Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg

The Cambridge Companion to Schoenberg
Edited by Jennifer Shaw and Joseph Auner
Cambridge University Press 2010
312 pages
(Available August 2010)

Articles by Walter Frisch, Michael Cherlin, Robert P. Morgan, Craig De Wilde, Elizabeth L. Keathley, Ethan Haimo, Julian Johnson, Richard Kurth, Joy H. Calico, Peter Tregear, Joseph Auner, Richard Kurth, Steven J. Cahn, Severine Neff, Jennifer Shaw, Walter B. Bailey, Sabine Feisst, and Richard Toop

Whether we like it or not, the musical 20th century was saturated with the influence of Arnold Schoenberg. His influence has, over the years, inspired some people to embrace the twentieth-century “musica reservata” that involved an organized and highly logical way of rethinking music for the 20th century. His music also caused many music lovers and practicing musicians to reject the idea of music that they could not understand. Some listeners (and some composers) abandoned new "art" music altogether, because the powers that seemed to control the world of new music made them believe tonality was no longer something to be considered a component of serious music. Whether we do or do not embrace his music, without Schoenberg our musical vocabulary, harmonic and otherwise, would be infinitely smaller, and our collective musical lives would be infinitely poorer.

Reading this collection of essays covering the life and career of Arnold Schoenberg has amplified many of my conflicting thoughts and feelings about this very puzzling and conflicted man. This collective examination of Schoenberg is kind of like a series of eulogies outlining the events, relationships, actions, and conflicts in his life. Each chapter is the result of a lifetime of work and thought, and the Companion as a whole serves as both an introduction to the world of Schoenberg for people who know very little, and serious food for thought for people who know Schoenberg's music and the music of Schoenberg's followers very well.

Steven J. Cahn’s extensive chapter on Schoenberg’s Viennese-Jewish experience describes how Schoenberg was raised in a Jewish family with religious views that tended towards the concept of “ethical monotheism,” and practical views (to find employment in a highly anti-Semitic Austria) that demanded assimilation, and eventually conversion. Schoenberg converted to Christianity at the age of 24, and in 1933, when he and his family went into exile in Paris, he converted back to Judiasm. He then moved to New York, and then onto Los Angeles, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Schoenberg’s spiritual battle was a difficult one. In “Schoenberg, mondernism, and metaphysics,” Juilian Johnson discusses Schoenberg’s obsession with the metaphysical world, particularly the metaphysical world as presented to him in literature by Balzac (in the Swedenborgian-influenced novel Seraphita) and Maeterlinck. Johnson’s discussion of Schoenberg’s desire to embrace and explore the metaphysical realm through musical abstraction is fascinating to read (and it will probably make you want to read Seraphita, which might then send you off into a few years of chain-reading Balzac).

Walter Frisch takes on Schoenberg’s Lieder. He discusses all the Lieder in chronological order and in great detail, and explores Schoenberg’s iconoclastic relationship with traditional harmony. He discusses settings of the work of contemporary poets like Richard Dehmel, Karl von Levetzow, and Heinrich Hart, and gives special attention to Schoenberg’s songs set to texts by Stefan George, who inspired Schoenberg to obey an “inner compulsion” and make his way towards a new musical direction. Robert P. Morgan offers a highly detailed discussion of two of Schoenberg’s early songs, where he refutes the concept of reading multitonality into Schoenberg’s tonal works. This is a classic work of criticism involving the taking to task assertions made by Walter B. Bailey (who has a chapter in this book concerning Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto) and Christopher Lewis. It is the kind of discussion that music theorists love to read.

Schoenberg was tremendously gifted in the art of self promotion. He did his best to ingratiate himself with the most powerful composers in Europe, and Craig de Wilde’s chapter on the relationship between Schoenberg and Richard Strauss is most enlightening. Strauss did a great deal to help Schoenberg: he employed Schoenberg as a copyist, got him a scholarship, and got him a teaching job in Berlin. De Wilde’s discussion of their correspondence is fascinating and highly recommended reading (sorry, no spoilers here).

I really enjoyed reading Michael Cherlin’s chapter on Schoenberg’s chamber music for strings, which offers a very clear harmonic and motivic analysis of his 1897 String Quartet, and an even more extensive (and extremely useful) analysis of Verklärte Nacht. He only addresses the later string chamber music briefly, since those works have been written about extensively elsewhere.

Joseph Auner’s chapter explains Schoenberg’s row tables and the way that he used them. Auner’s straightforward discussion provides references to supplemental material, directing the interested reader where to go next. This is an indispensable resource. He also offers a small tour through some of the treasures at the Arnold Schoenberg Center, with a few choice illustrations like the row slide-rule he made to help him write the Serenade.

Richard Kurth’s chapter on Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron includes a section on the aesthetics of incomprehensibility, where he explores the very difficult to discuss philosophical problems connected with abstraction and the necessity of a text to mean something. Kurth addresses Theodor Adorno’s 1963 lecture on Moses und Aron, and describes the tension-filled relationship between Schoenberg and his “grand-student” (Adorno studied with Berg) as being similar to the tensions between the characters of Moses and Aron in the opera (again, there are no spoilers here).

Peter Tregear’s chapter on satire and Zeitoper opens up a very strange corner of Schoenberg’s psyche: his sometimes vindictive sense of humor. Here we have a handful of contradictions (and not a glückliche one), particularly Schoenberg's attempt at the concurrent engagement and rejection of popular culture.

Schoenberg did not concern himself with the idea of a dichotomy between music that was tonal and music that was atonal. His primary interest was the “idea” itself. In Severine Neff’s chapter on Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony (with the clever title “Cadence after thirty-three years”), she explores the idea of tonality in Schoenberg very thoroughly. Thematicism, like tonality, is also an important subject to consider with Schoenberg, and Ethan Haimo discusses Schoenberg’s progression towards a “radical anthematicism,” a feature of his later music that is even more disorienting than atonality. Removing all traces of tonal hierarchy means relatively little, after all, if a piece is organized with a formal hierarchy that involves the recognition of repeated material.

Elizabeth L. Keathley devotes her chapter to a fascinating (and truly appropriate) feminist interpretation of Erwartung, and Richard Kurth has a chapter on Pierrot lunaire. I never before thought about the possibility of Schoenberg making allusions to Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, but it is hard to think of a post-Dichterliebe song cycle (at least in German) that does not pay homage to it in some way, even if it is a deeply unconscious one.

Joy H. Calico’s chapter describes Schoenberg’s teaching career, which, to my surprise, was predominantly spent teaching private lessons, and in return for his instruction, through the years, he demanded extreme loyalty. He did have difficulties with academic institutions. In 1925, when he replaced Ferrucio Busoni at the Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin, Calico points out that “conservatives feared him as an iconoclast, while young modernists found him too traditional.” Still, students came from from all over Europe and America to study with Schoenberg in Berlin. Losing this position had nothing to do with perceptions of musicians in power: he lost it because, even though he had been baptized, the Nazis in power would not honor his contract because he was Jewish.

Despite all of his progressive leanings as a composer, he was a traditionalist as a teacher, teaching theory and analysis to his students. He had some radical ideas that I wish had come to pass, like a proposed “School for Soundmen” for the technical people in the movie business to learn what they need to know about the elements of music.

Sabine Feisst’s chapter discusses Schoenberg’s “exile” in America. Being a person extremely talented in self-promotion and public relations (not to mention the loyalty of his American students), he had no problem getting performances of his work by orchestras and chamber music ensembles in the America of the 1930s. His work had been embraced by Americans since the first decade of the 20th century, and Feisst suggests that the study of Schoenberg’s work fit right in with the science-inspired thinking of the post-WWII American university, where it is still considered part of the standard music curriculum. Richard Troop discusses Schoenberg’s post WWII reception in the European avant-garde, which declared him dead in 1957 (a mere six years after his actual death).

Jennifer Shaw, one of the editors of this volume, has taken on the daunting task of writing about the knotted web of Schoenberg’s collaborations, some of which seem to be clashes (many involving money) with his extraordinarily well-formed ego. I was particularly interested in her discussion of Schoenberg’s collaboration in an MGM film (which was never made). The project involved a musically-illustrated setting of the book of Genesis, which was to a collaboration between Schoenberg and several other important post WWII European-born (and mostly Jewish) composers who made their homes in Los Angeles.

Shaw, who has clearly been graced with the gift of collaboration, and Joseph Auner, her partner in this project, have done an extraordinary job putting together this Companion to Schoenberg. I feel fortunate to have gotten a review copy from its publisher to write about here, and know that I will be re-reading all of the essays often. The editors also provided an excellent introduction, and an extremely-useful chronology of Schoenberg's life and work. Individually the chapters are all works of great interest and importance, and collectively they present an extraordinarily clear picture of this extremely complicated, conflicted, and influential musical nerve-center-of-the-20th-century personified.

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