Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Terms of Endearment

I was talking with a friend this morning, a musician in a big local orchestra, and talk turned 'round to Schönberg. My friend said: "I admire some of Schönberg's music but I don't really like any of it." It was a sentiment that I had heard before, but I wasn't going to let it pass this time. I agreed that Schönberg was an uneven composer (the Wind Quintet was my example of the unredeemably lesser works) and we quickly agreed upon a set of pieces that we both found admirable -- the Five Pieces for Orchestra, the Chamber Symphony, Erwartung, Pierrot Lunaire, the String Trio, and the Phantasy -- and agreed to disagree about some others (Gurrelieder, Von Heute auf Morgen, A Survivor from Warsaw).

I then asked: "Are any of these pieces pieces in which "liking them" was a meaningful response?" The grotesque imaginary world of Pierrot or the grotesque real world of Survivor are not inviting, kindly places, but does that neccessarily mean that these worlds should be excluded from musical topics? And if they are musical topics, how well does Schönberg handle them?

I've always though that Berg's famous question (the title of an essay) "Why is Schönberg’s Music so Hard to Understand?" rather missed the point. Understanding the music, from a mechanical point of view, is not difficult, a schoolchild can figure that out. But making a connection to his style, in particular his heightened use of a particular expressive tradition, can be very hard, let alone understanding it. The difficulty lies not in Schönberg's tonal practice -- whether functionally tonal, or pantonal, or twelve-tone -- but rather in his expressionism.

In my first year in Frankfurt, I heard a concert in the Alte Oper, with Gary Bertini conducting A Survivor from Warsaw, fifty years to the day after Reichspogromnacht. I am generally allergic to effects in music designed to force particular emotions on the listener, and Survivor, which I had only known previously from recordings, had, to be honest, left me indifferent precisely because of such effects. But that evening, in that hall, with that audience, the moment in which the mens' choir rises and sings the Shema Yisroel hit like a tidal wave. This was music to which it was impossible to be indifferent. It was also impossible to "like", as "liking" it, at the most generous, was beside the point, and at the least generous would imply some form of assent to barbaric events. But it was also impossible to imagine a more appropriate musical response to its subject.


PWS said...

I've heard one person say that Schöenberg really comes across well in a good hall with a solid orchestra. I've never heard Schöenberg performed live, so I cannot say.

However, I'm surprised you didn't mention the Serenade, Op.24, which I think is a memorable and interesting work. Fun, too!

Elaine Fine said...

I really enjoyed reading this excellent post.

Henry Holland said...

Hi, found your blog via The Rambler.

I *love* some of Schoenberg's music, I mean, like people *love* Mozart or Beethoven. You listed some of them, but I'd add the astonishing Moses und Aron (an unforgettable experience at the New York City Opera in 1990--it really works on stage and the lack of a third act is a plus), Pelleas und Melisande, the torso of Die Jakobslieter and the Op. 31 Variations.

Yes, his expressionist/12-tone stuff needs to be heard live, but in the 30 years or so that I've been going to concerts, the facility of orchestras to play the music correctly has increased a 1000 fold. Used to be, orchestras struggled just to not fall apart while playing some of it, now a lot of the better ones play the music with nuance and flow and expression.

It's a pity that Schoenberg is the Great Bogeyman of 20th century music, the pieces you and I listed are really wonderful.