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21 september 2023

Arnold Schoenberg seemed to be a magnet for high-quality artistic insults. Harvey Sachs assembles many of them in his new critical biography of the composer. Richard Strauss thought that Schoenberg should give up music and take up shoveling snow. Karl Popper said that he hadn't related well to Schoenberg's music at first, but the more he heard of it, the better he knew it … and the less he liked it. Schoenberg was a serious portrait painter as well as a composer. August Macke said that Schoenberg's portaits looked like green-eyed bread rolls.

I don't have a blanket dislike for Schoenberg's music. I think that the opera Moses und Aron is a powerful theater work, and that A Survivor from Warsaw, a performance piece for singing and spoken voices, plus instruments, is very moving. In both of these works, the dramatic situation aligns with the strangeness of twelve-tone music to create an uncanny atmosphere. But Schoenberg's instrumental music frustrates me. It seems to be comprised of ephemeral evocative passages that disappear into persistent cacophony. And a dissonant vocal work like the widely-admired Pierrot lunaire just sounds awful.

YouTube comments on Schoenberg's atonal music stress that you have to listen to them dozens of times to appreciate them. But even admirers admit that few listeners will stick it out that long. Harvey Sachs is of both minds. Schoenberg: Why he matters is such a good book because Sachs understands the barriers to liking Schoenberg, freely admits when he doesn't like Schoenberg, and still argues that patience will repay listeners who make themselves familiar with the music. Pace Karl Popper.

At issue is a strange thing about music. Many fans of complicated or avant-garde music – really, a high percentage of fans of the Western classical tradition, even its tonal and conventional core – are people with some musical training. People who have studied music hear it differently than people who haven't, and in a sense they are meant to.

This isn't like other arts. You don't need to have any idea of how paintings or novels or movies are made in order to appreciate them. Or rather, you don't have much different appreciation of them if you do. I am fond of sitting in front of movies wondering how many takes were assembled in the editing room to create a scene, what sounds were recorded live and which are Foley effects, how the sets were built and lit and how they accommodated the cameras … but basically, who cares. Drama works or it doesn't, and technical appreciation is beside the point. And in some arts, there are few technical tricks to explain. Not even poets themselves can tell you how they found their lines. The concept of poetic "gift" is often invoked. So much for composition theory.

But music features a lot of explicable construction, the craft of it can definitely be taught, and some people are trained to hear it and others aren't. Oddly enough, Arnold Schoenberg didn't think you needed special training to appreciate music. He was an architectonic genius, but he wanted to write pieces that would have a pre-intellectual impact. Unfortunately the impact of his music is too often to drive listeners away. His work is now rarely performed.

Part of the problem, as Sachs explores in an excellent closing essay, is that you cannot whistle music by Schoenberg. The composer himself apparently had trouble conducting some of his own music because he did not have it clearly in his head. Sachs reports an anecdote of another conductor, with phonographic memory, who couldn't recognize Schoenberg pieces that he'd once conducted. Of course for fans, this lack of memorability is a feature, not a bug. Music that you can't keep in your head is music that avoids repetitions, clichés, and all manner of facile effects. Still, I've been listening to Schoenberg all week and I can't recall a note of it. I last listened to The Rite of Spring, by Schoenberg's modernist-but-tonal nemesis Igor Stravinsky, about five years ago. I have just enough musical training to read a melody line for piano, but I can pull up some famous bits of The Rite of Spring and play them in my head on demand.

Of course, you like what you like, and a taste for Schoenberg is no doubt real; it is just hard to cultivate and thus rarely experienced. Part of the problem is the expectation, shared by Schoenberg himself, that music continually makes progress, and the general public lags behind specialists in our appreciation. It was probably confusing to hear certain pieces by Beethoven or Berlioz or Wagner when they were first played, and it took a while till some of their music hit the mainstream. But innovative as they all were (and as Brahms, Debussy, and others were), you can whistle lots of their music, and the public caught up fast. Sachs remarks on how classical music reached a point, with Schoenberg, where it left the public behind permanently.

Again, that hasn't quite been the case in other arts. Lots of people genuinely developed a taste for abstract art; heck, if you are across a room and not wearing your glasses, all art becomes abstract. Weird postmodern narrative devices filtered out of modernist fiction and into Christopher Nolan movies, and people got used to them. Representational art and conventional narrative never vanished, and continue to hold their own against newer styles. Sachs thinks that the academic isolation of classical composition in the 20th century cut it off from markets and audiences. But a similar relegation of creative writing to universities in the US has not led to (much of) a permanently unreadable avant-garde. MFAs today aspire to publish best-sellers, just as Anthony Trollope or Jane Austen once used to. Music is hardly dead, of course, but it's changed. The classical vein may now be completely exhausted. Or due for an imminent comeback?

I've been talking in general critical terms here, but Sachs' Schoenberg is structured biographically, following the chronology of Schoenberg's life and work. It is not a definitive, detailed reference biography, but Sachs situates the music within its communities and affinities. He follows Schoenberg from Vienna to Berlin and back (and back) again, with a brief stay in Barcelona; and then in the 1930s, when Schoenberg turned 60, a final move to the United States: at first to escape Nazism, then permanently because Schoenberg genuinely loved southern California. The happiest years of his life seem to have been his 60s and 70s, remarried (after a brief time as a widower) with a second family, a lionized professor of music at UCLA. In his life as that of so many later composers, creativity became academic.

Sachs, Harvey. Schoenberg: Why he matters. New York: Liveright [Norton], 2023.