Take the isorhythmic 14th-century motets of Machaut, which are carefully put-together musical puzzles that take a great deal of study to even begin to understand. Many of Machaut's pieces are quite beautiful, but many, especially the ones that have multiple languages and multiple meters, are extremely difficult to perform correctly. And when they are performed correctly only a well-trained ear would know. All of his motets were recorded for the first time in 2004.
It is more difficult for me, as a listener, to find my way through an isorhythmic motet than it is to find my way through a piece of well-written 12-tone music. It is certainly far easier for me to play a piece of 12-tone-music than it is to sing an isorhythmic 14th-century motet.
In defense of the dodecophonists who have been so vilified of late, 12-tone music is kind of fun to write. When the rules of consonance and dissonance are reversed, making dissonances the desirable intervals to use, all kinds of new musical relationships and new musical hierarchies just seem to appear. It is very liberating, at least for a while, to mess around with atonality, as long as you let yourself break the "rules" once in a while. And then it is exciting to play some music by Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern, and see (and hear) how well the system can be used. It is also really interesting to listen to how effectively atonality has been used in films, like "Planet of the Apes," and in television shows like "The Twilight Zone."
But, taken out of its functional context as film music, 12-tone-music is musica reservata, and has always been. I think the big problem with atonality in popular culture (and I mean highbrow popular culture) is that people were led to believe, perhaps by the huge ego and personality of Arnold Schoenberg and the importance of people in his circle, that every intelligent person who had any kind of musical taste should fall under the spell of 12-tone music. This, of course, never happened. It is not something you just fall under the spell of like you do with 19th-century music. It is something, like reading philosophy, that you have to seek out and devote a great deal of time and study to in order to even begin to understand your way around it. You usually have to want to like it.
I remember my first exposure to 12-tone music. It was when I was 11. I sang in the children's chorus for Wozzeck. We had to sing an atonal melody, but not knowing what an atonal melody was, I just thought it was strange and awkward because of the large intervals. I was in the company of other clueless children, and the people who taught us how to sing it taught us in such a matter-of-fact way that we were able to do a really good job. I remember that the orchestra shuffled their feet after we sang in the first rehearsal. Erich Leinsdorf was the orchestral conductor, and Michael Tilson Thomas was our own personal conductor.
Although it scared me a lot (the knife, the water, the unhappy people), I thought that Wozzeck was an extremely cool opera. It was actually the very first opera I ever heard. A few years later, when I considered myself more musically aware, I heard my father practice this rather strange piece. He practiced it every day for weeks, and the tune stuck itself in my head and would not go away. It turns out it was the viola part of the Schoenberg Trio, only he was practicing it at about one quarter of the tempo. But, after all that exposure I was able to hear it in context. I can still sing it.
But is there any 12-tone music on my music stand? No. Would I be willing to give up my beloved Beethoven in favor of Schoenberg? No. Would I go out of my way to hear a performance of a 12-tone-piece by Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern played by a professional ensemble. Yes. Would I ever consider learning and performing a 12-tone piece? Yes.