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Two Modern Masters

Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg

edited by Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black
St. Martin’s, 559 pp., $45.00

Arnold Schoenberg

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 initiates1 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’s case, to concentrate it into the abbreviated format prescribed for Modern Masters. Owing to this last circumstance, too, Mr. Rosen could not afford to spell out any step that might be taken for granted. Having said this, however, one must add that a characteristic of all of Charles Rosen’s criticism is his directness in identifying and confronting central issues.

The editorial decisions in publishing an enlarged edition of Style and Idea2 involved questions of selection, of sequence, and of language—the last in problems of translation as well as in the possible correction of the author’s grammar and vocabulary (for instance by bracketing an obviously intended word next to a less suitable one). The book’s solutions to all three problems are disappointing. Too many of the additions do not enhance the picture of Schoenberg, while some of them, such as the causeries on national music, which expose his chauvinism and egomania, are damaging:

Wagner’s music was not only the best and most significant of its age…but it was also the music of 1870 Germany, who conquered the world of her friends and enemies through all her achievements….

[In the 1914-1918 war] the battle against German music…was primarily a battle against my own music….

Not against that of Richard Strauss? Was Schoenberg regarded as a threat of European proportions already in 1914? And of Italian national music in the 1920s he remarks that it was

written on higher orders (whereas I, in my reactionary way, [stuck] to writing [my music] on orders from The Most High)…

which illustrates how his wit sometimes comes through as arrogance in his writing.

The new volume also makes available some of Schoenberg’s criticism of his contemporaries, but none of it redounds to his credit. In particular, the article on an early opera by Krenek could have awaited a future “Complete Writings.” Nor does a piece that accuses Webern of brainpicking, written two months before Schoenberg’s death, increase the author’s stature, though it does reveal that he withheld his discovery of the twelve-tone concept (early 1920s) from his pupil. Elsewhere in the book Schoenberg mentions that he confided in Webern about the use of a twelve-tone theme in Jacob’s Ladder (1917), which is not the same thing, of course; but the editor should have referred the reader to the other article in both cases, as well as partially balanced Schoenberg’s late view of Webern by including the 1947 preface to the latter’s Concerto for Nine Instruments—a brief statement yet one that emphasizes the solidarity between the two men.

On the other hand, the essays on Bach, Brahms, Liszt, and Mahler, containing Schoenberg’s most valuable criticism, might have been more effectively placed nearer the beginning of the book. It was in the masters of the past that Schoenberg found his own principles, and his illustrations of transcendent musical laws in Bach and Brahms provide an excellent introduction to the continuation of them in his own. Furthermore, his hubris is less obtrusive while he is observing, for example, that the first three movements of the Pastorale Symphony employ almost no minor chords, and that one of Beethoven’s means of avoiding the minor was

by leaving many sections in unison unaccompanied, where the melody is understood without the harmony;

or when ferreting out the psychological weakness in Liszt that partly explains the failure of his music:

He, for whom the poet stood foremost, suppressed the poet in himself by letting other poets talk him into too much. He, who felt form as formalism, created a far worse formalism—one which is uninhabitable, because in his forms invented by the intellect no living being has ever dwelt…;

or when absorbed in the notion that Philipp Emanuel Bach, and not Johann Sebastian, must have devised the “Royal Theme” of the Musical Offering—as a joke to prevent the elder Bach from displaying his contrapuntal versatility:

In the Art of the Fugue a minor triad offered many contrapuntal openings, [but] the Royal Theme, also a minor triad, did not admit one single canonic imitation. All the miracles that the Musical Offering presents are achieved by countersubjects, countermelodies, and other external additions.

The author of Style and Idea might in some cases have sacrificed literalism for exactness of meaning. Thus “pitch” could have been substituted for Schoenberg’s ambiguous “tone,” when the more clearly defining word is what he means. But in a construction such as “By avoiding the establishment of a key modulation is excluded,” not to have inserted a bracketed comma after “key” is inexcusable. Finally, whatever Schoenberg’s shortcomings as a writer, the only truly mystifying verbiage in the book is contributed by its editor, who nevertheless maligns the composer’s English:

Despite the advice of some of his American pupils, the present writer included, [Schoenberg] doggedly pursued his own path.

The reader will appreciate this doggedness when he tries to penetrate the editor’s statement that

Although the present volume contains most of Schoenberg’s longer articles in both German and English, no more than a small portion of his other writings appear [sic] herein.

But the present volume does not contain any article in German. And what can possibly be meant by the claim:

Published articles…have been used as the basic material—in Schoenberg’s own English wherever possible, supplemented by manuscripts, in various stages of completion, which often serve to illuminate certain points which do not exist elsewhere.

If a point does not exist elsewhere, how can it be illuminated anywhere? And does “wherever possible” refer to the intelligibility of the composer’s English or to the fact that some of the originals were in German? Passages such as these arouse the reader’s suspicion that in the comment

[Schoenberg] had little use for a grammatically correct, so-called polished style of writing that would not [sic] clearly present his ideas,

the editor is speaking not for Schoenberg but for himself.

The most personal of the pieces that appear in English for the first time is Schoenberg’s circular letter to friends in Europe after nearly a year (the winter of 1933-1934) as a refugee in the United States. His grumblings about the musical and other miseries of America are surprisingly good-humored—compared, that is, to most of his other references to the struggles of his life. Undoubtedly Schoenberg did provoke more relentless opposition than any other major composer, and his belief in and assertion of his genius are not only excusable but were indispensable. Yet to be constantly reminded of his heroic persistence and matchless achievements (“One of the greatest virtues of my music is that…,” etc.) eventually dampens the sympathy of the reader, who begins to feel that Schoenberg should have found more consolation in the certainty of having determined the course of music in his time, as well as have realized that the hostility he aroused was commensurate to his importance. “It was as if he saw that the controversial nature of his work was central to its significance,” Mr. Rosen remarks, but though the composer unquestionably did see this, he seems to have been unable to accept it.

In fact the resistance to Schoenberg’s music is perfectly understandable, and his own wishful explanation—that bad performances were to blame and that, if heard as intended, the music would win acceptance—is only one of the causes. Good readings of at least some of his music are no longer uncommon, after all, yet its audience appeal has not grown proportionately. As Mr. Rosen says, “Better performances do not make difficult music popular”; and Schoenberg’s ideas are more complex, densely packed, faster moving than those of any of his contemporaries.

Some listeners would add that Schoenberg’s expression is more intense and disturbing, and that his art lacks emotional diversity, its domain being that of the macabre and of the more ingrown manifestations of Middle European Expressionism—to which those who are most familiar with the music might rejoin that it is also euphoric (the Orchestra Variations), sweet (the Serenade), and not without an “Apollonian” side (the composer’s own adjective for his Septet). But in his first chapter, Mr. Rosen examines such attempts at affective attributing and justly concludes that they are based on incomprehension:

  1. 1

    See, for example, Allen Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (Yale University Press, 1973).

  2. 2

    The original appeared in 1950 (The Philosophical Library, New York).

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