Magazine article Musical Times

Fighting Words

Magazine article Musical Times

Fighting Words

Article excerpt

Fighting words A Schoenberg reader: documents of a life Joseph Auner Yale UP (New Haven & London, 2003); xxvi, 428pp; £30. ISBN 0 300 09540 6.

HANS KELLER'S verdict was characteristically forthright: Schoenberg was 'musical history's most tragic figure - its most uncompromising clarifier and its leading confuser at the same time'. Schoenberg himself didn't put it quite like that, but Joseph Auner's selection from his writings confirms the vehemence with which he consistently sought to explain - and lament - his difficult position in the contemporary world.

A pair of extended quotations must suffice to give the flavour of this vehemence, first from a speech in English, c. 1936, entitled 'Some objective reasons to educate rising generations to contemporary music'. Near the beginning Schoenberg declared that 'I feel the necessity to act as a fighter, as a battering ram for the interest of the development of the art', and this pugnacity in the cause of what he believed to be progress is sustained throughout.

Whoever today calls himself a conservative does it exclusively with the intention to suppress every development of mind, to hinder new ideas from coming about, to paralyze the inventive capacity of the spirit, to suffocate every tendency of life - for life is changing, developing, growing. But on the contrary, whoever wants to call himself a conservative in the very meaning of life, has the duty to protect new ideas, has to promote development, has to animate inventive capacity of spirit, has to encourage true tendencies of life for life has to be conserved - to conserve the possibilities of development means to conserve life, means to protect it against rote-ness, against decay, against decomposition (pp.276, 278).

As late as April 1949, in comments prepared for the San Francisco Round-Table on Modern Art but not delivered by him, Schoenberg was proclaiming his belief in 'l'artpour l'art. In the creation of a work of art, nothing should interfere with the real idea', and while he had no objections to the intentionally popular compositions of Offenbach or Gershwin,

it is wrong of a serious composer to write or include in his works such parts which he feels would please the audience. [...] Why should there not be music for the ordinary man, for the mediocre, for the un-understanding, for the uninitiated on the one hand, and on the other hand, such music for the few who understand? Is it necessary that a composer who can write for the few, just this same composer must also write for all? Is it not better if they are specialists, one writes for all, and the other writes for the few (pp.329-3o).

In both these instances, the aggressiveness of the literary style compounds the mixture of impassioned idealism and exasperated intolerance that is likely to strike most readers today. That Schoenberg himself saw it rather differently is suggested by the extract Auner includes from the well-known essay 'My evolution' (also 1949) in which Schoenberg thanks his early mentor David Joseph Bach, who 'greatly influenced the development of my character by furnishing it with the ethical and moral power needed to withstand vulgarity and commonplace popularity' (p. 11). What Schoenberg had to say in 1949 was certainly of a piece with the energy and intensity of a composition completed that year, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment, music which displays absolutely no confusion about why it exists and where it is going. You must take it or leave it.

TAKING OR LEAVING was the onerous task confronting Joseph Auner, who has had to consider a complex range of sources, and achieve a balance which, while not excluding everything familiar, justifies the enterprise with enough new and significant material. …

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