Ideas compressed into as compact a space as possible, is the explanation of the leader in the field of "atonality" whose works have been both hissed and praised.
The great Leopold Stokowski stands before his famous Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, his baton poised in the air. Down sweeps his arm – and the music hall seems to spark with short-circuited sharps and flats, to echo with discordant notes leaping inharmoniously from tone to tone.
It is 1931 and one of the first performances of “Theme and Variations,” a selection of modern music, by Arnold Schoenberg.
Before the orchestra has finished, the swankily dressed Philadelphians are on their feet, waving their arms, hissing and booing in protest at the unconventional harmonies which jangle their ears.
“If this is modern music,” someone shouts, “give me the good old days” As the audience files noisily out of the hall, everyone bemoans the fact that the com¬posing of good music is a thing of the past. Our times, they mutter, will leave nothing for the world of symphony.
Yet the leader of the rebels, the man whose works made austere Philadelphia forget her manners, the man who goes right an flouting what conservatives call the laws of music – that man believes firmly that today’s modernists will ' be 1987’s Wagners and Beethovens.
He is Arnold Schoenberg of Los Angeles, a short, rotund, bald, thoroughly tanned and
tremendously energetic little Austrian, who teaches harmony classes at the University of California at Los Angeles when he is not composing or directing. Like the proverbial prophet, he is well known and honored all over the world, save in his own city.
When you ask Schoenberg if great music will always be produced he looks at you with sparkling, tolerant eyes and says quietly in a heavy accent:
“Why shouldn’t it?”
And when you ask if the Ravels, the Stravinskys, the Korngolds, the Bartoks and the Schoenbergs are the “great” musicians of today, he convinces you that they are – by refusing to answer the question.
“It is not fair to ask a composer that question because an artist has to believe in his work or he could not create it. Could God have created heaven and earth if he had not believed in them? Any artist certainly believes in life, in the future of what he is trying to do,” he says.
He then points out that modernists are not deliberately trying to express what is in them. For this reason, no man can forecast along what lines the future of music will run.
“Bach expressed himself. Wagner wrote himself. Nobody else could have written either better. Those who conformed to their footsteps were merely doing in a poorer fashion what had already been done in a better way by the original masters.
“There is no pattern for music to follow. If you want to compose, you compose what is in you – and each self is different from all the others. The true artist must follow no path but his own.”
But where do you and I, the average concert audience, come in?
Arnold Schoenberg realizes that those who listen to a composer’s music must eventually like it if the music is to live. And he is confident that the modernists will be understood.
“I think it will he fifty years before my music is appreciated. The human ear will grow. Each year it will be capable of accepting more and more.
It is just like in sports. If we had told a man in 1915 that 1937’s athletes would be pole vaulting nearly fifteen feet, would be running 100 yards in 9.4 seconds, he would have laughed at us. But those are today’s marks, and who knows about the future?
So it is with hearing. Listeners to come will develop a capacity to understand harmonies and techniques which puzzle people of today.”
Furthermore, to be understood, music must be heard over and over again, he says.
“The present generation is accustomed to certain scales, keys and chord combinations, so its hearing has always been along these stereotyped lines. To understand modern music, one must hear it as often as possible: Hear, hear, hear it a hundred times – and then study it!”
Schoenberg explains his method by declaring that he tries to put musical ideas into as compressed and compact a space as possible. Thus some of his complete music dramas are packed into thirty-five minutes of terse style.
Undisputed leader in the field of “atonality,” the composer has taken a complete new set of tones and chords to work with, thus doing away with the principle of “one-key” music.
“Perhaps the future generation may catch the modern idiom, as it is not so hampered by precedent,” he says.
Precedent has never bothered Arnold Schoenberg very much. He has always been able to feel his own way. Certainly the determination with which he has gone forward, the good humor he keeps in spite of the catcalls and hisses, seem to prove that he knows definitely what he wants to do.
The modernist was born in Vienna in 1874. Music interested him since his eighth birthday and he was soon studying under the wing of a well known teacher and composer named Von Zemlinsky. Before long Von Zemlinsky admitted the he had taught the young man all he himself knew, and did best to bring some of his pupil’s compositions before the public.
.They tell a story about. Schoenberg and another colleague of his, Gustave Mahler. About 1913 Schoenberg ran a concert of modern music in which both his own and Mahler’s works were presented. After the angered audience had hissed a Schoenberg composition, it was time for Mahler. Arnold Schoenberg rushed onto the stage and held up his hand for quiet:
“Please! You may react any way you wish toward my music… but please, let there be more quiet fitting for the performance of so great a composer as Gustave Mahler!"
And that is the way Schoenberg feels today.
“You may react any way you wish toward my music…”
It was hard, he admits, to keep going when the public was antagonized every time one of his compositions was played.
“When I was younger I used to be very discouraged about it,” he says. “But now I really do not care. I know that I have certain things I must do, and I’m going to do them regardless of the public reception. If there is any sort of popular acclaim, I’m afraid I shall have to look to the future for it.”
Perhaps he and the other modernists will not have to wait as long as they think for some more substantial recognition. Every now and then the critics point out a real beauty in Schoenberg,
and think they have found that he is, after all, conforming to the old ideas of melody. But just as sure as they make up their minds that the modern music may be enjoyable, Schoenberg produces a work like his “Five Compositions for Orchestra,” in which, according to the London Times, “barbaric sounds abound and pointed harmonies sear into one’s intelligence like needles.”
All this Schoenberg call art. Most of it, he says, will come into popular favor. Strangely enough, he seems to have history on his side to prove his point, if he could care to draw any parallels.
About 100 years ago a young upstart named Richard Wagner was disgusting critics with his “music for the future.” When his opera “Tannhauser” was performed in Paris the producers insisted that he insert the traditional ballet, which he put in the first act. The opera was a failure and did not win its way to popularity until many years later. It is only in the last generation that Wagner has emerged from the “ugly and colorless” class to become known as one of the greatest of all time.
Franz Schubert, whose symphonies and songs are played daily by popular demand, could hardly earn enough from his compositions to keep from starving.
The list of those who have left permanent marks on musical history, and yet unrecognized in their own day, is a long one.
So it may be with Arnold Schoenberg. Already the less radical of the radicals – Maurice Ravel with his “Bolero” and Jan Sibelius with his “Valse Tiste” and “Finlandia” – have won their places. An audience of 1901 might have stormed and raged at the “monotony” of Ravel or the “crashing and banging” of Sibelius.
Schoenberg has a bone to pick with the great orchestra conductors of the day. It is partly their fault that the Americans do not have a broader taste in music because the conductors cater to popular demand and play only those number which people already know.
“Listeners cannot learn to know and feel the music other than that which has already been stamped as popular. If a conductor experiments with a little-known selection and meets with no success, he does not try it often again.”
Decide that for yourself. Listen to symphony orchestra programs and see how many times you hear those compositions which Walter Damrosch, nationally known conductor, rates as America’s choice:
(1.) Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (2.) Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. (3.) Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. (4.) Tschaikowsky’s Pathetique. (5.) Wagner’s Overture to “Tannhauser” (6.) Prize Song -from “Die Meistersinger.” (7.) Funeral March from “Gotterdammerung.” (8.) Ride of the Valkyries. (9.) Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.
But how about swing music and jazz? Do they fit in as part of this modernism?
“In the long run, they don’t fit in very much at all,” Arnold Schoenberg believes. “Swing music is a result of life during a short period of time. Sometimes times it may possibly influence the higher – or long-time – art in one way or another, but it of itself is temporary.”
So that leaves 1937 with very little an the books except the works of the “modernists” in symphony. Of course, there is no way to tell whether Arnold Schoenberg’s conception of the future is right or wrong. As he suggests, all you can do is wait a half century, give the world fifty years to grow and expand, and then judge.
At any rate, the opinions of the drum major of discord, the man who insists he has something very definite which he must express – those ideas are interesting to apply as a yardstick when you hear the common remark:
“Musical genius is dead.”
Los Angeles Times (June 27, 1937)
Wednesday, Jun 19th
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