Thursday, March 12, 2009

Oh dear. Schoenberg.

A timely double-bill at my local opera house last week: Béla Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation). Timely, as I am still picking my way through Alex Ross’s book about 20th century music. Both of these men were significant figures in the music of the last century, one Hungarian (Bartók, born while there was still an Austrian-Hungarian empire) and one straight up Viennese.

Schoenberg is the more influential of the two, for better or for worse. He is the end result of hundreds of years of Austrian and German composition, from Bach to Mozart to Wagner and R. Strauss. His music is a rejection of German Romanticism, particularly Wagner and his ego and excesses and he is classified as a member of the German expressionist school, which attempted to represent the workings of the mind through music. His is an almost purely intellectual art form. He is best known for his rejection of the bourgeois notion of melody, creating what he called “atonal” or “pantonal” music, not restrained by classical notions of key signatures, forms or motifs. Basically, it’s discordant, bizarre and impossible to hum. There is usually a lot of percussion, which is good for the timpani player, but not always so good for the audience.

Erwartung is 30 minutes of a crazy woman named Woman singing in brief, jarring snatches (two to three notes of quasi-melody and then unexpected jumps in strange intervals, with some whacking of triangles and weird string effects in the orchestra pit) about being lost in the woods and not being able to find her lover, called Lover. Within five minutes, you know she’s killed him and been institutionalized. Woman is the only singing role; Lover, Psychiatrist and Mistress hang out in various strange formations and occasionally poke their heads or arms through the only permanent set piece, a wall of grey stone. There is a denouement of sorts. Lover and Mistress are writhing around in a steel hospital bed underneath a sheet. Psychiatrist pokes his head through the wall, looks around, retracts his head turtle-like, sticks his hand out and removes the sheet. Voila! Woman kills Lover with a scythe or something at which point the audience realizes Lover is stark naked.

And dancing, poor man. He arches his back, extends his legs in crooked arabesques, rolls in slow motion off the bed and proceeds to roll down the slightly angled stage. All the way down. Very slowly. By this time, the Mistress has also rolled off the bed, rolled under the bed and then rolled offstage with the bed. Woman is singing her strange song, Lover is strategically placing an arm or a hand, Ruby is trying to get a good look at what Lover is trying to hide. Finally, Lover ends up face down in a body of standing water at the foot of the stage. An older woman sitting next to Ruby says, “Yep. There he goes.” Ruby experiences potential giggles at the opera for the first time. Lover sinks into the water. The piece ends as it began; Woman in a straitjacket, Psychiatrist silently taking notes from a chair positioned above her and behind her.

My working theory about the decline of Western civilization today is that around the turn of the century and certainly after World War I, artists began to take themselves way too seriously. Art—painting, music, poetry, prose, sculpture—has become a solipsistic exercise in which the artist is speaking only to herself about herself or, at best, her art. Artisans are lesser beings; we all want to be fine artists, not craftsmen. The excuse artists use for their idiocy is that the 20th century was unlike any other century in its wounds and terror; ergo, in order to be an honest artist, one must create ugly, fragmented art. With toilet paper and baling wire.

First, I am skeptical. If Ovid can write his Metamorphoses almost 2000 years ago, recounting Greek myths probably another one to two-hundred years older and still start it with an ode to a long gone Golden Age where everything was perfect, as opposed to the current time, where everything sucks, then I do not see how we can assert without blushing that the 20th century was, like, the totally worst century ever.

Yes, World War I was a shock and yes it eliminated entire generations of young men. Yes, the fall of the Austrian empire was a big deal. But if these events’ effect was to drive artists further into themselves, I wonder if said artists were not still suffering from a bit o’ the Romantic notion of the sensitive, tuberculotic, of-this-world-but-not-in-it, capital-A-Artist. How reactionary!

I much prefer the artistic behavior of Bartók, Debussy, Stravinsky and Albéniz around this time and later. These three men didn’t just throw up their hands and give in; they dug into their local folk cultures or, in Debussy’s case, the folk cultures of others. If the German school is played out, and I think it is, new music will come from the folk. Another Joplin would be nice. Chinese opera, kabuki, Islamic chants and tone structures, American Indian scales—these are the future of Western music, not the solitary genius enamored of his own pain.

Hey, it’s basic biology. Every once in a while, you need to breed out the bloodline or risk everyone walking around with receding chins and hemophilia.


  1. This is exactly why I have never been one to complain about artists “selling out”. I may not like some of the more commercial art in our world but it tends to be much more crafted. We need to back the days of the patron, I think it is a good thing when an artist has an audience that needs to be played to.

  2. Love your description of Schoenberg's music. One of the rare composers who everyone (in academic musicological circles, anyway) agrees is very important, but no one actually likes.

    Regarding your thesis about 20th century artists taking themselves too seriously, I think I disagree, but I've just spent twenty minutes trying to convey why I disagree and have been unsuccessful. (I will say for now that I'm not sure Schoenberg really supports this thesis--certainly he was a hard-working musical craftsman, even if he is fairly inaccessible). So I'll let your ideas stew in my brain for a bit, and possibly return to give you some good debating.

  3. You had me worried for a moment there. I thought you were this close to announcing that you actually liked Schoenberg.

    I think you're on to something with the 20th century artists thesis, but it's not finished. There's more, somewhere. I think it's to do with the apotheosis of "originality" as the be-all and end-all of art. As you point out, the more accessible 20th century artists are those who aren't shy about drawing from older sources.

    We went to a modern dance performance last night - I think it was a world premier - and it was accessible, funny, entertaining. None too pretty, but you can't have everything.

  4. Yes, the thesis is definitely a baby thesis, if it can even be called a thesis and not just an attempt to justify by important sounding words my own aesthetics.

    castlerook, I don't mean that 20th century artists did not work hard; I'm sure they did. What I meant by "craftsmen" or "artisans" is perhaps the inclusion of artists in the intellectual vanguard, as it were, trying self-consciously to undermine existing art (i.e. originality) with a tremendous sense of self-importance, of some unique greatness that adheres only to the "fine" artist (as opposed to the carpenter or cabinetmaker or metal-worker).

    I don't mean to imply that Stravinsky, Debussy, etc. were any less shocking in their time than was Schoenberg--performances of S & D's major works caused riots, just like Sch. In a sense, I see Sch as evidence that a single form or tradition eventually runs out of good music to create and requires fresh blood or it dies. Despite attempts to unload Wagner, I think all post-Wagnerians suffer from Wagner's intentional conflation of philosophy, politics, religion and music (in a time when the Church was no longer the primary patron of the arts). Most importantly, and I think more than any composer before him, Wagner envisioned The Composer as Demigod and Philosopher, to music's detriment (I think).

    SMG, patronage was an interesting system. I think its decay is in part related to the situation in which we find ourselves, although I think it also has to do with Romantic (both German and English) notions--here primarily with poets and writers--as solitary deities, channeling the truth in damp castles and on hillsides and never having to make a living.

    As I was walking through the traveling Louvre exhibit of Roman marbles last year, it occurred to me that much of what I was seeing was public art. These were their billboards and building facades. Not so much of that around these days, at least not of that level of craftsmanship.

    Which makes me wonder how cheap, efficient production of things has further entrenched the artists as "apart" from others--if we can buy recordings or photographs of great works, who needs composers or performers any more?

  5. By the way: beautiful description there. Do you know how much stage direction Schoenberg wrote, and how much is invented by the choreographer and dancers of that particular performance?

  6. Okay, I'm back. Your clarification is well taken, and I think vet hit the nail on the head here--there's a real problem with valuing originality for originality's sake. Great art typically is original, but as a means to an end.

  7. Shoot. Another reason I shouldn't have posted this; it's very sloppy. vet, as far as I know Schoenberg was not responsible for any of the staging. He said of the piece, "In Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour." So I suppose the slow-motion rolling and such fit with the stretchy theme.

    That aside, a Canadian guy called Robert Lepage did the staging in 1992 and my opera repeated it. It's considered one of the best ways to do the show, so I guess that says something.

    It's not that art is ever entirely separate from politics, of course, but a good artist will let those themes emerge naturally, instead of declaring a philosophy and then writing to it. I'm also thinking of Beethoven, who wrested the piano out of the drawing room for young ladies, by writing piano sonatas that required a lot of muscle. But he just....did it. His late string quartets--discordant, modern, everyone made fun of his deafness when he published them.

    His work is incredibly challenging to play; it requires muscle, flexibility, and coordination. I imagine something like the Hammerklavier sonata, which clocks in at around 28 minutes, was very challenging in its time (and still is, frankly. A lot of music to remember).

  8. Ah, I'm glad you mentioned Beethoven. My reverence for his commitment to truthful self-expression, regardless of popular opinion, is actually a big reason I initially recoiled at your thesis. Indeed, I think the stereotype of a tortured, self-obsessed musical genius can be traced directly to Beethoven, and am loathe to consider that this could be a bad thing! But your distinction that "a good artist will let those themes emerge naturally, instead of declaring a philosophy and then writing to it" is an important one, and I am in full agreement.

  9. My two favorite stories about Beethoven involve his Ninth. First: he was completely deaf when he conducted the first performance, so when he finished, the soprano had to turn him around so he could see the audience on its feet, applauding, shouting and a good percentage of them crying. Second: the next day, when he found out how little money he got to keep from said performance, he fainted.

    Which is to say, I think Beethoven would have been just as happy to be insanely popular and filthy rich with a fat wife and a mistress or two to support. From what I've read of his letters and Maynard Solomon's biography, he was always puzzled and hurt when people didn't like his music.

  10. Ha! I knew the first story but not the second. I love it.

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