Guess the composer: You’ll never manage it unless you already know the answer; he’s someone whose very name is often considered synonymous with everything harsh and ugly in modern music. The piece is “Verklärte Nacht,” an early string sextet by Arnold Schoenberg. Now listen to its peroration: Nothing harsh or ugly about that. In fact, it’s one of the most luminously beautiful moments in all chamber music.
It’s somehow reassuring to know a difficult composer, especially a paradigmatically difficult composer, is able to make more traditionally pretty sounds when he chooses. It’s a guarantor of technical competence, it means he’s not making “ugly” noises because he can’t help himself, and it relieves us of the uneasy suspicion he might be having a joke at our expense. So let’s begin by granting Schoenberg his enormous skill and agreeing that he produced the noises he produced because he wanted to.
Schoenberg died 51 years ago. He probably expected, right up to the last, that his music would claim a prominent place in the standard repertoire. It hasn’t happened. Even though most classical musicians consider him one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, and many also regard him, along with Igor Stravinsky, as one of the two greatest composers of the 20th century, his works remain specialist repertoire, frequently studied and analyzed but largely unplayed and unloved. There are a few stray indications the situation might be changing, glacially—recently concluded concert series in New York and Los Angeles, and the publication of Allen Shawn’s provocative nonspecialist assessment, Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey—but in general he remains as solidly out of the mainstream as ever. It’s still possible to be a respectably knowledgeable and experienced concert-goer without ever having heard a note of his music. And, even worse, without thinking one might as a result have missed something valuable.
Admittedly, Schoenberg’s style did not long stay as euphonious as “Verklärte Nacht.” He had a restlessly adventurous mind, and his harmonic idiom quickly evolved beyond lush Romanticism. Hear, for example, what was going through his inner ear a mere three opus numbers after that piece, in his first chamber symphony. The music is tonal, and its complexities are not especially grating; Schoenberg was still guided by traditional notions of harmonic tension and resolution. Nevertheless, no previous music had ever sounded remotely like it. The quality of both vertical and horizontal compression in those opening bars—the sheer exhilarating density of musical idea—tells us we have entered a completely different world.
And a different world is almost literally where he was heading. His very next opus, the second string quartet, concludes with two songs for soprano, and the second of these begins with the words, “I feel the air of a different planet.” Those words precisely reflect where Schoenberg’s muse was taking him. Listen to this excerpt from the preceding movement, in which the evolving nature of the composer’s style is almost palpable: Tonality hasn’t exactly been abandoned, but we can feel its ties loosening.
By the time of the “Five Pieces for Orchestra” a few years later, those ties had altogether unraveled. And yet this music remains unmarred by gratuitous harshness or ugliness. Schoenberg’s ear was fastidious; he made pleasing, emotionally coherent music even after having forsaken a tonal center. Listen to the turbulent opening of the first of the five pieces. And the mournful song of the second. It takes a little getting used to, but this is music one can cherish.
The years of free atonality are sometimes called Schoenberg’s Expressionist period. He ultimately found this style, in which he was guided by instinct alone, intolerable. His logical mind was troubled by intimations of artistic anarchy. Still, the specter of anarchy gives an added oomph, an emotional intensification, to what is probably his most important expressionist piece, the epochal, weird “Pierrot Lunaire.” Listen, for a hint of its creepy sound-scape, to a fragment of Pierrot’s little evocation of Chopin.
This approach couldn’t take him any further. Soon after, he fell silent; for seven years he barely composed at all. When he finally emerged from this fallow spell, he had devised a new method of composing music, the infamous 12-tone method. And I suspect it is knowledge of this method’s existence, rather than the music itself, that keeps potential listeners at bay. The music, in fact, acquired a new attractiveness. Despite Schoenberg’s fearsome reputation, his 12-tone pieces are frequently less aggressively dissonant than pieces by Béla Bartók and Stravinsky, two great contemporaries who succeeded in winning a measure of audience affection. Listen, for example, to a snippet of the very first composition completely written in this new manner, the “Suite for Piano“: This is music that, despite its originality, doesn’t shock or repel. It has poise, rhythmic vitality, cogency; the melodies and harmonies are not an assault on the ear or the nervous system. Dissonance has been liberated, as Schoenberg put it, but it hasn’t been unleashed.
After two decades of experience with 12-tone technique, he was able to employ it with effortless mastery, as you can hear in these two fragments from his piano concerto. The first, the piece’s very opening, is a statement of the theme that forms the basis of the first movement’s variations. It’s strictly 12-tone, but there are two things one notices about it almost immediately: It sounds rather suspiciously as if it had been conceived in the key of E flat, and it has a poignancy and delicacy of address that are almost irresistible.
Finally, listen to a thrilling moment from the climax of the final movement. What’s startling about this passage—and what contradicts most common prejudices against the composer—is that he here employs a favorite device of many heart-on-sleeve Romantic composers of the 19th century: He brings back, now in triumphal dress, the modest first movement theme. And, most strikingly, he does so on the original pitches, as if, when all is said and done, some vestige of tonal thinking continues to hold sway. It’s worth playing the two clips in close proximity to fully hear what I’m driving at.
For too long, Schoenberg has been held hostage by a small coterie of scholarly admirers. Their technical exegeses—their charts and schemata—have not served the composer well. He wrote music to be listened to, not analyzed. If we can manage to shake off their influence and simply hear what he has to say, Schoenberg might finally begin to enjoy the affection he deserves and always claimed to covet.