Radio Thick…

Arnold Schoenberg as painted in 1917 by Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

Like many thousands of people who work in and around ‘the meejah’, I find BBC ‘Press Releases’ landing in my email inbox from time to time. Generally, I delete them after a cursory glance — or even sooner: while there are many, many things we urgently need to be told about the BBC and what it gets up to with our money, an official ‘Press Release’ is certain to contain the truth about none of them. (Come on, BBC: let’s have a Press Release about how the appointment of HSBC director Rona Fairhead as Chair of the ‘BBC Trust’ did not simply violate official guidelines for such appointments, but was in fact strictly unlawful. We’d all love to see you come clean about that!)

Back in mid-December, though, something arrived from the ‘BBC Media Centre’ that I not only read in full as soon as I saw it, but also kept ‘for later’. It is now later.

The release in question contained the information that, come the New Year, BBC Radio 3 would be devoting a significant proportion of an entire week’s broadcasting to Schoenberg and the so-called ‘Second Viennese School’.

And if you want to know what the email said, here is its text…

*     *     *

The week-long focus, Breaking Free: The Minds that Changed Music, leaves few stones unturned in its attempt to tell the story of the radical new Viennese School that built a new system for composing twelve-note music — from rare audio of Schoenberg talking about his music, to the unlikely link between a pack of cards and an asteroid.

Breaking Free traces how these musicians, living in the turbulence of Central Europe in the run-up to the First World War and its aftermath, cast music on a new path of discovery, shocking audiences then and even now.

In The Listening Service, Tom Service hands listeners the tools to understand and appreciate the music of the Second Viennese School. He will also present a 12-part mini-series called The Listening Service Extras, each built around archive audio of Schoenberg discussing his music and explaining its origins in the music of Bach, Mozart and Brahms.

Tom McKinney presents a special series focusing on five Viennese objects, from a set of playing cards designed by Schoenberg to an asteroid named after Webern. He also investigates Schoenberg’s fear of the number 13 and Berg’s fascination with the number 23.

The Essay features five personal reflections on the power of Second Viennese School composers, from writers including Gillian Moore, head of classical music at London’s Southbank Centre, BBC Vienna correspondent Bethany Bell and Radio 3 presenter Sarah Walker.

Throughout the week, Breakfast plays early works by the three composers and Essential Classics gives an airing to the seldom-heard Schoenberg String Quartets which, together, chart the clear evolution of his music from Brahmsian tonality to strict serialism. Afternoon on 3 features works by the three composers performed by the BBC Orchestras and Choirs. There will be another chance to hear the Royal Opera House’s production of the shattering Berg opera Wozzeck, and In Tune hosts a live performance of Schoenberg’s masterpiece of dark tonality, Verklärte Nacht.

Elsewhere in the schedule, Radio 3 looks at these composers’ connections with the intellectual world of early twentieth-century Vienna. Stephen Johnson’s Sunday Feature tackles Sigmund Freud’s alleged dislike of music, Tom Service talks to Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria Nono Schoenberg in Music Matters, Words and Music celebrates the words of Stefan Zweig accompanied by Schoenberg’s music, and Sound of Cinema shines a light on Schoenberg’s role in the development of Hollywood horror film soundtracks.

The week concludes with the enormous energy and cataclysm of one of the twentieth century’s most seminal operas, Berg’s Lulu, in English National Opera’s recent production.

*     *     * if, at this point, you aren’t sitting with your head in your hands, then I hope you’ll permit me to say that you have failed to read that text with sufficient care or comprehension. Let me explain what I mean — by focusing on just eight of the problems contained in those eight paragraphs: you’ll see that, while they may seem to be small things individually, the overall effect is to point the project in a direction that leads further and further away from reality…

(i) Look at that title: ‘Breaking Free: The Minds that Changed Music‘. Yet again, we see artistic exploration and discovery presented in terms of a nitwit aesthetics. We kick off with an allusion to the notion — held by non-artists and pseudo-artists everywhere — that art only ever contains something new because its creator is ‘rebelling against something’, ‘throwing off chains’, ‘breaking free‘…  But when Christopher Columbus arrived at America, was he ‘breaking free’  from Europe — or had he simply gone somewhere else…? What I’m getting at is that ‘breaking free’ is a daft expression to apply to composers who saw traditional tonality as a tool and a means to a particular technical-expressive end rather than as some kind of oppressor to be fought. The opposite of ‘exploration’ is not ‘captivity’ — and it is one of the central stupidities of our society’s tangled attitude to ‘art proper’ that people talk as if it is.

Likewise, that rubbish about ‘The Minds that Changed Music‘. To be doing — and finding! — something new in your own work, to  be bringing something different to the table in the form of your technical-expressive discoveries, is not to ‘change music’, influential though you may be: it is merely to be doing something new and different that adds to the stockpile of artistic achievement. Columbus made us aware of a new continent, thereby adding to what we knew of the globe; Schoenberg made us aware of a realm of thought and expression beyond the reach of manifest tonality, thereby adding to what we know of the psyche. Schoenberg & Co didn’t ‘change music’ any more than Columbus & Co ‘changed sailing’: no-one who didn’t want to travel the same exploratory route was ever compelled to. ‘Some More Minds That Did Something New And Valuable In And By Means Of Music‘ would have been a more accurate and intelligent thing for our press person to write; but, then, accuracy and intelligence are usually the last things to be considered when a catchpenny title is sought. (I say ‘usually’, not ‘inevitably’: 12 years ago, a months-long Schoenberg festival on London’s South Bank sub-titled itself ‘The Reluctant Revolutionary’. That got everything spotlessly correct in three words.)

(iii) To say that these composers ‘built a new system for composing twelve-note music‘ is not only a misleadingly clumsy formulation, but is also rooted in an approach that insightlessly puts the cart of technical construction before the horse of expressive need.

(iv) The idea that Tom Service is going to be ‘handing listeners the tools to understand and appreciate the music of the Second Viennese School‘ is, frankly, laughable: the kind of free-floating hyperbole and shameless adjectival incontinence in which Service trades as ‘a modern music communicator’ is not going to be handing anyone any ‘tools’ at all.

(v) Why mention ‘an asteroid named after Webern‘ (it’s ‘4529 Webern’, if you really want to know) without also mentioning the one that is named ‘4527 Schoenberg’ and the one that is named ‘4528 Berg’…? (And while we’re on the subject, could someone who heard that particular broadcast please get in touch and tell us all how it was that ‘an asteroid named after Webern‘ managed to become one of ‘five Viennese objects‘…? Thanks in advance!)

(vi) If Radio 3 really wanted to to do something on behalf of ‘the seldom-heard Schoenberg String Quartets‘ beyond simply lining up a bunch of commercially produced recordings (Brodsky Quartet on Monday; Leipzig Quartet on Tuesday; LaSalle Quartet on Wednesday…), it would have done something for which a publicly funded radio station is actually necessary — like getting some players to record all of Schoenberg’s isolated and unfinished movements for quartet (of which I can name seven off the top of my head — four of them from 1926 and after, and one of them actually post-dating the official Fourth and last quartet. Do you want to make an actual contribution, Radio 3? Or are you happy just to play ‘Buggins’ Turn Next’ with a pile of commercially available CDs…?

(vii) The idea of ‘strict serialism‘ in late Schoenberg is as much of a nonsense as would be the idea of ‘strict tonality’ in late Beethoven — and all that is quite apart from the ideologically laden idiocy of presenting such a non-thing as occupying the end-point of some ‘evolutionary’ process.

(viii) If you want to do right by the wonderful Verklärte Nacht — ‘Schoenberg’s masterpiece of dark tonality’, whatever that is supposed to mean — then why not use some of the BBC’s £5,000,000,000 annual budget (yes: £5 billion!) to get your six players to record the work twice: once in the familiar, published version — and once in the ‘original’ version containing the extended passage that Schoenberg ultimately cut out…?

In short, it was obvious to me from the start that this little bit of New-Year box-ticking — ‘See? We sometimes do things that aren’t populist! Please let us keep our License Fee and our Charter!‘ — was never going to be anything other than nothing, the worthwhile recordings and Nuria Schoenberg Nono’s contribution apart. And, knowing that some, most, or all of the programmes were going to remain available online for several weeks courtesy of the ‘BBC iPlayer’, I didn’t rush to hear any of them.

Eventually, though, I went and looked at what there was. I listened to precisely one of the programmes; and what I found was that — at least as far as its scripted, verbal content was concerned — it was worse than anything I had imagined to be possible


Let me go through that scripted content line by line — it’s only a few sentences! — so that you can see that I am not exaggerating.

At the start of the programme we were told that we would be…

… eavesdropping on Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Society for the Private Performance of New Music’. He founded the group in the Autumn of 1918; it gave weekly concerts at his house just outside Vienna to help listeners get used to the new sounds being imagined by a wide range of composers.

Got that? Okay: now let’s proceed one tiny piece of garbage at a time

Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Society for the Private Performance of New Music’…

Displaying ASVereinClipping.jpg

…wasn’t actually called that. As you’ll deduce from the BBC’s own graphic, and see from my stolen image over on the right (a newspaper ad, by the look of it), its official name was ‘Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen‘, which most sensibly translates to English as ‘Society for Private Musical Performances’. In other words, there’s no ‘new’ about it — and the fact that the organisation was devoted to music from the period ‘Mahler to the present’ does not make it okay for the BBC’s script-writer to import an extra word into its title.

Let’s move on to the next bit:

… the group … gave weekly concerts at his house just outside Vienna to help listeners get used to the new sounds being imagined by a wide range of composers.

Well, first of all, the reference to a ‘group‘ that ‘gave concerts‘ is misleading here: the Nash Ensemble is a group that gives concerts, the London Sinfonietta is a group that gives concerts; but Schoenberg’s Verein was much more a society that organised concerts than it was a ‘group’ whose settled membership performed in them. The actual playing was done by a total of something like 80 individuals and ensembles, some of whom — like the visiting Maurice Ravel! — only participated in a single event.

Then there’s that stuff about Schoenberg’s ‘house just outside Vienna‘ — on hearing about which, heaven knows how many listeners will have filled in the ‘information gap’ by assuming that Schoenberg must have been wealthy enough to own a nice big house, out of town, to which all these friendly and interested souls could come for evenings of ‘getting used to new sounds‘.

And the reality, of course, is that Schoenberg was far from wealthy, and didn’t personally own any kind of house ‘just outside Vienna’ or anywhere else. In 1917 — the year of his final demobilisation from the Austrian army — he and his family (a wife and two children) had dragged themselves from one cheap boarding house to another; and only at the start of 1918 did a personal contact help them find decent rented accommodation out in Mödling. (Today, this is the ‘Schönberg-Haus‘, and you can visit it and see its treasures!)

Displaying ASHouseModling.jpg

Bernhardgasse 6, Mödling. The Schoenbergs’ apartment was on the middle floor.

But — inevitably! — the Schoenbergs occupied merely an apartment, and thus no more than 1/3 of the building. It was hardly a space suited to public performances; and the truth is that, while the Verein managed to survive until 1921 and gave more than 110 concerts in total, its events didn’t take place there: the actual venues were various halls in Vienna itself, some highly prestigious; some less so. No, it wouldn’t have taken ten minutes for the BBC’s script-writer to find all of this out; but for that to have happened, someone would have had to give a damn

As for the music included in the Radio 3 programme, we were told that

… the very first [concert] began with this Scriabin Piano Sonata: No. 5…

Now, I’m not a ‘Schoenberg expert’, and mustn’t pose as one: there are a zillion facts about Schoenberg and his life that I don’t keep in my memory and don’t attempt to. But when I heard this little bit of ‘presentation’, I jumped — because Scriabin’s Fifth Piano Sonata is the one I know best, and I knew I’d never heard it connected with Schoenberg’s Verein concerts. I grabbed a handy CD booklet — and saw a mention of the first concert having included two Scriabin sonatas: No. 4, Op. 30, and No. 7, Op. 64, neither of them No. 5, Op. 53.

Since CD booklets aren’t always correct (except when written by my late friend Malcolm MacDonald — whose 69th birthday should have been today), I looked at H H Stuckenschmidt’s 1974 Schoenberg biography (in Humphrey Searle’s 1977 translation), and saw that

the first evening took place on Sunday, 29 December 1918. The programme consisted of the Fourth and Seventh Piano Sonatas of Alexander Scriabin, ‘Proses Lyriques’ by Debussy and Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, for piano four hands.’ (p. 254)

And since even Stuckenschmidt isn’t always correct, I then went and checked Walter Szmolyan’s ‘Die Konzerte des Wiener Schönberg-Vereins‘, as printed in Schönbergs Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen; ed. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn (1984). In this, the catalogue entry for the first concert says 

Alexander Skrjabin, IV. und VII. Klaviersonate (E. Steuermann)

and even identifies the venue as ‘KV’, meaning

Festsaal des Kaufmännischen Vereines [very approximately: ‘Banqueting Hall of the Chamber of Commerce’], Wien 1, Johannesgasse 4

All of which surely compels us to reject the programme’s presentation of the Fifth Sonata as — to use a polite word! — erroneous.

So let’s take a summarising look at what our programme achieved. Supposedly concerned with spreading knowledge and understanding of Schoenberg ‘s ‘Society for Private Musical Performances’, it gave the organisation a name that it didn’t quite have. It presented the Society as ‘a group’ that ‘gave concerts’, which it wasn’t really. It said the performances were at Schoenberg’s residence, when they weren’t ever. And, after explicitly offering listeners a chance to hear the first work played on the Society’s very first evening, the music it broadcast was not merely the wrong piece, but a piece that never actually featured in any of the Society’s concerts.

And compounding this impressively comprehensive demonstration of incompetence was the treatment of the dozen and more genuinely fascinating and thought-provoking aspects to the Verein and its concerts (members only … critics forbidden entry … programmes not revealed in advance … no applause … complex works given multiple performances … orchestral music played in specially produced chamber versions…): of all these, listeners heard not a whisper

You know, when I call for Radio 3 — and its budget! — to be taken away from the BBC and handed over to an independent foundation that will actually be able to do the job properly, I’m really not joking. Catastrophically stupid broadcasts like this one simply reinforce my contention that the management and staff of today’s Radio 3 are so completely out of their depth as to be quite incapable of acting as custodians and advocates of our art-musical heritage. I myself would not trust these people to push a wheelbarrow — yet here they are, pretending to be the heirs of the old ‘Third Programme’. If it were not tragic, it would be hilarious.


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