Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The classical impulse

Matthew Guerrieri has a fine meditation on transformations of musical material, and notes correctly that a classical attitude and technique or a romantic attitude and technique does not necessarily coincide with the eras and repertoires of the same name. Indeed, I would trace a classical impulse even further, for example, in the work of Alvin Lucier, in which classicism describes well the aesthetic of clarification essential to his music.

Matthew focuses on Schoenberg's identification of Mozart as a precursor, and I was immediately reminded of Lou Harrison's preface to his his SUITE for Piano, written during his studies with Schoenberg:
In 1942-3 1 was working as a musician and teacher in the Dance Department of the University of California at Los Angeles and had indeed gone there in the hope that I might study, even a little, with Schoenberg. It proved that he was conducting a small seminar on one afternoon each week. I gathered up my courage and applied to his then assistant, Harold Halma, who took me directly to Schoenberg in his study. He had evidently been in deep concentration, and must have been startled, for he physically twitched during the introduction. I was relieved, though, to be accepted.

I was told that he refused to examine any work in "12-tone technique." Firstly, then, I took my Saraband and also my Prelude for Grand Piano and played those for him. He said, in obvious pleasure, "This is music I understand," and, turning, asked my fellow seminarians, "Why do you not bring to me such music?"

Meanwhile, I had been introduced by the lovely dancer Melissa Blake to Peter Yates and his wife, Frances Mullen. We shared intently many musical pleasures and, upon discovering that Frances Mullen was a fine concert pianist and sympathetic to new music, I began to concentrate on this Suite for Piano, to give her. I had composed much of it, and then found that I was composing myself into a corner in III, the Conductus. Emboldened by Schoenberg's own kindnesses, I arrived one afternoon with the work. I supposed that, for my bringing in a 12-tone work, he might throw the three or four of us "out" -- permanently ( as I was told he had done once or twice before in exasperation) -- or that he might throw out at least me. I played the Prelude. There was a rather long moment of silence, and then he asked me, thoughtfully, "Is it 12-tone?" I simply said, "Yes." He reached for the page, saying, "It is good! It is good!" (What a relief! I was not going to be thrown out!) He asked me to continue, and I played Movement II. Again, "It is good! It is good!" He seemed fascinated by the very wide, soft spacing in measures 4-8. By the time I had played to the point of my blockage in Movement III, he plunged directly in, already aware of my structure, and, with splendid illuminating instructions, permanently disposed of for me not only that particular difficulty but also any of the kind that I might ever encounter. Only a few years ago I wrote a sentence, in a paper for the East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo, which suggests something of what 1 felt he was telling me about : ". . . that deft, light musicality which to us ( as musicians) is the very happiest conjunction of our intellect and senses."

If, as I sometimes suspect, I was being "spoofed" about Arnold Schoenberg's patience, then I am nonetheless grateful for that, too, for obvious reasons.

He was a lovely and delicate man, very nervous when airplanes flew over U.C.L.A.; who once hushed us, too, in order to hear a bird outside.

There was more, and much of musical interest. When I was about to leave for New York, he asked me why I was going there and I replied that I did not really know. "I know why you are going," he said. "You are going for fame and fortune. Good luck! And, do not study anymore -- only Mozart!"

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