Richard Einhorn: Yesterday Is Not Today

Schoenberg's Legacy

RICHARD EINHORN: What happened was that in the early days of the century, music took a turn, or at least contemporary music composition, took a turn with the works of Arnold Schoenberg into the so-called atonal music, into serial music. And, as I’m sure you know, Schoenberg and his friends set up a society for the private performance of music. They turned their back on the audience. They said, "We don’t want you to listen." You know, or that famous phrase "Who cares if you listen?" you know, from Milton Babbitt’s article. And basically they set themselves up as the highest…they were self-described as the highest spiritual level in terms of music, the highest musical level and anything that didn’t meet their standards and didn’t meet their musical stylistic demands having to do with certain kinds of structural and harmonic procedures that Schoenberg inferred from Wagner and Strauss wasn’t modern, it wasn’t contemporary, it wasn’t new, it was old! And so what happened then over the course of the twentieth century, because Schoenberg and his buddies were very smart people and very influential, was that basically you can look at the music of the time as an argument between the assertion of this big idea and people who said "No, I don’t want to be part of it." But those guys won, the Schoenbergs, for a long part of the century, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. After that it was their followers, particularly the followers of Webern, people like Stockhausen and Boulez, etc. Those were the big names, but there’s a whole alternative history of new music in the twentieth century that was underground at least in terms of my training and probably in terms of yours and other people’s as well.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what’s interesting about that, though, is the same thing happened in painting—the non-representational, the abstract artists said, "Any kind of representational art is a throwback to the past, we need to abandon this…" And this whole movement in the late forties led to the ascendancy of abstract expressionism and painters like Thomas Hart Benton or Joseph Stella being discredited—they won, and the audience went with them! The audience goes to Pollock retrospectives and even goes to a movie about Pollock. I wonder if people would go to a movie about Schoenberg…

RICHARD EINHORN: Well, you know, it depends. You know the Richard Gerstl incident? His wife ran off with a painter…

FRANK J. OTERI: Right, yeah.

RICHARD EINHORN: As long as there’s a painter…

FRANK J. OTERI: It would be a great movie, but he’s not a household name. Abstraction happened in art, and the audience went with it. It happened in music and the audience didn’t. You mentioned Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, but Berg’s music has very strong ties to the past, more so than the others, and Berg’s music now is done at the Metropolitan Opera. Next season, they’re doing both Wozzeck and Lulu.

RICHARD EINHORN: Yeah, that’s true; Berg was rooted in the past. But I imagine it will be a long time before they do Berg and Schoenberg in the same season together. I think the point though is that the audience may have followed at first, but my recollection from back in the 1950s, which I can barely remember, but I remember people talking about those paintings and thinking that they were totally ridiculous and that, you know, a child could do them. I could do them, anybody could do them, why are they worth any money at all? So I think that they were very controversial. Now, of course, everybody goes to see a painting by Pollock and it doesn’t have that same kind of contemptuous dismissal. It doesn’t have that meaning anymore. So I don’t think the reception of that stuff when it first came out was any different. I think it’s the extension, I think, do you know what I mean? Schoenberg never caught on, Pollock eventually did, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: But that’s interesting. Now that we’re at a safe distance from Pollock, we can say, "OK, this is great, this is wonderful, but Schoenberg’s now dead fifty years and it’s still allegedly box office poison.

RICHARD EINHORN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, there are many reasons. I’d like to suggest that it is extremely hard to hear his music. I mean, it really is. It’s like listening to the Grosse Fuge compressed over and over again with no let up. It’s very, very hard music. It’s wonderful music, you know, for the brain part of me, for the part of me that likes the cerebral and loves that kind of challenge. It’s wonderfully rich and exciting music to contemplate, to think about, to listen to. The emotional part of me is oddly enough very starved because it’s always at the same emotional pitch. There’s always this intensity and anxiety that I hear in his music that is exhausting. You know, and one can say, "Well, you sort of read into it," but then you read his essays and his essays are as exhausting and intense as his music is. And so, and then you start looking at the harmonic language and you realize that something like a shell game’s been played on you. Schoenberg came across the saying, "I am the inevitable, I am the future, I am the inevitable future. All I’m doing is what was inherent in Wagner and Strauss and Brahms." And well, you know, that’s a bunch of bull. I mean, it just is. There are plenty of other solutions to that, you know, starting with Janáĉek, another part of that underground we were never taught. You know, you can start with Shostakovich or other people who were using that language in a completely different way, who found modal solutions. Or Debussy for that matter. I think that we’re now getting to the point where we can get away from the "Father Schoenberg." You know, sort of deal with the Oedipus complex and, you know, kill him and, you know, marry our musical mothers. Which in some sense is world music influences and pop.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, it’s funny because Schoenberg’s original goal was to keep German music supreme for another hundred years.

RICHARD EINHORN: Right. But you have to look at that remark in context because Mahler said, "The only art is German art." So he meant music. He meant music. Because there wasn’t anything else… I mean these were a bunch of very hermetically sealed people. If it didn’t come from Vienna and it didn’t come from Berlin, it stunk.

FRANK J. OTERI: So this notion of audiences going back to the past, ignoring the fact that the twentieth century happened in their concert programs, where they have a Rossini overture, Tchaikovsky concerto, intermission, then a Brahms symphony, which is typical concert programming all over the United States of America as if, you know, the twentieth century didn’t happen. You go to a piano recital program, some Chopin, a Beethoven sonata, maybe Debussy if they’re adventurous, but nothing contemporary at all. You know, you can go to a conservatory to be a player and maybe do only one modern piece.

RICHARD EINHORN: Well, it’s weird. It’s just weird. People are being trained to be museum curators. They’re trained to curate the past…the modern frightens them perhaps. But the other side of the coin that’s rarely ever talked about is the quality of much twentieth century music, which is the thing, the subject that dare not speak its name—that there’s a lot of cruddy twentieth-century music out there. There’s a lot of really great twentieth-century music, which was buried.

FRANK J. OTERI: There’s a lot of really cruddy eighteenth-century music, too, and you can turn on the radio and hear it any day of the week!

RICHARD EINHORN: That’s true, except there’s one incredible difference, which is that eighteenth-century music, the good stuff and the bad stuff, say, share a harmonic language, a contrapuntal language that everybody knew. A lot of twentieth-century music is very solipsistic and inward, you know. It has to do with systems that are the private domain of the composer and whose interest in communicating them is rather minor. What many of the composers appear to be interested in is simply working out the implications of that. They’re not communicating it out to anyone else, including their colleagues.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in some bizarre way, wouldn’t you say that composers turn that way almost as if they have to in order to deal with this heavy weight of the past that surrounds us in our music culture?

RICHARD EINHORN: Well, then it’s more people then who are hermetically sealed. This is my personal opinion, you know, and great music is written even with the silliest of systems. For example, Schoenberg’s music is great, but, if what happens is you turn inward and you are refusing to deal both with the world in which you are living in and the concert tradition which you live in, you know, then no wonder nobody wants to listen. If you’re speaking a language that’s so private that only you and your other autistic twin can understand it, no wonder there isn’t an audience. Most twentieth-century music deals that way. I think that it deals so poorly with the audience, but it is a tradition that we come out of, and it starts with Beethoven and ends with Schoenberg. The audience is really the least important part of the equation, the least significant bit and that’s, of course, bogus. I mean, first of all, on Beethoven’s part it was simple marketing. By showing contempt for his audience he was demonstrating that he was a hero, that he was an artist, the artist as hero, you know, that sort of thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: He was kind of the Miles Davis of his day…

RICHARD EINHORN: Yes, exactly, exactly. Turning his back on the audience. You know, it took a socially inept person like Arnold Schoenberg to take it seriously and to actually turn away from an audience.