The four-hand piano reduction of part of the first of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, by Arnold Schoenberg.
This year marks another centenary besides that of Vagn Holmboe: the writing of the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16, of Arnold Schoenberg.
Saturday night I went to a concert by the local Lynn Philharmonia, the music conservatory orchestra at Lynn University, and did a review for ArtsPaper. The group opened its season with the Schoenberg in the 1949 reduction, but it still made a strong impact – particularly on the audience.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so much grousing in the lobby and the seats around me; perhaps that’s to be expected, but it bears noting that this music was written in 1909 and has been regularly available in recordings and performances for decades. But the average concertgoer can’t stand it, apparently, and this brings back the old argument of whether atonality ever will be accepted as a listening experience — with the important exception of as background music for movies and television, usually of the thriller variety.
The Five Pieces lasts about 15 minutes, or thereabouts, and I’ve spent the last couple days looking at the score, admiring its craftsmanship and subtlety. It must have taken enormous courage to write music like this in 1909. Only Charles Ives was doing the same sort of thing, and his music is less abstract; almost everything the American composer wrote has a program. There were other experimenters out there: 1909 was the year Strauss’ Elektra premiered, Stravinsky’s Firebird took shape, and Scriabin finished Poem of Fire (Fifth Symphony).
But those, too, are either theater or programmatic pieces, and while Schoenberg appended titles to each of the Five Pieces, this music is more about musical experimentation than it is evoking any particular mood or event. The third piece is about changing instrumentation to make an essentially static music move, and the other movements have themes that are taken through their paces, albeit in a very compressed, not particularly linear way.( I’m not trying to do hardcore analysis here, just noting some obvious things about the music.)
For the listener, it’s hard to hear these transformations, and the music can sound undifferentiated and formless. And while chords like those are perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, as the serial killer lifts his knife above his head while his victim screams in terror, concertgoers don’t want to hear them as pure music. I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said in one way or another for many years, but what struck me about the Schoenberg was that it’s 100 years old and the verdict is still: No, thanks.
Der Meister at work.
I think it’s likely that atonal music only will ever be accepted by a mass audience as background music, and that so much of it is so indistinguishable from other pieces of its ilk that most of it is dead as soon as it’s written, at least in a sense accepted by audiences at large. Schoenberg himself went in a slightly more conservative direction himself after this, if not to tonality; his Violin Concerto, which I wrote about earlier, is a great piece whose difficult tonal language is ameliorated by its clear narrative structure: this is a piece that is going somewhere, and it’s exciting to follow it.
The music that manages to stand the test of time has a clear personality, whether attractive or not. You can hear someone trying to say something , and you want to stick around for the conversation. It may be that the very nature of atonal music makes it too difficult to let a personality come through, even in the case of someone like Schoenberg.
I don’t really know. All I can say is that I was struck at how visceral the reaction was to this piece Saturday night, a piece that predates the major wars of the 20th century, and which has long been established as a major canonical work. True, South Florida audiences tend to be conservative, but they also tend to be well-educated, so they should have known what was coming. And I think they did, which made their grumpiness about it even more notable.
I guess Schoenberg still has to win his fight for acceptance, but it seems to me that for the most part, he probably never will.