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.