2015-06-22

Lies About Arnold Schoenberg


If you ever want to see otherwise-elegant people swear and spit (and who wouldn't?), then I know a fun party game to play. It goes like this:

First, identify the classical music enthusiasts in the room - preferably someone who has some experience playing a musical instrument. Second, mention the name "Arnold Schoenberg" favorably. Third, observe the spitting and swearing.

They'll tell you his music is "soulless." They'll lament that he "wrote with a mathematical formula," and that anyone can compose serial compositions once they, too, know the formula.

Here's the problem: "soulless" is a criticism that essentially reduces to "I personally prefer other music," and "he wrote with a... formula" is true of any composer who ever developed a reliable source of sonic inspiration. As for whether Schoenberg's formula was "mathematical," well, that's the kind of statement that only makes sense to people who have never had to work with a real mathematical formula in their lives. (It's an algorithm, not a formula.)

But, more importantly, Schoenberg wrote more than 12-tone serial compositions. Much more. Take, for example, the piece I have embedded in this blog post. Verklarte Nacht, inspired by a beautiful poem, was written to describe the feelings Schoenberg had after meeting his future wife. (So much for "soulless" Arnold Schoenberg.) Listen carefully, and observe that there is absolutely nothing "atonal" about it. Nor, for that matter, is it in any way a serial composition.

Of course, it's advanced harmonic structure was still too much for the taste-makers of the period, but now that a century has passed, I defy anyone to dispute the piece's exquisite beauty.

I may have to dedicate a future post to serial composing. While it's true that it is - by definition - "formulaic," not all serial compositions are equal. For one thing, just because a person can arrive at an atonal melody using a serial formula doesn't mean that person can arrange a symphony around that melody. So there is a bit more to serial composing than simply arriving at a melody using Schoenberg's formulas. There are still such elements as the arrangement, the harmonies, and most importantly the performance. But these nuances are a bit too much for those who would disparage one of the 20th Century's most gifted composers.

Tonally and atonally, Schoenberg challenged the musical establishment, and a century later, the establishment still hates him for it. But his music lives on, and I encourage everyone to immerse themselves in it for a little while, if for no other reason than to understand it. (Here's a hint: If all you wind up hearing is a "formula," then you haven't fully understood.)