100 years later, Schoenberg’s ‘Pieces’ still leave audiences grumpy

stein_score_I_2The 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.

image002Der 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.

10 thoughts on “100 years later, Schoenberg’s ‘Pieces’ still leave audiences grumpy”

  1. I think a major factor in audience’s antipathy is that Schoenberg (at least on the piano performances I’ve heard) is really played quite badly most of the time. I suppose since (mistakenly, in my view) it’s “atonal”, pianists feel they have license to play in a completely ugly manner. As Jerome Lowenthal once queried during a master class, “Would you make that sound in Chopin? Then why do you do it Schoenberg!?”

  2. Koji:

    A very fine point.

    Reminds me of my sophomore theory final, in which we had to sing a 12-tone-style thing (in addition to play a bit of Beethoven’s Eroica on the piano). My professor said he liked the way I sang the tone row because at least I had tried to make it sound “like music.”

    I was just thrilled to get a rare compliment from him, but now that I think about it, maybe other folks had taken the exam and sung it with an emphasis on the intervals rather than the phrases. That would fit nicely with Lowenthal’s comment and your observation.

  3. That must have been quite a challenge to sing! I attended the 1st night of a 2 night festival dedicated to George Crumb, organized by a friend of mine at the local conservatory here in Kansas City. I’m sure Crumb, like Schoenberg, will never have a big following amongst the general music public, but I was so impressed and moved at the level and quality of music-making at this concert. Some really beautiful, dedicated music-making that made such a strong case for Crumb as a composer, was very enjoyable.

  4. I’d also like to add that the complexity of Schoenberg makes it easy to loose track of musicality. Performers need to delve deeply into the music to understand the rhyme and reason behind it. Unfortunately, many don’t take the time to do this. But how will an audience appreciate a piece when the performers do not?

  5. R:

    Also a good point.

    Your comment made me think that many of the first performers of Schoenberg certainly weren’t well-disposed to his music, and that’s a salutary reminder that performers can be just as reactionary and conservative as they always say audiences are.

    But one of the more striking things about his work is how firmly in the tradition of the late Romantic era it really is. You can hear it clearly in something like Verklarte Nacht, of course, but it continues right past 1899 into the later work. It just isn’t as obvious.

    If performers treat it with the same expressive care as something like Tchaikovsky, it may not make the same impact because it doesn’t have the same melodic power, but I think much more of Schoenberg’s message would get through, and he might not be so scary to some audiences.

    He wasn’t trying to throw out tonality because he thought it was bad. He was simply searching for a new kind of expression, and that expression is right in line with the tide of the Western mainstream. If more performers were truly aware of that, maybe they would bring it off that way; as I noted a few months ago, I think Hilary Hahn made a great case for the Violin Concerto, and it’s possible her example will help.

  6. I admit that I am very strongly repelled by atonal music without a “point” of some kind to it. If the purpose of its composition is to create a particularly unsettling mood, then I respect that a lot more than just numbers on a page. To me, Schoenberg’s entire philosophy is offensive to music as an artform, and that’s not even taking into account how it sounds.

    I’ll listen to it and I’ll go to concerts, but to me, it just isn’t genuinely musical.

    1. Schoenberg was a composer. He loved music. Is this not enough of a ‘point’?
      Whether or not you find it pleasing, it IS musical, just in a different musical language. Atonal Serialism is just as mathmatic as Baroque counterpoint, or a Mozart Symphony. As long as the composer is making music they enjoy, and I believe Schoenberg was, that should be enough of a reason to make it, I believe.

  7. Things to Note While Arnold Schoenberg is better known as an Expressionistic composer or for developing the Twelve-tone system, Farben (“Colors”) perhaps one of the clearest examples of Impressionism in music. Originaly Schoenberg wished that the individual movements of the work should not have titles, but eventually gave in to his publishers wishes and gave the work the ambiguous title Farben; in a revised version of the score from 1925 (the original is composed for a prohibitively large orchestra) he amplified this with a subtitle: “Summer Morning on a Lake.” Whatever the title, there is little “real” melody in the work = it simply presents a chord progression enlivened by orchestrational changes, a series of shifting colors. These changes begin rather slowly and eventually speed up presenting an almost kaleidoscopic effect before Formally, it is an ABA with a tiny B section interrupting the calm of the A section. It has become de rigeur for theorists to attempt an analysis of the shifting tone-colors of the work.

  8. Most of the music written by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) during the first decade of this century – including the monodrama Erwartung, his Second String Quartet and First Chamber Symphony, the song cycle Buch der hängenden Gärten, the Op. 11 piano pieces, and the present Five Pieces, Op. 16 – was received at worst with open hostility, at best by blank stares.

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