View From the East: Rose-colored Glasses

Greg Sandow

I want to say a few things about a brave and sweet—but probably mistaken—book by Allen Shawn, called Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey.

And as I start to write, I realize I’m obsessed, at least a little, with the whole atonal thing. That started for me late in the ‘60s, when I decided I’d be a composer. I didn’t know much about 20th-century music, and began to educate myself, concentrating on the twelve-tone classics, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I closely studied them, sightsinging Schoenberg scores, playing Webern’s Piano Variations—anything to get as close to their music as I could. I took for granted that they were the root of everything a composer ought to know and ought to write.

But my music, as I started to compose, wasn’t much like theirs. I was quickly drawn to tonal styles, or else conceptual ideas (music for speaking voices, music that took favorite Italian opera pieces and transformed them). I also liked writing populist music, cabaret songs, or scores for theater productions. I even presented a three-movement ragtime (or more or less ragtime) suite at a music school composers’ concert.

I’d say that, despite my private studies (and despite the atonal emphasis that the composers I studied with took for granted) I was breathing the air of my own time. I read Tom Johnson‘s Village Voice reviews of downtown New York concerts. I started going to those concerts. I met Tom and other downtown composers. Eventually I succeeded Tom, reviewing downtown music for the Voice. I started writing operas, and while the first one was atonal, the second was like a through-composed Broadway show, and the next three (counting the one I’m writing now) have been triadic.

Of course I’m thrilled that the atonal thing has receded, somewhat, into the past. But at the same time I can’t shake the specter of atonal music. And in many ways I think we all can’t shake it. It still looms, whether it should or not, as the main compositional event of the last century—of what we still might call “modern” music, the music of our time, very broadly defined as a long, long era. Even if we have good reasons to think the glaciers have receded and now we’re in postmodern times, atonal music still looms over us. I think it makes composers—and some conductors, too, and more than a few critics—think new music ought to be dissonant or complex.

And then there’s the historical conundrum. What was atonal music about? Most important, what should it mean to us today, now that we’re partly free of it? As I’ve been saying, here and elsewhere for quite a while, it badly needs a reassessment. We still have (just to cite one obvious example) James Levine, conscientiously conducting Schoenberg at the Met, convinced that Moses und Aron is a classic that the whole world needs to hear. I’m not going to say it isn’t one (that’s another conversation), but what’s odd is the all but explicit subtext, that Schoenberg still is music of our time. Or else, which amounts to just about the same thing, music that we haven’t yet caught up with, but that we’d better know or else we can’t be up to date.

Of course, that raises yet another issue, which is that audiences mostly still don’t like atonal stuff. At the recent American Symphony Orchestra League conference in Philadelphia, I was on a panel with, among others, Jeffrey Kahane, the pianist and conductor who is music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Rosa Symphony. Our panel was supposed to program a full season for an imaginary orchestra, located in a small city somewhere in mid-America. I wanted to perform the Berg Violin Concerto. Jeffrey, gently educating me, told me that his predecessor in Santa Rosa had programmed the piece and that during the performance many members of the audience not only walked out, but loudly slammed the doors behind them. It’s clear that the classical music audience still hasn’t caught up with atonal music, even though by now they’ve had a century to do it. Maybe they never will. What do we make of that? What does it tell us about the meaning of atonal music, or the meaning of all classical music in the present world?

These aren’t easy questions, so I was charmed to see Allen Shawn, a composer and music professor at Bennington, take Schoenberg on. His goal is nothing short of revolutionary. He wants Schoenberg rehabilitated: rescued both from his reputation for difficulty, and from the admiration of experts, who tend to talk about analytical details in his music rather than its sound or meaning. Or as Shawn puts it:

Schoenberg’s voice as an artist, the voice that speaks to us through the work, has not been heard in a natural way without interference. From the time of Berg’s brilliant analytical essay “Why Is Schoenberg’s Music So Difficult to Understand?” to the present, this is an oeuvre that has been subjected to steady close theoretical and musicological scrutiny. In the process, the fantasy, power, songfulness, beauty, and humor of the music itself has been not so much overlooked as rendered secondary to the discussion of it by experts. Instead of his reputation’s creating curiosity about his work, his work has been buried by (and beneath) his reputation.

And then, delightfully, Shawn concludes:

For this reason, it is not entirely in a spirit of facetiousness that I have said to friends that I feel that perhaps Schoenberg’s work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received.

But much as I enjoy this—and despite favorable reviews in places like The New York Times and The New Yorker—I don’t think Shawn really reclaims Schoenberg for us. For one thing, there’s far too much musical analysis, which both makes the book hard to read and breaks Shawn’s promise to do an end run past the experts. Though I know there’s a dilemma here. At one point, for instance, Shawn wants to show us that the last of Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, is somehow linked to Mahler‘s Ninth Symphony. Since the links aren’t obvious—it’s not like Schoenberg quotes any Mahler themes—how can Shawn demonstrate them without musical examples and analytical prose?

But then there’s a further problem, which is that Shawn isn’t always good at analysis. Take this Mahler business. Shawn knows, and tells us, that Schoenberg might not have known Mahler’s Ninth when he composed these little pieces (he wrote them in 1911; the symphony was first performed in 1912; there’s no evidence that Schoenberg even saw the score, though we know that Berg did). So what, exactly, is the connection Shawn thinks is there? Is it just an accident? More to the point, is the connection something Shawn would say is truly in the music, something anyone can learn to hear, or—which would be perfectly legitimate, but obviously not as powerful—only something he teases from the notes analytically, something he finds provocative, but offers only as a touching curiosity?

He doesn’t say; nothing in his writing even lets us know he’s thought about the problem. Which is a shame, not least because—if I might venture a guess from my experience as a writer and an editor—he might have needed less analysis to make his point if he’d worked out more clearly (at least for his readers) exactly what the point was. If he wants to say the pieces somehow sound alike, even distantly, he could have simply told us that with maybe one example as a demonstration. He could have brought the similarity alive by the way he wrote about it. But if he only means that the relationship is curious, not really hearable and maybe even accidental, then of course he’d need analysis to make his point and could tell us so, explaining (with apologies for anyone who can’t read music) why he needs to go in that direction.

Too often, though, he writes what sounds like analytical prose when he doesn’t even have to, when all he wants to do is describe what something sounds like. For instance, about the first movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra we read:

After the first twenty-two measures introduce the ideas in small instrumental groups, the remainder of the movement (105 measures) consists of a kaleidoscopic layering of these materials over one ever-present sustained chord (D-A-C sharp). The explosion at letter 10, marked by the tam-tam stroke, pits a five-part eighth-note canon in the strings against quarter-note and half-note versions of the same tune in flutter-tongue trumpet and trombone. The ending superimposes the sustained chord in growling flutter-tongue muted trombones and tubas with the main three-note ostinato of the piece in the cellos and double basses.

If Shawn’s idea is—as it seems to be—to tell us how Schoenberg makes consistent use of musical materials, he ought to tell us so more clearly, and let descriptions of the music function more obviously as examples. Something like this, for instance: “Schoenberg layers the things we hear in this piece in kaleidoscopic patterns. At one point, marked by an explosion in the tam-tam, there are two canons piled on top of each other, one in the strings and one in the low brass, one in eighth notes, the other stretched out longer, into quarter notes and half notes.”

I’m not claiming that my version is well written, especially when I talk about eighth notes and half notes; I’d hope, if I were really writing that for an essay of my own, to find a more evocative and less technical way of describing how the two canons proceed at different speeds. All I wanted to do here, though, was show an approach that might have made Shawn’s writing clearer. Because the main problem with his passage is that (or so I think) you get bogged down reading it, even if you know music well. In fact, if you don’t know music, you won’t be able to read it at all. What’s a canon? What’s flutter-tongue? What’s an ostinato?

But even if you do know music, you slow down and try to form an audio picture of what Shawn’s talking about. “Hmmm…a sustained chord, D-A-C sharp in the low brass, flutter-tongue…let’s see, and then an ostinato in the lower strings.” It takes a while to do that and even then your notion of the sound isn’t very clear. To make it clearer, you’d have to look at the score. What Shawn does here, I think, is simply narrate what’s in the score. This has a double problem: It doesn’t do justice to the score, which of course is ten times clearer, and also doesn’t do what words can best accomplish, which is to tell you how the music sounds and feels. Many musical academics make the mistake of writing like this. Since Shawn wants to rescue Schoenberg from the academics, it’s sad to see him doing it.

But there’s a larger problem, too. What, in the end, does Shawn say about Schoenberg? Only that we’d like his music if we listened to it:

I have played Schoenberg’s music in the local temple along with a slide show of his paintings; I have played Schoenberg’s music to groups of painters; I have introduced Schoenberg’s music to countless students who had never heard of him (I had one group of students lie down on the floor with their eyes closed while listening to “Farben” from the Five Pieces for Orchestra). The response to the work, unencumbered by proselytizing or prejudice, has belied the prevalent notion that Schoenberg’s music is repellent or remote or that it represents a “wrong turn” taken by a master composer. The response, on the contrary, suggests that Schoernberg’s art—in and of itself—moves people and speaks to them.

In other words, Schoenberg’s music doesn’t present any real problem, apart maybe from complexity, but then even that, Shawn says, shouldn’t bother cultured listeners: “Can his music,” Shawn writes, “be said to be harder to follow than the paintings of the cubists or, for that matter, the plays of Shakespeare?” Of course, the musical analyses Shawn does perhaps suggest the opposite, but that’s unintentional. His own descriptions of how Schoenberg feels to him are quite uncomplicated:

Whatever the underlying logic of [the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke]…they [remain] a haunting, seemingly indestructible set of gems.

I disagree with commentators who describe the Suite [the Suite for Piano, op. 25] as a demonstration of the twelve-tone method’s ability to be in continuity with the past. I think it is something more natural than a demonstration: it is pure dance music.

As I listened to [the “Vergangenes” movement from the Five Pieces for Orchestra] the other day, sitting in a parked car in my small town, schoolgirls getting off the bus passed me, chatting and giggling, then a mother with three children hurried by, a couple looked into the window of the Spectacle Shop, pointed to something, and entered. Bathed in the sounds of “Vergangenes,” these sights took on a dreamlike sadness.

Not that these things aren’t true, or that Shawn doesn’t feel them deeply. But beneath them seems to be an idea that, to me at least, is far too simple—that it doesn’t really matter whether Schoenberg’s music is atonal, or twelve-tone; it’s just music. Shawn himself belies that, by the almost awed tone of everything he says about Schoenberg’s move toward atonality. (One example: “Here we are at the pivot of the century and arguably at one of the most fateful turning points in the thousand-year history of Western music.”) This is curiously conventional, for someone who wants to dump the experts. Shawn seems to buy into the musical teleology I tried to debunk in my column two months ago, the idea that there’s been inevitable progress in the history of music, and that atonality (and ultimately serialism) was where that progress led.

Not, of course, that the development of atonality wasn’t an important historical development, but what did it mean? What should we think of it now? Did it reflect its own time, rather than ours, or does it still speak in some crucial way to us? How we think about these things inevitably affects what we think of Schoenberg. But Shawn punts even more, I think, when he talks about twelve-tone music. He starts by talking as if the twelve-tone technique didn’t really matter: “[Schoenberg] emphasized that he was, in fact, composing as he always had and that his pieces in this phase were twelve-tone compositions, not twelve-tone compositions [Shawn's emphasis].” But then Shawn analyzes parts of the Suite for Piano in terms that suggest its twelve-tone structure really is important:

Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, op. 25, is based on a row that is in itself witty… By basing all the movements of the Suite on the four forms of this row, plus the transposition of the row that begins on B-flat, Schoenberg creates a field of possible row forms all of which begin on B-flat and end on E, or vice versa. (This bit of pitch magic occurs because the tritone is exactly half of an octave and therefore when inverted simply becomes another tritone.)

Are we reading Allen Shawn, or Perspectives of New Music? Evidently the twelve-tone structure of the piece really tells us something…but then doesn’t Shawn conclude that, in the end, the Suite is nothing more or less than “pure dance music”? Shawn is confused here, I think. Are the twelve-tone structures he dissects just composer’s games—or, to be fair, a composer’s way to make composing easier, and more organized—or do they make a difference in what we hear? Shawn doesn’t even ask this question. My own take is that twelve-tone writing does make an audible difference. When I’ve written free atonal music, I feel harmonic progressions, pitches moving toward some goal. When I’ve written twelve-tone music (so far only as an exercise), I feel it almost doesn’t matter which pitches I choose, as long as they sound good together and fit the row. No real harmonic direction (except for momentary flights toward or away from a note that’s emphasized for just an instant) seems possible; all twelve pitches (purist note: I know I really should say “pitch-classes”) keep coming back, so all twelve are in the air at once, circling in place, never really changing. In this way, twelve-tone music has static harmony—something I’d swear I heard when recently I was on a funding panel, listening to pieces composers had submitted. One of them struck me as twelve-tone; when I looked at the score, I discovered I was right. Or, of course, that could have been a lucky accident. But the static harmony, I think, is very real (and I notice, for what it’s worth, that no less an authority than Charles Rosen agrees with me, since he says the same thing in his fine little book on Schoenberg).

But then there are more serious problems with Schoernberg that Shawn just slides past, or ignores. Boulez, for instance, sharply attacked Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music because it adopted structures (scherzos, sonatas, dance suites) used in tonal music. He thought Schoenberg punted what should have been his historical responsibility, to invent (as Webern did) forms unique to twelve-tone music. Shawn, without quite acknowledging what Boulez says, nevertheless responds to it by quoting Robert Craft:

…though this criticism is instructive, its main point ignores the great truth of Schoenberg’s whole art: that the presence of form in music does not depend upon tonality. The question about a serial form is nonsensical…the actual pitches of notes seem in no way to compel the listener’s sense of form.

But this in turn ignores what Boulez really said, which is that Schoenberg’s music feels uncomfortable, lost between the future and the past. This feeling isn’t theoretical; it’s a pronounced and sometimes even embarrassing clunkiness of rhythm which Boulez isn’t alone in complaining about. I’ve complained about it (see my review of Schoenberg at the Bard Festival, on my Web site; see also my more general comments about Schoenberg, in another review, of a Schoenberg retrospective at Merkin Hall). Virgil Thomson complained about it, too: “What limits their intelligibility,” he wrote of Schoenberg’s compositions, “hamstrings their expressive power, makes them often literally halt in their tracks, is the naïve organization of their pulses, taps, and quantities.” A little later on he calls Schoenberg’s music—and in fact, Schoenberg’s entire twelve-tone way of composing—“stiff, opaque, unmalleable, and inexpressive.” Shawn doesn’t have to agree with these criticisms, but he ought to address them.

But then he doesn’t seem to want to deal with much in Schoenberg that’s not beautiful, profound, or powerfully expressive. To my ear, Schoenberg has—besides his rhythmic awkwardness—what I can only call a zany streak. I hear that, to cite one weirdly wonderful example, in the finale of the Variations for Orchestra (at measure 407), when cymbal crashes add a little sizzle to some sharp little chords in the trombones. The effect is anything but respectable; for a moment (and while other, more normal things are going on) we’re dropped into some twisted version of a movie score. I could say the same about much of the writing in the piece for glockenspiel and xylophone, and also for the flexitone, which (since it’s not designed to play precise pitches) can hardly play the part Schoenberg wrote for it. What was he thinking of?

I could also talk about the percussion parts in the last movement of Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, where Schoenberg seems to get drunk on reminiscences of gypsy music. At one point in his book, Shawn quotes an unbelievable description of how Schoenberg dressed when he lived in California:

[He wore] a peach-colored shirt, a green tie with white polka-dots, a knit belt of the most vivid purple with a large and ostentatious gold buckle, and an unbelievably loud gray suit with lots of black and brown stripes. [!!!!]

Somehow Shawn never seems to wonder whether whatever made Schoenberg dress that way might also have crept inside his music. Sometimes, in fact, Shawn seems credulous. He gets very excited about Die glückliche hand, an opera from Schoenberg’s free atonal period that I think I might have seen at Santa Fe many years ago but had completely forgotten. Shawn, describing it minutely, calls it “such an original and powerful piece that it has to be heard to be believed.” Fine. I bought a recording, and when I started reading the libretto, I all but burst out laughing:

A man stands there, upright. He wears a dirty yellow-brown jacket… The left leg of his black trousers comes down only to the knee; from there on it is in tatters… On his stockingless feet are badly torn shoes; one is so torn that his naked foot shows through, disclosing a large, open wound where it has been cut by a nail. His face and chest are in part bloody, in part covered with scars…

…a beautiful young woman emerges from one of the folds in the side-hangings. She is clothed in a soft violet garment, pleated and flowing; yellow and red roses in her hair; graceful figure… The woman holds a goblet in her right hand and, stretching forth her right arm (the sleeve of her garment hangs down to her waist) offers it to the man. From above violet light falls upon the goblet…

Suddenly the main finds the goblet in his hand, although neither has stirred from their places and the man has never looked at her… The man contemplates the goblet with rapture… with a joyous resolution he puts the goblet to his lips and drains it slowly…

The woman then deserts the man for a foppish “gentleman.” But then she falls at the first man’s feet. He tries to teach workers how to make jewels; they get angry at him. “His limbs stiffen…he stretches both arms out (blood-red); his eyes start from his head and he opens his mouth in horror. When the yellow light appears, his head seems as thought it is about to burst.” Die glückliche hand is actually a landmark of sorts in the history of abstract art, but the constant control of color (determinedly mirrored in the music) and, above all, the titanically obvious allegory of the artist misunderstood and rejected by everyone is almost laughable. I’m not going to say the piece might not make a powerful effect in the right production, but Shawn might at least have noted that it seems absurd, at least, and that Schoenberg’s control-freak stage directions might not be the best guide to how it ought to work.

But if I seem to be too critical, consider what Michael Gielen wrote about Schoenberg’s Von Heute auf Morgen, a truly obscure comic opera that Shawn (who calls it “a twelve-tone operetta”) seems to like. Shawn, in fact, says that Gielen’s recording of the piece is one of the few performances in which “we begin to hear…straight to the heart of Schoenberg’s music.”

What does Gielen say about it?

It is really a frightful sort of music, with a few dolce moments, but the quartet at the end is pure horror… My immediate reaction was: this is an attempt—perhaps an unconscious attempt—to express in music the subconscious of the middle class…the real contradictions in life in this society.

Since then I have learned that Schoenberg wanted to compose a hit. He was so jealous of Kurt Weill, who had had such a great success with The Threepenny Opera and thought: “I can do that too! Now I’ll write a comedy like that. But, whether willingly or not, this horror music is what came out in the end.

Now, Gielen was a Schoenberg specialist, a Schoenberg advocate. But even he had trouble with this piece. Shawn likes the recording, but he never mentions Gielen’s comments, even though they jump out from the liner notes. How often do we read any conductor criticizing the piece he or she has just conducted? And Gielen’s point echoes a larger, more famous one from Theodor Adorno, who in his book The Philosophy of Modern Music argued that all atonal music is, in essence, frozen pain, the embodiment of unacknowledged social contradictions. Note that he didn’t mean this as a criticism. He thought that was precisely the value of atonal music, that it honestly (if unconsciously) portrays things as they are.

Shawn doesn’t have to agree with that. But he ought at least to mention it. (He does quote a passage from Adorno’s book, but ignores most of what Adorno says of Schoenberg.) Schoenberg, despite his genius, despite so many breathtaking moments in his scores, was a troubled figure who wrote troubled music. Pretending that he isn’t—or, more charitably, ignoring everything expressed by others that suggests he was—won’t help us to reclaim him.