David Matthews composer

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A Perverse Genius

Review of Schoenberg's Error by William Thomson

Published in The Salisbury Review, 1991

Let me first lay my own cards on the table. I have loved the early music of Schoenberg since adolescence and though, as in all love affairs, the passion has subsided, it can still flare up again as soon as I hear Waldemar sing 'So tanzen die Engel', from Gurrelieder, or the violins begin the great tune in the middle of Pelleas und Melisande. Schoenberg's precocious mastery in these early works is astonishing: by the time he had completed his First Quartet at the age of thirty he seemed well on the way to becoming one of the greatest of all composers.

A few years later came the Expressionist works: The Five Orchestral Pieces, Erwartung, Die glückliche Hand, Pierrot Lunaire. They did not move me in the same way as the earlier music, for the marvellous melodies had gone, with their warmth and tenderness. But I was electrified by the new dark, turbulent sound-world; by Schoenberg's revolutionary harmonic language which dispensed with all consonances and maintained a state of continuous tension. Even more than Strauss in Salome and Elektra (from whom Schoenberg had learned so much), this was music of extremes of emotion, of nightmare and madness. These works still have an unsurpassed power to disturb.

But then came the twelve-note works and I was puzzled. The Expressionist language was codified, sterilised, poured into neo-classical formal moulds. The music seemed charmless and empty, as if Schoenberg had invented the new technique to compensate for loss of inspiration. The sound of the orchestral pieces in particular was excruciating, chiefly because Schoenberg imposed on himself the rule of no octave doublings, so the basses, for instance, are always playing high up in scrawny unison with the cellos. The power of the Expressionist music had depended so much on its fantastic sound. Now, it seemed, Schoenberg was sacrificing all his acquired skills to theory. What was there to compensate? Some, admittedly, heard the wisdom of maturity. I used to discuss Schoenberg with Hans Keller, and if I claimed superiority for the early works, he would say it was like someone telling you that Beethoven's Septet was better than the late quartets. There was no answer to this; but I remained sceptical. At a crucial moment in his career, Schoenberg had taken a wrong turning.

Professor Thomson agrees. Schoenberg's error, he says, was in believing that tonality was exhausted and that he, Schoenberg, was historically destined to replace it with a new system, in which the chromatic scale, used as a melodic and harmonic matrix, would be a complete and wholly adequate substitute for the major and minor scales of tonality, with their attendant hierarchy of intervals. Schoenberg's ideas, Thomson says, resulted from a narrow and almost entirely Germanic view of musical history, and a correspondingly narrow view of tonality, which confined it to the music of the last few centuries and ignored the fact that tonality, defined in a broader sense, is central to the music of the rest of the world.

All of which is true enough, and a now familiar argument. Yet the way Thomson states it made me want to rush to Schoenberg's defence. He begins with several chapters of potted cultural history written in Time Magazine-ese, in which we are introduced to 'architect Loos', 'philosopher Wittgenstein', and a range of complex arguments reduced to simplistic generalisations. The writing improves in the central chapters on theory where, as one pedagogue admonishing another, Thomson is adept at rapping Schoenberg over the knuckles. Quite evidently, none of Schoenberg's music means anything to him; he refers to it only in passing, and makes no distinction between early and late, between free atonal and twelve-note works. The only time he attempts any evaluation is when he suggests that Schoenberg was happier with dramatic works, among which is a piece he calls 'Ewartung' (German spellings are not Thomson's strong point: elsewhere he refers to 'Kokoshka', 'Hofmanstahl' and - rather delightfully - 'Heidiger'). The point about Erwartung is that no other musical language than the one in which it was written would have been adequate for it. Thomson does not acknowledge this; neither does he mention Erwartung's great successor, Berg's Wozzeck, nor deal with the evident truth that Berg was able to adapt his teacher's twelve-note technique to reincorporate some of the hierarchical tensions of tonality, and in so doing to produce two of our century's masterpieces: Lulu and the Violin Concerto. Thomson prefers to concentrate on mediocre followers of Schoenberg such as Milton Babbitt, for whom, like all academic composers with nothing to say, the twelve-note technique was a gift.

So the paradox that, on the way towards his grand error, Schoenberg nonetheless made a valuable contribution to expanding the vocabulary of musical expression, must be taken into account. That Thomson disregards this and much else in his narrowly parochial condemnation of Schoenberg makes his book of little value. I must, however, reluctantly agree with him that the consequences of Schoenberg's error have been largely unfortunate, both in terms of the majority of the music that has been composed as a result of his theories, and also of his influence on the course of musical history. Though the period of his greatest impact has passed, no composer in the West today can compose in innocence of what Schoenberg did; those who continue to write tonal music do so in the knowledge that its natural authority has been severely undermined. Yet tonality is stronger than one man's attempt to dislodge it and replace it with its own private language, and it may in time become apparent that other figures - for example Stravinsky, Sibelius, Bartók, Britten, Tippett, Messiaen, all of them tonal composers - have more to contribute to the future of music than the extraordinary but perverse genius of Arnold Schoenberg.