In Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethovens Time, Arnold Schoenberg has 20 pages of entries, five more than does Claude Debussy, four more than Richard Strauss. True, many of the entries, especially the earliest ones, are in both German and English, doubling his line count, but for sheer toxicity — venom — bile — the responses to his music have all others beat, put together, hands down.
“Each of the Five Orchestral Pieces,” suggests one reviewer, “ends with every man choosing his note as if by lottery. This is economical music, for what is the need of rehearsal? It is a sorry bit if the wrong note will not sound better than the right one.” “Right in the middle of the movements,” reports another (re a performance of the String Quartet No. 2), “there was persistent and uproarious laughter, and in the middle of the last movement people shouted at the top of their voices: ‘Stop! Enough! We will not be treated like fools!’ And I must confess to my sorrow that I, too, let myself be driven to similar outbursts.”
Claims a third about the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, “In the welter of tonalities that bruised each other as they passed and repassed, in the preliminary grip of enharmonies that almost made the ears bleed, the eyes water, the scalp freeze, I could not get a central grip on myself. Schoenberg is the crudest of all composers for he mingles with his music sharp daggers at white heat, with which he pares away tiny slices of his victim’s flesh.” Then my favorite, “It is a tragicomic spectacle to see Schoenberg conducting this crazy cat music, urging on the players with an entranced or despairing expression on his face. These sounds conjure up hideous visions, monstrous apparitions threaten — there is nothing of joy and light, nothing that makes life worth living! How miserable would our descendants be, if this joyless gloomy Schoenberg would ever become the mode of expression of their time!”
Which is funny, really, all the tumult, all the wrath, because I’ve always found this stuff a pieca cake. There’ve been times when Mozart has given me trouble, or Schubert, and Tchaikovsky still gives me the creeps, but never Schoenberg. It could well be my exposure to monster movies that did it, that eased the wheels — I’m not sure how this works — and I’m not even talking ’bout their monstrousness. (Because they really weren’t that monstrous.) Them...the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers...The Brain from Planet Arous starring John Agar...non-mainstream fifties fare, discordantly (yet delightfully!) so...how ELSE to sotcally support, to even try supporting, such biz? “If you really stop to listen to the music accompanying most of the grade-B horror movies that are coming out of Hollywood these days,” wrote Glenn Gould a good ten years after the fact, “or a TV show on space travel for children, you will be absolutely amazed at the amount of integration which the various idioms of atonality have undergone in these media.”
It’s taken me years, anyway — decades — to get to the music itself, to know it by name, but get there I have. A long-delayed labor of love. (An accident still picking up steam.) In the last year or so I’ve tripped over, stepped across then up to, and ultimately aimed myself at Schoenberg compositions I can listen to, get mileage from, that at their very best feel like home. His String Trio, his Serenade, op. 24, any of his piano music, the entire two acts of Moses und Aron — big fat walls of mammal itch and scratch (and flail) —jazz I guess has also helped me get there — Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette (hey, they’re better, see, but not that much better) — I can just leave these pieces on all day
OK, tonality — let’s get this out of the way. By the time of Monteverdi and such guys, the late Renaissance, early Baroque, they had these keys going, half steps, whole steps, seven notes each, major, minor, replacing somewhat more eclectic schemes of ordering sounds both sequential and simultaneous—modes and the like. This became the trip for the next 300 years, during which the Euro-listener’s habits of accessing music qua music (as opposed to qua noise) were slowly but surely acclimated to the gravitational pull of each key’s — of the key system’s — axiomatic mass points —- tonic, dominant, subdominant, etc. — and the byproducts of their harmonic interplay: consonance, dissonance. Dissonance was cool, you could use it for tension, for “spice” (e.g., Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, K. 465), but only as long as you “resolved” it before closing shop.
Time marches on. As the 19th Century worked up its full head of froth — the Romantic Era — you had people like Berlioz, Liszt and most of all Wagner (and then Strauss and Mahler) spicing their works with the entire chromatic scale — any and all of the 12 possible notes to the octave, including sharps and flats. The thinking by then: use the full expressive palette, like why the hell not? (Only squares and simps didn’t.) Tristan und Isolde (Wagner) and Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss) were stews with tank cars of pepper and coriander to the unit pot. But when it came to the age-old biz about resolving the dissonance, axiom remained dogma...nobody fucked with it...an unwieldy situation (at historical critical mass). Enter: Schoenberg, who after his own bevy of Late Romantic works (Verklarte Nacht, Pelleas und Melisande, String Quartet No. 1) felt in his bones and heart the time was nigh to liberate the dissonance— no more need, no MUSICAL need, to resolve it! — once und for all.
So he went atonal, only he didn’t call it that, some critic did, and remained more or.less atonal for a dozen years. (Last piece in a specified key, though he didn’t especially adhere to it, was the second String Quartet, 1908.) Although you really should factor in the disruptions, interruptions of World War I (including ten minutes in the Austrian army, age 41), this was not Schoenberg’s most prolific period, and in any event he abandoned it. Even he was too hooked on “structure,” on “discipline.” But that’s only half the explanation.
Sure, yeah, he was a little unnerved by the “chaos,” by the lack of fixed relations between the notes, and he certainly was neurotic enough to begin with, but just as crucial was his need to find a means of avoiding tonal mishaps. ’Cause if anything goes, if any note can follow any note, you’ve gotta be careful lest some inadvertent intervallic collision revert you to echoes of cornball key structure. And you’re back where you started, still floundering.
So he opted for this system where all 12 notes get equal value, and the way you get ’em equal is you line ’em up, you pick a sequence using all 12 once each, one that respects none’s right to behave like a tonic or a dominant, and you stick with that sequence through your entire composition. You can do things with the “row” (or “series”) like turn it upside down, run it backwards, or upside down and backwards, you can use consecutive notes together as a chord, any note can be moved up or down one or more octaves, stuff like that, but your row is your row, no shaking it. ’Cause if there’s no stink of key the first time through, there won’t be one the 81st: freedom from key, guaranteed. Oh, and to avoid lines that might in any way resemble major-minor scales, it helps to keep your melodies jagged, full of large, even “ridiculous,” leaps.
Such was, and still is, more or less, the 12-tone, or dodecaphonic (though some wags would call it dodecacophonic), system, which Schoenberg believed would assure “the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years” — only a decade into which he would have to run from Hitler into penniless exile.
Before you think there’s no San Diego in this piece, let me lay something on you. The first performance of Schoenberg’s arrangement for orchestra of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor took place in L.A. in May 1938, conducted by that other escapee from National Socialism (and father of the man who would later play “funny Nazi” Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes), Otto Klemperer. Shortly thereafter, the composer himself conducted it in SAN DIEGO.
His stated reasons for orchestrating it: “1.I like the piece. 2. It is seldom played. 3. It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings.” While some hailed the work as “Brahms’s Fifth” (he’d written four symphonies, although chronologically this would have been his zero’th), it was one of Schoenberg’s more squaresville efforts, homage to one of his earliest influences, before he’d discovered Wagner. The last movement in particular is a big hokey slab of kitsch. All in all, kind of a cheesy piece. (San Diego gets cheese.)
Still, it does pull off one interesting (and worthwhile) trick: the Brahms piece is itself made less schmoozy. Brahms was this guy, see, this old fart, this literal reactionary, who thought of himself as an “antidote” to the alleged excesses of Wagner but who in his own dumb way was at least as excessive, and certainly more cloyingly oppressive, about telegraphing his dramatics with harmonics, spotlighting, underlining, dressing everything in gratuitous (jazz term) “heavy changes”...sort of a Billy Joel to Wagner’s, oh, Johnny Rotten. What Schoenberg does — no mean feat — is undercut (at least allay) the harmonic oppressiveness, the italicized fatness, that in some of Brahms’s chamber works (especially) can get under yer skin like scabies. A take on harmonic color/flavor (and payability) that goes beyond the mere issue of “consonance vs. dissonance.” In any case: a deconstruction (in deed if not word) of Romantic Era folderol without recourse to atonality or its dodeca-anything corollary. It’s subtle, though — you could miss it.
’Tain’t much subtle about the String Trio of 1946. A ferocious 12-tone helping, “violent”? — call it violent—strings like razor blades, like razor ribbon, icepicks scraped along skin or a blackboard (take your pick), a heart scraped on concrete-stops, starts, fits, starts, flutters and stiffenings (and loosenings)...naked music, spooky and also serene, “turmoil”/“repose” (but never that topical), extremes till you drop, a meat-mile of emotional turf traversed (but without guide-dog schematics). And while it is highly emotional, no denying that, its pulse is not the flow of blood but the irregular (i.e., regular!) seepage of hormones, of come-as-you-go pressure-cooked cerebral ooze and gush — premeditated music with no possible premeditated audience p.o.v., so unpredictable it voids any and all anticipations of future, locking you into the slowly unfolding (too slowly unfolding) (never unfolding) present...a nice tough “listen,” Jack!
And the program note that should go with this, well, on August 2 of that year, in the aftermath of being given benzedrine as a new trial medication for his chronic asthma, Schoenberg suffered a massive heart attack, during which his pulse completely stopped, requiring an injection of some-such (not benzedrine) directly in the heart. He would later refer to this incident as his “fatality,” and to the Trio as “the only piece ever written by a dead man.”
Speaking of ferocity: Moses und Aron. Schoenberg’s longest (two acts, completed in ’32; in ’45 he applied for a grant to finish the third, was turned down) opera has the goods. All opera, all operatic vocals, to my ears anyway, are a fistful of razor blades — the human voice brandished as a weapon — independent of thematic content or melodic intent. Which is fine, great — love that menace! — but rarely if ever do the instrumental lashings meet the vocals halfway. This big, glaring gap in the middle, y’know? Well here, finally, are orchestral textures to give the vocals a run for their money, making for a sonic event of more walloping, bloodying BIBLICAL PROPORTION than, say, Haydn’s The Creation or Handel’s Messiah.
In case you’re wondering why there’s only one “A” in “Aron,” two would’ve meant 13 letters in both German and English (though why not just use an ampersand?), something Schoenberg was morbidly superstitious about. (He would eventually die on July 13, 1951, age 76: 7 + 6 = 13.) Seven, on the other hand, was a fortuitous number. His Serenade, op. 24, utilized seven instruments, seven movements, but he blew it with a setting of what he believed to be Petrarch’s 217th sonnet — 7x31— when in fact it was his 218th.
“Schoenberg’s personality,” wrote Slonimsky, “combined elements of decisive affirmation and profound self-negation.” He was easily pissed off, in the midst of genuine horrors tended towards flights of arcane paranoia, was as distracted by
adulation as persecution, and could be a royal asshole to stranger and cohort alike.
In 1911, in response to efforts by Alban Berg (who along with Schoenberg and Anton Webern formed what became known as the Second Vienna School — first had been Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) to raise money enabling him, Berg’s guru, to move to Berlin, he wrote, “Wake up! Be a man!”
Seven years later, to trick up a safe venue for the presentation of new music by himself and his colleagues, he founded the Society for Private Musical Performances—members only, no press, no applause allowed.
In Hollywood in the mid-’30s, when producer Irving Thalberg kept him waiting 20 minutes, Schoenberg huffed and puffed and nearly stormed out, only to blow any chance he had of writing the score for The Good Earth by demanding $50,000 (which while outrageous was not unthinkable) and a guarantee that every note would be used unaltered (which was).
During teaching stints at both USC and UCLA, he was less than thrilled that the bulk of his students were in his mind “amateurs,” and showed them little compassion. Decades later, in a recitation midway through his own Indeterminacy, former student John Cage tells the story of another UCLA’er deemed musical layperson. Asked by Schoenberg to play the first movement of a Beethoven sonata, which is afterward to be analyzed, a coed responds that the piece is too difficult. Schoenberg insists she play it, only to stop her for not playing at the proper tempo. When she tells him that if she plays at that tempo she’ll make mistakes, he says, “Play at the proper tempo and don’t make mistakes.” She blows it, bursts into tears, and between sobs explains that she had a tooth pulled that morning, to which he replies, “Do you need to have a tooth pulled in order to make mistakes?”
Even fellow Hitler escapee (and, well, friend) Thomas Mann felt the sting of the master’s touchiness. When the Nobel laureate’s Doktor Faustus, whose main character resembles Schoenberg vaguely for about 30 seconds, came out in ’47, the latter threw a shit fit. Through the intercession of Alma Werfel (Mahler’s widow) he wangled an afterword in future editions which reads in part, “It does not seem supererogatory to inform the reader that the form of composition delineated in Chapter XXII, known as the 12-tone or row system, is in truth the intellectual property of a contemporary composer and theorist, Arnold Schoenberg. I have transferred this technique, in a certain ideational context, to the fictitious figure of a musician” — but this spooked him even more. Well I’ve read the chapter and lemme tell ya, it’s as superficial a gloss on things musical, as innocuously topical, as Thomas Pynchon’s reference to either Ornette Coleman or Gerry Mulligan (some either/or, eh? — sax player with a rhythm section minus piano) in the short story “Entropy.” ’S benign, man — a setup for a talk on “freedom” versus “subjectivity” — and this li’l nothin’ aggrieved him? The spooker gets spooked?
Sulked Schoenberg in the Saturday Review, “Mr. Mann was not so generous as I, who had given him good chance to free himself from the ugly aspect of a pirate. He gave an explanation: a few lines which he hid at the end of the book on a page where no one ever would see it. Besides, he added a new crime to his first in the attempt to belittle me: he calls me 'a (a!) contemporary composer and theoretician.’ ” Arnie, work out!
One of the few who apparently never let him down (maybe ’cuz he died too soon) was George Gershwin, of all people, whom Schoenberg befriended during the latter’s final West Coast stand, playing tennis at his house every chance he got. Usually, because of Schoenberg’s age, doubles were played, with weak lobs aimed his way to give him something to return.
Other hobbies in L.A.: Ping-Pong, dogs and rabbits, bookbinding. He still painted, but less. Back in Europe, painting had been more than a hobby, however, a “pastime.” He took it as seriously as composing — “the same to me as making music” — and hobnobbed with Kokoschka and Schiele, the Blaue Reiter crowd. Kandinsky said of Schoenberg’s early canvases, “In your pictures I perceive the real especially strongly.” He took lessons from an upstairs neighbor, the Austrian expressionist Richard Gerstl, whom Mathilde, the first Mrs. Schoenberg, ran off with, only to return, at which point Gerstl destroyed most of his own artwork and disemboweled himself with a butcher knife (a nice story).
The Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC has a stash of some 200 Schoenbergs, including pics of Mathilde, of second wife Gertrud, of Berg and Mrs. Berg, but more than a fifth are self-portraits. One of the all-time great baldies, possessor of the sort of bald Dennis the Menace once addressed with, “Hey, you sure got a lot of face to wash!”—yet there’s no vanity, no coverup, no posing with hats. Not even in outdoor self-portraits, like this one from ’ll where he’s carrying a cane (or umbrella), a rear-angle shot with glowing dome, did he paint himself hatted...way to go!
Fast forward: the bald continues. One of the great living baldies — you’ve seen him on TV, in the papers — yes you have! — is Ronald Schoenberg. Ronald Schoenberg...Ronald Schoenberg?...that’s right: HIM. L.A. judge who let O.J. walk, no jail time, after beating up — the time he just beat her up — Nicole. Uproar, furor; all the heat Ron has had to endure in the wake of u-know-what. Demands for his resignation, early retirement, dismemberment, etcet. Is the SON OF MR. TWELVE-TONE — ain’t life
It gets funnier. 360 North Rockingham Ave., Brentwood — an address you know, right? O.J.’s estate, where they arrested him, found the glove, all that shit. Well, not far from 360 N. Rockingham is 116 (either N. or S., Willi Reich’s Schoenberg: A Critical Biography— he’s a foreigner, natch—doesn’t specify) Rockingham, where the Family Schoenberg moved when daddy took the UCLA gig, where they lived at the time of Ronald’s birth (11/26/37), and where Ron grew up with all the dogs, bunnies, and ping-pong balls. Rockingham is discontinuous at Sunset Boulevard, so it’s either a couple blocks or let’s say five with a break somewhere between, but in any event: neighborhood. (Neighbors at various times included Judy Garland at 129 S., Pat O’Brien at 196 S., and Shirley Temple at 209 N.)
Ronald is an anagram of Arnold, by the way, further evidence of Papa S.’s alphanumeric preoccupation. The last Schoenberg child, Lawrence, was gonna be named Roland till the wife of director William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola, The Story of Louis Pasteur, Elephant Walk) raised some cogent astrological stink... fuggaduck.
And my family, er, my impending relation (by marriage) to food researcher MaryEllen Flot, is on hold pending determination as to whether we indeed, in fact can “live together.” What better way to determine this — I’m thinking — than to lay some Schoenberg on her? I should be allowed to have this stuff on all the time, right? Or if not all, some (at least with headphones). Her own taste runs to the soundtrack from Sleepless in Seattle, the original cast album from Tovarich.
Let’s play her some shit and see how she takes it....
THREE PIANO PIECES, OP. 11, NO. 3
MaryEllen: It’s not so bad. I like ping-ping piano music, and he’s got a little bit of banging, which is okay. But it’s not crazy, hard to listen to, effect for effect sake.
PIANO PIECE, OP. 33A
M: There’s about four songs here — the beginnings of maybe four good songs. But then he goes stop, go, stop, go. I wouldn’t mind if he took just even one of those things, like some of it sounds like a song from the ’30s or ’40s. If he just took one of them and developed it into some nice little reminiscence...
FIVE PIANO PIECES, OP. 23, NO. 2
M: It’s almost — I was gonna say it’s quite nice, but it’s really not. It’s on the way to being okay—it doesn’t quite take off. The sounds are neither bad nor are they good — in my opinion.
FIVE PIECES FOR ORCHESTRA, OP. 16
M: I don’t like this. There are elements that could be exciting if...once again he does the thing I hate where he takes a little bit of something and a little bit of something else, he puts them together and it just becomes loud noise. It’s grating.
Richard: Isn’t this like every soundtrack you’ve ever heard?
M: Well, if it’s a soundtrack, theoretically you’re interested in the story and the music is just there to punctuate certain action while something’s going on and get you through the picture.
R: I disagree. There isn’t one movie that uses music that could exist without the music — the soundtrack delivers the movie.
M: It carries you through it, but you’re not listening to it as music....
R: If they took the music out of Philadelphia, for instance, would it fool a pinhead?
M: Well, I don’t like movies that have music like this.
R: You don’t like thrillers? You don’t like Hitchcock movies?
M: Okay, but not a steady diet of this. I wouldn’t watch this movie.
R: You’ve watched hundreds of movies like this.
M: Okay, whatever you say.
VERKLARTE NACHT, OP. 4 (STRING SEXTET VERSION)
M: All right, this is classic movie music, and what’s interesting, people today, you would consider them hacks for making this music because they would just be doing it for the movies, I don’t think you... It’s very sad, though.
R: It’s sad, you like things when they’re sad, so why do you call it hack?
M: There was something about it just at the beginning where it did feel that it was very manipulative, I mean its only use would be in the movies. But maybe it was heartfelt when he did it. Did he do this for the movies?
R: MaryEUen, he never once in his life wrote for an actual movie.
M: Oh, so they utUized him for the movies. R: They ripped him off!
M: You mean he wrote this by and for himself?
R: Yes he did.
M: In that case, I like it very much. There’s some parts in the middle where I find it hard to take because I guess he was so—who knows what? I mean he does seem to be connected to some pure emotional something in him. And who wants to be around someone in so much pain? But the beginning part I really loved because it was nicely sad.
STRING TRIO, OP. 45
M: There’s no occasion I can imagine where I would listen to this. I hate it. It’s totally annoying, abrasive, it doesn’t — even if there’s a good sound or two he doesn’t follow...
If you decide you wanna like an opera, or opera in yeneral,
it's an act of will.
R: What sounds are you talking about?
M: Well, there was one little pingy kind of...some things that won’t pierce your ears.
R: You have pierced ears.
M: I’m talking about ear drums, Richard. The whole point is I can’t imagine why anyone, what occasion would someone choose to play this music?
R: Well, what about writing this music? He wrote it after almost dying of a heart attack.
M: Oh, no wonder it sounds like that. Like he was very upset.
R: Who knows if he was upset? Maybe this was his affirmation of life.
M: This was not positive, this doesn’t...but I could see him writing, it would get your heart going again. You’re lying dead and you hear this kind of music and your heart starts, like a clicker, like one of those things where they say, “Clear.” But I’d rather get my heart moving with even rock and roll. Not heavy metal. Well maybe heavy metal.
PIERROT LUNAIRE, OP. 21
M: You’ve got to be kidding.
R: Kidding about what?
M: Now let me ask you a question, do people listen to...
R: You’re always saying “listen” as opposed to why it was written — what is he trying to express to listeners? I mean Michael Bolton has listeners.
M: Okay, fine, you can create anything you wanna create, but people don’t have to wanna be the audience for it. Yes — there is something, there’s pure expression in this — yes. A lot of impulsive...
R: Don’t you ever try to sing? Don’t you sound quite a bit like this?
M: Well when I do, ha, 1 don’t impose it on others.
R: You’ve often imposed it on me. But the question is what is it — as something sung — that you object to so strongly?
M: Well, okay, when I hear a baby crying my first impulse is usually to go and try to make that baby stop crying.
R: Like stab the baby?
M: No, like maybe hold the baby, do something nice for the baby. If the baby still won’t stop crying, I try to turn it over to someone else who can find out what’s wrong with the baby.
R: This doesn’t sound anything like a baby!
M: Well, it’s got primitive sound, it’s an obvious cry for help. There’s something very primal, first-level about it, I mean it’s certainly about the creator and not the receiver of the art. To the extent that this music reminds you of me, that’s fine. Who says the art we create is the art we wanna create?
SUITE FOR PIANO, THREE WIND AND THREE STRINGED INSTRUMENTS, OP. 29
M: I don’t like it at all. If I were doing my food research, having nothing to do with this, if I’m just in the room with it, it would distract me, make me angry. It’s just, well aside from, music does not always have to be pleasant. But it’s closer to noise than it is to music.
R: What kind of noise is it close to? Is it like a washing machine?
R: A vacuum cleaner?
M: No, you know what it’s more like? It’s not even, well those car alarms have more even rhythms, I mean I’m enjoying some of those car alarms they have recently.
R: Then they’re not doing their job, they’re not alarming.
M: No, this music is more alarming.
R: That would seem good.
M: Richard, do you like to have this music on in your home?
R: I certainly do.
M: What do you like it for?
R: For one thing, it’s foreground, it’s music that asks to be listened to, as opposed to blends in like wallpaper, disappears into the void.
M: Exactly. It’s screaming at you, “Listen to me! Listen to me!” I have enough things screaming at me in my life. I like music I can get lost in.
R: You can’t get lost in this?
M: No, I’m fighting this kind of music!
R: Then by lost, I mean you could very easily get lost in this — lose your bearings, whatever — you mean music you can fall asleep to.
M: Or music that gives me a feeling of wellbeing. Like sometimes I’ll just have music on, classical music at that, and it makes it seem that everything is right with the world, and I like that.
STRING QUARTET NO. 3, OP. 30
M: This I don’t mind, but it could be because it’s strings.
R: You didn’t like the string trio.
M: I don’t like screechy strings, this isn’t screechy. But I’ll tell you something, this is definitely movie music. I could definitely see it in a movie.
R: Like Gone with the Wind?
M: Well, in some sort of...okay, I can tell you exactly what I could see this in. This could be a suspense movie where some character is going into, he’s looking through some papers, some things, he’s not a detective, he’s looking for something really important.
R: “Looking for important things” music?
MOSES UND ARON
M: You know, opera’s very tricky. If you decide you wanna like an opera, or opera in general, it’s an act of will, because there’s so much going on that is not, like you don’t understand the language, people are communicating in these voices that are not real but are representative of emotional states, it’s poetry, but it’s not penetrable, and so a person has to say up front, “I am affected by this, I like this, I go into this world without question.” And I guess on that basis one could accept this as fine. I don’t fully accept it, however.
PIANO CONCERTO, OP. 42
M: This is very nice. It’s got my favorite kinds of sound — ping, ping — but it’s also got other instruments involved -— nicely. It’s sometimes — it’s interesting, because it’s not just one thing, it’s got a lot of colors going on, a foregound and background kind of feeling, and the underneath of it feels a bit more complex than the top. And it’s not flouncy, and it could be, like what’s his name, Prokofiev.
A SURVIVOR FROM WARSAW, OP. 46
M: The sound feels totally invasive. This is worse than any of the others. There couldn’t be any reason to put this on my CD player. Maybe if I had neighbors I didn’t like who were annoying me with their music, I’d put this on very loud — and I’d add to it with my own animal sounds.
R: What if I tell you this is Holocaust music, his tribute to, the words of a survivor from a concentration camp.
M: Well, I’m sure his heart was in the right place. But it’s too hard to listen to.
R: What, you want the Schindler’s List version?
M: It doesn’t feel to me like this has any more depth to it than Schindler’s List. I mean he’s a better musician, a better artist, better composer — everything is “better.” But I don’t know if anything he’s expressing is any more effective, y’know in its arrow to the target. Schindler’s List, manipulative or not, would make me cry. This just makes me cringe.
R: Isn’t that the object? You want people to remember a horrible event, you want them to cry — get it over with — or cringe?
M: To tell you the truth, you want them to remember on the right side. If you want people to be your allies, you don’t send them to concentration camps — this puts the listener in the camp and they can’t escape.
R: Isn’t there a little more, um, accuracy this way — y’know emotional verisimilitude?
M: Maybe there is, but I’m not interested in it. My interest is to protect myself — from the sound. Before it makes me even more on edge.
Well, that wasn’t too painful, not for me, so just to see if she was actually listening, ha, let’s play her an assortment of stuff and see if she can pick out the Schoenberg.
CARL RUGGLES, Sun-Treader
M: This definitely could be him, but I don’t think so. It’s a little too expansive, and a little more even and to the point than he usually is. This is definitely what I’d call “high seas” music, like on the ocean.
M: Well, there are no telltale signs one way or the other. It’s actually very lovely, it’s not at all assaulting. But I couldn’t rule it out, because maybe you’re tricking me.
ANTHONY BRAXTON, Composition 107
M: I don’t think this is Schoenberg, because there are too many spaces, there are elements of Schoenberg but too much silence. I hate it anyway.
EDGAR VARESE, Integrates
M: You know what this sounds like, for some reason? Rimsky-Korsakov. But it also sounds more modern than Schoenberg.
FRANK ZAPPA, None of the Above
M: I think this is Schoenberg, it has some telltale signs, like the way the violin went like a sad string down and then it went into another instrument, kind of jarring in all at once. Like real pulses of emotion and then something else jumping in the way.
R-. Well, actually it’s by Frank Zappa. And the lovely one was Schoenberg.
M: I should’ve known it was a trick.
R: So how do you feel to learn it’s Zappa?
M: I’m shocked! What a surprise. You would think it would be too modern. Do you think it sounds like Schoenberg?
R: It sounds like a lot of things, he listened to a lot of old music when he wrote it — 40-50 years old. Most of everything he ever did is derivative of one thing or another. Do you like the piece? M: Yeah.
R: Did you like it before you knew it was Zappa?
M: It’s not that I like if better knowing it’s Frank Zappa, but maybe 1 like Frank Zappa better knowing he used Schoenberg — it just gives him a little more substance. But none of these pieces would I listen to on my own.
I’m feeling sneaky now...let’s do it again — this time with all five pieces by Schoenberg.
CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 2, OP. 38
M: Again, this seems like “sea music” — that’s just a personal category with me. Because this part we’re listening to now, if it isn’t the sea, well it could be — calm, green — you know this part doesn’t have anything to do with the sea. I don’t know, fortunately or unfortunately, but this could be in a movie where the girl is just getting on with her life, she’s just wandering from room to room through the early scenes.
DIE GLUCKLICHE HAND, OP. 18
M: Offhand, only if there’s no tricks, offhand I’d say this is Schoenberg. It has that push-pull. All these contrary, uh, sounds that could be from different parts of, different parts of the body, different parts of the world, different parts of a stage.
CABARET SONGS (1901)
M: Fine background music, it doesn’t offend me one way or the other. But it’s too nice to be Schoenberg, although that other one was nice too. You wouldn’t trick me that way twice.
VON HEUTE AUF MORGEN, OP. 32
M: It could be. He wrote operas, it’s an opera, it sounds awful. But if it wasn’t it wouldn’t surprise me either.
DREI VOLKSL1EDER, OP. 49
M: This is very nice, but then I like choruses. I don’t know if he wrote choruses, but this doesn’t sound anything like him. It’s very good-natured.
R: So which would you guess was Schoenberg’s?
M: I’ll pick the opera. The other opera sounded just like it.
R: Well, actually, he wrote them all. How do you feel about that?
M: Well, it could very well be — except for maybe the chorus. Because they all did sound like him, including the background music.
R: So how do you feel about him — emotionally, intellectually, etc. — if he could do this many different kinds of music?
M: I have more respect for him than I have a natural leaning for him. I definitely feel like he’s, yes, one has to respect his artistry.
R: But do you respect his artistry more having heard the sappier material than the...
M: Well it’s not just the sappy material, if you think of the other stuff, how complex it really is. But it’s mostly all neurotic, it’s very neurotic.
R: So is Beethoven.
M: No he’s not! What Beethoven is neurotic?
R: What about dah dah duh DAH?
M: Okay, that’s neurotic. I can definitely see that.
Not long after Schoenberg’s death, an article appeared in the British music mag The Score entitled “Schoenberg Is Dead,” and fair enough, he was. Its author, howev, the young French composer Pierre Boulez, had more in mind than certifying the fatality: he wished to flog the corpse and stomp it down a few yards deeper in the mud. “I am a conservative forced to become a radical,” Schoenberg had once said, and as far as Boulez was concerned, truer words had not been spoken. By his reckoning, the older composer, once so progressive — grandpa to the goddam row f r crying out loud — had in recent decades become “irrelevant.” Sure, he’d been “serial” about pitch, heck, but not about duration, timbre, intensity, and attack — name your variables. Announcing a “total serialism” that would sweep almighty etc. in its wake, Boulez also assailed the dead man’s lack of asceticism (!) — which is kind of like faulting whiskey for containing water.
And yet — dig it — Boulez the conductor has done right by Schoenberg, presenting the man’s work (all periods) with great respect and (too strong a word but I’ll use it) affection, producing definitive recordings of even stuff like the ultra-backward-looking
Gurrelieder. And yet even so, even today when he’s less, well, radical himself, his recent CD guide to the music of this century, Passeport pour le XXe siecle, contains not a single selection by Schoenberg...you figure it.
Bozo students, bozo audiences (for programing Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, Leopold Stokowsky got fired by the Philadelphia Orchestra), and his $38 UCLA pension aside, a decisive factor in Schoenberg’s terminal discomfort with America had to be the unsettling presence of ruling modernist pickle-herring Igor Stravinsky. Both lived in L.A., hung out in emigre circles, they had friends in common but, according to most accounts, never met. One might see the other at a distance, some gathering, a public place, and promptly split. In the only report I’ve found of them actually meeting, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians claims they once crossed paths at a downtown food market, speaking curtly in English, shaking hands stiffly.
The musical gulf between ’em outdid the personal. From the 1920s onward, the artistic personas of Schoenberg and Stravinsky could not have been more antipodal: systematist vs. eclectic; revolutionary vs. neo-classicist; eater of broken glass vs. maker of elegant drawing room miniatures. From day one, Schoenberg never much cared for Stravinsky’s work (favoring, for inst, the historically lighter fare of Puccini), going so far as to lampoon him (in the second of his Three Parodies, 1925) as “little Modernsky.” Though in 1912 he attended a rehearsal of Pierrot Lunaire, later calling it “the great event in my life then,” and in program notes to his own Violin Concerto praised Schoenberg’s as “the only masterpiece in the field” — as eclectic as he was, Stravinsky never felt musically driven to toy around with things 12-tone...not, that is, until after Schoenberg was dead and gone, at which point he hopped to it, scoring neo-avant browny points with the ballet Agon, the choral work Threni, and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas.
Schoenberg’s final words on music paper (the soprano part to Modem Psalm No. 1) were “Und trotzdem bete ich" (“And, for all that, I pray” or “And still I pray”). His final word, spoken, was “Harmony.”