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June 20, 2005



I prefer the Schoenberg of "Verklaerte Nacht" and "Gurrelieder" before he went puritanical and invented dodecaphony. Twelve-note works are OK as an interesting sideline; it's when serialism is promoted (and, in many cases, virtually enforced) as the only possible future of music that you get problems. It's our old friend Historical Inevitability again (didn't it work well in politics too?). It should have been obvious from listening to the music, rather than looking at the patterns it made on a blackboard, that the main drawback to the new system was its limited expressivity. Such music is only good for depicting a very limited range of emotions (despair, hysteria, anxiety). This was entirely appropriate for the atmosphere of early twentieth century Vienna and it's probably why Berg is my favourite composer of the Second Viennese School. In "Wozzeck", "Lulu" and the Violin Concerto he showed that, when combined with intense human interest and sympathy and innate dramatic skill on the part of the composer, the system could succeed in engaging the audience's emotions*. But even these possibilities of the system were soon exhausted with composers like Zimmermann trying to repeat and outgo Berg by being even louder, more relentless and more hysterical. The only alternative was the arid mathematics of Webern's followers like Boulez. When you get down to it, you're never going to get a twelve-tone "Marriage of Figaro", are you?

(* He also helped by choosing note rows which were close to tonality and incorporating familiar musical forms, such as the waltz and the march, into his works. For this he was branded the most "conservative" of the school by the zealots.)

Abiola Lapite

"The only alternative was the arid mathematics of Webern's followers like Boulez."

I think the most fitting description of Boulez' career arc is to say that he only adopted music because he showed no real talent for mathematics; unfortunately this musical terrorist brought his mathematical sensibilities along to his new career.


Boulez was a critic who became a composer by accident and has found his true vocation as a conductor. I find him pretty hard going and Berg even more so, but you can't blame mathematics for this; very few composers are as aridly mathematical as Ligeti and his music is wonderful. Mileage may vary, obviously.

I think you're judging Schoenberg rather harshly in blaming him for Philip Glass; there is something of an apostolic succession here in that Glass worked with Steve Reich who studied under Lucio Berio, but there was a big structural break in the 1960s when both of them fell under the influence of Terry Riley (who is absolutely fantastic, btw, even those of his pieces that could be considered "repetitive Muzak", and his non-repetitive pieces like "Salome Dances For Peace" and "Requiem for Adam" are just beautiful).

I also disagree that it's only neoclassical backsliders that have genuine popularity among 20th century composers; I don't like Glass and don't listen to him but he certainly does have a following outside art-wank circles; he's a big influence on dance music and so is minimalist composition in general. There is even a CD of dance remixes of Steve Reich approved by the man himself, and I think that if your definition of "the world of pretentious wankery" is large enough to include Howie B, Mantronik and Coldcut then it's probably too large.


Yes, Philip Glass and minimalism were really an excessive reaction to serialism. I'm not a big Glass fan (some of it's OK as background music) but you've got to love this: "nearly all the contemporary music to be heard in Paris then [the 1960s] was at Pierre Boulez's Domain Musical Series - which Glass has since described as 'a wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music... what one looks for in a composer is that singular personality that comes out of the soul of the person - that creativity cannot be taught.'" ( )

Some of Cavanaugh's comments are way off the mark: "The mid-century French guys like Francis Poulenc, Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud, etc., were all occasional enlightenment-style composers whose stuff is neither atonal nor offputting. Listening to them, or to Olivier Messiaen, who lived into the 1990s, you don't hear a peep of 12-tone horror." Has the guy ever heard any Messiaen? According to this (, "Messiaen's 'Mode de Valeurs et d'intensities for piano' was the first work of total serialism". Of course, Messiaen liked to blend his serialism with other stuff like synaesthesia, bird song and Catholic mysticism as well as tonal elements. Unfortunately, his pupil Boulez was an absolute purist.

"I'll leave aside the slam against Anton Webern, who certainly was a victim of hooliganism—first of the Nazis who hounded him out of public life for his association with Schoenberg's "Jewish" musical style and then of the drunken American soldier who shot and killed him during the postwar occupation."

This is a bit too close to the myth (promoted by some pro-serialists) that Webern was the victim of both Nazi oppression and American capitalist philistinism. It's not quite so straightforward. Hitler certainly didn't admire Webern's music and dismissed it as "cultural Bolshevism" (though I doubt Stalin would have been much of a fan either) but, at least during the early days, Webern admired Hitler. Politically, Webern was an extreme conservative who saw Hitler as a potential saviour for Germany and Austria. I don't think Webern was anti-semitic as such, although how he squared his initial liking for Hitler with his friendship with Schoenberg (who was, for obvious reasons, extremely anti-Nazi) I don't know. Webern was most likely accidentally shot when he breached a curfew by smoking a cigar outside his daughter's house. The reason the American military were at the house in the first place was because they were investigating his son-in-law's alleged involvement in black marketeering.

Nicholas Weininger

Glass can make extremely good soundtrack music-- _The Truman Show_ was immensely enhanced by his stuff. Listening to it alone is another matter.

Won Joon Choe

Well, when I first listened to Schoenberg, I was reminded of what Strindberg said to Gaugin:

"I cannot grasp your art, and I cannot love it."


For what it's worth, one of Abiola's favourite pianists, Glenn Gould (who I personally can't abide) was a massive fan and passionate advocate of Schoenberg's music. I've got a CD of him playing a Schoenberg violin sonata with Yehudi Menuhin. It's still terrible.

Lee A. Arnold

It will always be an acquired taste, but Schoenberg is not only the originating but also the most elegant 12-tone composer. However he is, as he himself observed, almost always played very badly. They don't put the "eyebrows on it," as Zappa once said. Thre is an extraordinary version of his Serenade Op. 24 on CD which is a rare exception, to me. Another very elegant dodecaphonic composer was Ernst Krenek.

Far from having a barren legacy, Schoenberg's break from tonality, plus Debussy's from structure, were decisive steps that have only just begun to bear fruit. By taking western tonality beyond Brahms, Scriabin, and Wagner to its ultimate deformation, Schoenberg cleared the decks for any kind of music. The first extraordinary results were Messiaen and the eternal yin-yang duo of Stockhausen and Cage. That yin-yang duo tripped the real explosion, dominated by four composers from the second half of the 20th century who may withstand the test of time: Scelsi, Feldman, Ligeti, and Reich. Each of them very different, and Ligeti quite possibly the greatest composer since Schubert. At the present time we are in a reintegrating period where all the styles--spectralism, minimalism, environmental composition, dissonance, even tonality and lush romanticism--may be used in the same piece. There are no more rules: only what sounds good. Try Harrison Birtwistle ("Antiphonies," a piano concerto), Morton Lauridsen ("Lux aeterna" for choir and orchestra), Ingram Marshall ("Hidden Voices," a tape collage), John Adams (almost anything), Henryk Gorecki (3rd symphony), Arvo Part ("Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten" for string symphony), Kryzstof Penderecki (later romantic works), Kaija Saariaho (anything, but don't miss "Lichtbogen" for chamber ensemble, and "Windows", 5th movement of the ballet "Maa"). Then thank god you got ears, and Schoenberg for what you're hearing.


Lee: Why Feldman? And why Reich and not Terry Riley? I like both Feldman and Reich but I don't understand why one would include them both to the exclusion of Riley. Is Reich in there for his writing as much as his music and Feldman for his students?

Frank McGahon

For a moment there I thought I was reading "And why Reich and not Teddy Riley?" and had this bizarre image of the king of early 1990s "new jack swing" reevaluated as a minimalist composer.

Lee A. Arnold

Feldman because in his last works he achieved a new and attractive effect, very distinctive and identifiable. Reich because of the extraordinary variation in his materials and influences, and the richness of his latest results. Reich keeps thinking and finding, and it shows (or "hears"?). Listen to his recent "Proverb," then go listen to that incredible Hilliard Ensemble recording of Perotin.


I was at the premiere of Proverb in London; but I'll see you that one and raise you "Salome Dances For Peace", in both the Kronos Quartet version and the piano version recorded in Padova. Riley has progressed every bit as much as Reich and was the true innovator of minimalism in the first place.


(and although the quiet Feldman pieces are beautiful in their own way I really can't see how they're on the same plank as Reich and Ligeti).

Lee A. Arnold

I haven't heard "Salome Dances for Piece" and I will go look for it. I know Riley's status but surely the innovators are not always the greatest expositors; Schoenberg is the rare exception. As for Feldman, I guess the underlying question is, why will things from this era, still be sought in the next? Ligeti is our major eclectic one; but did he come up with anything new? Even he disavows invention of microtonal cluster glissandos (e.g. "Atmospheres") while the new stuff has fractal polyrhythms after Nancarrow and the Bantu tribes. Maybe not an innovator except in the marrying: and he has the taste and integration of Schubert; so I'll bet, as you do, he stays around. Feldman, on the other hand, found a new audience effect: he paints time slowly by colors in air. It's almost not music in the old sense, there's no expectation of arrival, you can read a book by it, but it's not exactly Muzak either, because when you return, it's still interesting and intelligent, the musicians on the other side are still working at you. I thought maybe it was just me, what do I know about music, but the number of new music listeners I've talked to who name Feldman as a favorite is striking. While Birtwistle and I seem to remember Saariaho and Ligeti have proclaimed him. So I'm guessing he stays, too.


the number of new music listeners I've talked to who name Feldman as a favorite is striking

He had a lot of students. Elliott Sharp was a Feldman student, but you'd be hard pressed to find much commonality in their music.

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