Not at all distressed by the infrequent performance of his major compositions, which have become landmarks in the history of 20th century music but which still provide enormous difficulties for both performers and listeners, Schoenberg at 74 rests serenely in his secluded Brentwood home, teaching a few chosen pupils, trying to oblige his admirers by completing his volume on counterpoint, and watching with satisfaction the increasing acceptance of his 12-tone system of composition by the younger generation of composers.
He Bides Time
“In 50 years musicians and the public will understand me,” says Schoenberg. “It has always been that way with the mature work of composers who had something new to say.”
“When I was a young student is Vienna I had the chance to become thoroughly acquainted with the later works of the then modern Wagner for the simple reason that there were always free seats available. The opera house would be filled for ‘Rienzi,’ ‘Lohengrin,’ ‘Tannhauser,’ and ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ but when the later music dramas from ‘The Ring,’ and ‘Tristan and Isolde,’ came up for performance the singers were given tickets for their friends so that the house would tot be too empty.”
Critics’ Remarks Recalled
“Even 75 years after Beethoven’s death, Hanslick, the famous Viennese critic, could write that the public should be grateful that Brahms had taken the Rasoumovsky quartets for his starting point when he began to write quartets rather than Beethoven’s last compositions in the form. And it was not until 1910 or so that the famous Rose Quartet felt that it could safely play the last Beethoven quartets for the public of Vienna.”
Schoenberg even now believes that the performing difficulties of his works are not as great as they once appeared to be.
“I think that if conductors would approach them gradually they would find them easier to understand and to play,” he said. “When Nikisch first performed my ‘Kammersymphonie’ in Leipzig he spent 15 minutes at the end of each of his regular rehearsals on the new work, so that the orchestra could grow into it.”
“This was an unusual procedure for Nikisch, for he had such a remarkable command of the orchestra and held the players in such a tight grip during a performance that they would play the most difficult compositions in a manner well beyond their natural capabilities: The result was a marvelous performance of the ‘Kammersymphonie.’”
Employ Human Voice
Many of Schoenberg’s compositions employ the human voice and we asked him if he thought that singers would ever find his music easy to sing.
“Why not? They learned to sing Wagner and eventually they learned to sing Strauss. But I have a pet theory that someday In the future the human voice will be supplanted. I think that science will find a way to reproduce exactly the timbre of the human voice by mechanical methods. Then we can have actors on the stage for our operas and not have to worry because the singer with a beautiful voice is a poor musician, or vice versa.”
We reported to Schoenberg the finding of Gian-Carlo Menotti on a recent trip to Europe that a large majority of the younger composers there were utilizing the Schoenberg 12-tone system of composition.
The 12-tone system, it should be explained, is the method devised by Schoenberg whereby at the outset of a composition a composer selects an arbitrary arrangement of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale and throughout a composition employs them repeatedly in the same sequence or in inversion, though their recurrence is often ingeniously hidden in middle parts.
In South America
“I have heard that,” said Schoenberg. “And I also hear that the system is gaining wide spread acceptance in South America. It seems to me only natural that this should be so. The 12-tone row for the first time provides a system for the composition of atonal music. Before I hit upon the 12-tone series atonal composition was in the same state as medieval music before the harmonic system was perfected. Then composers worked simply with the interval – the distance between two tones – with no understanding of the chord. Until they began to understand the nature of diatonic harmony they could make little progress. It was the same with atonal music. The 12-tone series has given it a system upon which it can grow and expand.”
The opponents of Schoenberg, of course, decry his system as mechanical and purely intellectual, but Schoenberg scouts this criticism.
“Any real composer only writes music from some emotional compulsion. I feel there is definitely as much emotional expression to my music as to any other. And I find that my system is almost limitless in its possibilities. I have completed two acts of my opera, ‘Moses and Aaron,’ based on a 12-tone row, and after writing two hours of music, the possibilities and resources of the scheme are still far from exhausted.”
Schoenberg thinks there is a possibility that his 12-tone system might be combined with more conventional methods of musical expression. “Alban Berg tried it in his last opera, ‘Lulu,’” he said, “And I think that the system might be modified, though it seems to me to be best adapted as a basis for atonal music.”
Schoenberg is scarcely less famous as a teacher than he is as a composer, and his philosophy of teaching, as expressed in the preface to his monumental “Theory of Harmony,” contains priceless pearls of wisdom.
Encourages Eternal Seeking
“In my teaching I have never sought to ‘tell what I know’ to the student,” Schoenberg wrote there. “Rather what he did not, know ... Had I only told what I knew, then they would know that and no more. Perhaps they know even less now. But they do know that all depends on one thing: on seeking!”
“I hope that my pupils will be seekers! For they will learn that we seek, only to seek further; and that finding, which to he sure is the goal, may easily put an end to striving."
Schoenberg looks backward over his long teaching career and counts only a few outstanding pupils. “There were not many,” he says. “Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, were the greatest, plus a few younger men in Europe not yet known in this country. Maybe the reason is that I was so severe that only the best survived. When Webern came to me I told him he had to start all over from the beginning, and for six months we did nothing but study the structure of themes.”
And so in the twilight of an epochal career Schoenberg rests content.
“Fashions and opinions change,” he says. “Now I am not the fashion, but my day will come, again. Mahler once said that I was impossible, and again he said that I was the composer of the future. And he told his wife: ‘Maybe Schoenberg is right and I am wrong; for he is young and I am old.’”
Perhaps Schoenberg’s attitude is best characterized by the words that began our visit.
“Shall we discuss modern music?” we asked.
“No!” he replied. “Let’s talk on music of the future.”
Los Angeles Times (September 26, 1948)
Tuesday, May 21st
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