The Other Schoenberg

Schoenberg_Green_SelfIt was some time in the very late ’70s. We’d reached the round called ‘The face, the music’ — and, to tell the truth, I was feeling pretty smug. Richard Baker, on the other hand, was having a tough time of it: invited to identify a piece of ravishing string music, he’d drawn a blank – whereupon pianist-quizmaster Joseph Cooper moved on to the pictorial part of the question and revealed a painting of a middle-aged man with a magnificent shiny pate. ‘Look at that bald head: isn’t that . . . a beautiful mountain?’, hinted Cooper. Baker wasn’t helped at all. Cooper tried again: ‘What is “beautiful mountain” … auf Deutsch?’ But Baker remained baffled.

richard baker

Richard Baker (b. 1925)

And so did I: how could a musical man like Richard Baker – amateur pianist and very professional presenter of Baker’s Dozen, the Last Night of The Proms, and Your Hundred Best Tunes – not know and recognise Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night? It was one of my favourite pieces – and I hadn’t yet sat my O-levels! And how could he not identify the composer from that rough but powerful self-portrait? Surely everyone knew what Schoenberg looked like!


(l to r:) Mungo, Midge, Mary

Let me stress right away that no criticism of Richard Baker is implied: for all I know, he might have become Schoenberg’s greatest fan once the broadcast was over — and even if he didn’t, the fact remains that any friend of Mary, Mungo and Midge is a friend of mine.  My point is simply that this experience – which I hope I have remembered accurately! – was merely the first in a whole series of such surprises: over and over again, I’ve come across passionate and well-informed music-lovers who don’t know this early Schoenberg masterpiece — Verklärte Nacht in the original German — nor any other of the attractive and overtly tradition-conscious works the composer produced at various times throughout his life.

What’s more, when I say I’ve come across people who didn’t know these pieces, I mean that I’ve checked it experimentally. Teaching an evening class a few years ago, I launched one session with a quick quiz that featured 30-second clips from 10 of Schoenberg’s friendliest works: most of the students ticked all of the ‘I’m liking this!’ boxes; but not a single one ever knew or guessed who the composer was. Something, somewhere, has gone very wrong — and a lot of people are missing out on a lot of magnificent music.

How this unfortunate situation came about — and what we can do about it, now it’s here — is something I want to consider in later postings; in the meantime I want to prove a point by helping you to win some money from your family, friends and co-workers…

The following is a 30-second clip from Verklärte Nacht in one of the composer’s own versions for string orchestra. All you have to do is tell any music-loving individual who comes near your computer that you’ll bet them half a quid (or 3/4 of a dollar, or 0.6 of a Euro, or whatever…) that they’ll never, ever be able to guess the name of the composer whose music you’re about to play them. Then you simply click the button, sit back, and let the money roll in — courtesy of Arnold Schoenberg’s Op. 4 and the strange and seemingly ingrained attitude that leads so many people to stay away from anything that has his name on it…

Of course, once you’ve won that bet, you can offer your victim ‘double or quits’ with the next clip, also 30 seconds, and also by … well, you don’t need me to tell you now, do you?

Naturally, sheer statistics says that occasionally — very, very occasionally — you will encounter someone who gets the answer right both times, and leaves you poorer by £1 (or $1.50, or €1.20, or whatever…). But, frankly, I think such a person deserves the money — wouldn’t you agree…?

Let me end, though, by posting a full-length recording of Verklärte Nacht in its original, 1899 version for string sextet — and a historic recording, too, since it dates from 1955 (which is just four years after Schoenberg’s death). If there’s anyone reading this page who’s never heard the piece before, then maybe it’s time for you, too, to Face the Music. And one nice thing about this video is that you don’t only have the chance to see a synchronised score (if you’re interested in following it), but if you click on the ident along the top of the frame, the YouTube page has an English translation of the poem that Schoenberg used as a programme for the work: yes, Verklärte Nacht is one of the first pieces of so-called ‘programme music’ to have been written for chamber ensemble. And here it is…

Personally, I’d say that wasn’t at all bad for the work of a mostly self-taught 25-year-old…


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