No major composer suffers from worse press than Arnold Schoenberg. His music is vilified, blamed for being ugly and for destroying classical music. But how many of those who think they hate Schoenberg’s music have actually listened — and listened with an open mind and open ear — to what he actually wrote?
The problem is that one’s expectations of the music so color its perception, it can be difficult to actually hear it. Ideas about the music clog the ears.
(A parallel case, though less debilitating, is the myth that J.S. Bach’s music is somehow “mathematical,” when the truth is, as a high Baroque composer, his music is often wildly irrational and excessive — the Baroque is, after all, a Romantic phase of cultural history in the eternal pendulum swing between the classical and romantic sensibilities. Listen to the C-minor Prelude and Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, for instance, which starts out as a repeated pattern of shifting harmonies, but then breaks into a series of appended and unrelated cadenzas. Bach tends to pile it on, not work out formulae.)
So, it is the myths about Schoenberg’s music that are the problem, not the music itself, which, given a fair hearing, is instantly communicative.
It is, however, different and unfamiliar.
“I feel air from another planet.”
These are the words the soprano sings in Schoenberg’s second string quartet (1908). Yes, a singer in the string quartet. Makes you reconsider what a string quartet is.
Although he’s one of the major composers of the German tradition, he also wrote music that dispensed with the familiar keys of, say, C-major or d-minor and developed a system for using all 12 notes — both the black and the white keys on the piano — of the octave, arranged in a series, instead of a melody. This atonal music still sounds strange to the ear, as if it came from another planet.
Hence the charge that his music is ugly; that he destroyed music; that it’s not music, it’s mathematics.
None of these canards is true, but they are persistent myths.
Myth 1: Schoenberg is all head and no heart.
If you look at the totality of his output, it becomes clear that Schoenberg is among the last great Romantics. The music is powerfully emotional.
Perhaps because Schoenberg became such an important subject for music theorists that this myth began. They analyzed the music without ever discussing the emotional content of the music. That’s not the composer’s fault: You need to listen to his music — all music — with not only open ears, but an open heart.
That’s like discussing a person’s DNA but not the person’s character. No wonder it seemed to them mathematical and brain-oriented.
In fact, it may be that what really puts some people off is just how emotional it is: deeply and profoundly so, but its emotions are often painful ones rather than simple and happy ones. There is angst, pain and suffering as well as brilliant moments of transcendence, as in his early Transfigured Night. These are emotions particularly appropriate for the violent, chaotic 20th century.
He is more Bergman than Fellini.
Myth 2: Schoenberg destroyed tonality.
The problems with tonality occurred before Schoenberg. Western classical music had become so harmonically complex that often it was difficult to tell what, if any, key a piece was really written in.
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, for instance, sometimes wanders into the far reaches of tonal ambiguity. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is structured around the tritone, of all things. Rather than trying to destroy tonality, Schoenberg was trying to find a solution to a problem that already existed.
Schoenberg saw what he thought was a directional arrow in musical progress, with each generation from Bach through Wagner more tonally complex and equivocal. He decided it was his duty to take music to the next step: atonality.
But he never destroyed tonality.
“There’s plenty of good music still to be written in C-major,” he once famously said, and much of his later music went back to tonal writing.
Myth 3: Schoenberg was an elitist.
The idea that the composer was an egghead has more to do with his bald pate than his actual demeanor.
He had an interest in many things, including playing ping-pong with Harpo Marx and tennis with George Gershwin. Gershwin painted Schoenberg’s portrait. When Gershwin died, Schoenberg wrote the eulogy.
He designed toys for his children and made them peanut-butter sandwiches cut in the shapes of animals. He enjoyed going to amusement parks, and he enjoyed jazz and socialized with Artie Shaw.
For his Society of Private Music Performances, which he and his colleagues arranged in Vienna before the Nazis drove them to flee, he arranged Strauss waltzes and songs from operettas.
It is silly to think he had nothing to do with the lowbrow.
He didn’t even have a high-school diploma, and when he was in school, he was an indifferent student.
It’s true that he believed music should always be the best it could be, but how elitist could it be if one of his ambitions was to score films? Although it never came to pass, he was considered for scoring the 1937 Paul Muni film, The Good Earth. Hardly an art film.
Myth 4: Schoenberg’s music is ugly.
Certainly beauty is in the ear of the listener, and some of Schoenberg’s music can be challenging, even to a seasoned audience. But there is little in music as ravishingly beautiful — in a perfectly traditional sense — than his Gurrelieder symphonic song cycle, which out-Wagners Wagner.
And even in the later, atonal and 12-tone music, there is great beauty to those who can get past their initial shock: The piano concerto at times sounds almost like Rachmaninov.
Listen to Hillary Hahn play the violin concerto: Ravishing.
In part, it is a matter of letting our ears become acclimated to the air from another planet. For some listeners, it may take years, but at some point, you wake up one day and say, “Gee, I’d like to hear Schoenberg’s string trio.” And it will give deep pleasure.
Myth 5: Schoenberg killed classical music.
Poet T.S. Eliot once complained that Milton had ruined English poetry for 250 years. Milton’s powerful voice left its imprint on all who came after.
Ironically, Eliot’s distinctive voice has been likewise imitated by everyone, especially by the bad grad-student poets in academic programs everywhere.
But you can’t blame Milton or Eliot for being good and therefore influential.
And it’s true that a generation of American college music programs were miserably stunted by the hegemony of 12-tone theorists in the postwar era. It is not Schoenberg, but rather that academic music that is mathematical and not emotional. That’s the music that really is ugly.
But Schoenberg himself would have been horrified at what has been done in his name since his death at 77 in 1951.
At the end of his life, when his disciples once told him that there were now more and more composers writing 12-tone works, he asked, “But, are they also coming up with music?”
Scholars will discuss the minutiae of dodecaphonic theory, but anyone willing to take the chance will learn that the real Schoenberg is one of the great composers of the tradition, whose work is moving, beautiful and — most surprisingly given the myths — deeply and profoundly beautiful.