Schoenberg Without Pain

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.


"Modern music is not modern and is rarely music." So wrote music critic Henry Pleasants in his highly controversial 1955 book, The Agony of Modern Music.

Modern music, Pleasants argued, "represents an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition whose technical resources are exhausted, and which no longer has any cultural validity. That it continues to be composed, performed, and discussed represents self-deception by an element of society which refuses to believe that this is true."

I think the word "agony" in Pleasants' title must have been inspired largely by the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his disciples, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. This is ironic, in a way, because Schoenberg began writing such hard-to-take music after reaching a conclusion very similar to Pleasants' - that the European musical tradition was exhausted - that everything that could be said with conventional tonal music had been said, and that it was time to move on to something else.

So, after writing a couple of gorgeous, soaring highly lyrical romantic compositions at the turn of the century, Schoenberg developed the 12-tone row, "invented" more than a decade earlier by another Austrian, composer-mathematician Joseph Hauer. The idea, in simple terms, was to use every note in an octave (both white and black keys on a piano) once before any was repeated, thus doing away with the feeling of a tonic center. One tone was no more important than another with this approach.

Schoenberg's output using this system is often referred to as "atonal," although, of course, it is still composed of tones. What is eliminated is not tones; it is the home base - the dominant key to return to at the end which gives listeners a comfortable feeling of musical fulfillment.

Schoenberg wrote a concerto for piano, another for cello, a fantasy for violin and piano, etc. But none of these were in G-sharp minor, E-flat major, or any other key. As a result Schoenberg's compositions inspired catcalls, fist fights and even riots when they were first performed in his home town of Vienna. He and his disciples had to put on their own private concerts and bar critics to keep the peace. They put the agony in modern music and took the public out.

Schoenberg's music was clearly not for everyone. In fact it almost seemed to be purposefully designed to appeal to no one - pure "art for art's sake."

"If it is art, it is not for all, Schoenberg proclaimed, "and if it is for all, it is not art."

And yet Schoenberg wanted his music to appeal to the public. "There is nothing I wish for more earnestly," he said, than "that my melodies should be known and whistled."

He blamed the performers for his music's lack of acceptance, not the fact that, for most of his life, he wrote completely unwhistleable tunes. "My music is not modern," he was fond of saying. "It is only badly played."

By mid-Century, when Pleasants' book was published, modern music was forced on the concert-going public by conductors who had evidently tired of always presenting the same repertoire and who felt some moral obligation to present "the music of our time." Such pieces had to be sandwiched in between classical works from earlier centuries, otherwise ticket-holders would have come in late or left early - anything to avoid having to listen to one of these atrocities.

There were, of course, many other composers who experimented with different types of dissonant music, as though only through dissonance could they express the feelings of our age. There were a few, like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, who hedged their bets on immortality by trying both. And there were those out-of-fashion musical conservatives who kept writing tonal music - people who were ignored by the concert halls and record companies at the time but who, with the conservative 90s and the proliferation of compact discs and low-priced, high-quality recording equipment, are finally beginning to be noticed. I mentioned two of these composers last month - Howard Hanson and Randall Thompson.

Before Schoenberg turned to the ridiculous, mathematical, rigidly Germanic 12-tone system, he proved that he could write as hauntingly beautiful, melodious music as any 20th Century composer. And that explains the veracity of the title of a new Telarc release, The Romantic Music of Schoenberg (CD-80372). This CD brings together on one recording the two best examples of what a marvelous composer Schoenberg was before he went off the deep, dissonant end. If you are going to have just one recording by Schoenberg in your collection, this should be it: Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht), Op. 4, and Pelléas and Mélisande, Op. 5, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yoel Levi.

I didn't take immediately to Transfigured Night when I first heard the piece many years ago. It may take some people a bit longer than others for the incredibly beautiful melodies and original harmonies to sink in. But, once they do, this piece can hook you forever, and you'll want to hear it over and over again.

I am less fond of Pelléas and Mélisande, but it, too, makes more and more sense with each playing. I particularly enjoy the lyrical, romantic melody of the third movement, reflecting the parting of the two lovers.

When Schoenberg was rejected by the musical public of Vienna, he went to Berlin. When the Nazis took over there in 1933 he fled to France. There, as a gesture against the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi regime, he officially returned to the Jewish faith, which he had abandoned in 1921. He ended up in California, living near what is now O.J. Simpson's house in Brentwood, outside Los Angeles, teaching composition at the University of Southern California and then at UCLA until his retirement at the age of 70.

Schoenberg's last compositions abandoned the 12-tone technique, which is exactly what I suggest you do. Then you, too, can appreciate Schoenberg without pain and enjoy some of the ecstasy of modern music without the agony.


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