Simply Baffling…

bbcradio3dunceThe dust had not even settled following the uploading of my Schoenberg posting of the other day (you remember: the one about BBC Radio 3 broadcasting utter garbage about him and his private concert society) when from a respected pal over in California came notice of another piece of stupidity directed at Schoenberg and his work.

What my American pal did was present — via ‘social media’, and without any identifying clue or other information! — a quote he’d obtained from the online ‘classical music network’ called ConcertoNet.com (I don’t know anything about them — other than what is printed here — and I wish them well: do have a look at what they’re doing sometime!)

Here’s the quote concerned — which comes from someone’s report of a concert containing a Schoenberg piece…

This was a sensitive performance, although at intermission I heard quite a bit of grumbling from the audience members about having to “sit through” Schoenberg. There were even people in my row who came after the intermission, not wishing to experience any “modern” music!

And here was my pal’s four-part challenge to all comers:

Can you guess what work was performed, who performed it, where, and when…?

Now, my pal is without doubt a big Schoenberg fan, and it’s not hard to guess the thoughts that motivated his four specific questions…

For example, was the performance a long time ago — when people hadn’t had much of a chance to get used to ‘what makes Schoenberg Schoenberg’ — most (in)famously, of course, his exploration of an expressive world beyond the reach of manifest tonality, but also the rapidity and the energetic complexity of his musical thought…?

Was the concert in a place with old-fashioned and provincial tastes — its concert life dominated by a conservative public with very decided and backward-looking views about art and culture…?

Was the work being performed by some well-meaning but over-ambitious ensemble who had no chance of putting it across properly — guaranteeing an unpleasant and pointless experience for just about everyone in the building…?

And — perhaps most importantly of all! — what piece was it that seemed so ‘modern’ that it had part of the audience hiding in the bar for half a concert, and others ‘sitting through’ it with the same kind of resentful boredom with which I would sit through a Sunday morning ‘omnibus edition’ of The Archers…?

Well, let me answer three of those questions right away. The ‘when’ was in fact just a couple of days ago (26 February); the ‘where’ was the Isaac Stern Auditorium of New York’s Carnegie Hall; and the ‘who’ was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst. Far from being some ill-starred adventure, then, the performance would seem to have had pretty much everything going for it: in a splendid hall within a major metropolis of the world’s richest nation, a great orchestra played to a privileged and educated audience located at the optimal historical distance for obtaining a clear understanding of Schoenberg’s art, life and personality… And yet — in spite of all this! — there was still sufficient hostility and incomprehension for a critic to notice it all and mention it in his review…

So what was the piece that these people found themselves variously avoiding and enduring? Just what on earth was the music being forced upon our unwilling New Yorkers…?

Could it have been the work that contains this…?

[Extract from Erwartung (‘Expectation’) from 1909: a ‘monodrama’ featuring a woman, alone, possibly insane, searching for her lover at night in a dark forest. (This is an unstaged concert performance: no scenery, but a terrific opportunity to see the large orchestra in action…) I don’t have a translation to hand, so here is what Google does with this part of the libretto:]

But so strange is your eye ...
(Puzzled) Where do you look?
(Violent) What are you looking for?
(Looks for the balcony) Is there someone there?
(Back again, hand on the forehead) How was it the last time? ...
(Ever deepened) Was not that then also in your look?
(Struggling in the memory) No, just so scattered ... or ... and suddenly you conquered ...
(Getting clearer and clearer) And three days you were not with me ... no time ... So often you have not had time in these last months ...
(Lamenting, how defensively) No, that is not possible ... that is nevertheless ...
(In flashy memory) Ah, now I remember ... the sigh in half sleep ... like a name ... you kissed the question from the lips ...
(Pondering) But why did he promise me to come today? ...
(In frenzied fear) I do not want that ... no I do not want ...
(Jumping, turning around) Why did you get killed? ... Here in front of the house ... Has anyone discovered you? ...
(Shouting, how clinging) No, no ... my only lover ... not ... (trembling) Oh, the moon waits ... I can not see ... Look at me ...

If this was the piece that the Vienna Philharmonic brought with them, then it’s not hard to understand that there will have been people determined to avoid it: white-hot expressionistic opera with Freudian overtones and a score as seemingly athematic as it is atonal isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste…

But this piece, it turns out, wasn’t the one that was played…

So what did they play…?

Was it, perhaps, the work that contains this…?

[Extract from the Violin Concerto of 1936: a work actually composed in the US (where Schoenberg had lived since 1933). The bit I’ve chosen comes from the point where Schoenberg — inevitably! — finds a way of combining statement with development: he overlaps the end of his ‘development section’ with the start of his symphonic, sonata-style recapitulation … with the result that the motifs and themes from his original ‘first group’ emerge in a different order, combine with each other, and accumulate varied versions of themselves at a high level of tension…]

If this was the piece that the Vienna Philharmonic brought with them, then it’s not hard to understand that there will have been folks who didn’t enjoy hearing it: a tautly argued, emotionally wide-ranging 12-tone concerto with three cyclically unified movements and neoclassical allegiances isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste…

But this piece, it turns out, wasn’t the one that was played either…

So what did they play? What was the work whose terrifyingly forbidding, barely endurable modern-ness disappointed or affrighted so many members of the sophisticated New York audience…?

Well, it turns out that it was the work that contains this

Yes, really. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht — his Op. 4, all the way from 1899 and his 25th year! — was the resistance-provoking, audience-depleting ‘modern’ work in question.

Not even with the intermittent lushness of the composer’s own string orchestra arrangement; not even with its associated poetic ‘programme’ of a conversation between a man and a woman walking and talking under the Moon; not even with the radiant beauty of the ‘transfigured night’ that is reached by the end, did this piece manage to please all its hearers and overcome the inherited hostility — by now completely out of control — that Schoenberg’s very name conjures up in some people…

I hate to end a posting with a pasted-in cliché; but on this occasion ‘you couldn’t make it up‘ seems just about the only thing that does justice to the situation…

[[Fred Kirshnit’s review here; Verklärte Nacht in full here]]

MD

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One thought on “Simply Baffling…

  1. It is quite understandable that audiences still find Verklaerte Nacht unbearable. It’s that nonexistent chord (http://eschbeg.blogspot.com/2012/10/nonexistent-chords.html). Several measures before it occurs I myself have to run for the exit lest my brain explodes. (I count to 50, then return to my seat and wait for the arpeggios. I like arpeggios.)
    PS: I was at a performance of the Barber Quartet a few years ago. When it was over, a man turned to his wife (seated next to me) and, so eager to get out the thought that had obviously preoccupied him for most of the performance, almost shouted to be heard over the applause: ‘That Adagio is so beautiful [pause] but why did he have to spoil it by putting in all that other stuff?’ Some day I’m going to query all my friends for overheard audience remarks, put them together with mine, and publish them in a collection entitled ‘Annals of The League of Concert-Going Bench-Warmers, or, Why Are You Here?’

    Like

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