By Mark Berry Reaktion Books, 224pp, £12/$19
Arnold Schoenberg was a composer much given to statements of sweeping portent which, even in print, seem to call for drum rolls and the clash of cymbals; and an example came in 1921 when he announced that he had “made a discovery through which the supremacy of German music will be secured for the next 100 years”.
His “discovery”, if that’s the word for it, was both equivocal and controversial: a method for writing music that challenged the foundations of tonality on which Western music had depended for four centuries. Tonality rooted a piece of music in a particular note: a home pitch that became the music’s key and gave it a structure which human ears identified as melody. But composers began stretching the rules of tonality from the mid-19th century onwards, starting with Liszt and then Wagner, whose slithery chromaticism in Tristan und Isolde was a landmark in the cause of liberation from home pitch.
Schoenberg’s big idea was to get rid of keys altogether, so that every one of the 12 semitones in a scale carried equal weight. The result was called 12-tone music, or serialism. And its effect on Western musical culture was not unlike the effect of the Protestant Reformation on Western Christianity: calamitous, divisive, seized on by some as a mind-opening opportunity but deplored by others as an alien imposition that would drive a wedge between serious music and the general audience.
The thrust of this book is distinctly partisan. Mark Berry is a Schoenberg champion. He describes him as not only the most controversial of all 20th-century composers but also the most important – the true founding father of heroic modernism. And there was undoubtedly some element of the heroic in what Schoenberg did, although it came with generous quantities of arrogance.
In the still early days of his “discovery”, he claimed the “ethical and moral power needed to withstand … commonplace popularity”. And he needn’t have worried on that front, because there wasn’t the slightest chance of his 12-tone music becoming popular. Public performances erupted into Skandalkonzerts, and the Viennese press declared that he should be “in an asylum, deprived of manuscript paper”.
But for all this, Schoenberg’s method found its way into the deep-set consciousness of modern music. And although hard-line serialism has proved to be a dead end, with very few composers these days keen to be called “serial”, it has certainly helped to define the soundworld of the 20th and 21st centuries, playing a significant role in the complexity that makes modern music so fascinating for musicologists but so difficult for the average listener.
Mark Berry is keen to stress that Schoenberg was himself less doctrinaire about his method than some of his disciples would prove to be. There are plenty of Schoenberg’s so-called serial scores that do incline to home keys; they don’t break with the past as totally as they’re supposed to. Much in Schoenberg owes a debt to Brahms and the old Viennese traditions. His life was a struggle between ideology and compromise that played out in his religion as well as his art.
As a young man, he renounced Judaism and became a Christian. This was probably for social reasons, to avoid the anti-Semitism of turn-of-the-century Vienna, although it’s strange that he became a Lutheran rather than a Catholic, which would have been the more obvious choice.
Either way, it didn’t work out, and he returned to Judaism, having become a fiercely outspoken Zionist, publishing plays and manifestos whose intention was to galvanise the Jews of Middle Europe into recognition of the threat that faced them. With typical self-possession, he offered himself, in militant terms, as the leader of a Jewish nationalist movement – although this was in 1933, the same year he presciently left Europe for America, along with the many other cultural and intellectual émigrés who settled in showbiz California.
More productively, throughout this time he also wrote significant quantities of self-consciously Jewish music. And at the heart of it was a biblical opera, Moses and Aaron, that had begun as an oratorio but grew into a stagework of impossible ambition and was accordingly never finished – although it remains a key work in any attempt to understand what its composer was about.
For Schoenberg, the story of Moses and Aaron becomes a parable in which Moses holds fast to a pristine concept of an invisible God that he can’t explain to the Israelites, while Aaron wins them over with words and images that excite interest but debase the purity of the idea. It’s a parable about the need for artists to communicate but the impossibility of doing so without some kind of compromise.
That Schoenberg was himself so dedicated to the service of his method meant that he would never speak to a wide audience or cultivate the “commonplace popularity” he claimed pleasure in withstanding. Instead, he became the bogeyman of Western music – a name guaranteed to scare people away from concerts, as it still does a century on. Whether this amounts to heroism is debatable. Mark Berry’s book insists it is. You may just choose to disagree.