Outdoors, the technicolor display of autumn continues. Indoors, I’ve been having energetic discussions about Bach and Schoenberg with online classmates. I find myself worrying, of all things, about Schoenberg’s prominence in an online music survey curriculum and its effect. In particular, it’s my view that Schoenberg is absolutely the wrong composer through which to introduce listeners to 20th century music.
Jonathan Biss’s comments in his essay, Beethoven’s Shadow, are instructive:
Schoenberg spoke about his need to “emancipate” dissonance with the 12-tone system he built, and Beethoven’s music, in its daring, so destabilized the diatonic system that the road toward atonality was in a sense already paved by the time he wrote his last works. And of course, Schoenberg’s attempt to create an entirely new language, which he did with tremendous fanfare and, one can now say, six decades after his death, limited success, makes Beethoven’s late period seem more awe-inspiring than ever. For where Schoenberg’s serial works juxtapose passages of great nostalgic beauty with music that is both leaden and obviously “constructed,” Beethoven’s late style, while no less linguistically removed from all that came before it, is seamless enough to accommodate some of the most profound statements of western civilization. To play one of Schoenberg’s piano works directly before Beethoven’s Op. 109—as I’ve done on a number of occasions—is to make the rather astonishing discovery that the Beethoven is not only more satisfying, but more daring and modern than the Schoenberg. The latter’s music is often complex, but it is a complexity that one can work through; the mystery of Beethoven remains inexplicable.
Even more directly to the issue of Schoenberg’s place in music education, Kyle Gann, a professor at Bard College, wrote:
. . . given the sequence of the textbook, I have to start out with Schoenberg, and for me, to start with Schoenberg already puts everything on the wrong track. (If this offends you, read further at your own risk, because it’s only downhill from here.) The assumption of Schoenberg’s importance, given the continuing unpopularity of his music, is founded on the further assumption that what we’re teaching is the evolution of the musical language. In fact, the very title of our music history sequence, The Literature and Language of Music (“lit’n’lang” in departmental parlance, reminding me of “live ‘n’ learn”) presupposes that there is a language of music evolving through its canonical examples. If you want to trace a certain absolutist attitude toward atonality, and the development of the 12-tone row as a technical device, Schoenberg is of course essential to the sequence of events. But does his music, therefore, deserve pride of place in the literature?
I consider it the most important thing I can teach my students, assuming I ever succeed in getting it across, that a lot of music that seems nonsensical or off-putting at first is well worth putting the effort into assimilating. Nothing irks me more than the reflexive resistance they put up against music they don’t “like” on first listening. When I was their age, any piece I didn’t understand represented a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to my musical intelligence. There was not going to be any piece I couldn’t fathom. (Many fine “conservative” pieces I could superficially comprehend, I now realize I dismissed rather too easily.) And yet, there is now tons and tons of difficult, complicated, obscure music, and after 45 years of deciphering it I am aware that not all of it eventually repays the effort. I was determined to master the intricacies of the Concord Sonata, Le Sacre du Printemps, Pli selon pli, Turangalila, Mantra, Philomel, and I love them all, I’m devoted to them, thrilled to introduce students to them. Other works that I committed many, many listening and analytical hours to – almost all of Schoenberg, everything by Berg except Wozzeck, all but a few pieces of Elliott Carter – simply bore me today. I know that Op. 31 Orchestra Variations and that damn “Es ist genug” violin concerto inside and out, but they strike me as awkward and pedantic. I listen to them with acute understanding of how they’re made, but never admiringly. A lot of that music I feel I was brainwashed into taking very seriously, and the effects of my youthful brainwashing are largely worn off.
Amen to that. Here is my plea, in return: O, Bard (College, that is), will you not, please, please, please enter into the online course fray?
In the meanwhile, there are the autumn leaves to consider, many glorious, sunny days, and great music to hear in live performance. This week, I go down to New York City to hear Lembit Beecher’s string quartet, These Memories May Be True, part of a concert of 20th and 21st century Estonian and Hungarian Music at Estonian House. Next week, I’ll attend two London Symphony Orchestra concerts at Lincoln Center, Bernard Haitink conducting, each of which pairs a Mozart piano concerto (pianist Emanuel Ax) with a Shostakovich symphony (the Fourth and the Fifteenth).
A much happier prospect, this. As John Ashbery wrote: “There is light in there and mystery and food.”
There is light in each of these contemporary works, and mystery and food.
On Spotify: Dylan Mattingly’s Lighthouse (performed by Contemporaneous), Mark-Anthony Turnage’s From the Wreckage, and John Adams’s Violin Concerto.
Contemporaneous has introduced me to many excellent artists and composers, including four who are featured here: Dylan Mattingly, Conor Brown, Lucy Dhegrae, and Ariadne Greif. In addition to fine performances, the ensemble has made consistently intelligent choices in their programming, steering thoughtfully between the Scylla and Charybdis of tame and strange.
Contemporaneous’s new season begins November 15, 2013, with performances at Bard and in New York City. The season’s opening program will include Albert Behar’s new work The Beauty in Breathing (commissioned by Contemporaneous), Samuel Carl Adams’s twenty-four strings, and Dylan Mattingly’s Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island, about which I wrote here. More details on the concert may be found here.
From the program notes for the recorded preview of the piece presented earlier this year at Bard:
Recreating aspects of Euripides’ tragedy in this new work, Mattingly has based the rhythm of his Bakkhai on the complex patterns of long and short syllables that constitute the meter of Euripides’ choral odes. The piece, moreover, is written in “just intonation,” the method of tuning that would have been used in fifth century Athens. Unlike “equal temperament,” the dominant system of tuning in western music over the last few centuries, “just intonation” relies on the mathematics of the natural world to derive pitches from their organic relation to other pitches. For this piece, Mattingly has re-tuned a piano using just intonation and has specified that the other instruments be tuned to accord with the piano.
I heard the recorded preview at Bard and can’t wait to hear a live performance of this work.
For those of you in the vicinity of Albany, New York, on March 1 & 2, 2014, the Albany Symphony will perform the world premiere of a new work by Conor Brown. Further details may be found here.
Greif’s piece is not precisely a composition, but I was captivated by its cleverness and the agile-voiced beauty of her performance. Greif’s remix was part of the inaugural season of Lucy Dhegrae’s Resonant Bodies Festival. While it’s a stretch for me to get my ears around much of this music, I admire enormously the inspiration, talent, and persistent energy that went into putting on the Festival. It’s not too shabby, either, that the Festival received an enormously positive review in the New York Times.
I was first introduced to Toby Twining through his CD Eurydice, about which I wrote here. This piece is every bit as exuberant and delightfully off-kilter as Eurydice’s Yes! Yes! Yes! and may be found on C4 Collective’s Uncaged, v. 1 CD here.
From the Wreckage is included on the CD with Turnage’s large orchestra work Speranza. Each quarter, I Care If You Listen puts out an invaluable mixtape of current composers’ works. The Fall 2013 Mixtape includes several interesting selections. The stand-out for me was Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s Hoffen, movement 2 from his large orchestral work, Speranza, which I’ve pre-ordered here. You can hear Daniel Harding and Turnage talk about Speranza and hear some clips from the piece here.
Credits: The quotations are from the sources indicated in the post. The photographs are mine, taken at Buttercup Farm, Innisfree Garden, and the Cary Institute over several days in the first half of October.