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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
"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 --
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Schoenberg: Bard Music Festival
Street Journal, September 17,