The Listening Service

The Listening Service

United Kingdom

Rethink music with The Listening Service. Tom Service presents a journey of imagination and insight, exploring how music works


Whatever Happened to the Waltz?  

A hotbed of vice, immorality, and social meltdown... or a musical embodiment of gilded nostalgia and conservatism... The sounds of an empire at whirling play in Vienna... or the final soundtrack to the end of a musical and political world order... Tom Service invites you to dance through history in three-time, and whirl through waltzes both wonderful and weird. With dance historian Darren Royston and dancing queen Katie Derham.

Breaking Free: Tom Service on the Second Viennese School  

Breaking Free - the minds that changed music. Tom Service explores how to listen to the Second Viennese School - music that exploded with expressive feeling in the early years of the 20th century, and then gradually rebuilt harmony into a new system, using the 12-note series. He explains how the music developed from Arnold Schoenberg's early expressionist ventures into atonality, to the cool jewel-like precision of his pupil Anton Webern. In conversation with art historian Lisa Florman, he finds parallels in the painter Wassily Kandinsky's journey towards abstraction and his theories of shapes and colours. (Kandinsky was a friend of Schoenberg). And composer George Benjamin describes the intricate structures of Webern's music, which greatly inspired his own compositions.

The Listening Service Extra 12 of 12 - Schoenberg’s Compositional Vision  

Tom explores how Schoenberg hears the music that he is going to write. 'I hear the music which I am going to write. I hear the music and I have acquired a thing which every composer has to acquire in time. I have acquired the capacity of finding out what composes this music which I hear in my mind, in my imagination. And it's a kind of analysis of course but it's possible to mechanically express, if I say analysis, but the process is certainly similar to an analysis. I know, like a good cook would know of what the food is prepared, you know, what is in this food. So the composer knows what is in this sound which he hears.' - Arnold Schoenberg, 1950 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 11 of 12 - Twelve-tone music and its reception  

We hear Schoenberg on the reception of his music in America, Europe. 'When in 1933 I came to America I was a very renowned composer, even so that Mr. Goebbels himself in his "Der Angriff" reprimanded me for leaving Germany. Thanks to the attitude of most American conductors and under the leadership of Toscanini, Koussevitzky, and of Walter, suppression of my works soon began with the effect that the number of my performances sunk to an extremely low point. A year ago I had counted in Europe alone about a hundred performances of my works. There was also opposition and violent propoganda against my music in Europe. But musical education was high enough to meet the opposition of the illiterate. Therefore there existed a satisfactory number of first class musicians who at once were able to recognize that logic, order, and organization will be greatly promoted by application of the method of composing with twelve tones.' - Arnold Schoenberg, 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 10 of 12 - Do the correct notes matter?  

Tom looks at Schoenberg’s plea to musicians to play the correct notes in his String Trio, and why it matters so much to his serial music... 'A true musician, reading the score during the performance of one of my later works, went to the artists' room and showed the players many errors, faults, and other shortcomings he had observed in their rendition. He was given the very strange answer: "Maybe, but nobody noticed that!" Strange indeed! Strange at first the morale, which compares very well to a viewpoint excusing a crime if it cannot be proven. But strange also the logic to make such a contention when facing a man who has noticed those "differences." It seems, these players expected nobody would notice differences, which probably they themselves did not notice.' - Arnold Schoenberg 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 9 of 12 - Tennis Partners  

Tom looks at Schoenberg’s love of Gershwin, who was also his tennis partner in Hollywood. 'George Gershwin was one of these rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music, to him, was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men. And there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he has achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music but also a contribution to the music of the whole world. In this meaning I want to express the deepest grief for the deplorable loss to music. But may I mention that I lose also a friend whose amiable personality was very dear to me.' - Arnold Schoenberg 1937 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 8 of 12 - Alban Berg  

We listen to Schoenberg’s praise of his pupil, Alban Berg - and his surprise that this “soft-hearted young man” could write an opera of the ferocity and tragedy of Wozzeck. 'When Alban Berg, in 1904, came to me he was a very tall youngster and extremely timid… I was greatly surprised when this soft-hearted, timid young man had the courage to engage in a venture which seemed to invite misfortune: namely to compose Wozzeck, a drama of such extraordinary tragedy that it seemed forbidding to music. And even more: it contained scenes of everyday life which were contrary to the concept of the opera which still lived on stylized costumes and conventionalized characters. He succeeded. Wozzeck was one of the greatest successes of opera…He succeeded with his opera like he had succeeded in his insistence on studying with me. Making the belief in ideas one's own destiny is the substance of are made the great man.' - Arnold Schoenberg, 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 7 of 12 - Expressive Melodies  

Tom looks at Schoenberg’s own demonstration of how to harmonize a melody to maximum effect, using his Orchestral Variations as an example. As Schoenberg says: "There is nothing I long for more intensely than to be taken for a better sort of Tchaikovsky”. Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 6 of 12 - Twelve Tones  

Tom listens to Schoenberg’s distillation and defence of his theory of composition with 12 tones: serialism in a nutshell. 'The method of composing with twelve tones substitutes for the order granted by the permanent reference to tonal centers an order according to which every unit of a piece being a derivative of the tonal relations in a basic set of twelve tones, the "Grundgestalt," is coherent because of this permanent reference to it. Shall I repeat this? I mean instead of relating every configuration in a piece to a tonal center, every configuration in a twelve-tone piece is related to the Grundgestalt in that it consisted of always the same tone relation as this Grundgestalt provides. Reference to this set offers also the justification of dissonant sounds.' - Arnold Schoenberg, 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 5 of 12 - Boiling Water  

Tom looks at Schoenberg’s own experience in the new atonal world that he entered, which Schoenberg likened to being dropped in boiling water. ‘Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water, and not knowing how to swim or to get out in another manner, I tried with my legs and arms as best as I could. I do not know what saved me; why I was not drowned or cooked alive. I have perhaps only one merit: I never gave up! I had fallen into an ocean, into an ocean of overheated water and it burned not only my skin, it burned also internally. And I could not swim. …At least: I could not swim with the tide, all I could do was to swim against the tide--whether it saved me or not…' - Arnold Schoenberg 1947 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 4 of 12 - Schoenberg’s IDEA  

Schoenberg’s conception of what the “idea” of a piece of music really was - something even bigger than the sounds it makes. ‘I personally believe in "l'art pour l'art." In the creation of a work of art, nothing should interfere with the real idea. A work of art must elaborate on its own idea and follow the conditions which this idea establishes. This does not mean that an artist must have principles for which he obeys...’ - Arnold Schoenberg, late 1940s Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 3 of 12 - Dissonance  

Tom explores what Schoenberg meant by the dissonance and how he broke free from tonality in his music. ‘Contemporary music has taken advantage of my adventurous use of dissonances. Let us not forget that I came to that gradually, as a result of a convincing development, which enabled me to establish the law of the emancipation of the dissonance, which I mentioned before already, according to which the comprehensibility of the dissonance is considered tantamount to the comprehensibility of the consonance. I do not say the dissonance is the same as the consonance. I say the comprehensibility of both is tantamount. Thus, dissonances need not be a spicy addition to dull sounds. They are natural and logic substantiation of an organism. And this organism lives as vitally on its phrases, rhythms, motives and also melodies, as ever before.' - Arnold Schoenberg 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 2 of 12 - Heir to the German Mainstream  

Tom illustrates why Schoenberg felt such a strong lineage from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. ‘there is a possibility to learn something of my technical achievements. But I think it is even better to go back to those men from whom I learned them: I mean, to Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I can really, you can really contend that I owe very, very much to Mozart; and if one studies, for instance, the way in which I write for string quartet, then one cannot deny that I have learned this directly from Mozart. And I am proud of it!’ - Arnold Schoenberg 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The Listening Service Extra 1 of 12 - Who am I?  

Tom explores Schoenberg’s objection to being dubbed a “famous theoretician and controversial musician”. ‘I wonder sometimes who I am. When the Committee on Lectures and Drama announced my lecture in the newspapers, someone was afraid the readers might not know who I am. So they informed them as follows: "famous theoretician and controversial musical figure, known for the influence he has brought to bear on modern music." Up to now, I thought I compose for different reasons.’ - Arnold Schoenberg, 1949 Archive audio and photos with kind permission of Arnold Schönberg Center, Wien

The bells, the bells...  

Tom Service on the mystery, magic and music associated with bells For thousands of years human life has been accompanied by the sound of bells - calls to prayer, driving away evil spirits, marking the hours and seasons of life - births, marriages, deaths, alarm bells, peace bells, sleigh bells and Christmas bells. Tom looks at the meaning and magic of the sound of bells, and listens to the interpretations and reverberations of bells in music.

Background Music  

Tom tunes into the background, exploring what background music really is; telling the surprising story of the Muzak corporation, and discovering that there's a range of background functions that music can have: from the 'furniture music' of Erik Satie to the Stimulus Progression albums used in Lyndon B Johnson's White House. Daniel Barenboim, Julian Lloyd-Webber and Brian Eno help explain the power of and problems with background music.

The Semitone  

Tom Service considers the semitone. Music's most fundamental building block, it can mean sorrow when it falls, triumph when it rises, but also provoke fear (in the theme from Jaws). It can become a glittering decoration when repeated as a trill. Tom talks to mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly about the tragic falling semitones of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas, and also to musicologist Sarha Moore about the varied significances of the semitone in musical traditions of the Middle East and India, and its special effect in the riffs of Heavy Metal rock music. In the Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sang "Tee - a drink with jam and bread - that will bring us back to Doh" - but what makes that "tee" note pull us so inexorably back (by a semitone) to "doh" - the tonic? Tom calls the semitone "the piquant spice that drives the change from one key to another" - powerful effects from a little interval.


Tom Service considers the art of musical improvisation. When pianist Lenny Tristano first recorded free improvisations in 1949, his record company didn't want to release them. Today, Free Improvisation is a well-established genre. But can improvising ever be "free"? Tom discusses with musician and writer David Toop and improvising bassist Joëlle Leandre. Improvisation is a fundamental part of music-making - it even has a place in Western classical music, such as the freely invented cadenza in a piano concerto. Other musical traditions are fundamentally based in improvising, such as the classical Indian tradition, and jazz. In the 1950s, Free Improvisation developed from experiments in extending jazz, as an attempt to make music spontaneously with no reference to any style or tradition. David Toop has written a book about improvising, and Joelle Leandre has had a long career as a free improviser, playing with a wide variety of musicians around the world. But, she says, "we cannot be free...".

Cover Versions  

The Listening Service explores the art of the cover version: what happens when one composer 'covers' the art of another? Why was it common practice for baroque composers to recycle their own work and 'borrow' from their colleagues on a regular basis? And what of musical traditions like Folk and Jazz where key pieces or 'standards' are covered by multiple artists? Tom Service talks to baroque expert Berta Joncas and folk star Eliza Carthy to get some answers. The Listening Service.

Schubert's Dark Side  

Tom Service delves into the dark side of Franz Schubert. What can we hear in his music? A provincial composer who died young, described as looking like a "little mushroom", on the face of it Franz Schubert doesn't seem a likely candidate for deep insight into the human condition. But appearances are very definitely deceptive, and some of his music can seem deceptively straightforward as well. Join Tom Service for a journey into Schubert's psyche and discover what his music tells us about the man, and perhaps about ourselves. With Dr Laura Tunbridge of Oxford University.

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