Mark BerryArnold Schoenberg
Reaktion Books, 2019
Taste and criticism are often confused and conflated. Taste is when you say "I like this" and "I don’t like that," while criticism is when you explain what something is, what it does, how it works, and what is its effect. A good, honest critic should be able to say that something works and is successful even while not personally liking it.
And so it is as one who mostly doesn’t like (the Italians say it best, "mi dispiace"; it displeases me) the work of the subject I approach: a recent installment of Reaktion Books’s “Critical Lives” series, this one on composer Arnold Schoenberg, written by Mark Berry, a music scholar at Royal Holloway, University of London. Still, I do eagerly acknowledge Schoenberg's immense importance, he is one of the handful of indispensable figures in music. It is no criticism of Berry's fine book and clear, illuminating thinking that at its close I did not find Schoenberg any more pleasing. Rather, to his credit, Berry explained to me why I like so little of Schoenberg's music.
That was surely unintentional. Berry is a masterful advocate for the composer's quality and importance. His writing has the elegance, energy, warmth, and wit that come from a complete command of his subject matter and the confidence that his view and conclusions are right.
And he is right, though with some caveats—art is not math, and the answers to questions change with context, time, and experience.
Schoenberg and his legacy dominated music for a generation after World War II on account of his twelve-tone method—a row of pitches so ordered that, played in sequence, no one note would have more importance than any other, and thus there could be no tonal harmony (a harmony has to at least feel like it will resolve to one fundamental note). After the 30 years of death and destruction from the two World Wars, the aesthetic and philosophical promise of this strict atonality was an objective, rational music, never to be perverted by nationalism or ideologies of political economy. It seemed like the future of music had arrived.
But the future ever looks like the past, and the objective method was subsequently extended to things like rhythm, duration, and dynamics, and took over the academies, themselves in the process of taking over the practice of composition. Serialism, as it came to be called, became an ideology, the only proper way to make music, making the return to tonality by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and others, controversial and revolutionary.
Of course this was not Schoenberg's fault. His pupils Anton Webern and Alban Berg were the two great atonal composers, but Schoenberg taught his method only to those who wanted to know it. He was clearly a great teacher (Berry argues he was the most important composition teacher of the 20th century, but I would argue that no teacher was more important then Nadia Boulanger, and each passing year further cements that view.), and that his students included not only Webern and Berg but also—while at UCLA—John Cage, Lou Harrison, David Diamond, and the great and greatly underrated Oscar Levant is testament to the ethics of his approach, which was to work on the fundamental tools and methods of composing in order that each student might best express their own voice.
That serialism's dominance was temporary and, in the near 1000 years of Western art music, a fraction of history, also complicates the picture of importance. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was revanchist to write tonal music, now new twelve-tone music sounds awkward and embarrassing, the self-propagandizing of musicians trying too hard to prove their bona fides. To cop a line from Reich, 20th century music was an argument between Debussy and Schoenberg (not between Schoenberg and Stravinsky), and Debussy won. Indeed, if one of Schoenberg’s goals was to maintain the formal means of composition while harmony was falling apart all around him, the twelve-tone method can look like a giving up at a time when Debussy had already shown that the technical power and aesthetic satisfactions of tonality could be preserved in new forms.
That in no way diminishes Schoenberg’s importance or his achievements, and Berry is expert at showing why they are valuable. And still, I don’t like Schoenberg. About that, the book reinforces my feelings in a way that makes it that much more worthwhile to read, and it is certainly an ideal introduction to the composer. Berry emphasizes Schoenberg’s creative context. As a composer who was a chauvinist for the German musical tradition, he consciously placed himself at the vanguard of a path forged by Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms, and Mahler. The composer managed to reconcile Wagner and Brahms (the latter stood against the former), by following what he felt was the logic of Wagner’s harmony and of Brahms’ forms. The twelve-tone method codified this.
Schoenberg’s context was a decadent and anti-Semitic fin de siécle Vienna, service in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, an expanding career during the Weimar era. He was a friend, for a while, of Kandinsky, and a serious but odd painter in his own right. At his core he was an Expressionist, that is obvious in early works like Verklärte Nacht and later ones like A Survivor From Warsaw (which does please me), and my own personality is highly reactive to Expressionism, positively in the cases of Mahler and Berg, but negatively when it comes to Schoenberg. It is like making friends, there is that mysterious thing called chemistry that is either there or isn’t. I have chemistry with twelve-tone and Expressionist music—Mahler, Berg, the great Webern, late Stravinsky—but not every twelve-tone composer communicates to me. That Schoenberg does not says nothing about his stature and meaning, or Berry’s excellent book. I like what I like.