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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 apparently based on innate awareness, on the intuition of tonal relationships." Bernstein used Alban Berg's Violin Concerto as an example of 12-tone writing that nevertheless "exists somehow in a tonal universe where it's accessible to us in all its warmth and charm." Shawn takes Bernstein as assuming that absence of "warmth" and "charm" implies the lack of "an essential aspect of what makes music music." Arnold Schoenberg's Journey combines biography with examination of Schoenberg's key works, dedicated to revealing the accessibility lying beneath the unfamiliar surface of his style.

I took the book as an occasion to test Shawn's claim. I put myself in the position of a concertgoer contemporary with Schoenberg, listening over two months to recordings of 20 of his pieces in chronological order. I listened to each recording at least twice. Although I have found that I need as many as seven listens before I truly "get" most classical pieces, I did not afford Schoenberg's this many—because Shawn's thesis is properly that the music communicates more immediately than this. Moreover, repetitive sampling of full-length, high-fidelity recordings is a luxury of modern technology, unavailable in Schoenberg's time.

My particular musical training is fairly well-suited to appraising work which mostly appeared before the 1930s—when classical music was more central to the public experience, the default reference of "Do you like music?" was taken to be classical, and more people played piano because mechanical recording was in its infancy. I play piano and cello, have sung in choirs and local productions of musicals and operas, and have the "coffeetable" familiarity with classical music typical of middle-class people before the rock era. But I know only shreds of music theory, such that my reception of a piece of classical music is filtered through a lightly informed kind of gut intuition. Like most such people, I find that my affection for classical music attenuates after the Late Romantic period. I'd rather hear Beethoven over Bartok, and must admit having been somewhat biased against engaging Schoenberg by just the cranky New York Times articles over the years that Shawn bemoans.

Dutifully purging myself of the expectation of catchy melodies and comfy chord resolutions, I tried to receive this work as a "new language" entirely, just as I would a spoken language in my career as a linguist. Yet I'm afraid that as interesting as John McWhorter's Journey was, in the end this listener ended up feeling more like Gertrud Schoenberg than like Shawn.

One of Shawn's main contentions is that Schoenberg's abrupt shifts from one key to another are less random lurches than truncated renditions of transitions that tonal music spells out chord by chord. Shawn feels that the listener's task is simply to get used to processing these abbreviations, just as we do grammatical contractions like don't for does not. An analogy might be the famous poster depicting a sequence of head shots of Marilyn Monroe with various facial expressions over a minute or so: we spontaneously "fill in" the transitions from one shot to another to make a mental filmstrip.

In itself, this "filling in" is hardly beyond ordinary listeners. Bebop jazz abbreviates conventional harmonic progressions, and has attracted legions of aficionados who now hear the older harmonic style as plodding and "corny." But that adjustment was a lesser one: bebop consists mainly of short phrases repeated often, and relies heavily on set harmonic sequences that recur from song to song. Schoenberg's melodies and harmonic sequences are less immediately identifiable or infectious, and recur in such distorted states that even smoking out these veiled restatements is a key task of musicological analysis.

I am not bad at detecting "Marilyn" transitions in music when the bar is set lower. Stephen Sondheim caps the Johanna trio in Sweeney Todd with a queer, reedy chord in the winds that always struck a college friend of mine as startlingly unmotivated in relation to the key. I recognized it on second hearing as a vastly distorted version of a good old-fashioned tonic conclusion, which would have sounded more natural if Sondheim had built up to it through various inversions, but which lends a pleasant tang when simply inserted point blank. But Schoenberg's music largely flummoxed my abilities in this vein, and I venture that only a music scholar would be up to the task with anything less than a good dozen close listens to any given piece. I fear that Shawn, musically gifted to the point of cottoning to Schoenberg as a lad and professionally trained in music besides, may have rather generous expectations of the less gifted and tutored ear.

In Schoenberg's 12-tone period, there is a particular problem with sameness of atmosphere. Most of these pieces sound like a fragile soul undergoing acute mental torment—more minor than major, lots of tense diminished chords à la the "cliff-hanging" chords used by pianists accompanying a silent movie, lots of crashing discord. The impression is bracing at first, but I found it less so as it occurred in piece after piece. My sparse musicological training may lead me to be missing something, but does atonality or a 12-tone template require, or even merely encourage, a frantic, desperate tone? I presume that atonality and serialism could theoretically be founded on major chords as well as minor, for example.

This avoidance of the major confounds one even in Schoenberg's earlier atonal pieces. The opening chords of the third of the Three Pieces for Piano sound precisely like a child banging on the keyboard with all his might. In the nominally Romantic poem cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Schoenberg asks us to read passion in chords that sound like a perfect evocation of nausea. This is a lot to ask of lay listeners outside his own head.

But there are exceptions to this Sturm und Drang feel in his work (the weirdly gorgeous Five Pieces for Orchestra, for instance), confirming that this affect is not inherent to atonality or serialism in themselves. I suspect that Schoenberg's chordal preferences were partly a matter of the glummish, prickly temperament that Shawn so deftly limns between the musical explorations. But this means that perhaps Schoenberg's personal nature may present as much a barrier between us and his music as do the limitations of our ears.

Shawn, like other serialism fans, might regard my skeptical conclusions as a tad philistine. Giving the conventional argument that we have no scientific grounds for assuming that tonal music is somehow primally appealing, he proposes an analogy to herb doctors' ignorance of the biochemical mechanisms that could lend them further powers (where popular taste for tonal music = folk medicine). But the analogy strikes me as off. Our ignorance of the neural reasons for why Eine Kleine Nachtmusik goes better with brunch than Schoenberg's Fourth String Quartet hardly entails that opening our ears would make Schoenberg-and-scones ordinary. After all, regardless of our familiarity with biochemistry, we still use aloe as a balm but break out from poison oak. The possibility remains open that there is indeed only so far that the untrained human ear can go in processing harmonies as euphonious.

Shawn does mention that undergraduates he exposes to Schoenberg's music are often quite taken. But this may not be so surprising. People raised in the rock era listen more for rhythm than melody or harmony, and are more accustomed to dissonance and outright "noise" than their grandparents were. Much of later Schoenberg is based on spiky rhythms and relentless astringence. Naturally many youngsters, suckled on hip-hop and the like, will respond more positively to the overall feel than a concertgoer of the early 20th century suckled on tonal classical music, parlor ballads, and marches. But Schoenberg did not write his music to be cherished as a mere "groove." Are these kids enjoying the sound as music or as texture?

In that vein, as texture the Schoenberg sound is actually not as unfamiliar to us moderns as it was to those who encountered it new. Atonality and serialism have been commonly used in film scores—the late string quartets or Variations for Orchestra remind one of, for example, Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock films. But I'm not sure that this is equivalent to our now hearing Beethoven as normal while listeners in his day often found his work unpleasantly dense in comparison to the tranparency of Mozart. Am I alone in wondering just who buys those cds of Vertigo's music to listen to in the car? We are used to Schoenbergian music as a background element linked to dramatic action, but this is different from the focused engagement Schoenberg sought from us, as well as from our relationship to most music that touches our hearts.

As much as I enjoyed Shawn's book, my ultimate verdict on Schoenberg's music is that Bernstein was right. "Can his music be said to be harder to follow than the paintings of the cubists or, for that matter, the plays of Shakespeare?" Shawn asks. I would frankly answer yes, intrigued though I was at the start of my journey by the prospect of coming to the opposite conclusion. Schoenberg saw his music as a natural outcome of the evolution of Western music and hoped it would be the supreme musical language of the next 100 years. But I see it as a rarefied intellectual trick, whose substantial appreciation requires a degree of sheer work that only an élite few are ever likely to embark upon.

I might add that for those inclined to do that work, Shawn's book is a great place to start: he is a fine teacher. Yet ideally a second edition would be released with a cd in place of the musical examples. Even music readers may be winded by the cited passages. Schoenberg's music is usually so quirky and dense that I, capable of a passable rendition of a Mozart or Beethoven sonata, often could not follow the examples. A cd would allow Shawn to make the same points with the music itself—I got much more from the book by having the recordings alongside.

Although I hate to admit it, Schoenberg's first masterwork, Verklärte Nacht, a Brahmsian string sextet that Shawn notes "pleases even those who dislike the rest of Schoenberg's music," was indeed one of my favorites. The First Chamber Symphony was fresh and pleasant. In the atonal phase, the Three Pieces for Piano are desultory yet gripping and the Five Pieces for Orchestra were actually beautiful; moving on to the serialist period, the sonic warp and woof of the Serenade is grandly memorable. But then all of these last three come in bite-sized bits that make them easier to digest in spite of their distant air. The Variations for Orchestra and the Fourth String Quartet, longer-lined serial pieces, were diverting in their angry density, pleasurable in the sense that nagging a loose tooth is.

For most of the pieces I listened to, cognac struck me as a comparison. There's something sublime in its woody bitterness—but how much can you drink at a time? Few would choose to take it over meals on a regular basis, and even fewer would propose that it become mankind's main drink. One is content to have it sitting on the shelf to break out at those certain times, which is precisely how I feel about my new Schoenberg collection. But with all due respect to Herr Schoenberg (and heartfelt empathy with his wife), though I have spent two months marinating in those discs, don't ask me to hum anything from them beyond Verklärte Nacht.

John H. McWhorter is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author most recently of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (Times Books).

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