Unable to Escape Schoenberg

Ah, autumn in New York. It’s always been my favorite time of the year. Part of the reason is that it’s the start of the concert season, a rare moment when jadedness is briefly suspended in anticipation of what’s to come in the months ahead. But more personally, autumn is the time when I embark on reading fiction again, after devoting myself to reading recent books about music during the spring and summer months.

So, after getting through George Rochberg’s collection of essays with its provocative multifaceted assessments of the music of Arnold Schoenberg (which I mused upon here last week), I started Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. As a form junkie, whatever the artistic medium, I was immediately intrigued by this novel written exclusively in sonnets—even the author bio and table of contents adhere to the form—but I must confess to being prompted to read it for a musical reason as well. Hearing excerpts from Conrad Cummings’s opera-in-progress based on this book in a performance produced by American Opera Projects last weekend was an inspiration as well as an overdue guilt trip to pick up a book that has remained on my shelf unread for years.

But if I thought I was escaping the arguments I triggered here last week, boy was I wrong. In the second chapter, a couple who recently started dating attend a chamber music concert at Stanford featuring works by Mozart, Brahms, and Schoenberg—spelled the Germanic way, Schönberg, in the novel. In fact, Schoenberg’s music is the centerpiece of the program, much to the chagrin of the male protagonist who opines:

This sandwiched Schönberg is a pain

If only they would condescend
To shift this crap to either end,
We could arrive late or early.
Thank God I’ve brought my earplugs.

I just can’t escape this stuff! But it raises an interesting point. In the world outside our seemingly hermetically-sealed new music bubble, the ascetic atonal music of the Second Viennese School is still the radical new music within classical music. To those of us within the bubble, that music is as old fashioned as Mozart and Brahms by this point, but our having moved past this era is a fact to which the community outside is still largely oblivious. Sure, Philip Glass made it onto South Park several seasons back. But for most people with a passing knowledge of—for lack of a better term—classical music, the history runs as follows: There’s the old stuff, which is soothing but boring and, well, old; and then there’s the new stuff that no one likes because it’s boring and gnarly.

A composer friend of mine is thrilled that his name is being appropriated for characters in three different novels that will be published in the near future. But we need to get the word out into contemporary fiction about the music we’re composing as well.

5 thoughts on “Unable to Escape Schoenberg

  1. JKG

    Music as fiction…
    and yet, if the music we’re writing is mere fiction (pretending to be music), what difference will that make?

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    ” In the world outside our seemingly hermetically-sealed new music bubble, the ascetic atonal music of the Second Viennese School is still the radical new music within classical music. ”

    Well, maybe the public got it right. Also, as your reading material suggests, no one has lost any money bashing Schoenberg.

    Reply
  3. Colin Holter

    no one has lost any money bashing Schoenberg

    That’s because bashing Schoenberg is easy and doesn’t require any knowledge of or sensitivity to music beyond whether it sounds pretty or not.

    Reply
  4. JKG

    Pretty’s not the point…
    If indeed beauty is in the ears of the beholder, then those who find intellectual beauty within a music whose aim is primarily to express previously unknown sentiments (“…air of other planets”) are perfectly welcome to enjoy and identify with such sounds, and even to define much of it as music. There are those who differ, but not necessarily on the basis of their lack of sophistication or academic pedigree – funny how inclusivity only works for those who invented it, sort of similar to how political correctness only benefits whose who define what is proper. No wonder twelve-tone (and not necessarily serialism) is equated with Marxism. Yet even Marxists are free to express themselves within a free society.

    Reply
  5. philmusic

    “No wonder twelve-tone (and not necessarily serialism) is equated with Marxism.”

    I’m not sure that Stalin would have agreed with you on this.

    “Yet even Marxists are free to express themselves within a free society. “

    Paradoxically, a free society, at least artistically free, is the only place where Schoenberg’s music can be heard.

    Reply

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