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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why We're Still Afraid of Schoenberg

By Norman Lebrecht / July 8, 2001

IT is a measure of the immensity of the man's achievement that, 50 years after his death, he can still empty any hall on earth. Arnold Schoenberg is box office poison. Put his music on a programme and the patrons will abscond or riot, just as they did at the premiere of the Verklarte Nacht sextet in February 1902 when Schoenberg's big brother, Heinrich, had to eject the disrupters.

Yet Verklarte Nacht is not, by any measure, a dissonant work. It applies the harmonic warmth of late Brahms to a Straussian love- tangle and has a touchingly happy ending. The revulsion it aroused was, therefore, not simply a musical reaction. Nor was the composer a contentious figure: this was effectively his Vienna debut. Yet something about Schoenberg's music caused an audience to revolt, and that something continues to disturb listeners to this day.

Notoriety is, like nicotine, an invisibly addictive substance. On the night of Verklarte Nacht, Schoenberg got hooked. After that, he bragged, "the scandal never stopped". Setting out his stall as "a conservative who was forced to become a revolutionary", he went on in 1908 to shatter the conventions of tonality that had ruled European music from its earliest monodic origins.

His Second String Quartet, written during a marital crisis, was an act of liberation, musically as momentous as the storming of the Bastille. When, in its seductive third movement, the soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder sang out the first atonal line, a prominent critic jumped up and shouted, "Stop it, that's enough!" Another yelled, "Be quiet, carry on playing!" Tickets to the repeat performance carried a warning that the bearer was entitled to listen silently, but not to express an opinion until the music was over.

Twelve years later, Schoenberg forsook atonality and prescribed a new method of composition. All 12 notes being equal, he said, it was up to a composer to arrange them in a scale or "series" of his own choosing before giving vent to inspiration. The harmonic relation between one note and the next was not what pleased the ear, but what a composer decided it should be for that particular work.

"I have made a discovery," he declared, "that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years." He was soon to be proved wrong by public distaste and political upheavals, but his "serial" method became the bedrock of musical modernism for the rest of the 20th century.

Throughout these upheavals, his music was less aurally ugly than passages in Strauss's Elektra, less violent than Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In the sung-spoken Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg produced tones as pastel-like as a Vassily Kandinsky canvas; the Serenade, opus 24, his first concerted serial work, is devoid of the shrieks and squeaks that disfigured inferior modernisms. Yet Schoenberg, more than any ruder or rowdier composer, was demonised as the bogeyman of music, the destroyer of tuneful recreation.

Called up to the army in 1916, at the age of 42, he was harassed by soldiers who demanded to know: "Are you that dreadful composer?" Schoenberg replied: "I admit it, but it's like this. Someone had to be, and no one else wanted to, so I took it on myself."

His reforms, he maintained, were inexorable - ordained by a higher power. "I believe that art is born not of 'I can' but of 'I must'," he wrote. He accepted antagonism as the price of iconoclasm but he lived in hope of popularity. "One day," he sighed, "milkmen will whistle my tunes like Puccini's."

Half a century on, singers still struggle to pitch his arias accurately and most music lovers associate his name with arid theory, rather than intended beauty. Who's afraid of Arnold Schoenberg? Just about the whole of Western civilisation.

So what is it about this ascetic, prematurely bald, blunt-spoken son of a Jewish shopkeeper that arouses such enduring aversion? Some part of the loathing may be ascribed to Schoenberg's Jewishness, ever a stigma in central Europe. His high-domed seriousness, too, did not go down well in a society devoted to frivolity. The Viennese hate to be reminded that Schoenberg is the only great composer, apart from Schubert, to have been born in their musical city.

The origins of the antipathy, however, are rooted in the man - in a daunting personality that has, so far, defied psycho-biography.

Schoenberg was a towering figure. He had few close friends. Those he chose were dropped at the slightest provocation - Kandinsky for uttering an anti-Semitic remark, Alexander Zemlinsky over twinges of sexual guilt. Zemlinsky, his only teacher and brother of his first wife, Mathilde, had failed to congratulate him warmly enough on his prompt remarriage, within the year of mourning for Mathilde. He treated his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern as musical skivvies, requiring them to proselytise his works. It took years for Schoenberg to accept them as allies and colleagues.

In laid-back Hollywood, where he wound up in penniless exile in 1935, no one dared to call him "Arnold". He attracted influential admirers, including Charles Chaplin and George Gershwin, who shared his passions for painting and tennis. Gershwin painted a square-jawed portrait of his neighbour; Schoenberg never yielded a point on court, throwing down his racket, McEnroe-fashion, if challenged.

Gershwin begged him for music lessons. "I would only make you a second-rate Schoenberg, and you are such a good Gershwin already," said Schoenberg. Gershwin yearned to write "something simple", like a Mozart string quartet. "I am not a simple man," said Schoenberg.

Summoned by the thinking man's mogul, Irving Thalberg, to write a movie score, Schoenberg demanded a record $50,000 and the impossible right to veto changes to his music. "If I am going to commit suicide," he said drily, "I might as well live well afterwards."

His inflexibility was adamantine, reducing would-be interpreters to nervous wrecks. "I am delighted to add another unplayable work to the repertoire," he said of the 1940 Violin Concerto. "I want the concerto to be difficult, and I want the little finger to become longer. I can wait." Many in the audience at the Philadelphia premiere walked out.

His role models were Moses and Napoleon; he wrote an opera on one, an ode to the other. When Hitler seized power, he offered to renounce composing and "do nothing in future but work for the Jewish national cause". He formed a Jewish Unity Party but failed to attract supporters. Schoenberg was too principled a thinker to become a political leader. Like Moses, he knew that the promised land was beyond his grasp. Like Napoleon, he spent his last years on a desert seashore, plotting on paper the causes of his defeat.

The key to his character can be glimpsed in more than 70 self-portraits that he sketched or painted throughout his life. He learned technique from Richard Gerstl - a minor genius who ran off with Mathilde in the Second String Quartet crisis - and the stylistic debt is pronounced. But where Gerstl was sombre to the point of self-destruction, the striking feature of Schoenberg's self-image is the combative fixity of his gaze. Several portraits, titled Gaze, draw the viewer into the vortex of a stare that magnetises but refuses to reveal its ultimate depths.

So it was with the music. Unlike his mentor, Gustav Mahler, who bared all for art, Schoenberg gave much, but never all, of himself. He was too fastidious, too contemptuous of demagogy, to court mass popularity with a softened cadence or charming trill. He was a man of law, of ethos, of indomitable self-righteousness. He was, in a word, unapproachable - and that singular trait has, more than mere prejudice, deterred public acceptance of his music to this day.

Nevertheless, there are signs that a global warming is melting the icecap. A Mozartian as lyrical as Mitsuko Uchida has taken up the Schoenberg piano concerto. The "unplayable" violin concerto is propagated by the exquisite Viktoria Mullova. Charismatic artists, unborn at Schoenberg's death, are injecting fresh personality into the forbidding void. The vortex is no longer awesomely bottomless.

In a new century, Schoenberg takes his place beside Picasso and Joyce as a creator who altered the perception of art from innocent pleasure to an amalgam of celestial vision and cerebral struggle. In our age of vapid simplicity and dysfunctional irony, the music of Arnold Schoenberg becomes a refuge for the thinking listener, a place of principle and courage, of crossword-level complexity and, when you crack the code, of the deepest sensual satisfaction.

Now, that's what I call Schoenberg

For newcomers interested in exploring Schoenberg's work, the place to start is Verklarte Nacht. Sextet or orchestral version? My preference is for intimacy. The LaSalle Quartet (DG) play magisterially, with the 1946 string trio as a filler, but the Ensemble InterContemporain (Sony) murmur captivating whispers of illicit love. Pierre Boulez directs the serial Suite, opus 29, to spin away the rest of the disc.

The Second String Quartet is quintessential. The new Vienna String Quartet (Philips) and the LaSalle (DG) are pretty much exemplary, but I have fallen for Christiane Oelze as soloist with the Leipzig String Quartet on the well-distributed MDG label.

Ignore the operas and Gurrelieder, that late-Romantic regression. There are plenty of recordings but none comes close to the impact of live theatrical experience. Pass up too, with regret, the Glenn Gould compilations of Lieder and piano music, quirky to a fault.

In a straight choice between Pierrot Lunaire and the Serenade, opus 24, I would take the Serenade for much the same reasons: Pierrot has to be seen to be heard. The Marlborough Festival Serenade on Sony - with the first Chamber Symphony - is tenderly appealing, the antithesis of hard-edged, aggressive modernism. Mitsuko Uchida's version of the piano concerto, coupled with two sets of exquisite solo miniatures (Philips), is a must-have - even in a recorded field contested by Brendel (twice) and Pollini. Boulez, for whom Schoenberg is the source of all modern wisdom, conducts.

If you have change to spare and an open mind, splurge it on non-Schoenberg - on his dazzling Bach and Brahms orchestrations (BMG), or better still on the Johann Strauss and Schubert transcriptions that Kent Nagano conducts on Erato. Imagine a Schoenberg version of Funiculi-Funicula? It's there for the hearing.

25 October 2000: True pioneers deserve better [Lebrecht on the Arnold Schoenberg Hall]
17 May 1997: Mahler Goes Home [article on Scoenberg's mentor Gustav Mahler]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999