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Jessica Duchen
Friday 12th March 2010
The Voice of Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg has not had the greatest press in recent months, thanks to noisy explosions from the anti-modernist backlash department, so it's time to fight his corner by hearing from him in person. For Friday Historical, here is a three-part exploration: first of all, a fascinating interview with him about art, music and more, recorded at the University of California in July 1949 (thanks to Brendan Carroll for alerting me to it).

After that, an interview with Schoenberg's wife Gertrud, their son Larry and his brother-in-law, violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who seems rather disappointed that American premieres did not produce the same passionate reactions/riots as the ones in Vienna!

And finally soprano Christine Schafer in a filmic interpretation by Oliver Hermann of the first part of Pierrot Lunaire, which is 98 years old this year, but even now sounds as fresh and startling as if it were composed yesterday. Boulez conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

I would like to suggest the following:

1. Schoenberg was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century - not because he invented dodecaphony, but because of his strength of personal voice, his endless questing inventiveness and the way his works encapsulated the very essence of their time. And please listen to the section of the interview in which he talks about his chief influences...

2. It isn't his fault if his system was taken in vain after his death and used to suffocate other types of new classical music. Others must shoulder that responsibility.

3. Like it or loathe it, Schoenberg's music is crucial, indelible, seminal...

Responses, please?

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Chris Stevens
May 13th, 2010
9:05 PM
Jessica, you're absolutely right: the sheer high aesthetic quality of Schoenberg's music wins him a place among the greatest composers of the 20th century. In fact, I'd go further by saying that it earns him a place among the greatest composers of all centuries. The high degrees of invention, of balance of unity and diversity, of success in wrestling with problems of musical form are astounding. What's so sad, I'd say, is the degree to which a wide-scale appreciation of those successes has been undermined by the misguided notion that the relatively dissonant harmony of twelve-tone music, or atonal music in general, is expressive of the negative feelings. That is sheer nonsense, despite the frequency with which the notion is thrust upon would-be listeners by musicologists and the authors of unhelpful liner notes. It's time for a healthy reappraisal. And a wonderful place to start is Hans Keller's essay on Schoenberg and the Future of Symphonic Thought. Thank you for your post.

Howard Fredrics
March 17th, 2010
1:03 AM
I would describe the current response towards Schoenberg, even in the academy, as reactionary. Thus, I would agree with your statement about an anti-Modernist backlash. The influence of commercialism, the mass dissemination of popular culture, and the combination of escapism and actual distance in time from the period when Schoenberg was writing, a time of great social angst, of tremendous violence and brutality, has led us away from the function as well as the language of Schoenberg and his contemporaries and followers.

Henry Holland
March 16th, 2010
6:03 AM
1. Agree. I think works like Verklarte Nacht, Pelleas und Melisande, the Gurrelieder, 5 Orchestral Pieces, Busch den Hangenden Garten, the Op. 31 Variations, the piano pieces, Erwartung and especially "Moses und Aron" are incredible, just wonderful pieces of music. Sure, some of his post-tonal music simply doesn't work because, as Boulez pointed out, he was still using the old forms and formats, only the pitches were subjected to a new way of thinking. 2. Agree. Tonality was disintegrating, it was being taken as far as it could go with hyper-chromaticism/bitonality/a bunch of other -isms, if Schoenberg hadn't invented Composing With 12 Tones, *something* would have come along that organized pitches post-tonality. 3. Obviously.

Jack Gibbons
March 14th, 2010
2:03 PM
Interesting collection of videos. There's no question that Schoenberg's pupils thought very highly of him (personally and professionally) and the mutual friendship shared with Gershwin and the interest each took in the other's work speaks volumes. Of course I agree with your second point (about those who came after Schoenberg) but I'm afraid I could never in a million years accept the bold opening statement in your first point (pre or post dodecaphony)! But more importantly I want to take issue with your choice of phrase 'anti-modernist backlash' in the opening paragraph. I think it would better described as 'anti-establishment backlash' because in the classical music establishment (colleges, universities, critical circles, etc) Schoenberg and his approach has been main stream for many many decades (even if the general public aren't aware of it) and there's certainly nothing particularly 'modern' (or 'avant-garde' to use another often misused phrase) about any one following in Schoenberg's well trodden path. But anyway, I hope this blog produces plenty of lively debate! You can see a video I provided for YouTube of Schoenberg filmed by Gershwin here:

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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