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Speaking up for Schoenberg

It was good to read Michael Graubart's calm and measured 'Fallacies and confusions' (Autumn MT), which effectively demolished the central argument of Richard Taruskin's 'The poietic fallacy' (Spring MT). It was also very helpful in that it clarified aspects of Hegel's philosophy which were unclear to me. But the article stopped short of addressing Taruskin's criticisms of specific works by Schoenberg.

Professor Taruskin is of course entitled to like or dislike any Schoenberg piece, but we readers are unlikely to be impressed if he justifies his preferences by misrepresentation. It is surely misleading to claim that the Variations for Orchestra 'proclaim Germanic hegemony' through 'screaming references to the musical cipher B-A-C-H'. Of the 17 appearances of the motif (untransposed) in the piece (all but two of them confined to brief sections of the Finale), seven of them are at a dynamic of piano or pianissimo, and only two at fortissimo. Not much screaming there. As to 'Germanic hegemony', Schoenberg had surely secured a right to be judged a true descendant of JS Bach at least since the the glorious polyphony of the closing chorus of the Gurrelieder. The act of homage contained in the Variations is entirely justified ethically, and beautifully integrated musically, as listeners to the marvellous performance at the Proms last season by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle will be able to confirm. If, nevertheless, one were still tempted to believe the hegemony claim, one would have to ask why the Variations end with a devastatingly negative, destructive Coda, which suddenly challenges most of what has gone before. The case is rather like that of the somewhat similar end to A survivor from Warsaw, which also stops on a fierce dissonance while thematic business is still underway, and also makes an empty silence its final musical gesture (scarcely suggesting a 'trumped up Triumph of the Human Spirit').

As for Professor Taruskin's allegations of Schoenberg's misogyny, these seem to me to be, at the least, exaggerated. He begins with a misrepresentation of the content of the poem by Dehmel on which Verklärte Nacht is based. Whether or not Schoenberg as an old man misremembered the poem, I have never found any evidence that he misunderstood it when he used it as the basis for his string sextet 50 years earlier. The poem is clear enough: it is not, as Taruskin suggests, the man's love which transforms the unborn child (of a stranger, as the woman makes clear) in his lover's womb; what the man actually says is: 'a special warmth glimmers from you in me, from me in you. It will transfigure the stranger's child [...] you have filled me with radiance, you have made me a child myself. So love in its totality affords the transfiguration, and it is not at all, as Taruskin has it, that an 'immanently sinful modern Eve [is] forgiven and redeemed by a godlike magnanimous man'.

Taruskin also makes too much of Otto Weininger in his attempt to demolish Schoenberg's two one-act operas Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand. A much more immediate 'cause' of the two works was the elopement of Mathilde Schoenberg with the painter Richard Gerstl, which led to the composer's contemplation of, and the artist's actual, suicide. Taruskin's readings of the two works have to leave out much of what they actually contain to make his thesis work even tenuously. It is not, for example, enough to use David Schiff's quote that Erwartung is 'spasmodic, without structure or direction', because the work is demonstrably not altogether these things, or to complain, by contrast, of the 'masculinities' of Die glückliche Hand as including conventional patterns like ostinatos, because the allegedly 'feminine' Erwartung is full of them, and they don't seem to me to signify what Taruskin claims in either work. …