One of the Year’s Best Books (and Then Some)

Grant Chu Covell

[December 2002.]

Allen SHAWN: Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2002, ISBN 0-374-10590-1, http://fsgbooks.com/)

Three cheers for Schoenberg! Well, maybe that should be 12. There’s no doubt that Schoenberg is an important 20th-century composer, but his music doesn’t receive as objective a hearing as it deserves. The radio may broadcast early tonal works like Verklärte Nacht and the First Chamber Symphony, but rarely anything else. Maybe the piano pieces Opp. 11 and 19. Late Schoenberg, especially the 12-tone music, is programmed reluctantly, as if the performers are doing it because they know it’s good for them.

It’s probable that more has been written about Schoenberg’s ideas and influence than about the music itself. Rumor has it that Schoenberg is difficult. Berg and Webern both penned articles to explain their teacher’s work, thus inadvertently cultivating the view that prevails to this day. Walter Frisch, a leading scholar of late 19th / early 20th century music (whose writings on Brahms and Schoenberg I unhesitatingly recommend), has done much to put Schoenberg in the context of his times, but until Allen Shawn’s Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey came along, very little effort was made to humanize the man. A quick warning, however. Shawn’s book is a general-interest biography and is not meant as a scholarly work (although the presence of many musical examples does presume a reader who can follow music and has some recordings at hand).

Shawn discusses Schoenberg’s inventions, painting, religious conflicts and superstitions (e.g., triskadecaphobia, a mortal fear of the number 13) with the same eloquence he applies to thumbnail music analyses. Even though Schoenberg invented the 12-tone system (despite Josef Matthias Hauer’s claims to the contrary), most of Schoenberg’s music was not composed with that system, and Shawn reminds us of the richness of everything, tonal and atonal, that Schoenberg created. Shawn divides Schoenberg’s life into four sections: 1874-1908, everything up to the First Chamber Symphony; 1909-13, the expressionist and atonal works including the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Pierrot Lunaire and Die glückliche Hand; 1914-33, the development of the 12-tone system from the first piano works to the unfinished opera Moses and Aron; and 1933-51, the years in America which saw creation of model 12-tone compositions such as the Violin Concerto, the Third and Fourth String Quartets, as well as tonal works like the Suite in G Major for String Orchestra. The fifth and final section looks briefly at Schoenberg’s influence on subsequent generations of musicians and composers.

Shawn briefly mentions Schoenberg’s formative influences and environment, and his short musical analyses avoid becoming mired in technical details. While discussions of Pierrot Lunaire often touch on Schoenberg’s inventive use of counterpoint, Shawn also offers easy-entry points into the work by illustrating how the opening piano gesture becomes transformed through the cycle. Despite his claim to being less than scholarly, Shawn does make insightful observations that, once stated, seem obvious. I’ve spent some time with the score and have read a few analyses, but this simple fact has hitherto escaped me: Each of Pierrot’s 21 songs is scored for a unique instrumental combination taken from the five players.

Here is another fact Shawn makes clear: Schoenberg’s productivity came to a near-standstill between 1913 and 1920. This is a huge span for a composer to be so silent. Schoenberg started and finished but one complete work during this time (the Four Orchestral Songs). He did finish the expressionist and highly charged opera-like Die glückliche Hand (begun in 1910), and started but never completed the oratorio Die Jakobsleiter. Like most Europeans, Schoenberg’s life was permanently changed by World War I, but during this time he was also searching for what would eventually become the 12-tone method. It should be mentioned here that this method didn’t appear out of nowhere, nor did Schoenberg invent it as a means toward total control. Composing expressionist music like Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand was time-consuming and exhausting. Schoenberg was looking for a way to organize pitches that would make composition a bit easier.

Less frequented topics are also aired — the games Schoenberg invented (Coalition Chess) and the composer’s diminutive stature (he was less than five feet four). And Shawn broaches an unresolved subject: the complex relationship or nonrelationship between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. It is fascinating and sad to know that while they lived in Los Angeles (Schoenberg arriving there in 1934, Stravinsky in 1940), the two did not speak to one another. However, Schoenberg did get along wonderfully with George Gershwin. In a dedicated chapter, Shawn outlines similarities between Schoenberg and Stravinsky: Both were superstitious, both venerated the music of the past, both had large egos, and both could be flippant and abrupt. As for differences, a big part of Schoenberg’s identity hung on being a great teacher with many students. Stravinsky never had students nor did he write textbooks. Stravinsky was famous for his ballets, Schoenberg never wrote any. Stravinsky tended to write for winds; Schoenberg preferred strings. In a later chapter Shawn documents Stravinsky’s gradual absorption of serial thinking after Schoenberg’s death. Robert Craft was the crucial figure here.

Few other biographies offer as much insight into the personality of their subject. Shawn has written a compassionate and straightforward portrait of a man who exerted an immense influence on 20th-century music. If Schoenberg’s music is unknown to you, or if you find it incomprehensible or detestable, this is an excellent corrective. Heartily recommended. While more knowledgeable readers might find what Shawn has done a bit simplistic, Schoenberg’s music and life deserve a wider and more sympathetic public, toward which goal Shawn has contributed significantly.

Also of note

Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations (Harvard University Press: 1990, ISBN 0-674-15891-1, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/) isn’t new; the paperback edition appeared in 2001. It didn’t make my reading stack until 2002, so I’m stretching this article’s year’s-best tag to include a good and well-written book. During the 1997-98 academic year, Kerman delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, putting him in company with the likes of Sessions, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bernstein, Cage and Berio. Kerman, a musicologist, expanded his lectures for book publication, and a CD of musical examples is also included.

In six insightful essays, Kerman compares good concertos to good conversations. He doesn’t offer analyses or histories of the concerto’s evolution but writes rather about mechanics: How do concertos begin and how do they end? What is the function of the cadenza? And so on. With examples ranging from J.S. Bach to Elliott Carter, Kerman reminds us that a good concerto fulfills musical goals and forms along with dramatic expectations. For example, setting thematic material aside, does the concerto encourage a conflict between soloist and orchestra, and if so, does the conflict lead to resolution? Kerman also offers rather novel descriptions of the roles soloist and orchestra play (eavesdropper, minx, etc.). I found myself thinking a bit differently about concertos, the clearest indication that Kerman is on to something.