Importance Greatly Exaggerated

In mid-semester I take a break from diminished seventh chords and take the students on a little foray into 12-tone technique, analyzing the Webern Piano Variations. I was explaining how rampant 12-tone music was from the 1950s through the ’80s, and one of my savvier freshmen raised his hand and said, “You mean just in academia, right? That music didn’t get played much outside of colleges, did it?”

The next day, Petr Kotik, conductor of the S.E.M. ensemble told me that his then-upcoming performance of Webern’s Op. 21 Symphony, which took place at Zankel Hall Monday night, would be only the third performance of that piece in New York City, ever – the first having been the 1950 performance where Cage met Feldman [sic, but see below]. In 77 years the Webern Symphony has only been played three times in New York, yet every year I teach it at least once in analysis and repertoire classes as though it was a big deal. My students’ll never hear it live. And a new book that I’m reviewing pre-publication (that I’ll be telling you a LOT more about shortly) questions the means and motives by which Arnold Schoenberg became defined as a crucial figure in the canon, presumptively equal to the far more popular Stravinsky. Perhaps it’s time to admit that, not only is 12-tone music stone dead, it was never much more than a fringe cult in the first place? – or at best, the official musical culture of a couple dozen universities?

CORRECTION: Strong doubt has been cast on the statistic about Webern’s Symphony performances in New York – apparently it was first played there in 1929, plus some performances by Boulez in the ’70s. Sorry to have spread misinformation. But composer Art Jarvinen chimes in:

I used to cover 12-tone basics in my Introduction To Composition class until a couple years ago. I realized that most of the students hate the music, don’t like the technique for its own sake, didn’t seem to get much out of the homework assignment, and generally find it all completely irrelevant to their own musical lives. Since I can say almost the same things for myself (with certain notable exceptions) and realized years ago that that stuff is basically dead in the water, I replaced it with another, much more amusing, topic: Plunderphonics.

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