The Other Schoenberg (2)

Schoenberg_Green_SelfI hope no-one thinks I was ‘having a go’ at Richard Baker in that posting the other day — the one in which I dragged out my decades-old memory of the respected broadcaster’s failure to put Arnold Schoenberg’s name to a self-portrait and a clip of the great Verklärte Nacht (1899). I really wasn’t criticising him at all: my aim was simply to draw attention to the way that entire armies of music lovers have for many years been happily consigning Schoenberg’s output as a whole  — even the immediately appealing and highly approachable pieces! — to some place they themselves never have to go.

And, of course, it’s not too hard to see why this has happened. On the lowest levels of journalism, Schoenberg gets described as ‘the man who tore up the musical rule-book‘ — which is a silly and hysterical exaggeration that gives exactly the wrong impression of his creative character. At slightly higher levels of knowledge and responsibility, he’s talked about as ‘the father of atonality and serialism‘ — which is not an unreasonable description, but is problematic in that most people haven’t a clue what it means. And, at the level of actual philosophy textbooks, you’ll find a thinker like Roger Scruton accusing Schoenberg of a ‘revolt against music‘ — which is a demonstration of how someone can be an academic philosopher and still pursue a vigorous sideline as a silly old fool (see his 1994 Modern Philosophy, p. 72). With chacterisations like these in circulation, it’s easy to understand that a concert-goer who has had an unhappy experience of something containing tone-rows or Sprechstimme might decide it’s probably best if they avoid anything that has Schoenberg’s name on it. Which, as I said in that last post, is a pity– as it means they’ll miss out on a lot of very enjoyable stuff.

I’ll get to another piece of that ‘very enjoyable stuff’ in a minute; first I want to tell a little story against myself, just in case anyone still thinks I’m trying to build myself up by putting Richard Baker down. To follow all this, you just need to remember that Baker was offered a clue by Joseph Cooper that he didn’t quite ‘get’: ‘Look at that bald head: isn’t that . . . a beautiful mountain? … What is “beautiful mountain” … auf Deutsch?’

schoenberg centerWell, it so happens that my interest in Schoenberg has led me to Vienna on a few occasions — where I have actually met and spoken to all three of the composer’s American children (Nuria, Ronald and Lawrence) while we were all visiting the magnificent Arnold Schönberg Center in Schwarzenbergplatz [click on the photo] and the lovely Schönberg House out in Mödling (Joke: Q. ‘Do you like Mödling?’ A. ‘I don’t know: I’ve never Mödled…’). I bring this up not as a name-drop (though of course it is: as the first in my circle of friends to get all three autographs, I won a set of wine glasses…), but as necessary context for my story.

For, there I was — the other year — chatting to Ronald Schoenberg about such things as the family’s domestic life (apparently Schoenberg was a terrifically loving and caring father — something the world would benefit from knowing, I think); the composer’s off-duty passion for tennis (apparently he wasn’t a brilliant exponent — according to his tennis-champion son!), and the family’s eventual creation of Belmont Music as a publishing house that prints and distributes Schoenberg’s works in the USA and elsewhere.

Schoenbergtennis(Here’s a photo I’ve grabbed from ‘Google Images’ that actually shows Schoenberg the family man in a tennis-related context: don’t anyone pretend that I don’t make the effort. [Click on the photo for a larger image.] As it happens, I haven’t seen a date for this picture; but I’d guess it must have been taken around 1948.)

Anyway, on and on I prattled, making the most of my chance to chat with Ronald Schoenberg (middle child in that photograph). ‘When I first saw pieces published by Belmont Music, decades ago,’ I said, ‘I had no idea it was the family firm! “Belmont” is an odd word: where did you get it from?’

Ronald Schoenberg smiled at me and said, in the friendliest way imaginable, ‘Well, translate it. “Bel-Mont”: what does it mean?’

‘Aah!’, I said, smiling back as best I could, ‘”Bel-Mont”! Yes!’ — while, inside, I was of course silently screaming ‘Aww, goddammit, I’ve just done exactly what Richard Baker did…!

The two situations are not exactly comparable, however. Baker’s sad failure was only witnessed by five million or so television viewers — while mine was enacted in front of one of Schoenberg’s own children. How embarrassing is that…?

All right, let’s get back to music — and to another of those pieces that show Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘other side’. Not all the ‘approachable’ pieces I’ll be flagging up in this little series of postings will be ‘early’ ones — because there are also later ones: he never left traditional tonality and tonal music behind altogether, as we’ll see — but this one is jolly early: it’s the Notturno for Strings and Harp that he wrote in 1896 — which means he was 21, and Verklärte Nacht was still three mostly self-taught years in the future…

I like this student performance a lot: even though it’s less-than-perfect technically, it’s just so nice to see how much the players are enjoying themselves!

Note also, however, that the recording’s actual YouTube page [click the ident at the top of the panel] reveals that even though this performance was uploaded half a year ago, it’s still only had 120 viewings — and since the number of ‘thumbs up’ ratings, at the time of posting, is two, fully half of that total is from me. See what I mean when I say people simply don’t know? Do share it!

MD

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3 thoughts on “The Other Schoenberg (2)

  1. I must defend my friend Roger Scruton against the absurd charge that he is a “silly old fool”. As is often the case, the quotation from Modern Philosophy when taken out of context sounds more extreme than it actually is; the complete sentence is: “Mahler, Freud, Klimt and Rilke were at the height of their powers; Adolf Loos had not yet begun his war on architecture, nor Schoenberg his revolt against music; even Musil believed that there are men with qualities.” The wording may be a little careless: what Roger Scruton means in Schoenberg’s case is a revolt against the accepted language of music, i.e. tonality. Surely Mark Doran cannot deny that Schoenberg, like Stravinsky with The Rite of Spring, was a musical revolutionary, and was certainly in what may fairly be called revolt against a musical language that he thought was outworn? This is not to say that his revolt was wrong; though I should add that if there was a belief at that time that tonality was totally exhausted and a new non-tonal language was needed to replace it, that belief was mistaken.

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