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Review | Arnold Schoenberg’s music, once shunned, gets another chance


Half a century ago, Arnold Schoenberg was widely viewed as the most important innovator in Western art music since Richard Wagner. Yet, as Harvey Sachs points out in his brisk and engaging “Schoenberg: Why He Matters,” much of the composer’s music and his system for creating it are now commonly dismissed as artistic dead ends. Sachs, a professor at the Curtis Institute of Music and the biographer of pianist Arthur Rubinstein and conductor Arturo Toscanini, actually issues a warning to this effect in his book’s prologue:

“Gustav Mahler, one of Schoenberg’s mentors, proved to be right when he said — in the face of widespread disinterest in or opposition to his own compositions — ‘My time will come.’ Of Schoenberg, on the other hand, many would say that his time has come and gone: his music and his musical experiments left an extremely strong imprint on the professional lives of several generations of musicians and musicologists, and they continue to fascinate many people in the profession. But they also continue to meet with apathy, and often downright antipathy, on the part of most listeners.”

A celebration of the outsiders and outcasts who have made music great

Setting aside his early tonal music written in the shadow of Wagner and Brahms, Schoenberg’s later mature compositions have frequently been judged as either incomprehensible or just plain ugly. They certainly lack what one might call songfulness. Sometimes sounding emotionally arid, other times intensely harsh and expressionist, these pointillistic, jangly assemblages of notes exist only in the moment. They leave no memory. You don’t come out of a Schoenberg concert whistling a happy tune. There is no tune to speak of.

When I was a college student needing some atmospheric background music for a date with a cute blonde, I chose the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”). Bear in mind that this was at Oberlin, known for its conservatory as well as its college, so you couldn’t just put “Moon River” on the record player and expect to be taken seriously. A lush, achingly romantic tone poem, “Verklärte Nacht” is replete with schwarmerei, i.e. overblown passion, very much in the vein of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Reminded of that evening recently, the blonde — who now shares my last name — professed not to remember the music at all.

Arnold Schoenberg, born in 1874, grew up in a middle-class Jewish family living in Vienna during that golden twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the era of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and Arthur Schnitzler. When his father died in 1889, the 16-year-old Arnold took a job as a junior clerk in a bank. At age 20, he met a young musician named Alexander von Zemlinsky, who taught him the basic elements of harmony and composition. By age 26, the former bank clerk was composing “Verklärte Nacht,” which was followed shortly after by “Gurre-Lieder,” a lengthy, gorgeously over-the-top oratorio requiring a supersize orchestra and chorus, as well as virtuoso soloists able to be heard against the torrent of sound swelling up around them.

Over the subsequent decade, this young Austrian genius proceeded to shuck all the easy sonorities and chromaticism of the 19th century: In 1912, he brought out “Pierrot Lunaire.”

This masterpiece resembles some modernistic cabaret songs in which the vocalist employs what’s called Sprechgesang, half-speaking, half-singing a cycle of poems, each word precisely geared to a specific pitch. What a listener hears are syllabic cries and whispers, as well as groans and shrieks, enhanced with further discordance from a varying set of instruments. Somehow, it all works. As Sachs writes, “Pierrot Lunaire” is “an astonishing collection of musical miniatures; an expression, through music-accompanied speech, of a vast gamut of thoughts and emotions.” Igor Stravinsky enigmatically called it “the solar plexus as well as the mind” of early-20th-century music. In one of those happy synchronicities, Stravinsky’s equally revolutionary “The Rite of Spring” was composed at virtually the same time.

Like “The Rite of Spring,” which provoked a riot during its Paris premiere, Schoenberg’s never easy but increasingly esoteric music regularly elicited catcalls and uproar from early audiences. If you look up Schoenberg in Nicolas Slonimsky’s invaluable “Lexicon of Musical Invective,” you will find page after page of vitriol about this “cacophonist.” For instance, the London Globe wrote that the composer’s other masterwork of 1912, the “Five Orchestral Pieces,” resembled “the wailings of a tortured soul, and suggest nothing so much as the disordered fancies of delirium or the fearsome, imaginary terrors of a highly nervous infant.”


Notoriously irritable and utterly convinced of his supreme artistic genius, Schoenberg responded to such criticism with disdain or his own verbal counterpunch. A well-known conductor once admitted that he couldn’t conduct the Austrian’s music because he simply didn’t understand it, to which the composer answered acidly: “I do not understand why you have to be truthful only where my music is concerned. After all, you perform the classics without understanding them.”

In the 1920s, Schoenberg’s atonality grew even more radical, as he began to evolve a new system of composition: Sachs spends several pages patiently explaining how 12-tone music works, but I suspect you need to be a musician to truly understand it. In effect, though, its laws lead to the further abandonment of sonority and all the pleasing pattern-making and expected cadences of older music. Schoenberg’s “Cello Concerto” (composed in 1932-1933) proved so forbidding that Pablo Casals refused to perform it — even though he was its dedicatee. Jascha Heifetz insisted that one would need a sixth finger just to attempt the “Violin Concerto” (1936). To play that piece, Hilary Hahn spent two years preparing for her fabulous 2008 recording of this weirdly fabulous music.

In 1933 Schoenberg fled the Nazis with his family, eventually settling in Southern California, where he landed a teaching job at UCLA. Back in Europe, he had already drafted the first two acts of “Moses und Aron,” a biblical opera exploring Jewish identity and the fundamental relationship between language and silence. It contrasts the mystical Moses, who believes in an invisible, transcendental deity, and the pragmatic politician Aron, who gives the people what they want even if it is the Golden Calf. In 1945, Schoenberg applied to the Guggenheim Foundation for a grant to finish this magnum opus. His application was denied.

More reviews by Michael Dirda

Nonetheless, at the time of his death in 1951 at age 76, Schoenberg’s reputation seemed assured. He had provided inspiration for the composer-protagonist of Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus.” Works by his former disciples, Anton von Webern and Alban Berg, were being increasingly acclaimed. His own champions would soon include such notable influencers as the conductor Pierre Boulez, the pianist Glenn Gould and the scholar-critic Robert Craft, otherwise known as the chronicler of Stravinsky’s life and conversation.

So how did Schoenberg’s music end up like that of Stanley in William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions,” “still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played”? To a large degree, this is because the mature work demands rigorous technical effort from its performers as well as exceptional sympathy from its listeners. Many of the pieces seem to offer little beyond what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult.” Yet Schoenberg believed that listeners would soon acclimate to his music if they just gave it a chance. As Sachs emphasizes, and many others can attest, even his most rebarbative-seeming compositions grow deeply rewarding when heard multiple times. Perhaps, then, all those reports of Schoenberg’s artistic death have been greatly exaggerated. Could it be that the composer has only been in temporary eclipse and is now tanned, rested and ready for a triumphant return?

Liveright. 272 pp. $29.95

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POST AUTHOR: Michael Dirda

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