I recently read Howard Goodall‘s The Story of Music, a populist account of the history of Western music. Overall it was a good read and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter, however, there were some fairly serious issues present in the discussion of 20th century art music contained within.
Goodall is generally not fond of the music of Arnold Schoenberg. This is of course the author’s prerogative, but does not excuse the inclusion of major factual errors in the text. In his cursory discussion of the aforementioned Viennese composer, Goodall states, “when Schoenberg chose not to obey his own serial strictures he was capable of producing works like the beautiful and haunting Verklarte Nacht”. The problem with this statement is that the string sextet Verklarte Nacht was composed in 1899, some 20 years before Schoenberg began his experiments with “serial strictures”.
Arnold Schoenberg was a self-taught musician who went on to become one of the most influential composers and teachers of composition of the first half of the 20th century. He began his career in the closing years of the 19th century, composing in a late Romantic style inspired by the music of Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss; a style in which he continued to compose during the first years of the 20th century. Verklarte Nacht belongs to this period along with works such as his beautiful Six Songs, op. 8, the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, which included the first ever notated trombone glissandi, and the epic cantata Gurre-Lieder, initially completed in 1900, orchestrated in 1911, and premiered to great public acclaim in 1913.
Some years before the cantata’s premiere, Schoenberg had begun composing works in a new style; entering what came to be known as his “freely atonal” or (borrowing the name from the contemporaneous movement in visual art) “Expressionist” period. “Atonal” refers to music without an obvious or functional key centre, and composition of this kind first appears in Schoenberg’s music of 1908 and 1909, in pieces such as String Quartet No. 2, op. 10 and Three Piano Pieces, op. 11. During this period, lacking the scaffolding of functional harmony on which to structure his works, Schoenberg often relied on texts to provide form. His most famous and influential works from this period are therefore vocal pieces such as the “monodrama” Erwartung (op. 17), for soprano and orchestra, and the nightmare pantomime Pierrot Lunaire (op. 21), for a quintet of multi-instrumentalists and a soprano half-speaking, half-singing (“sprechstimme”) the words of Belgian poet Albert Giraud.
In his expressionist period Schoenberg composed without a safety net, guided only by the form of the text and his musical intuition. He himself was uncomfortable with the fact that his music had become unanalysable; he maintained that it did follow a form of logic, but that he himself did not know what it was. His increasing discomfort with this compositional method and his desire to break from his reliance on the setting of texts, led him to the technical innovations that shape his third stylistic period: the “Serial” period. The codification of the “rules” of serial composition is probably what Schoenberg is most famous (or notorious) for today. Briefly, in a serial (or “twelve tone”) work the composer begins with a “tone row” containing all 12 notes available in the tempered pitch set of Western music. This tone row is then treated as the thematic basis for the composition, with the simple rule that its order be maintained from start to finish and that no notes be repeated until all 12 have been sounded. The composer may treat the tone row in a variety of different ways (forwards, backwards, upside down etc), deriving both the harmonic and melodic content of the piece from its order. Schoenberg began to apply this new system in Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, composed between 1920 and 1923 and his first completely serial work is the Suite for Piano, op. 25, also completed in 1923.
That is the basic background on Arnold Schoenberg, but why have I gone to all this trouble merely to point out that Goodall made the mistake of stating that Schoenberg ignored the rules of serialism when composing Verklarte Nacht? Am I really that much of a pedant? Not quite (almost). The reason I think this is important is because I believe the factual error to be symptomatic of a prejudice against Schoenbergian and post-Schoenbergian music that infects much populist writing on the subject and that ultimately distorts Goodall’s representation of art music in the 20th century. I’m fairly confident that Goodall is aware (on some level) of the fact that Verklarte Nacht is an early, non-serial, composition, but, either consciously or unconsciously, he conveniently overlooks this fact in order to strengthen the point he wishes to make, which is that serial music is essentially “unlistenable”. If it is a conscious distortion of facts in order to support the point, this is of course unacceptable. If, however, the distortion is unconscious, this is a manifestation of something I refer to as “lazy brain syndrome”, in which a strongly held notion distorts the recollection of facts regarding a certain subject, restructuring the facts such that they support the (independently formed) conclusion. This is unfortunately a syndrome that frequently rears its head both inside and outside the academic world. The “brain” is referred to as “lazy” because rather than reviewing the facts it goes straight for the conclusion and then, knowing they had previously been reviewed in the formation of the conclusion, assumes the facts to be in accord with it.
Along with Schoenberg, Goodall gives the short shrift to Schoenberg’s two most famous students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who, together with their teacher, make up the “Second Viennese School”. Berg he mentions only once, in a list of composers influenced by Gustav Mahler, and Webern he doesn’t see fit to mention at all. Berg was a major composer during his lifetime; he was revered by other composers and achieved considerable popular acclaim with his opera Wozzeck. There is, however, limited space in any popular history of music and it is inevitable that many important composers must be overlooked. Leaving Webern out entirely, however, is a much larger oversight in consideration of the fact that he is widely considered to be the single most influential composer on post-World War II avant-garde art music; music Goodall claims it “requires a Ph.D. to understand.”
It is entirely fair enough if Goodall does not enjoy the music of the Second Viennese School. However, I believe it is important that the personal prejudices of an author and do not cause him to commit errors of fact such as that described above, or to overlook important areas in the history of his subject. Goodall laments the divide between music’s avant-garde and the popular listening public in the 20th century. This divide is indeed lamentable and there are many reasons why it exists, not the least of which is the persistence of certain music critics and historians in portraying the music of the avant-garde as essentially cold and lacking in expression. In the case of Schoenberg and Webern, the expression contained within the music is in fact so deep and personal as to be alienating at first – this is quite different from there being no expression contained within the music whatsoever. Goodall seems to have conflated these earlier composers with members of the post-World War II avant-garde such as Pierre Boulez who explicitly stated that the technical aspects of music were its most important attributes and declared (as reported by Goodall) that composers not working in the new language of “total serialism” were “useless”. Although the innovations of Schoenberg and Webern inspired Boulez and may have led to the primacy of technique over aesthetic in (some of) the latter’s work, they themselves would not have sympathised with the attitude of their musical descendant.
During his freely atonal period Schoenberg may be thought of as one of the most intuitive composers in all of music history. Essentially, he is directly transcribing the musical improvisations of his mind, with nothing but his aesthetic sense to guide him. This music has much in common with the “free jazz” of 50 years later, and should not be misrepresented as completely formal or technical music. Indeed the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is far more “formal” and “technical”, but we rarely feel the need to point this out because it is also far “easier to listen to”. In order to break down the divide between the musical avant-garde and the general public, it is important that music writers provide a balanced assessment of the music, including its place in history and the motivations of its composers, rather than simply declaring it “unlistenable” because the commentators themselves do not enjoy listening to it.