On Playing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto

July 21, 1977, Venice. Astrology, whose influence began to decline with Copernicus, lost every vestige of intellectual respectability with Newton, was derided in the nineteenth century as a medieval superstition, is now taught in universities, packaged and sold to the masses, held in the highest esteem by avantgarde artists. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Sirius, for example, employs a musical system correlated to the zodiac, and his statements about this have attracted world attention, partly through his numerous disciples—who seem younger each year, no doubt because they replace disaffected older ones. In an interview (Le Monde, July 21), he explains the “new panthematicism” that he has evolved, “resulting from all the parameters of sound,” and compares this to the limited thematic treatment of

Schoenberg [who] returned to monothematic serial music, and Webern [who] reduced this to two or three intervals in a series of twelve pitches, the others being reversals, inversions, cancrizans. In my series, I always meant to use all of the intervals possible, with their vast riches, and to develop the series in expansion. For contrast I employ microtonal intervals, and instead of limiting myself to fifths, minor-thirds, and so on, enter into the realm of the microscopic, acoustically speaking. This has become a possibility only with the advent of synthesizers.

Thus far no argument. Then Stockhausen explains his goal:

Above all, I think that fantastic discoveries in perspective are ahead, and I dream of the apparatus which will finally give us the possibility of making sounds travel. Think of a sound crossing your nose, of a sound that stops in front of you, that circles your body, that passes back and forth in front of you at varying speeds…. Music, when it becomes truly mobile, will give us new experiences.

But who wants a sound to traverse his nose, or to stop in front of him? And would this really be music, or an experiment in physics? Perhaps some future technological genius will master Stockhausen’s “unlimited resources” and give birth to a new aural art. But Stockhausen’s estimate concerning his own career—“it would take ten lifetimes to accomplish my objectives”—is not promising, and when he claims that it would require “fifty musicologists, each one working for a year, to analyze the labyrinth of polyphonic relations in Sirius,” are we not justified in asking whether the result is worth the effort?

July 24, the Fenice. A matinee concert, with Mozart’s second symphony, K. 19, conducted by Aldo Ceccato. What impresses in this creation of an eight-year-old is the command of form. Moreover, the piece is perfect in itself, in the sense that we do not listen to it for anticipations and foreshadowings, as the case would be with the earliest works of other composers. One wonders if the thought occurred to Leopold Mozart that his position was the opposite of that of J.S. Bach, i.e., as if one of Bach’s sons were to beget Johann Sebastian?

July 27, Glyndebourne. The production …

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