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John H. McWhorter

Humming Schoenberg

Is there any there there?

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey
by Allen Shawn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002
272 pp.; $26

Reading Allen Shawn's Arnold Schoenberg's Journey reminded me of an anecdote Oscar Levant gave about Schoenberg in his Memoirs of an Amnesiac:

Once he was humming an unhummable theme with unnegotiable leaps between intervals which were in his usual atonal style. He turned to his wife and asked, "What is that?" She hesitated, stammered, and helplessly admitted that she couldn't identify it. "That is the main theme from the piece I dedicated to you," he explained sternly. That was quite a responsibility. The piece cannot be hummed unless you're a freak. But Mrs. Schoenberg was embarrassed.

High modernist art was notorious for its power to intimidate, and no modern master—not even the Joyce of Finnegans Wake—was more intimidating to his audience than the Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). After throwing down his first gauntlet with atonal composition, where a piece has no central key, Schoenberg founded serialism, where a piece's melody is limited to the sequences of notes in a fixed "row" (usually twelve). The result upset listeners' expectations and left many baffled and disturbed, others downright contemptuous. (As Shawn notes, concertgoers at Schoenberg premieres were known to call for the composer to be shot or jeer to the point of making singers cry.) And yet Schoenberg, like Joyce, adamantly insisted that his revolutionary work was really quite accessible. "One must listen to it in the same manner as to every other kind of music, forget the theories, the twelve-tone method, the dissonances, etc., and, I would add, if possible the author," Schoenberg wrote in a letter.

Today the era of high modernism has receded into history. How does Schoenberg sound? Allen Shawn wants us to set aside our preconceptions and listen. All too often, he says, we are swayed by statements like Leonard Bernstein's: "The trouble is that the new musical 'rules' of Schoenberg are not ...

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