Schönberg's 1909-8-24 letter to Busoni

Here is an excerpt from Schönberg's letter to Busoni of 24 August 1909 (just a few days before Schönberg began the composition of Erwartung), in which he describes his experimentation with quarter-tones.


Your "Outline of a New Aesthetic of Music" gave me uncommon pleasure, above all on account of its audacity. Particularly at the beginning, there are a few powerful sentences, of compulsive logic and superlative acuteness of observation.

I have also thought a lot about your idea of thirds of tones, though in a different way. But I had been thinking of quarter-tones, am however now of the opinion that it will depend less on the construction than on other things.

Moreover, one of my pupils calculated, at my suggestion, that the next division of the octave with similar properties to our twelve semitone division would have to introduce 53 notes.

If you adopt 18 thirds of tones, that would be approximately equal, for 3 x 18 = 54. But then the semitones would disappear completely.

Earlier I thought out the following method of notating quarter-tones:

< and > are
mathematical symbols.

However, I scarcely think that such attempts at notation will catch on; for I confidently hope that the notation of the future will be - how can I say : "wirelesser".

I also think differently about tonality - my music shows that. I believe: everything one can do with 113 keys can also be done with 2 or 3 or 4: major-minor, whole-tone and chromatic. Anyway, I have long been occupied with the removal of all shackles of tonality. And my harmony allows no chords or melodies with tonal implications any more.


(see A Century of New Music in Vienna for further background info)


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