B (‘to bristle, my tunes one day mailboys will whist-’) up an octave. This is permissible by the rules. On the seventh day, to finish the exercise, I bribed my sons with the offer of tea in the local noodle bar to try and sing the entire theme from memory. Both managed to get through without stopping but neither could end squarely on the G with all the notes perfectly in tune. They were more accurate in duet. Send the mailboys out in pairs.

Schoenberg’s formula also prescribes how the theme once established should be varied to give the composition forward momentum. The note row should subsequently be rendered backwards (retrograde), upside-down (inversion) and backwards-upside-down (retrograde inversion) and these resulting new lines interwoven with each other and the original as in Baroque counterpoint. Treble X was particularly quick to spot each metamorphosis. Still the whole exercise mystified him.

‘It’s easy, then,’ he said.

‘What’s easy?’ I asked.

‘If the idea is to have no key, then just don’t have one. Just put in flats and sharps wherever you want them. Add them all over the place.’ ‘Well you could do it like that,’ said I slightly flummoxed, ‘but you’d probably not get exactly what you could hear in your composer’s mind. This way has a system.’

I was reminded of the film Green Card in which Gerard Depardieu passes himself off as a mad composer in front of his girlfriend’s parents, administering a plausible modernist thrashing to the family Steinway though he has never had a piano lesson in his life. Is the public so hoodwinked? Could it be that a mere random spray of accidentals could create the same effect? Clearly not, as the piece would be without its obviously sculpted corners, its repetitions, imitations and echoes. In fact it is the system which rescues the music from madness and anarchy.

‘What do you think of it all?’ I asked as the guinea-pigs made good their escape.

‘Greyish,’ said Treble X descriptively.

‘Mad,’ offered Treble Y.

‘I don’t think it’s something you’d remember,’ suggested Treble X, trying to pre-empt the conclusion of the experiment. He couldn’t see himself whistling Schoenberg’s tune on the bus to school, not without being accused by his peers of mangling metal-band System of a Down’s cover version of ‘Cry Me A River’ (if they have ever made one which, I admit, is unlikely).

‘I’m not so sure about that,’ I countered hopefully, showing them the stairs to bed. ‘But I shall ask you again in a year. You wait -.’

‘ – said Schoenberg,’ sang Treble Y.

‘You see,’ said I.  

This article first appeared in the May 2003 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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