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New York

The 21st century is barely more than a year away. And yet the 20th century, even as it ends, is still a problem in the classical music world.
    This is odd. The Museum of Modern Art takes out big ads in the New York Times, enticing people to visit its shows of 20th century painting and sculpture, but the New York Philharmonic does no such thing with 20th century music. Though there are 20th century pieces that everyone likes -- by Copland, Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Sibelius and others -- the very notion of 20th century music still troubles the classical music audience.
    Why did this happen? Something must have ripped apart near the start of this century, creating a disturbance that some of us haven't gotten used to. Somehow classical music became a protected enclave, a refuge for those who want -- for at least the length of a beloved Beethoven symphony -- to restore the stability of the past.

    Why am I saying all this? Because I spent a weekend at Merkin Hall, attending a three-concert Arnold Schoenberg retrospective, and Schoenberg, as he's commonly seen, is the composer who tried to rip up music. Early in our waning century, he developed the musical equivalent of abstract art, compositions that were not only atonal -- lacking any reference to a stable center -- but also fragmented, based on constant change.
    That, along with his still unfamiliar (and, to some people, still ugly) dissonant harmony, is one reason he's hard to understand. It also makes his music hard to play. And while the small audience at Merkin cheered the performances, I couldn't completely join in. Yes, the notes were played cleanly, in itself no small accomplishment. But Rolf Schulte, the weekend's principal violinist, has such a wide vibrato that he muddied the harmony of every work he played.
    That was least troubling in Schoenberg's "Phantasy for Violin With Piano Accompaniment," where Mr. Schulte didn't have to blend with other string instruments. There he aced the manically difficult music with such elan that, when he took his bows, he abandoned his customary look of a new-music monk, and grinned like a happy little boy. If this had been sports, he would have high-fived Frederick Chiu, the fine pianist. But later the same evening, his vibrato all but ruined Schoenberg's second string quartet.
Similarly, two choral groups (the Canticum Novum Singers and the New York Virtuoso Singers) sang two unaccompanied Schoenberg choral works, perhaps more heroically than anyone had heard them sung before. But still the music didn't quite come into focus. The singers, perhaps unavoidably, took a moment to find their bearings on each new chord. So when chords changed quickly, they sounded smeared; the music moved on before the singers could get the notes clearly in tune.

Even the weekend's best performance, of Schoenberg's first Chamber Symphony, had problems. Here we had a profound Schoenberg expert, Robert Craft, conducting 15 crack instrumentalists, who played with irresistible excitement. Their task, roughly speaking, was like climbing Mount Everest while dancing an intricate ballet. They gave us a feast of stunning detail, with each part in separate motion, combining to create a wonderful labyrinth that I doubt could be fully explored even if they'd played the piece for us a dozen times.
    What was missing, though, was poetry. Schoenberg wrote the Chamber Symphony in 1906, before his atonal evolution. Much of it sounds like earlier composers, like Wagner or Mahler -- or, rather, like a frighteningly intimate transformation of them. So why wasn't it played with more of Wagner's and Mahler's emotion, turned ferocious by Schoenberg's deeper exposure of himself?
    Well, Mr. Craft didn't indicate nuances in his conducting, so maybe that was part of the problem. But a larger part, as a panel discussion afterward made clear, was the sheer difficulty of the work. James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, who loves this music, was a sympathetic participant. And as he and others said, musicians need to play music like this repeatedly, for many years, before they really learn it.
But then what's the meaning of music that, even after nearly a century, still can't be played? In 1859, when Wagner wrote his opera "Tristan und Isolde," it too was unperformable. Yet in no more than 40 years it was mastered, at least to some extent, and even got popular. By contrast, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony -- 92 years old, and not even as challenging as his later works -- still eludes both performance and comprehension.
    A lack of poetry (or even simple contrast) damaged other performances, too. Even Mary Nessinger -- a mezzo-soprano astounding for her profound commitment, precise intonation and supple phrasing -- didn't vary her tone much, making the songs of Schoenberg's song-cycle "The Book of the Hanging Gardens" too much the same.
Worse yet was the String Trio, which changes pace every few seconds. As a second panel discussion made affectionately clear, this music has a story. Schoenberg's son Lawrence, among others, told us that Schoenberg depicted his heart attack, his hospital treatment and his recovery, including even a memory of everyday happiness, a song he'd made up for his three children. But while Mr. Schulte, Toby Appel and Fred Sherry surged through the piece with wild precision (apart from Mr. Schulte's pitch), they too never varied their mood, and thus didn't communicate what the piece is about.

Maybe there's a deep, sad reason for that. Mr. Sherry -- who deserves great credit for organizing this important weekend, and for chairing the panels with enthusiastic delight -- never asked anyone to talk about how the music feels. And two noted Schoenbergians who took part, composers Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt, have always avoided those questions, about Schoenberg as well as their own work. In fact, an entire generation of musicians who championed this music rarely asked what it meant, thus (unintentionally, of course) encouraging blank performances.
    Which brings me back to the disruptions of the 20th century. Schoenberg himself suffered from them; when he wrote atonal music, he famously said, he felt like he was swimming in boiling water. To get back to dry land, he invented (after much struggle) what came to be called his 12-tone system, in an attempt to bring order to his work, and to restore the structured discipline of the classical music tradition.
But that last task was impossible. One study of modern culture, by Marshall Berman, is titled "All That Is Solid Melts Into Air," and that's a plausible headline for our century. Music historians routinely agree that the language of classic Western music was dissolving even before Schoenberg's time. More crucially, Schoenberg himself, a Viennese Jew, lived through World War I and the resulting collapse of central Europe; he fled from the Nazis, and spent the last decades of his life in the alien climate of the U.S.
    Could Schoenberg put our broken century together, when nobody else could? Of course not. And because he so desperately tried, his music can sound awkward, at war with itself, and, like the Chamber Symphony, also fiercely private (which might explain why he didn't mind making it so difficult to play). But Schoenberg's current partisans seem never to consider this, even though Theodor Adorno, one of the most profound modern thinkers and an intense Schoenberg supporter, put such ideas on the table many years ago. Some contemporary Schoenbergians, in fact, have their own way of fleeing from reality, when they focus only on the abstract structure of Schoenberg's 12-tone harmony.
    By doing that, they unconsciously confess their own artistic alienation. And they do nothing to teach the classical music world what a crucial -- but troubled, and troubling -- artist Schoenberg really was.

Why am I making such a fuss? Why didn't I just write a music review? "Important retrospective. Kudos to all. Here's what I liked and what I didn't like. Over and out."

Because there are big issues here. Schoenberg seemed to tear music apart. For the first time in its history, music developed an avant-garde that the main audience never learned to like. As a result, or at the very least as a closely related phenomenon, the whole notion of contemporary classical music became suspect. People didn't want to listen to it. Don't we want to understand why that happened? Maybe if we learn what Schoenberg's music is about, we'll discover the answer.

Schoenberg also split the classical music world. A majority of listeners (not to mention powerful people backstage) didn't like what he and his followers wrote. But a minority of composers attached themselves to it, and after World War II they emerged to dominate contemporary music. They wielded power disproportionate to the number of people who listened to their work, but their influence was decisive. When I went to music school in the 1970's, I honestly believed that composers couldn't legitimately write tonal music. (See my music page for proof that I've changed.) There was a historical myth that we all more or less believed -- that atonal music was an inevitable evolution from the chromatic harmony of the late 10th century, and that 12-tone music was an inevitable evolution from atonal music.

Most of us didn't write 12-tone music, but it -- and the even more highly organized serial writing that followed it -- had enormous prestige. Every atonal note we wrote was propelled in part by this history. We now know that the history wasn't as inevitable as we thought. With the century about to end, we can see that powerful composers -- Sibelius, Shostakovich, Bartok, Prokofiev, Lou Harrison, make your own list -- never wrote atonal music at all. The notion of Schoenberg's preeminence was a myth.

But where did such a powerful myth come from? Don't we want to know? And shouldn't those who still accept the old orthodoxy want to know what they really believe in?

Maybe the answer to that last question isn't "yes." Throughout the classical music world, people avoid asking what classical music really means, what it says to us, what it expresses. Better just to say "we're playing masterpieces," and leave the nature of those masterpieces unexamined. That way you preserve classical music's prestige, without asking inconvenient questions.

The atonal acolytes are in the same position. They can talk impenetrably about "all-combinatorial hexachords," secure that somewhere in that verbiage live and breathe the reasons why atonal music -- or at least their atonal music -- really is superior. Music, once a living art, gets reduced to mere structures of notes, and this method of analysis then spreads to the classical tradition, so even Beethoven is talked about that way. (See my essay Beethoven Howls, on this website.)

Here's a sample of the hardcore atonal mind at work. During the symposium, Charles Wuorinen lamented more than once that now we're in a world where music isn't "all that it can be." He's complaining, I assume, about the decline of atonal music, surely the most important historical development among composers in the past decade. He appears to mourn the success of Philip Glass, Christopher Rouse, John Adams, Arvo Pärt and so many other composers whose music isn't atonal. His own goal, he said more than once, is to "make music everything it can be."

Unexamined here, of course, is the question of what he thinks music is, and what's the nature of the "everything" he wants it to be. One work played during the Merkin weekend was Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, in Wuorinen's arrangement for two pianos. The obvious question, to anyone who knows the piece in its original form, would be about Schoenberg's amazing, always shifting orchestral color. How can anyone be satisfied with an arrangement in which that's lost?

Wuorinen's answer was fascinating. He grants that something is lost, but he also thinks something is gained. Orchestral performances, he said, are never accurate (he's right, of course), and as a result we can't hear the pitch relations, which, he says, are crucial to the piece. It was as if he thought they were more important than anything else. Certainly he and Babbitt, in talking about music by themselves and others, talk more about pitch relations than anything else. After all, this is the aspect of music that can most easily be quantified, or in other words talked about objectively.

Things like orchestral color -- timbre -- or, most dangerous of all, feeling, are much trickier. You can never be sure what you're saying is right. But if you talk about pitch structures, especially in 12-tone music, no one can argue with you. If you say one of Schoenberg's 12-tone rows is built from an all-combinatorial hexachord, you're right, beyond any argument (assuming, of course, that you know what you're talking about).

So when Wuorinen says he wants music to be everything it can be, I think he's talking about complexity of structure, based above all on complexity of pitch relationships. But this, of course, is only one dimension of music. Does he also want music to be as beautiful as it can be, as moving as it can be, as shocking as it can be, as rhythmically alive as it can be, as instantly comprehensible as it can be, as ironic as it can be, or as vivid a reflection of its culture as it can be?

I've deliberately listed concepts of music that contradict each other. No single piece of music can ever be everything music can be, because it can't possibly be all things at once. Wuorinen's phrase, taken literally, is silly, and taken metaphorically is essentially a form of propaganda for one kind of music -- music with complex, quantifiable pitch relations -- which is assumed to be better than other kinds..

A few more notes:

I don't dislike Schoenberg or atonal music in general; not at all. It's true, of course, that in the early '80s, when I was a columnist for the Village Voice in New York, I'd campaign against the atonal composers who wielded so much power back then, damning them as "the complicated music gang."

But on the other hand I used to sight-sing the Schoenberg Fourth String Quartet to teach myself atonal music, and I love Berg and Webern. Berg's Lulu is one of my favorite operas, and Webern's Symphony, Op. 21 one of my favorite pieces of any kind. I'm hardly hostile to atonal or 12-tone music. In a review of Luciano Berio earlier this year, I even called for a reevaluation of the whole "complicated music" style. (Or, to be more precise, collection of styles.)

So why did this Schoenberg retrospective bother me so much? Because, as so often happens when people who love this music talk about it, there's no discussion of aesthetics. Schoenberg is talked about on one hand as if his music were totally abstract, just a collection of highly analyzable notes, and on the other hand as if it were just…well, nice, like something by Mozart, though obviously just a little more dissonant and complex.

But Schoenberg is more complicated than that. As I should have mentioned in my review, the symposium was titled Schoenberg: Conservative Radical, and that's an apt label -- or pair of labels -- for a man whose music looks two directions at once. Schoenberg was, in his younger days, a revolutionary; later on, when he developed the 12-tone method, he became something of a neo-classicist. As a freely atonal composer (swimming, as he moaned later, in boiling water), he wrote -- just for example -- Pierrot Lunaire, a drunken little expressionist piece, and Erwartung, a fragmented abstract opera about a lost, confused woman who finds her lover's corpse.

It was funny to hear this last work talked about at the Merkin Hall panels, along with Schoenberg's very early, tonal Verklärte Nacht, a chamber work with an erotic scenario. The audience giggled like adolescents when panelists admitted (if that's the word) that Schoenberg had written music about naked women and corpses! What planet does the classical music world live on?

So already we see a problem facing -- or, in a certain sense, even comprehending -- what Schoenberg was up to in his revolutionary expressionist phase, when his music clearly shook the borders of the permissible.

But after he developed 12-tone music Schoenberg stopped embarrassing the classical music audience. He wrote a wind quintet, a suite for piano, two string quartets, a piano concerto, a violin concerto, a set of variations for orchestra, and an opera, Moses und Aron, on a serious moral and political theme. Now, times had changed, but so had Schoenberg. What mattered to him most of all was preserving the classical music tradition.

His expressionist works reflect the cultural wildness of early 20th-century Vienna. In a sense, then, they're appropriate to their time, understandable reactions to a world in collapse. The 12-tone works turn their back on that; they're works in retreat. These two sides of Schoenberg's music, as I wrote in the review, make it uncomfortable.

Berg, by contrast, grappled with the cultural decay wholeheartedly, writing two operas -- Wozzeck and Lulu -- in which the pain and dismay of the world around him are explicit subjects. His music lives in its body comfortably. Webern willingly inhabited a sealed-off, private world. That makes his music, too, all of a piece. But Schoenberg apparently reacted to cultural decay without knowing it, and inhabited a private world, also without knowing it, or having chosen to do so. He was driven unknowingly into a private world because his explicit project, restoring the classical music tradition, was impossible.

Now, I suppose nobody has to share this view. But it's strange that it's not even discussed. Suppose we take the symposium on its own terms. Schoenberg, let's agree, was a conservative radical. But how simple is that? How can anyone straddle both poles without uneasiness, especially at a time when the whole world is changing? But nobody asked any such thing. The symposium discussed Schoenberg as if his music wasn't remotely problematic, even though they themselves had defined the problem with their title.

As for Theodor Adorno: I'll grant that he's hard to read. His views of jazz and popular culture are retrogressive, though powerfully challenging. (He thought all popular culture was manufactured by a soulless culture industry, and that jazz musicians only pretended to improvise.)

And of course he's very much a left-wing figure, the godfather of current critical theory. His sort of philosophy has more influence in Europe than America, and is better known among academics who challenge the prevailing order -- and among really serious rock critics -- than it is among classical musicologists, who stand out among contemporary scholars for their comparative simplicity.

But Adorno knew Schoenberg and his circle from his own early days in Vienna, and he knew music -- he even studied composition with Berg. It's true that the Schoenbergians used to laugh at him because his writing (as they correctly thought) was so convoluted. But he makes sense. Most of all, he was willing to discuss what Schoenberg's music -- and modern music in general -- meant.

In his book The Philosophy of Modern Music, he discusses Erwartung, and comments:

"The seismographic registration of traumatic shock becomes…the technical structural law of music.…Musical language is polarized according to its extremes: towards gestures of shock resembling bodily convulsions on the one hand, and on the other towards a crystalline standstill of a human being whom anxiety causes to freeze in her tracks. It is this polarization upon which the total world of form of the mature Schoenberg -- and of Webern as well -- depends."

Later in the same work, he says approximately the same thing about dissonance in general:

"Dissonances arose as the expression of tension, contradiction, and pain. They take on fixed contours and became 'material.' They are [then] no longer the media of subjective expression. For this reason, however, they by no means deny their origin."

Or, more simply, dissonances that entered music as expressions of pain survive in totally dissonant music as the embodiment of a pain so pervasive that it no longer calls attention to itself. It becomes "material' -- part of the accepted fabric of music, so freely used by composers that its painfulness isn't experienced as such, even though it's everywhere present.

This, Adorno would say (though not in such simple words!), is the modern condition. Remember that he likes Schoenberg; he thinks, given the state of the world, that pain is what art most naturally does and should express. Any art that doesn't embody pain, he'd say, is dishonest.

Now, if you're looking for reasons why the classical music audience doesn't like contemporary music, Adorno suggests a powerful one -- they don't want to face what's really going on in the world, and use the music as an escape. This is challenging, and also interesting -- far more interesting than the usual complaint from the contemporary music world that audiences are lazy, unwilling to pay attention. It's more interesting, too, than Milton Babbitt's self-serving notion that his music is by nature beyond ordinary comprehension, serving instead as some equivalent of advanced scientific research.

Of course, according to this analysis, it's obvious why Babbitt, Wuorinen, and others of their ilk don't like this kind of analysis. It raises questions they'd rather not answer about what their own music is about. They seem to feel that constant dissonance is aesthetically neutral.

But then they don't like talking about the meaning of music at all. They take a remarkably positivist view of music, preferring only to make verifiable statements. This, in 1998, is somewhat quaint. In the '50s, talk like that was common. Clement Greenberg, the eminent art critic, had taught the world that paintings were only paint. The "new critics," similarly, thought that literature was only words (a simplification, I know, but not inaccurate). Logical positivist philosophers thought that only real subject of philosophy was language; questions about the meaning of life were illegitimate. And 12-tone composers -- Americans, anyway -- said that music was only notes.

Of all these people, only the musicians (and to some extent the philosophers, at least in America) have any currency today. The view Babbitt and Wuorinen take of this music is so old-fashioned it's almost sweet, the only problem being that they still make their assertions as if there was no question of challenging them, as if the rest of the world hadn't moved to a new understanding.

I should note that I wrote an important piece on Milton Babbitt, with some ideas that are similar to Adorno's, though in 1982 when I wrote it, I don't think I'd read Adorno.

The Merkin panel about Schoenberg's life had an important cast of characters: Leonard Stein, a close musical associate of Schoenberg's; Pia Gilbert, one of my colleagues on the Juilliard faculty, who knew Schoenberg as a teenager in Los Angeles and became close to his wife after his death in 1951; and Schoenberg's son, Lawrence. It was rare to have all three in one place.

I should have praised Merkin for their role in hosting and supporting the retrospective. And finally I was greatly impressed with James Levine's participation. He, of course, is one of the world's leading conductors, but he never insisted on his fame. He talked as someone who really loves this music, and came back the day after his panel, to sit quietly in the back, listening to more discussion. He's conducting Schoenberg's Moses und Aron at the Met this season, and regularly schedules Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu. I haven't been delighted with his conducting of those works, which came off (at the Wozzeck production two years ago, for instance) without much nuance, like the Schoenberg performances I'm writing about here.

He explained, though -- not about his own performances, but about the problem of performing this music anywhere -- that it's not possible to get both the notes right, and the nuances. Not, that is, until orchestras play the works over and over, for many years. Slowly they learn to get it right, and someday, maybe, they'll know it the way they know Richard Strauss.

That leaves me with a sympathetic thought about why Schoenberg's music never caught on, and never even attracted an audience of other advanced artists. (Or at least it didn't in our own time. When Schoenberg was young, he hung out with Kandinsky, and other artists.)

Here's my thought. I've compared atonal music to abstract art. Abstract art is easier to accept. Endless thousands of tourists visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see it. People seem to have an easier time with the path-breaking art of our century than they do with the path-breaking music.

But maybe this is partly because music is a performing art. Suppose you're Marcel Duchamp, and you paint a painting hardly anybody likes. It gets shown anyway, and while most people walk right by it, a few stop to look. It hangs on the gallery wall long enough to let a small minority learn to like it.

But now suppose you're Schoenberg. You write music hardly anyone will like. Unfortunately, it can't sit there quietly until someone learns to like it. It has to be performed. And now you're at the mercy of musicians who don't like it, who in effect create a barrier between composers and listeners that doesn't exist in the art world between painters and their public.

You have to find musicians who'll be willing to perform your work, and who'll perform it well. That last opens a can of worms of its own, since performances of Schoenberg tend not to realize the music's potential. So one reason, perhaps, that people don't like Schoenberg is that they haven't really heard his work.

One final observation. Atonal music itself isn't really a problem. It's common in film scores -- where, Adorno-like, it tends to depict tension or distress. So it's not just the atonality of Schoenberg, but his wild complexity that makes him difficult to hear (exactly as Berg declared long ago, in his famous essay "Why Schoenberg's Music is Hard to Understand").

But what that complexity means, and why Schoenberg had to make his music so very difficult -- those (apart from whatever thoughts I managed to squeeze into this review) are questions for another time.

More on Schoenberg: Bard Music Festival

Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1998