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Schoenberg and His World
Edited by Walter Frisch

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Schoenberg and the Audience: Modernism, Music, and Politics in the Twentieth Century


I. Polemical Preliminaries

These festival weeks have had nothing to do with music. Schoenberg's followers have overdone it. What the consequence of the absolute domination by dodecaphony will be ... is that in ten years, I am convinced, no one will talk about the twelve-tone system.--G.F. Malipiero, June 1932

    It seems that the last twenty years of eclecticism in contemporary music may have finally undone what "Schoenberg's followers" have "overdone" for nearly half a century. It is now respectable and even fashionable to concede that perhaps audiences have been right all along. Abstract, inaccessible, unfriendly, harsh, hard to follow, dense, even boring are still the adjectives applied by most concert-goers to Arnold Schoenberg's music. The twentieth-century composer, once most highly respected by generations of academics, whose music and theoretical writings reveal a daunting intellect and capacity for analysis, and whose own legendary contempt for others became routinized posthumously among those who specialized in his defense, now appears entirely vulnerable. With a slight edge of delight, critics are increasingly able to declare—along with Malipiero, and only superficially in imitation of Boulez, decades later—that Schoenberg is "dead."

    Although thinking and writing about Schoenberg remain valued academic pursuits, to the public beyond academic circles Schoenberg, except for a few early works, commands little spontaneous affection, and at best a grudging respect. If his music is as great as he and his disciples claimed, why does it remain so difficult, so merely intellectual for so many; why after three quarters of a century are essays in the genre of Alban Berg's 1924 classic "Why is Schoenberg's Music so Difficult to Understand?" still appropriate?

    Five basic factors currently stand in way of a sympathetic reconsideration of Schoenberg. First and foremost is the success of the so-called "post-modern." With the collapse of the perceived tyranny of those who viewed Schoenberg as the true prophet of new music, voices have emerged (some of them repentant former adherents to the cause) who actually relish the slaughter of the main sacred cow. From 1945 until the early 1980s, the accepted wisdom among composers and scholars echoed Ernst Krenek's closing comments at the Second International Schoenberg Conference in Vienna in 1984: Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School had altered musical thinking forever. No composer in the future would be able to circumvent Schoenberg and his influence, even if he was to write minimalist and tonal music. Just fifteen years later most successful younger contemporary composers appear to have paid little or no attention to Schoenberg. This has altered the paradigm of the history of twentieth century music that held sway into the mid-1970s, in which Schoenberg played the central role.

    Second is the accumulated weight of sustained historical reevaluation. Those who question how modern Schoenberg really was challenge a facile equivalence between the terms "modernist" or "avant-garde" and the twentieth century. Perhaps, they seem to say, modernism in the sense of Schoenberg and his school refers merely to one limited historical period and group within the twentieth century. Or there is the line of argument first put forth decades ago independently by Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter questioning how far Schoenberg had really traveled from a dependency on late nineteenth-century musical models. Were not Webern, Varèse, Ives, Messiaen, and even Stravinsky equally innovative and significant? This differentiation within modernism sought to help emancipate post-World War II composition from too exclusive a bias in favor of Schoenberg. A divergent view of the century and modernity emerges from these types of revisionism, one in which Schoenberg holds merely one place of prominence among many. Schoenberg may have been less a radical conservative and more a radical reactionary, one who carried Wagner's belief in a progressive imperative for music to an absurd extreme into an age in which history would no longer matter.

    By refusing to see Schoenberg as the pivotal figure in the history of twentieth-century music, these revisionists create a third factor: they detach Schoenberg's music and its aesthetic and historical valuation from the social and political projects to which it was once inextricably linked. During the 1920s, Hanns Eisler, who retained an unqualified admiration for Schoenberg, his teacher, was among the first in Schoenberg's circle to speculate independently about the function of new music in modernity. Schoenberg's modernism consistently offended its audience. If that audience had been merely made up of smug owners of capital and their bourgeois apologists, there might have seemed something redeemingly "progressive" about Schoenberg's brand of modernism. But the failure of Schoenberg's modernism to gain any audience beyond its own elite of admirers—however constituted—revealed just how hollow were his supporters' appeals to historical necessity or a Platonic belief system that legislated a normative ideal of musical thought and form and therefore a typology of proper listening.

    Since Schoenberg's brand of innovation as well as his Jewish identity became the focus of anti-Semitic right-wing politics early in the 1920s and later the object of Nazi persecution in the 1930s, the dissonances between the progressive in politics and the modernist in music were left unresolved. The alliance between the two went largely unquestioned for decades, even well after 1945. In the context of Cold War politics, Eisler's challenge to Schoenberg and his school from the left could be discredited as "Stalinist" and reactionary, while Schoenberg's brand of modernism continued, until the late 1960s, to appear as a non-subversive but forward-looking contemporary line of defense of individuality and freedom against uniformity and tyranny within the "free world."

    Adorno's analysis of Schoenberg and his influence created a powerful critical and philosophical framework that buttressed Schoenberg's post-war influence, particularly in academic circles. According to this line of interpretation, modernism in music of the sort audible in Webern and in the work of the younger composers supported at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen in the 1950s and 1960s eloquently confronted the corrupting influences represented in the West by commercialism and mass society, the very ills that had helped fascism succeed.

    With the receding prestige of socialist and progressive politics in the early 1980s, the growing critique of the liberal welfare state in England and America and ultimately the collapse of Communism and and fall of the Berlin Wall, the critique of capitalist culture and society put forward by Adorno and other Frankfurt School contemporaries, particularly Herbert Marcuse, became less attractive in the West to new generations of young people. Schoenberg and his notions of musical modernism were gradually detached from a plausible justifying political and historical logic locating them on the side of freedom and anti-fascism, and therefore of the angels.

    While the later twentieth century heirs of the left have largely rejected modernism in favor of popular musical culture as an important dimension of political resistance, neo-conservatives have taken their own peculiar revenge on Schoenberg. Some have risen to Schoenberg's defense, citing his work and legacy as a bulwark against the collapse of cultural standards after the mid-1960s. Other neo-conservatives, however, have delighted in the idea that the largely liberal and leftwing post-war academic community's "emperor had no clothes" after all.

    The fourth factor working against Schoenberg is the reemergence of an empirical and principled set of arguments prevalent at the turn of the century that defend tonality (or something very much like it) as natural and objective. According to this argument, which makes an appeal to normative philosophy, psychology, and physics, certain ways of organizing sound and time in music correspond to facts and laws of nature. In the early twentieth century, Schoenberg found himself on the side of those who argued against the idea that the Western system of harmony was privileged and rooted in nature, rendering tonality normative and objective. The sophisticated revival of the idea of a "natural" music has been fueled partly by linguistic theory (e.g. Chomsky and generative grammar), language philosophy (from the late Wittgenstein on) and the analysis of syntax.

    Theorists as disparate in their approaches as Boretz and Epstein have suggested that when we look carefully at music as a reflexive system of communication we need to explain rather than dismiss the failure of any music to gain response, engage listeners or be easily preserved in memory. Perhaps it is not tonality that is natural. But the need for particularly evident patterns in music: repetition, focal points, continuities, tensions, resolutions and regularity—the accumulation of classes of events that can be processed and associated readily by the brain—may be universal. Schoenberg's modernism may lack these requirements because of an inherent conflict between the way we are as humans and the way twelve-tone music is organized. The wide dissemination (or to put it more plainly, the popularity) of a form of music need not be considered a sign of vulgarity, ignorance or concession to corrupt fashion or style. Populist politics and high theory have now merged: Schoenberg's brand of modernism, particularly in its twelve-tone phase, becomes a failed experiment that cannot intersect effectively with wider human experience cognitively and therefore either aesthetically or politically.

    The fifth and final barrier to a sympathetic rehearing of Schoenberg today is ironically the difficulty we have in transcending the accumulated traditional rhetoric of criticism and defense surrounding the question of Schoenberg. Schoenberg and his disciples in the 1920s can be compared properly to the circle around the poet Stefan George, to whose work Schoenberg turned at a pivotal moment when the composer took a decisive step away from tonality. But the most apt comparison is with Richard Wagner. Not only did they both have disciples and demand uncommon degrees of loyalty from their followers, but Wagner and Schoenberg invented and institutionalized a rhetoric of self-defense and description. They both brilliantly placed themselves within music history and connected their work to past and future. Institutions designed to preserve and defend the Schoenberg legacy were created, first in Los Angeles, then in Vienna. Schools of composition and criticism that developed after 1945 relied heavily on Schoenberg's analysis of compositional methods, his views on form and structure, and his readings of Mozart and Brahms. To generations of Schoenberg admirers, followers and scholars, any departure from this self-constituted (or auto-poetic) code of discourse of defense and description was tantamount to ignorance or betrayal.

    Schoenberg's philosophy of music and his logic of self-estimation have cast a decisive shadow over music theory and musicology in this century. Whether it is the concept of "idea" (as opposed to "style"), the "Grundgestalt," "developing variation," the "emancipation of the dissonance" or the relation of music and text, the way Schoenberg thought and wrote about music and its meaning has had perhaps more influence in the arenas of performance practice and critical approaches to music in this century than his own music has had on the writing of new music. At the end of this century, almost fifty years after Schoenberg's death, it is in part the institutionalized charisma of Schoenberg the teacher and theorist that retards a new appreciation of his music. Perhaps if we successfully challenge the rhetoric of Schoenberg and his most ardent posthumous defenders, we will be able to open up new avenues of access to his music.

II. Music and Psychology


Music: breath of statues. Perhaps:
stillness of paintings. You language where languages end. You time,
placed vertically on the course of hearts that expire.

Feelings ... for whom? O you the transformation
of feelings ... into what?—: into audible landscape.
You stranger: music. You heartspace
grown out of us. Innermost thing of ours,
which, exceeding us, forces us out, —
sacred farewell:
when the inner surrounds us
as the most practiced distance, as the other side
of the air:
like a giant,
no longer livable.
—R. M. Rilke, Munich, January 11-12, 1918

    In 1926 the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski completed a draft of an essay on contemporary music. It was not published in his lifetime and appeared first in 1958 (see Appendix, p. 47). In it, Szymanowski argues that Schoenberg alone represents a true break with the past; Schoenberg was the only one to "cross the Rubicon" into modernity. Szymanowski understands Debussy, Stravinsky and Strauss as tied to pre-war traditions. At the same time Szymanowski remains entirely aware of the extent to which Schoenberg is not just a European but distinctly a German. He clearly identifies Schoenberg with a tradition of German composition and sees him as the heir to Wagner: the composer who represents the future of German music. Szymanowski echoes Berg's 1924 conclusion that Schoenberg would "predominate in German music for the next fifty years." Yet Szymanowski accepts the universal consequences of Schoenberg's achievement. He is unstinting in his praise and admiration for Schoenberg's philosophical vocabulary and rhetoric of self-assessment. The essay is curious in part because Szymanowski—unlike Stravinsky and Copland later on in the 1960s—never sought to emulate Schoenberg in his own approach to composition by experimenting with twelve-tone composition.

    What struck Szymanowski was Schoenberg's remarkable sojourn from Wagnerism to a new modernism. No other composer had worked so well in the pre-World War I expressionist idiom and yet had shown the courage to break away. The decisive step was the explicit severing of a long tradition of parallelism between musical form and structure and "direct psychological truth." Schoenberg put forward a notion of absolute music that cut against the traditions of emotional response and attachment to music so eloquently witnessed by Rilke's 1918 poem. Yet Szymanowski remained ambivalent about this. On the one hand, the "natural" development of music required that music somehow become finally independent, in the twentieth century, of reality and life, and reverse the exaggerated emotionalism of romanticism. Szymanowski shared a Hanslick-like prejudice about the inherently "absolute" non-representational character of music. On the other hand, he realized the power of an historical achievement, beginning in the nineteenth century and culminating with expressionism, in which the "horizontal" dimension of music became gradually influenced by the vertical, creating an "enriched" sound world which, metaphorically speaking, ran parallel with the "lyrics of direct life reality." Music became "rooted in life's psychological rhythm," just as Rilke suggests in his response to hearing music. Extended tonality and extreme chromaticism, strengthened by the expanded palette of orchestral sound, made the Rilke-like parallelism between feeling and sound irresistable.

    Schoenberg brought this historical process to completion and ultimately abandoned the residual framework of the "horizontal"; the "vertical" dimension of music was placed in the foreground. He rendered the "vertical" in music absolute. Gone were issues of "mood" and "color" or even the contrast between the static and the dynamic highlighted by modulation. The "absolute vertical" found a value in itself, not as a function of musical "expression." This led to "the essential atomism" of Schoenberg's modernism, by which Szymanowski means the twelve-tone compositional breakthrough of the 1920s. Szymanowski's essay ends abruptly, incomplete, with praise for Schoenberg's ethical authenticity and seriousness as well as a reference to the consequences of the opening up of a "limitless domain" in which truth became subjective and relative. Schoenberg had created a space in which everything seemed now permissible.

    Crucial to the contemporary and posthumous defense of Schoenberg and the modernist tradition linked to his innovations from the 1920s has been an explicit and implicit assent to his critique of the traditions and character of how audiences listened, followed and understood music. An audience that was truly musically literate, which thought purely musically i.e. could grasp music without any refuge in psychological allegory, either of narrative or mood—such an audience could truly appreciate the music of Schoenberg and his followers. As Schoenberg himself pointed out, his greatest success as a composer derived from his capacity, in his pre-twelve-tone music, to facilitate with great originality and inventiveness the listener's capacity to listen allegorically and through the use of allusion, without refuge in illustration or representation. Furthermore, as Szymanowski observed, the extension of tonality and the virtuosity in the use of modulation displayed by Schoenberg in Gurrelieder, for example, expanded the utility of music as a framework—independent of the text—for internal psychological reflection on the part of the listener. But then Schoenberg stopped himself and history short, interrupting the continuity of these traditions. (A typical pictorial representation of the sort of listening common at the end of the nineteenth century is the 1895 painting by the English painter Francis Dicksee [1853-1928], entitled A Reverie, reproduced in figure 1.)

    One can locate the cause for the widespread contemporary and posthumous perception that Schoenberg was the creator of a unique radical modernism in precisely this interruption, the self-conscious break with the parallelism between music and life (and therefore language) as expressed in the expectations of generations of European composers and audiences. By creating a new mode of pitch relationship and therefore a new basis for constructing the basic cells or thematic elements for works of music, Schoenberg in the 1920s explicitly attacked the dominant habit of listening within nineteenth-century musical culture, rendering it irrelevant and useless. With the fundamental abandonment of tonality, music lost its connection to the Rilke-like internal psychological dialogue conducted by the individual and therefore, as Szymanowski suggests, its evident connection to life. The aesthetic dimension had been emancipated from the psychologically instrumental. But the question remained: into what and for what?

    It is well to remember that many of Schoenberg's earliest and most ardent defenders and advocates were young listeners who sought a new and different inspiration from music; they were not professional musicians or critics. Consider for example the fascinating fragment by Arnold Zweig from 1913 entitled "A Quartet Movement by Schoenberg." In this short prose work Schoenberg emerges as the prophetic and triumphant outsider who has arrived to rescue Europe through art exactly one hundred years after Napoleon's defeat at the battle of Leipzig in 1813. The story takes place in 1913. An Eastern European Jew is on his way to Palestine. After travelling through Berlin he visits his brother in Leipzig The young man, the protagonist, is both impressed and revolted by the middle-class opulence and self-satisfaction evident in the architecture and the people he encounters in Leipzig. In Leipzig the sound of the Saxon dialect reminds him of the French and of Napoleon. The reunion with his brother is unsatisfactory. He becomes bored.

    He wanders into a concert without seeing what is on the program. It is a quartet concert. The first work is by Haydn and the young man is lost in a quite typical reverie. He dreams of nature and the simple pleasures of life. A pre-modern idyllic world appears before his eyes. After enthusiastic applause the quartet plays the next work. The audience is stunned; it does not know how to react. But the young man is transported. He is inspired: he senses through the music the power of modernity, the city, and of science and progress. He also senses the alienation of the modern individual. He perceives the extent to which an excessive optimism about modernity prevalent within the audience has gone awry. A nameless artist, the composer of this new music, reveals through sounds the contradictions of modernity and truthfully celebrates the possibilities of cultural renewal. Aesthetic innovation and ethical truth merge in the music.

    Although the audience is at a loss, the young man leaves the concert hall suddenly seized by doubt about his own plans to leave Europe for the more primitive and yet-to-be-realized new social order of Palestine. As he wanders about on his way to the train station to resume his journey, he sees a poster and notices the name of the composer whose music he has just heard: Arnold Schoenberg, a fellow Jew. Although he proceeds with his plans, he senses that he must ultimately return to Europe to take on the cause of the rebirth of European culture along the path set forth by Schoenberg. Schoenberg's music has awakened the young man to the idea that he has not exhausted his identity as a European. A sense of homelessness, triggered by the pogroms in the East he is fleeing, has been assuaged by the music. The possibilities for a cultural and political future, for internal personal are rekindled, forcing him to reconsider his Zionism, his life's plan and his sense of self. The story ends with the hero repeating the words "O return, o return."

    It is more than likely that the music Zweig had in mind was either Schoenberg's Op. 7 or Op. 10, both of which were performed in Berlin in 1912 and 1913, the year the fragment was written. Zweig therefore implicitly refers to at least two works which created a great uproar in Schoenberg's career and helped established his reputation as a radical. (At issue, therefore, is not Verklärte Nacht or Gurrelieder.) Although the music Zweig alludes to is not the same repertoire Szymanowski discusses, Schoenberg's break with the past was well underway in Opp. 9 and 10. Op. 7, however, possessed a "very definite but private program." Nevertheless, Szymanowski's 1926 construct of Schoenberg's project can be applied to Op. 7, Op. 9, and Op. 10. Despite the presence of poetic texts, Schoenberg's first decisive breaks with habits of listening based on psychological parallelism between musical space and time and real life sensibilities, particularly the internal clock of reflection, took place before the invention of twelve-tone composition, particularly in Op. 9.

    Zweig's account is all the more remarkable for its political overtones. Indeed, as the story develops Schoenberg functions for the young man as modernity's Napoleon: the new-world historical hero from humble origins. Napoleon was a hero to most Jews because of his role in their emancipation. The image of the Jewish composer as a new Napoleon redeeming the possibilities of European culture in the name of freedom, ethical progress, and enlightened modernity, fits quite closely to Schoenberg's own self-assessment before his stunning and disillusioning encounter with anti-Semitism in the 1920s. Zweig and Schoenberg also implicitly agree in their critique of the pre-World War I audience. Zweig gives us a picture of an uncomprehending group of affluent middle-class Europeans, suffused with culture, who delighted only in the familiar. There is however no description of booing or hissing, as took place in Vienna. Zweig's account of his fellow audience members is critical but not entirely dismissive (the experience after all raises his hopes about the use of art as an instrument of cultural and social renewal). One comes away from the fragment with a sense that confronting the public with a radical new art may in fact set in motion a social and political transformation.

    Leaving aside the many implications imbedded in Zweig's strange story, it is curious that Zweig's protagonist's habit of listening did not change with the music. He listened to Schoenberg the way he listened to Haydn. Indeed, one way to understand what was going on in concert halls between the years 1909 and 1913 at performances of Schoenberg's music—events that attracted furious response and intensive critical attention—is to concentrate on one consistent thread within the notion of psychological listening shared by Zweig's protagonist, his audience, and one which is implicit in Szymanowski's analysis: the act of listening with the visual imagination. Rilke confirms the pervasive attachment to music as inspiring of a species of sight; music is the breathing statue, the stillness of paintings, the audible landscape.

    The visual imagery inspired by the idea of music at the turn of the century, particularly in light of Schoenberg's own brief career as a painter and his life-long engagement with the connection between the musical and the visual, merits close historical scrutiny. What changes in Zweig's story is the substance and character of that which is visualized or imagined through music. It is in turn the perceived failure of this mode of listening to music that drove Schoenberg, after World War I, to the complete break with expressionism, a break whose courage so impressed Szymanowski.


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