Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg
edited by Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black
St. Martin’s, 559 pp., $45.00
by Charles Rosen
Viking (Modern Masters Series), 113 pp., $2.50 (paper)
The best of Arnold Schoenberg’s occasional writings on music are as richly instructive as his theoretical and didactic ones. Like them, too, many of the essays depend on examples printed in music type, which sets Schoenberg apart from other composer-writers, such as Berlioz, whose many verbal talents the creator of Pierrot Lunaire lacks, or Schumann or Debussy, who are simply more enjoyable to read. But the substance of the musical journalism of these three is less profound than that of Style and Idea, and the rewards of Schoenberg’s book warrant the greater effort it requires, especially in the chapters on “Twelve-Tone Composition.” and “Theory and Composition.” Yet even these are not difficult for anyone conversant with the general principles of musical forms and of such basic devices of harmony and counter-point as chord inversion and canon. Finally, Schoenberg’s own chronological and autobiographical account of the evolution of atonality and twelve-tone composition is still the most accessible.
By contrast, the reader who will profit most from Charles Rosen’s Arnold Schoenberg is one with prior knowledge of the composer, which may raise a question about the market for the Modern Masters series. Laymen have apparently not complained of obstacles of a specialist nature in the monographs on poets, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, political activists—with which the collection has thus far been overbalanced at the expense of those on artists and cinematographers (the latter now possessing the widest of all powers to influence). But who except musicians will be able to follow Mr. Rosen’s exposition of Schoenberg’s serial system, though this is admirably lucid as well as free from the diagrammatic and numerical sigla that limit to initiates the readership of most new publications on the subject? Witness an excerpt from Mr. Rosen’s introduction to combinatoriality—torn from the context, to be sure, yet even within this brief essay it seems quite unlikely that general readers would become sufficiently familiar with serial processes to be able to grasp the following principle:
One hexachord is…the exact inversion of the other transposed. This means that when the original order of the notes in the hexachord is restored, a transposition must exist that will transform all notes in the first hexachord inverted into the pitches of the second hexachord in a different order….
But the reasons why the Modern Masters volume is sometimes more difficult to digest than that of Schoenberg on Schoenberg are that the composer did not understand his work in the same way (“I see things that at the time of composing [were] still unknown to me”), that he did not write about his later and more complex developments, and that because of the recent exponential increase in the quantity and sophistication of Schoenberg studies a musicologist of Mr. Rosen’s caliber must contend with a multitude of new material. In short, the contemporary scholar is obliged to keep in perspective a greatly expanded view of his subject, as well as, in Mr. Rosen …