Friday, May 01, 2009

The Cult of Personality: Botstein on Schoenberg

Perhaps the greatest joy that I get from teaching music appreciation classes comes from the students who, without knowing anything about the ins and outs of the musical world, ask questions that really require a great deal of thought to answer. So I have been thinking.

Yesterday's class covered Schoenberg and Strauss (I always like to mention the Strauss statement about Schoenberg, "It would be better for him to shovel snow than to scrawl on music paper."), and once again the students were bewildered why Schoenberg could have so much influence on music of the twentieth century (and could take credit for alienating a good chunk of the audience for classical music), and that Strauss barely made it into our textbook (the opening minutes of Also Sprach Zarathustra finally made it into the introductory CD of the latest edition).

Now don't get me wrong. I do like Schoenberg. I find his music interesting to listen to and to study (but not particularly enjoyable to play). As a composer I find the 12-tone system useful, especially when I am having trouble coming up with ideas, but still feel like working. The problem that I find with 12-tone writing is that I can spend an enjoyable hour or two coming up with something that I think has some potential, and when I return to it after a day or so I have no idea what I was thinking about, or why I thought it worthwhile. The only success I have ever had in 12-tone writing has involved cheating; manipulating the row so that I can use the notes I want to use instead of the notes I have to use.

Growing up in a musical world that still embraced 12-tone music and the influence of Schoenberg, I didn't start writing music until I realized that it was "safe" to write music that I could really hear (I know that there are composers who have far better ears than I have) and would make musical sense to me day after day. It really has only been about 25 years since a composer of tonal or non-serial music could be taken seriously by his or her peers.

I came upon an article by Leon Botstein that outlines the problem, and compares the cult of personality that made Schoenberg who he was with the cult of personality that made Wagner who he was.
. . . . But the most apt comparison is with Richard Wagner. Not only did they both have disciples and demand uncommon degrees of loyalty from their followers, but Wagner and Schoenberg invented and institutionalized a rhetoric of self-defense and description. They both brilliantly placed themselves within music history and connected their work to past and future. Institutions designed to preserve and defend the Schoenberg legacy were created, first in Los Angeles, then in Vienna. Schools of composition and criticism that developed after 1945 relied heavily on Schoenberg’s analysis of compositional methods, his views on form and structure, and his readings of Mozart and Brahms. To generations of Schoenberg admirers, followers and scholars, any departure from this self-constituted (or auto-poetic) code of discourse of defense and description was tantamount to ignorance or betrayal.
You can read the whole article here.

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