Interesting piece by Robert Everett-Green in the Toronto Globe and Mail today, about Glenn Gould's fascination with Schoenberg. My revered compatriot (Gould, that is) is approaching his 75th birthday, which I'm sure would be a great occasion at home, were he still breathing. Actually, reading Everett-Green's list of events for Toronto alone, it seems that it is a great event, regardless of the absence of the guest of honor, which makes me happy.
I've been thinking about Gould a lot lately, specifically his three radio compositions collectively known as the Solitude Trilogy, which in my mind are some of his best work – though "So you want to write a fugue?" gets played every year in my analysis class. However, I'll leave Gould for another time, when I'm more at leisure to utter coherent thoughts, because he's tied into other, much more complex issues. What caught my interest today was Everett-Green's writing about Schoenberg, a loaded topic always guaranteed to generate heat. I generally like Everett-Green's writing and find myself in agreement with him more often than not (this, of course, having nothing to do with him being one of two newspaper critics who didn't diss the orchestra piece that gave my blog its name when the TSO played it a couple of years ago). He presents a thoughtful, even-handed portrait of the attraction Schoenberg held for Gould, never once copping to not liking Schoenberg's music, at least not in so many words. He mostly states that mainstream audiences don't enjoy Schoenberg all that much. And still, in the comments following the article, we get this:
"It's hard to believe that Schoenberg and atonal music are still controversial after a century. Audiences are generally accepting of abstract painting or free verse in poetry, yet Schoenberg's modernism is treated with scorn by the public.
If they took the time to listen, they would actually hear that his music is quite Romantic in a way."
I'm about to inveigh at disproportionate length against an offhand comment made online, but this just kills me. One could equally say (and again I'm late to the party with this comment) that it's hard to believe that after a century, there are still apologists who insist that we've got it all wrong about Schoenberg, that his music is really (insert attractive quality here). I'm not as anti-Schoenberg as some. I generally like his earlier works, though not enough to seek them out repeatedly. That absynthe-soaked latelatelate Romanticism just isn't my thing. Some of his late music is enjoyable, as well. I attended a performance of the Piano Concerto once, played by my friend Paavali Jumppanen, a sympathetic interpreter who made the piece sparkle, and I found that it felt much more compact and breezy than one would expect from its 30-minute duration. I teach a section of the Fourth Quartet every year, because the system of pitch rotation he uses is a good exercise for students learning about 12-tone techniques. Though I may abhor the implementation, I think he had it right in believing the innovations he played a part in spearheading were necessary to keep the art form fresh. Debussy and Bartók's innovations were just more rewarding and fertile.
But you'd have to tie me to the chair to get me to sit through the Violin Concerto, Wind Quintet or Piano Suite ever again. Perhaps oddly, I'm a huge fan of the work that tends to piss the most people off: Pierrot Lunaire. As a theater piece, with a great ensemble, it's unbeatable. I can understand not liking it if your only exposure to it is on recording, though. It needs to be seen. In fact, pretty much all of Schoenberg's free-atonal works are terrific, and I think it's a shame that he didn't stay in that idiom longer (like, for the rest of his life). These works deserve a fair hearing, but enough of his music is sufficiently offputting – nay, grating – that a century of listeners can't really have gone completely wrong. I think a hundred years is plenty of time to make the call, and really, it's not as if Schoenberg has suffered from lack of exposure or champions.
And yet, there are still people who take offense if you dare level an accusing finger at the Master. Don't like Bruckner? Well, it's not to everyone's taste. Stravinsky not for you? Okay, we don't see eye to eye on that. You don't like Schoenberg!? Ohmygodwhatswrongwithyou!!!??? Is it possible for us to accept that everything Schoenberg touched did not turn to gold? Is it really so injurious to his reputation to admit that some of his works aren't very appealing to the average listener, and accept that their reactions are valid and informed? For what it's worth, I completely reject the canard that atonal music is controversial. I've heard great atonal music, and written some myself that received positive reactions, so it's not the act itself of writing atonal music that audiences respond to negatively. To imply as much is to insult the intelligence of the people who pay to hear our work. One of the harshest, most dissonant, most taxing pieces I've ever heard is Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, yet I saw an audience rise to its feet after the performance, not out of duty, but out of sincere joy at the experience, because the piece is damn good. Same for Feldman's Triadic Memories. I think what audiences dislike is being subjected to dull, colorless, rambling, barely expressive atonal music and being told it's good no matter what they may think of it, that there's something wrong with them for not liking it, and that by extension, they must be unable to appreciate any form of atonality.
This attitude, that audiences are too dumb to know a quality experience when they hear it, is what ruins it for the composers who give atonality a good name, who are honestly interested in reaching people with their chosen aesthetic, not ensuring the cultural hegemony of any nation or school through their work. Program works from Schoenberg's dry-toast period if you must, but don't be surprised when most people hate them. And give the audience their due: the verdict is in.