Sunday, 11 December 2011

Climbing Schoenberg's Ladder

Music is often said to be the art form most unsuited to being described in words, yet I love reading what people have to say about music - particularly when it's well-written and useful to the reader. Although the BBC faded out their excellent series of Ariel music guides for the general listener before the turn of the millennium, a careful search of second-hand bookshops has placed most of them in my hands. Each one is stamped with the personality and style of its author, who included academics, critics and performers, plus even the odd composer. As well as describing a particular area of a composer's output or (more rarely) surveying the totality of a chosen composer's output, they were far from objective, freely expressing critical judgements (negative if necessary) about specific pieces from the starting point of enthusiasm. Some expressed their enthusiasm more openly that others, but dry academic coldness was almost entirely absent.

There was one depressing exception, the one on Schoenberg's chamber music. Now, Arnold Schoenberg's music, especially from the dreaded 'serial' period, has a particularly strong reputation for being forbiddingly difficult, dry, ugly, etc, and, even though some of it is now over a hundred years old, this reputation still continues to scare people and put them off exploring the composer's output. Those ordinary listeners who venture into the serial realms of modernist music, seem to find the music of Schoenberg's pupils, Berg (less radical) and Webern (more radical), easier to take, and even the avant-garde composers of the period (avowedly more radical still) after the Second World War seem easier for some people to take than the music of Schoenberg. There might be something about Schoenberg's music that is responsible for that, but the amazingly dry, academic writing that poured forth about Schoenberg during and after his lifetime surely hasn't helped - and the fact that people (like me) keep saying that Schoenberg has a reputation for being difficult, dry, ugly, etc, certainly doesn't help either.

The Ariel guide to Schoenberg's chamber music was evidently self-consciously written to sound academic, was cluttered with technical jargon (lots of tone row 'algebra'), made little attempt to guide people gently through the music, displayed no enthusiasm (or any human feeling) whatsoever and made few judgements that strayed far from the top of the fence. I strongly believe that any general listener buying such a guide would have come away none the wiser and would not have been remotely inspired by the experience. Thankfully, Schoenberg has been blessed in recent years by some authors who can write in an engaging way, can describe pieces clearly, keep the reader's (and composer's) interests at the forefront of their minds, make critical judgements and, most of all, show a real, uncomplicated enthusiasm for the music (and the equally complex character) of Arnold Schoenberg. They obviously love many of his pieces. It's a pleasure to read them. The two best examples that I know of are:

Malcolm MacDonald's Schoenberg

If you fancy seriously getting a handle on one of the last century's most influential and most interesting composer's music, it will help if you let them be your hand-maidens (if you need a hand-maiden).

Now, the tone of this post probably hasn't helped dispel the cloud of ill-reputation that surrounds Schoenberg's music. What might is listening to his music in a spirit that says 'This is fantastically imaginative, strange music. I'll enjoy some of it. I might not enjoy some of it. Let's see what happens. I'll give it a try and, maybe, give it a few extra listens.'

Or you could just go to what must surely be the best composer website currently on the internet, that of the Arnold Schoenberg Centre, where you can hear pretty much every note of the man's music, from his earliest Brahmsian efforts through to the contrasting experiments on Jewish themes of his final (unfinished) opus.

Or you could read what I intend to write about my own favourite Schoenberg pieces (and some less favoured pieces). Coming soon?

Here, in the meantime, are some links to some of the composer's most acclaimed pieces for you to explore, should you so choose:

Coda: I trawled Google Images for a telling photo of the composer. None of them showed him smiling.

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