Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shawn on Schoenberg

I've just read composer Allen Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey (Harvard 2002) and can recommend it highly.  It's a modest length (ca. 300 pages) work of advocacy for the music and for Schoenberg himself, written in a personal and concrete style making it a nice companion to both Charles Rosen's small Schoenberg book and Andriessen and Schönberger's wonderful Stravinsky book, The Apollonian Clockwork.  Shawn discounts his analyses in advance, but his treatment of the Six Small Pieces, Die Glückliche Hand and the String Trio are quite fine, clearly the work of a musician listening closely to music he loves and comfortable with the words needed to share what he has heard.  In his discussion of Schoenberg's life and personality, he is always interesting and musically relevant, whether writing of Schoenberg's complext relationship to religion, his passion for games and crafts, or even giving an entire chapter over to the topic of "On Being Short"*.   

It is a striking fact that Schoenberg remains a composer whose music — and person** —  is so often held only in the most reserved form of respect, only thinly concealing a serious disapproval, that advocacy is still required.  I contend that the difficulty with Schoenberg's music is its style rather than its substance or technique, and perhaps what his works need best is some defense against its devotees, whether from an Adornovian historical dialectic or dry Babbittonian technical description.  In truth, however, the style, one in which expression is so heighted and treats the darkest themes and topics which haunt our souls, has long become a permanent part of our musical language, if only most often encountered in its weak imitations found in film music.  Fortunately, in Europe at least, his work receives regular concert and stage performances and is increasingly well-played.  The 1998 Gielen/HR-Symphony recording of the one act comic opera Von Heute Auf Morgen, for example, was so brilliantly rehearsed that it revealed that the work, long considered only questionably comic and impossible to really pull off, was, in fact, a lost masterpiece, and the players under Gielen learned to play in the style with both the precision and spontaneity required of a comic work.  


* As someone who is often the tallest composer in the room,  it was very interesting to read that people who are not tall often adopt social strategies that are the opposite of my own.

** A vivid example of this was recently provided by the German musicologist Martin Vogel, who devoted an entire volume to disparaging Schoenberg's music and personality and an entire companion volume to disparaging Schoenberg's influence (Cage in particular) as the "Mistaken Path of Modern Music".   What a waste of paper.

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