Poor old Schoenberg. I can’t think of a figure in the entire Western Art Music canon that’s as universally vilified. Inherited wisdom seems to be that he’s single-handedly responsible for ruining music’s capacity to be pretty, sending music down a rabbit-warren equal parts cerebral and ugly.
As far as I understand, people’s big gripe with Schoenberg seems to be his having developed a new system of composition – the twelve-tone technique - that didn’t adhere to traditional tonality. Rather than the musical materials being organised according to a hierarchy in which the circle of fifths governs the structure of the music, he created a new system in which each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale was as important as the other, and related only to one another.
This is all well and good, if you’re a musicologist. If you’re like me, what matters more is how it sounds and indeed, how it feels. Fortunately, no matter how much musical jargon is thrown at him, Schoenberg delivers on both counts. So, as part of my lifelong Schoenbergevangelism, here are four reasons (of many) why he deserves a shot.
Enter Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). It tells the story of a woman who confesses to her lover that she is carrying another man’s child. He hears her confession, but rather than condemning or abandoning her, he says that the glow that surrounds them will transfigure the man’s child into his own. The music is suitably lush, moving, and, as it were, incredibly pretty.
Schoenberg had a way of manipulating the sounds of instruments to create a world of sound that is completely immersive and intoxicating, like in his symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande.
Schoenberg explored new territory of musical organisation not for the sake of being mathematical or subversive, but to open up new possibilities of expression. The result is music of tremendous drama and immediacy, which we see the start of in his monumental Gurre-Lieder.
Schoenberg’s output is so wildly diverse that it’s almost impossible to not find something in there that you love. Want to enter into the terrifying world of the human subconsciousness? Head to his one-act opera Erwartung. Feeling a little more light-hearted and rambunctious? Head to his Theme & Variations. (Or better yet, to the Town Hall on Thursday 5 October to hear it live.)